The Magazine

Wrong from the Beginning

From the March 17, 2003 issue: America might have created the U.N., said Dean Acheson, but "I personally am free of the slightest suspicion of paternity."

Mar 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 26 • By ROBERT L. BEISNER
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As President Bush and his aides have learned, however, such people are numerous throughout the world, and since the president's speech of September 12, 2002, Secretary Powell has loyally toiled to convert those of them who sit on the Security Council. Acheson at times had the greater problem of holding his own people in line. Though he had little trouble from U.N. ambassador Warren Austin, whom he noted for his "hyperbolic sincerity" and did not take into his confidence, he had to lecture other members of the delegation, including liberalism's grande dame, Eleanor Roosevelt, about letting their notion of the General Assembly as "the Town Meeting of the World" blind them to Washington's own interests.

On ceremonial occasions, Acheson forced himself to mouth idealistic and hypocritical sentiments about the United Nations. Alert to the organization's uses, he always countered congressional demands for expulsion of the USSR. That, he rejoined, would free the Soviet Union from obligations to the Charter and eliminate "almost the only remaining forum in which the free world can negotiate with the Soviets." None of this, however, diluted his censorious outlook, especially his loathing of the power of petty states to embarrass the United States in front of a world audience.

As a lame duck, he told the Canadian cabinet on a visit to Ottawa in November 1952 that Arabs and Latin Americans in the General Assembly had not only "contributed little or nothing" to collective security; their effort to realize social and economic goals through the U.N. had been "in the precise meaning of the word . . . irresponsible," to wit, they "advocated action, the consequences of which did not fall upon the group but fell upon others." While "they would not be responsible for what they did, . . . others would be." Nor did he ever agree that diplomacy performed before the world's millions was more honorable than behind-the-scenes talks in out-of-the-way places. On television in 1965 he snapped that "debates in the United Nations really amount to very little," were "usually rude," and too often led to exchanges of insults rather than settlements.

One of the U.N.'s largest defects, he told a gathering of old State Department friends in 1954, was its built-in dedication to the status quo and opposition to all wars on the grounds that, while "change might be desirable," it "leads to instabilities." This is a "very dangerous" position, Acheson argued: "If, say, the world had been frozen at any given period in the past, a great deal of the progress which has been made . . . would not be possible. If, for example, we had never been able to revolt against the British, or various other wars had never been fought to a conclusion, a great deal of progress would have been denied the world. And in a sense one of the great problems of the U.N.--I don't know whether it's generally recognized--is to prevent wars from being fought out. It's very dangerous to stop a war from being fought out, because no one is willing to act like a loser. And there's no proof yet that wars which are not fought out can ever really be resolved by peaceful methods."

Usually in going after the U.N., Acheson drew on rapiers of derision and sarcasm, as when he referred to FDR's enthusiasm for "that delusive phrase 'the United Nations'" and to the U.N. as "that legacy of the nineteenth century." Dean Rusk, noting that wartime Britons had dubbed India's parliament "the monkey house," believed Acheson had a kindred view of the U.N. When State Department veteran Ernest Gross told him the job of deputy in the U.S. mission attracted him for its "potentialities," Acheson "practically ordered me to go to a psychiatrist, in friendly fashion. He thought I ought to have my head examined." George Ball became U.N. ambassador in the 1960s, prompting a letter from Acheson saying, "I always thought you were one of the brightest guys in town, but now I'm reserving a room for you at St. Elizabeth's." The U.N., he told friends, was "certainly an American contribution to a troubled world, [but] I personally am free of the slightest suspicion of paternity." In a swipe at one of the wartime State Department advocates for a new world order, Acheson, who in his seventies often went out of his way to shock, in 1967 wrote former Foggy Bottom colleague Charles Burton Marshall that the United States had corrupted "international behavior with [its] damned moralism, beginning with Woodrow Wilson's self-determination and ending with that little rat Leo Pasvolsky's United Nations."