Present at the Creation

Author: Gary Hart

In the past MattersofPrincipal has not been used as a book review forum.  What follows is an exception, one made out of respect for the literacy and concern for history of our small band of commentators.

One of the best, some would say the best, book on diplomacy and recent American history is the memoir of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson entitled Present at the Creation and covering in considerable detail and with splendid prose his responsibilities at the U.S. Department of State between 1942 and 1952.

I read it some years ago, have returned to selected sections from time to time, and am now rereading the book from the beginning.  Through one highly-placed man’s eyes, it rehearses the sweep of America’s transformation from fortress America to the world’s leading power following World War II.

Secretary Acheson knew and negotiated with everyone who was anyone on the world state, especially in the creation of the Atlantic Alliance, including NATO, eventually the European Union, the conduct and eventual armistice in Korea, the Marshall Plan rebuilding Europe and Asia, the establishment of the State of Israel, and basically every event of consequence during this period during which almost everything that happened had long-range consequences.

The Creation concerning which Acheson writes laid the foundation and built the international structures on that foundation that have brought us through the Cold War and several regional conflicts but provided relative stability and security for much of the world for seven decades.

The United Kingdom vote last spring to exit from the European Union one might fear represents the first crack in that foundation and the structures resting thereon.  The U.S. election several days ago could possibly widen that fissure or even bring the entire structure down, that is if the President-elect was serious when he promised to demand higher payments by NATO partners for our collective security.  It is doubtful that he recognizes the concern, seventy years after World War II, for a rearmed Germany and Japan.  Other Western European and Asian nations rarely discuss this openly, but that concern is still there.  Further, a go-it-alone, fundamentally isolationist, international security policy, invites more nations to join the nuclear club and develop their own nuclear arsenals to fill the gap left by the departure of the American nuclear umbrella.

During the intense creative days of the early 1950s Secretary Acheson and the entire Department of State were under assault from unchained right-wing forces led by Joseph McCarthy to which today’s alt-right is the successor.  Acheson refers to this continued assault as “the attack of the Primitives.”  He is too polite and too kind in this regard, but he was always a gentleman as well as an unparalleled statesman.

If you do take the time to read even a portion of this book consider whether any American on the public stage today comes even close to the Acheson model, let alone one who possesses the literary skills to write as Acheson did.  This is not dull history.  His observations are clever and his asides are witty, especially about his constant tormentors.

Consider what single book you might recommend to the President-elect if you were invited to do so.  Small chance since he has not demonstrated a great interest in books.  But a nice parlor game in any case.  Mine would surely be Present at the Creation.  It might cause him to reflect before dismantling an international system that has withstood countless storms and maintained relative peace and stability.

11 Responses to “Present at the Creation”


    Senator Hart ,

    I f what you write here is an example , it is time to become /an at least, once in a while , book club ! Terrific , engaging , thoughtful appraisal of the book.

    Modesty , or at least the better , and more likely, quality in the better quality politicians , humility, prevents you from considering that you are very much of the calibre of your article’s subject , and would and should , have served in Cabinets after your Presidential days were not possible. But it is true of you.

    As an observer of , although one by involvement , family connection, and considerable affection ,committed to , your country’s journey, I do not know enough of your politicians well enough to judge , but one or two I like , are of high and genuine ability, John Kerry , Robert Reich , Howard Dean , have fine qualities.

    As for a book , for any other incoming President , I would give it real thought , but would have to be able to imagine a different President to do that now ! For President elect Trump , it would be The Wizard of Oz, in the hope , at the end of the book he would find out , the bit about it all being a dream is not in the book , like in the film, so in real life he , and we , must have dreamt the whole thing , and he is no longer President !



    The book I choose ,would also reveal to the new President, that someone can impress with trickery and effects and a facade and be loud and scary and be found wanting ! The President of Oz , ?! Follow the yellow brick road … we’re off to see the President the not so wonderful President of Oz !

  3. J Kane Says:

    I believe you correctly write that President-Elect Trump has made the assertion that members of NATO need to PAY their fair share for the umbrella of US Nuclear protection and then immediately make the supposition that this leads to the demise of the entire NATO alliance? I can give you 22 plus trillion reasons that this makes sense to many of the dimwitted Americans that voted for our version of HOPE and UN-DO the CHANGE.
    The United Kingdom vote last spring to exit from the European Union one might fear represents the first crack in that foundation and the structures resting thereon. (It might also represent the will of the people to not participate in the collective known as the EU.) The U.S. election several days ago could possibly widen that fissure or even bring the entire structure down, that is if the President-elect was serious when he promised to demand higher payments by NATO partners for our collective security. (And what contribution to our collective security is the burden of the US taxpayer to pay?)
    During the intense creative days of the early 1950s Secretary Acheson and the entire Department of State were under assault from unchained right-wing forces led by Joseph McCarthy to which today’s alt-right is the successor. Acheson refers to this continued assault as “the attack of the Primitives.” He is too polite and too kind in this regard, but he was always a gentleman as well as an unparalleled statesman.
    New spending data released on Monday show the U.S. shells out far more money on defense than any other nation on the planet.
    According to NATO statistics, the U.S. spent an estimated $650 billion on defense last year. That’s more than double the amount all the other 27 NATO countries spent between them, even though their combined GDP tops that of the U.S.
    American military spending has always eclipsed other allies’ budgets since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s founding in 1949. But the gap grew much wider when the U.S. beefed up its spending after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
    NATO admits it has an “over-reliance” on the U.S. for the provision of essential capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air-to-air refueling, ballistic missile defense and airborne electronic warfare.
    The U.S. also spends the highest proportion of its GDP on defense: 3.61%. The second biggest NATO spender in proportional terms is Greece, at 2.38%, according to NATO. (Greece aren’t they broke too?)
    U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called on other NATO members to spend more on defense. Donald Trump has gone even further, saying the U.S. should rethink its involvement in the military alliance because it is “obsolete” and other states don’t pay a fair share. CNN Money July 8, 2016

    ‘Alt-right’ is a recently coined umbrella term, with no clear criteria of membership yet agreed upon. The movement has been associated with multiple ideologies from American nationalism, neo-monarchists to men’s rights advocates and people who oppose mainstream conservatism.
    Commonalities among the members of the loosely-defined alt-right movement include a disdain for mainstream politics and a desire to challenge the social norms surrounding speech taboos. The prevalence of memes in alt-right circles has led some commentators to question whether the alt-right is a serious movement rather than just an alternative way to express traditionally conservative beliefs. Joseph McCarthy, really?

    I guess as a “deplorable and now a primitive” the material in “Present at the Creation” may be far above my grasp. Now that book “The Art of the Deal”… Seems to be the blue print that has served its author pretty well. I wonder if the guy is still using it today?
    The attached link is a pretty good read in itself. It doesn’t escape me but seems to baffle many.

  4. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    The link below takes you to an hour long question and answer piece with James Chase: Professor Harvard University->Kennedy (J.F.) School of Government, on Secretary Acheson as a person and statesman.

    I enjoyed it very much.

  5. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Senator Hart,

    I would like to read this book, if only because it will just confirm my worldview.

    Unfortunately, the people who should read it, won’t because, their worldview prevents them from even considering it.

    Your piece in the NYTimes, written with Senator Cohen, may be read by Trump and his team but, I fear it will only reinforce their motivations for what they do. Cogent arguments don’t work with this group as those are the very arguments that they wish to work against.

    I hope that the promise of America can withstand Trumpism for as long as it takes to defeat and destroy it.

    It’s all enough to turn a lifelong cockeyed optimist into someone who, well, you know … 🙁

  6. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I just read some of the early comments to the NYTimes piece, Don’t Retreat Into Fortress America.

    It may be wise for Senators Hart and Cohen to respond in another piece to some of the valid sentiments raised in opposition to some of the critical choices made by the US in the conduct of its foreign policy since the end of WWII.

    And, there is another book that is important here, written by Zbig Brzezinski, The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership

  7. Neil McCarthy Says:

    To J. Kane:

    1. Gary Hart didn’t call you “primitive” or “deplorable,” so why is it that you feel the need — in the last paragraph of your comment — to hide behind the false assertion that someone with whom you disagree is an elitist who thinks you are dumb? Hart has been talking to, reasoning with, and convincing people with whom he disagrees for more than fifty years, and I do not think he has ever once insulted their intelligence. There is no reason to start accusing him of that now.

    2. The comparison between the present day Alt-right and Joe McCarthy is more than apt, and the fact that aspects of either “Alt-rightism” or “McCarthyism” in both cases evince(d) positions that are/were non-extreme does not make what is/was extreme acceptable.

    McCarthy brought money back to dairy farmers in his home-state of Wisconsin, which was fine. He also destroyed people without evidence as he red-baited and stoked fear, which was not fine.

    Some in the alt-right object to certain “speech taboos,” which — depending on the taboo — can be fine. Those Alt-rightist who offered Nazi-salutes of approval at the past weekend’s conference, and the speaker who trucked in anti-semitic hate in the service of white supremacy, are not fine. In fact, “primitive” and “deplorable” are adjectives that are far too kind when used to describe those people.



    Love your Rodgers and Hamerstein allusion, as a youth I met the late great Mary Martin in London, and Mitzi Gaynor is still with us in her eighties , active twitterer supporter of LGBT and causes , and a Democrat !

    In the same show the song ” cockeyed optimist ” is , ie. South Pacific, the terrific song You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught , is a superb , heart rendering , attempt to explain the development of exactly the sort of nasty populist anger , the prejudices , Neil and Elizabeth , and any of us on here and elsewhere who care about decent values, are concerned about !

  9. J Kane Says:

    If this is the way Senator Hart took it also, I owe him an apology! I don’t think I ever said Senator Hart had coined those descriptions and believe he usually uses quotes to denote others have made the statements. I stand by my opinion that to lump Trump voters, as the press and possibly the host have done, under categories like Alt-right is unfair if, you then define it in association with Joseph McCarthy and “McCarthyism”. It is painting an infinitesimal percentage with way to broad a brush.

    I not only read, I go back and re-read for perspective after the fact. “Disgust” and the associated comments is one of my favorite blogs. It seems like those with a Trump slant however misguided and misinformed they are were far closer in their predictions than those who vilify their sources as right wing propaganda. Maybe there is something to be learned from that?

    The election is over and I readily associate myself with most of the adjectives associated with Trump voters. Maybe you cannot appreciate the self-deprecating tone of my last paragraph? Do you think that to juxtaposition “The Art of the Deal” with “Present at the Creation” is not tongue in cheek? But as a point, if you don’t read Trump’s book you miss many of the starting points for his negotiations as ludicrous as they may be. I hope they serve him well in his presidency.

    I will take the time and look forward to reading “Present at the Creation”. The only problem I have is the bookmobile doesn’t have a copy and neither of the books at the local liberry are it either! Fortunately Amazon helped me out.

  10. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    Senator Hart: As a former campaign manager for a Democratic presidential nominee and as 2 time presidential candidate yourself, I should like to ask you why, in your opinion, Hillary Clinton did not join the issue of Trump’s intended roll-back of “globalization as we know it” during the just-concluded presidential election campaign? I wouldn’t have agreed with it but there was a case to be made against Trump’s Americans First world-view and policy intentions (which I summarize in bumper-sticker terms as some version of long-overdue populism, protectionism and isolationism).

    If I understand your latest blogpost correctly (and when I try to consider both the text on the lines and the subtext between the lines, I am not sure I entirely do) you are alluding to the potential problem of replacing “something” (the post-war economic and security architecture put in place by American patrician elites following World War 2) with “nothing” (or worse).

    I’ll leave aside the omission in that architecture (beyond anything but lip service) of Eleanor Roosevelt’s human rights ambitions, and the fact that (as the late great U.S. intelligence officer turned professor Chalmars Johnson and many others have pointed out) this architecture long-ago became a cover for attempted illicit American world domination (AKA “full spectrum dominance”, a noxious neo-con phrase if there ever was one) to which we are totally unsuited by our nation’s founding revolutionary anti-imperialist creed. And I’ll further leave side:

    • the fact that the current “world economy” is primarily a basis for our super-rich capitalist class to both: promote excessive legal- and illegal immigration to our country (to prevent any worker-advantaging leverage in wage negotiations) AND relocate their production abroad and enlarge the labor pool to include the entire world’s populations, placing Americans into ruinous jobs and wage competition with the world’s poorest people. And

    • the fact that our nation has eschewed most if not all of the benign forms of international cooperation: For example, while engaging in the worst forms of what has (appropriately derisively) come to be called “globalism”, we have never even ratified something as benign as the “law of the sea” treaty adopted by the United Nations in 1982 and which became effective in 1994 when the 60th nation ratified it. Go figure.

    My point Sen. Hart is that Hillary Clinton did NOT make the case you are alluding to, or any other case in defense of traditional “liberal” internationalism (a misnomer when considered in hijacked baleful devolutionary practice). Unless you want to count Mrs. Clinton’s blather about America already being “great” — as if the Vietnam War and Iraq War never happened and LBJ’s Great Society ambitions have already been realized. What planet is she living on? Or unless you wish to further count Hillary’s echo of Madeleine Albright’s insane “indispensable nation” rhetoric and its kissing cousin (that great rationalization of all manner of our misbegotten international roguery over the post-WW2 and especially post-Cold War decades): “American exceptionalism”. Btw: lest we forget, Mrs. Albright, formerly an obscure academic, got her start in big league American politics during your competitor Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential primary campaign (as his national security advisor), where she worked alongside neo-con Charles Krauthammer (who served as a Mondale speechwriter). Go figure.

    On the contrary, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine and their minions in the Democratic Party power structure and in the entire corporate media presstitute corps, ran a campaign that eschewed both this seminal globalization issue and virtually all other issues, in favor of a psychological warfare onslaught intended to bamboozle the American people into ignoring their own material best interests and maintaining the status quo they knew from their own personal experiences to be a road to perdition for themselves and their loved ones. See eg. this devastating article on a study done by an academic who somehow still favors (or says he does) the mad free-trade “cargo cult” (in Pat Buchanan’s witheringly acerbic phrase): .

    It takes hubris beyond belief to have ever believed such a propaganda-based psy-op electoral stunt (which consisted primarily of ad nauseam 24/7 ad hominem character assassination of the maverick Republican nominee) would succeed. And entirely predictably, it didn’t. But maybe its failure was not so predictable: The Clinton campaign’s primary miscalculation was to underestimate the skill with which Donald Trump and his campaign team and unaffiliated supporters would promote his anti-establishment message and the degree to which it would resonate with Americans justifiably fed-up, indeed furious, with elites of all stripes. Michael Moore partially captured the gist of this widespread anger in his melodramatic statement here (one Moore didn’t mean as a Trump endorsement): .

    For those voters who essentially dismissed- and stopped paying attention to Mr. Trump after his announcement speech (and I just had lunch with a childhood friend who did so and whose “allergy” to Mr. Trump is still palpable) here’s an example of his campaign’s messaging you missed and what America’s everyday people were impressed by: and . The first 5 minute version was produced by a team of Trump supporters from Reddit. The condensed 2 minute version is by the Trump campaign team, who knew a good thing when they saw it. The latter got over 8 million views on YouTube alone.

    As the late great Gil Scott Heron predicted, in 2016 the revolution wasn’t televised, it was streamed online.

    Of course “the classics” should always be re-read. I would love to find the time to re-read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, which made such an impression on me as a Berkeley sophomore 43 years ago. But the last thing America needs now is for some of its best and brightest non-conservative thinkers to engage in 4 years of monkish retreat into the various texts that have informed their worldviews. Much less any “parlor games”. Rather we need “all hands on deck.”

    Senator Hart, if I may: Your under-employment as a diplomatic envoy to Northern Ireland during the Obama Administration needs to be upgraded by the president-elect, who (to name just one possibility) could not possibly find a better U.S. ambassador to Russia than yourself. I would refer the president-elect to this Dec. 12, 2011 article, which distinguishes you Senator Hart from the overwhelming majority of mainstream Democrats who have literally taken leave of their senses and swallowed the Russophobic New Cold War hemlock: . You presciently concluded as follows:
    “For myself, it is sufficient to prophesy, even with little tangible evidence, that sometime in this century, sooner rather than later, the United States and Russia will identify a common destiny that requires a degree of mutual understanding and cooperation seen only by de Toqueville almost two centuries ago. We spent a half-century army-to-army and missile-to-missile. The time will come, and none too soon, when it will be beneficial to both of us to stand shoulder to shoulder.”
    Amen Senator! Hear, hear! Are you listening Mr. Trump?

    I hope within bounds of comment length etiquette: I conclude with the exchange I had with my childhood friend the day after our lunch on Tuesday, which he first noticed happened to fall on the 53rd anniversary of the JFK assassination. We both learned of it at age 9 that fateful day in- and just outside our grade school cafeteria at Castle Heights Elementary School. Our exchange began with the perennial subject of complaint here in LA: our often traffic-gridlocked streets and its origin story retold in the animated movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”:
    My friend: “It took me 90 minutes to get home. We live in a ridiculous city. I hope you are right about Trump, but I see us being a laughingstock for the next four years.”

    My reply: “Jasmine visited a relative in Placentia yesterday. Took her 4 hours to get there she said. B/c of Thanksgiving week?

    LA’s pols of yesteryear caved to the car-makers and related powers-that-be and let the Red Car lines and rights of way go instead of upgrading them into a modern light rail mass transit system.

    One of JFK’s stronger suits is that he thought 50 years ahead. In his last months he toured the Western U.S., talking up water projects (dams for agricultural irrigation, transporting drinking water etc.) as a form of what we might call today ‘nation-building here at home.’ It was before environmentalism but there was realism and foresight in those days about such things.

    Trump says he’s all about upgrading our infrastructure and stopping our insane military adventurism. He should have the at-least-conditional support of most Democrats but Dems and the media are allergic to him.

    Presidential leadership itself has been a dirty word since JFK and LBJ and Nixon’s era. Reagan revived it more in name only than in deeds and only for rightist domestic policy goals (discrediting government and super-empowering the private sector). All the presidents since adhered to “kinder and gentler” Reaganism.

    Trump is more hated by conservative Republicans than even by Democrats because he’s a throw-back to the pre-Reagan type of moderate Republicanism (eg. Elliot Richardson type). The drama with Trump is whether he can find enough non-conservative Republican personnel to revive the kind of benign Republican governance Lincoln would have presided-over after the Civil War. It’s up-in-the-air as we speak.

    He should try to form a national unity government, one that includes progressive Democrats and independents. If Trump doesn’t throw the pro-1% Reaganite (and Reaganite-lite) rightists and all their Wall Street and other big business elite money-changer corporate lobbyists out of the temple of the U.S. government then you’re right: he’ll fail and be viewed with derision.

    What’s interesting is that he seems to know that. He has no choice but to govern as at least a serious Teddy Roosevelt type progressive. Time will tell.

    Your line just caused me crystallize what I’ve been wanting to communicate to Mr. Trump since his election. Thanks!

  11. Chris R. Says:

    Acheson was undoubtedly a major player of the era. In his biography of FDR, Jean Edward Smith noted, “Dean Acheson’s record for anticipating the likelihood of war in the Far East sets a standard for error that few statesmen would wish to emulate. Not only did he make the wrong call in July 1941, but his speech to the National Press Club as President Truman’s secretary of state on January 12,1950 placing South Korea outside the American defensive perimeter in the Pacific,contributed significantly to the North Koreans’ decision to cross the 38th parallel in June 1950.” (Jean Edward Smith , FDR (Random House, 2007), Pg. 518) Acheson’s memoir is certainly an important historical document for any historian (or student) researching the era. However, I would suggest that Acheson’s work is now dated, lacking in perspective, and he likely framed issues in a way most favorable to himself.

    I have not read the book myself, but according to on line reviews, consider the fact that he chose to start in 1942. In fairness, he had only returned to the State Dept. in 1941, but as British historian Norman Davies wrote:
    “Many history books, especially from the USA and from Russia, skip over the years 1939-1941 as if nothing really worth mentioning occurred in that period. Both Americans and Russians have been taught to think the Second World War only started when their own countries became openly involved. In reality, Hitler attacked and subjugated eight countries during the currency of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and Stalin did the same to five.” (Norman Davies, Trail Of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents (Osprey Publishing, 2015))
    By starting in 1942, the perspective of why WWII began in 1939, but not earlier to stop German rearmament, and didn’t end in months with a crushing Anglo-French offensive across the Siegfreid Line, is lost. In my opinion, (as someone who holds a degree in history), WWII occurred due to the desire of the Western powers to buttress a failing, racist colonial system. (So how much did Acheson write about the Bengal famine of 1943, the 1.5 to 4 million who were starved, and Churchill’s quote, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,”? Very little, I suspect.)

    From that perspective, Japan was attempting to replace a European colonial system with an empire ruled by Asians. In order to restore the status quo ante in Asia, the Western powers agreed to recognize Soviet aggression against its neighbors, and granted it a monopoly on the substantial military aid supplied to fight the Nazis, in exchange for Soviet promises of assistance against the Japanese at Yalta. That best explains the underlying tensions and issues that arose in the post-war era: Chinese rejection of a pro-Western regime, the partition of Japan’s colony of Korea, the French re-occupation of Indo-China, and the various movements to overthrow communism and Soviet occupation in Central Europe. NATO arose to contain a beast that the West itself had created. Those Americans with ethnic roots in Central and Eastern Europe, to whom Sen. Joseph McCarthy had appealed, certainly had a reason to be upset with U.S. policy in the region. The Soviets had been favored and appeased, but not for the reasons McCarthy alleged.

    We now live in a world evolved (or perhaps devolved) from that post-war order. The Preident-elect now must deal with an assertive industrialized China claiming international waters as its sovereign territory, and a nationalistic Russia basking in the past glory of its Post-War zenith, occupying and threatening its neighbors, including the heart of Europe by militarizing the former German speaking duchy that is now Kaliningrad with nuclear weapons. I expect that the President-elect will respond to these challenges with principle when dealing with our treaty allies, and pragmatism when dealing with those who are not. Still, there should be negotiated solutions to these problems if possible, and negotiation is something at which he excels. However, building military bases on what were rocks in the sea, and annexing neighboring territory contrary to agreed commitments are outrageous actions contrary to international norms which have not had much consequence from the present administration. President Trump would be better served consulting experienced wise men like Zbigniew Brzezinski on the real politcs of modern geo-politics and what is possible, rather than waxing nostalgic about the “birth” of the Post-War era and the Cold War. It’s a new day, and it’s up to us to make a new world a better place.

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