‘Three things of my own are about to burst on the world,’ Dean Acheson wrote to his friend Lady Pamela Berry, the London hostess and wife of Michael Berry, later Lord Hartwell, owner of the Daily Telegraph. They were ‘a leader in the December issue of Foreign Affairs… a speech at West Point… and a piece about my childhood in the Connecticut valley.’ It was characteristic of Acheson’s self-regard that he should have thought the first and last of these would ‘burst’ anywhere, but he was more right about the second than he can have known. Just over fifty years ago, on 5 December 1962, two days after his letter to Lady -Pamela, Acheson gave that speech, and indeed it exploded across the Atlantic like an artillery shell.

Maybe his name no longer rings the loudest of bells, but in his day Acheson was a mighty figure. His father was English by birth, an Episcopalian (Anglican) clergyman who became Bishop of Connecticut. After Groton, Yale and Harvard Law School, Dean joined Covington & Burling, a fashionable Washington law firm, and he then moved into politics, though not the messy electoral kind. He briefly served President Roosevelt as undersecretary of the Treasury, returning to the administration as assistant secretary of state in 1941, before he was promoted to undersecretary by President Truman, who then chose him as his secretary of state from 1949 to 1953.

Not only was Acheson at the heart of an American patrician establishment which no longer exists, his political CV — Lend-Lease, Bretton Woods, the coming of the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of Nato, the Korean war — is a short history of the age. At the State Department, he had to deal, almost absurdly, with the threat abroad from communist Russia under Joseph Stalin, and the threat at home from the anti-communist demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the two Joes together making rational conduct of foreign policy very difficult. After Eisenhower was elected president, Acheson may have felt some relief at returning to private life and his lucrative law practice, although he was still treated as a valued counsellor, at least by Democrats: President Kennedy sought his advice during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

Some weeks later, he spoke at West Point. He had been invited to give a keynote address there by General William Westmoreland, the superintendent or principal of the military academy, but declined until pressed by his friend General Maxwell Taylor. And so Acheson addressed the cadets on ‘Our Atlantic alliance: the political and economic strands’. Most of the speech was a conventional tour d’horizon about the continuing Soviet threat and the necessary response, by way of strengthening American political and economic ties with Europe. None of that might even have been reported at all in London papers or noticed by politicians at Westminster. What riveted attention was almost an aside:

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. Great Britain, attempting to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct policy as weak as its military power.

It’s hard now to recapture the electrifying effect in London of those two sentences, the almost hysterical ire they caused. The Daily Express screamed about a ‘stab in the back’, while the Daily Telegraph sneered that Acheson was ‘more immaculate in dress than in judgment’. The Spectator took a more measured view, but hoped, in pained terms, that ‘in this transitional period we have a right to ask that our friends should not make matters worse. It is the nature of nations diminished in power to feel humiliated when that fact is called to their attention.’

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Among those who felt especially humiliated was Harold Macmillan. The prime minister was so stung by Acheson’s denigration of ‘the will and resolution of the British people’, as he put it, that he not only complained bitterly in private but, despite Kennedy’s warning him against any exaggerated reaction, publicly snorted that Acheson had made ‘an error which had been made by quite a lot of people in the last 400 years, including Philip of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler’. But resentment cut across party lines. A few weeks after Acheson’s speech, Hugh Gaitskell died and Harold Wilson was elected Labour leader, to become prime minister in 1964. Several years later, another intervention by Acheson prompted Wilson to say in the Commons that ‘Mr Acheson was a distinguished figure who had lost a State Department and not found a role’. (The story is told by Douglas Brinkley of Hofstra University, to whose article ‘Dean Acheson and the “Special Relationship”’ in the Historical Journal, September 1990, I am indebted.)

It’s easy to see that Acheson had touched a raw nerve. ‘Lost an empire’ was obviously true: the process of decolonisation — what Macmillan himself called the ‘wind of change’ — had continued apace under his government. And Acheson’s other words were also near the knuckle, an attack on our sustaining myths. Although he didn’t mention the name of Sir Winston Churchill, his speech might have been a repudiation of another speech given more than 16 years earlier, also at an American academy. Churchill’s address of 5 March 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, made a phrase famous (though Churchill did not ‘coin’ it, as one still reads in the New York Times): ‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.’

But that Fulton speech also contained other phrases besides. What was needed, Churchill claimed, was a ‘fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.’ And again, ‘Let no man underrate the abiding power of the British Empire and Commonwealth.’ The emptiness of both of Churchill’s sentences was soon demonstrated. In November 1947, President Truman ignored his British friends and voted on the Zionist side for a resolution partitioning Palestine which the British government very much did not want to pass. It split again over the Suez adventure in 1956, when Anthony Eden’s government colluded with France and Israel in the ill-fated Suez adventure without telling Eisenhower, who immediately scuppered the operation. Macmillan irritably responded that ‘Mr Acheson seems wholly to misunderstand the role of the Commonwealth in world affairs’ — but just what was that role?

Like Churchill, Macmillan had an American mother, and his delusion about the Anglo-American relationship had been further encouraged by his connection with the Kennedy family: his wife Lady Dorothy Macmillan was the aunt of Lord Hartington, killed in action in 1944 shortly after he married Kathleen Kennedy, the future president’s sister. And Macmillan it was who had said in 1943 that ‘we are the Greeks to their Romans’. The Americans were ‘great big bustling people’, he patronisingly said, who needed to be mentored and guided by the worldly-wise English as Roman households had been by Greek tutors (who were in fact slaves, unhappily for the metaphor).

This was and remained nonsense. Those ‘bustling’ Romans had no wish at all to be guided by the sophisticated Greeks across the Atlantic, in 1943, or 1962, when Kennedy had politely telephoned Macmillan during the missile crisis, but in no way whatever sought British advice, not when American Boeings armed with hydrogen bombs were flying along the Arctic coast of Russia on the stage of alert immediately below war, and not when the crisis was defused by Robert Kennedy cutting a secret deal with the Russians on his brother’s behalf, by agreeing to withdraw American missiles from Turkey.

By ‘transitional’, The Spectator presumably intended the withdrawal from empire followed by the first British bid to enter what was then the European Economic Community or Common Market. Having earlier made a formal application, Macmillan met President Charles de Gaulle in June 1962, and wrote in his diary, ‘I am not at all sure how far de Gaulle and the French really feel it to be in France’s interest to have us in.’ Then they met again at Rambouillet ten days after Acheson’s speech for talks which made it clear that de Gaulle did intend to veto the British application. Only two days after seeing de Gaulle, Macmillan flew to meet Kennedy in the Bahamas. The Americans wanted the British to give up the Skybolt missile, and Macmillan with difficulty persuaded Kennedy to allow the British to have Polaris missiles instead, which was an unmistakable sop.

A month after that, in the new year of 1963, de Gaulle announced a French veto on the British application. Since Churchill had told de Gaulle in 1944 that he would always follow the Americans rather than the French, it’s scarcely surprising if de Gaulle wasn’t a doting anglophile. But then neither was Acheson, despite his origins, appearance, and many English friends like the Berrys. In 1950, the secretary of state had learnt that American and British officials were working on a document to define the ‘special relationship’, a phrase he abhorred, and Acheson ordered that all copies of the ‘wretched paper’ should be destroyed, not least because it would encourage ‘the McCarthys’ if it could be suggested that ‘the State Department was the tool of a foreign power’.

A more telling criticism of Acheson might have concerned motes and beams. He was better at criticising British self-delusion than the American kind, and 1962 was not a good time for any American to be cocksure about who was and who wasn’t finding roles. If anything, the Americans were not losing an empire but acquiring one, or trying to, with unhappy results. Look at the two military men who had invited Acheson to West Point. Within three years of his speech, General Taylor was American ambassador in Vietnam, and General Westmoreland was commanding the American forces there, which proved a lamentable end to his career. And as a footnote to that sorry war, the relationship wasn’t special enough for Wilson to send British troops to Vietnam, which President Johnson very much wanted.

Still, Acheson was right about Great Britain, and Macmillan’s clutching at American friendship seems in hindsight a poignant or even pitiful fantasy, though not one that ended with him. Charles Williams puts this very well in his recent biography of Macmillan. Like other prime ministers before and since, he persuaded himself that there was some mystical bond between the two countries, quite failing to see that ‘the United States, like all great powers, would in the end follow — without necessarily much regard for others — what it perceived from time to time to be its own interests’. Or as Palmerston said, in words of which Mikhail Gorbachev once reminded Margaret Thatcher, not that she needed reminding any more than de Gaulle did, nations have no eternal friends and no eternal foe, only eternal interests. That truth will never be ‘about played out’.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated