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From: marc trachtenberg <trachten@polisci.ucla.edu>
List Editor: "H-DIPLO [Laderman]" <hdiplo@yorku.ca>
Editor's Subject: Acheson on Colonialism [Trachtenberg]
Author's Subject: Acheson on Colonialism [Trachtenberg]
Date Written: Thu, 24 Aug 2000
Date Posted: Fri, 25 Aug 2000 10:36:36 -0400

In his post of August 24, Lloyd Gardner referred to the record of a
meeting between top American officials and the NATO foreign ministers that
was supposedly held on April 3, 1949. Lloyd had alluded to this document
in a message he had posted last month (as part of the "Acheson and
colonialism" thread); in that post, he had taken the document at face
value, but Bill Burr, in an email, had pointed out to him that its
authenticity had been challenged. In fact, as Lloyd noted, a very
interesting discussion of this question had been posted (by Bill Burr) on
the National Security Archive website:  "Did Truman Meet with NATO Foreign
Ministers on 3 April 1949? A Cold War Mystery,"
<http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/DOCUMENT/200008/index.html> That webpage
contained a link to a copy of the document itself, and also included the
text of an email from Steve Schuker to Mel Leffler discussing the issue.
As I had cited that document in my book, Lloyd suggested that I might
comment on the authenticity question.

So I reread the document, along with the Burr and Schuker comments.  And I
came to the conclusion that both of them are right: that the document is
highly questionable, and that it was probably concocted by some
well-informed official (or group of officials) at the time. In fact,
looking back, I now feel that I should not have cited it in the first
place, since I remember feeling when I first read it that it was not quite
kosher.  But I dismissed those concerns (a little too quickly, I now
think) with the thought that since the document had been published in a
very respectable scholarly journal, the Vierteljahrshefte fuer
Zeitgeschichte, it must have been genuine.  This, as I say, was certainly
a mistake on my part; I now feel that I should have been more critical and
taken my own initial doubts more seriously.

What are the problems with the document?  Most of them have to do with the
fact that there is something about it that just does not ring true.
Truman, for example, begins by giving a long lecture to the allied foreign
ministers, outlining in some detail a strategy for the West--a strategy
for building up western power, for then going on the offensive, for
generating "active counterpressure to undermine the base of Soviet power
itself," for containing and then actually "defeating World Communism." He
tells the allied ministers that this strategy will call for sacrifice on
their part, and that much of what he has to say "will be disconcerting to
many of you," but that it was vital that they go along with what he called
this "grand design."

But this just does not sound like the real Truman speaking, above all not
the Truman of early 1949.  It sounds more like the Acheson of the early
1950s--and even then one never finds Acheson being quite so extreme in
discussions with the allies.  I just don't see Truman at this point buying
into a strategy of that sort; in fact, I don't see Truman in general
taking this kind of "conceptual" approach to foreign policy; and I don't
see Truman as the type of person who would take this sort of tone with the
allies. Truman comes across here as the kind of person who is not averse
to laying out unpleasant truths, but my sense is that he tended to shy
away from that kind of confrontational behavior, at least with the allies.

But of course, Truman might have been just reading the text of a speech
that someone else had prepared, without giving its content too much
thought.  Given all we know about Truman, this, to my mind, is not to be
ruled out a priori; maybe the text had been prepared under Acheson's
direction. Acheson, after all, did take this kind of approach later on,
and it is by no means out of the question that he was already thinking
along these lines.  But I doubt whether Acheson, who had just taken office
as Secretary of State, would have had the president take this kind of line
so early on; at this point, he would have been skating on very thin ice,
given the president's aversion to a massive increase in military spending,
by putting words of this sort in the president's mouth. And there is also
the fact that some of Truman's supposed remarks were more
spontaneous--that they were not part of his presumably prepared opening
speech--and that they are therefore not to be discounted in this way.

Moreover, one also needs to ask whether U.S. officials could plausibly
have taken this line with the allies at the time.  A defensive alliance
was one thing, but what the American leaders were outlining here was
something else entirely.  How would the Europeans react to something of
this sort?  Could American leaders reasonably calculate that outlining a
policy of launching a "counter-offensive" would make the Europeans
(frightened enough as it was) more likely to follow the American lead?  I
think the answer is clearly no, that it therefore made no sense at all to
talk to the Europeans in this way, that (even putting the leak problem
aside) nothing was more likely to wreck the new NATO alliance than this
type of talk, and therefore that it is just not plausible that American
leaders would have taken this kind of line at the time.  It is simply too
much at variance with the general picture that merges from the bulk of the
evidence to be taken at face value.

And then there are a lot of little things that strike me as not quite
right: for example, Acheson's reference here to the "integration of the
Reich as a full-fledged partner" in western Europe.  Acheson simply would
not have referred to West Germany as "the Reich," given the connotations
of the term and their relationship to his more general policy; in fact, I
can't remember seeing any passage in any document in which Acheson
referred to the Federal Republic as "the Reich," and I've read many
documents relating to U.S. policy on the German question at this point.

And on it goes: the words attributed to Schuman also just do not ring
true. Schuman here says that the "ideal solution" to the German problem is
"perpetual neutralization of Germany," and he thinks the Soviets might go
along with it.  But by 1949 Schuman was a strong supporter of the western
strategy for Germany--that is, the policy of integrating West Germany into
the West--and was very much opposed to any hint of a policy shift toward a
neutralization solution.  This comment attributed to Schuman really seems
to reflect the mistaken assumption of some American official; it seems to
reflect a common misunderstanding of what French policy was at this point.

I also think the words attributed to Secretary of Defense Johnson have a
false feel: Johnson comes across as very seriously committed to a buildup
of western power, but my sense is that this was not his real thinking at

And then there's the part of the document which has Truman saying "I
intend to order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to keep aid to strategically
peripheral areas to the minimum." But Truman, in the documents I've seen,
simply never talks this way--he certainly never tells foreigners that he
is going to simply issue orders to the military authorities in that way.

So on the basis of a purely internal analysis, I think the document is
highly questionable.  And when you add to that all the other problems Burr
mentions--especially the point that no one has found records of this
rather astonishing meeting in the archives of the other NATO countries,
even though all their foreign ministers were at the meeting--then the
doubt becomes overwhelming.

How then is the document to be understood?  As a Walter Mitty-like
fantasy, written up by some well-informed official who was laying out how
he thought the American leadership should view the situation, and how it
should lay down the law to the allies?  Yes, that may well be. Schuker
speculates that it might well have been a spoof, written by some
lower-level officials, "of what the various sides really should have said
if they were placing their cards openly on the table." "Spoof" would not
be the word I personally would use, but I do agree that the document was
probably a concoction of some sort. But I'm not sure we'll ever know what
this document really was; and I'm not sure how important it is that we do
find out.

In any event, for now there is only one real point to be made, and that is
that unless some really surprising evidence turns up from foreign
archives, this document should not be taken at face value as a legitimate

Marc Trachtenberg

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