“A Pure American Type of a Rather Rare Species”

Dean Gooderham Acheson was born in Middletown, Connecticut, on April 11, 1893, into a stable world of which Europe was the center and where America was poised to attain hemispheric dominance.  That world’s certainties were shattered in the trenches of Northern France, but the shock was less profound among America’s northeastern aristocracy—to which Acheson belonged by birth and temperament—than among its European counterparts.

America was spared melancholy self-doubt for another half-century, and young Acheson’s disposition reflected its absence.  Tall and striking in appearance, elegant in dress and polished in manner, he exuded the quiet self-confidence that used to come naturally to the alumni of Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law School. By the early 1920’s, Acheson was a well-placed young lawyer, blessed with “the knowledge that one has been tested and that the gods have looked favorably.”  A decade later, suitably married and with three children, Acheson was on partnership track in a leading Washington law firm.  He could have completed a solid but undramatic life, ending it as a Supreme Court justice or president of an Ivy League school.

Robert Beisner’s major biography is short on the reasons Acheson chose public service over law—the first two thirds of Acheson’s life are covered in a mere dozen pages—and exhaustive on the service...

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