More Realism About Realism: Dean Acheson and the Jurisprudence of Cold War Diplomacy

48 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2007

See all articles by Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: January 2007


Of all the American policymakers who helped create the postwar international security order, none loom larger than Dean Acheson. He titled his memoirs in (uncharacteristically) modest terms as "Present at the Creation." But Acheson was more than merely present: as the principal architect of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO, he established the central pillars of American national security policy for more than a generation. But we know next to nothing about the formative influences on his thought. Acheson seems to appear out of nowhere to enter the State Department in 1941. This omission is particularly acute because Acheson was not a professional international policymaker. When he first entered the State Department, he had never held a single diplomatic position. Like all policymakers, he came to world politics with a set of assumptions, beliefs, values, reflexes and commitments built up over decades; unlike all policymakers, he did so without tempering by specific international experience. This article assesses the formative influences on Acheson's world-view by focusing on his professional background - as a New Deal lawyer immersed in the political and ideological struggles of the 1920's and the Great Depression. Before coming to State, Acheson's professional life was spent not at a diplomatic post but in a law office. Acheson was also a legal theorist, and exemplified of the Legal Realism's critique of Classical Legal Thought. Legal Realists stressed the interconnection of law and politics, and thus the deep connection of law and power. Law did not substitute for power but rather reflected it.

Acheson's diplomacy stressed similar themes and thereby rejected Classical premises. It relied heavily on balance-of-power conceptions and remained indifferent, if not hostile, to international legal institutions. Acheson's career, then, suggests that legal Realism and foreign policy Realism are not simply matters of linguistic fortuity. They instead show a deeper way in which realism has been interpreted in the 20th century.

Keywords: Dean Acheson, postwar national security policy, the Cold War, Legal Realism

Suggested Citation

Zasloff, Jonathan, More Realism About Realism: Dean Acheson and the Jurisprudence of Cold War Diplomacy (January 2007). UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 07-01. Available at SSRN: or

Jonathan Zasloff (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

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