Introduction

By the time Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered this speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the Truman administration (1945 – 1953) had weathered considerable criticism from Congressional Republicans for the outcome of the Chinese Civil War, which put a communist regime into power in late 1949. In the view of many conservatives, the administration was partially responsible for the communist takeover of China because it had failed to adequately support the Chinese nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who had battled Mao Tse-Tung’s communists for years. (Accusations by Senator Joseph McCarthy [R-Wisc.] that communists within the State Department had sabotaged America’s China policy attracted national attention in February 1950; Document 5.) For their part, Truman’s policymakers documented the many failings of the nationalists, including corruption and the misuse of U.S. money and equipment, in order to justify the decision to cut off American support.

The main purpose of Acheson’s speech was to outline the strategic priorities of the United States in East Asia. In doing so, Acheson drew a line that extended from the Aleutian Islands to Japan, then to the Ryukyu Islands (a string of islands that stretches from Japan southwest toward Taiwan) and the Philippines (which had obtained independence from the United States three years prior). The United States would not assume sole responsibility for providing military assistance elsewhere in the region. In June, the North Korean invasion of South Korea prompted accusations that Acheson’s speech had emboldened the communists to invade because the United States had drawn a line that bypassed the Korean peninsula. However, Kim Il Sung, the communist dictator of North Korea, was hardly waiting for cues from the U.S. Secretary of State to carry out an attack he had been long plotting. The invasion did draw the United States into war, but on the terms suggested by Acheson in this speech: through the United Nations, of which the Republic of Korea was a member (Documents 8-9).


Source: “Crisis in Asia: An Examination of U.S. Policy,” Department of State Bulletin, Vol. XXII, no. 551 (January 23, 1950), 111-18.


. . . I am frequently asked: Has the State Department got an Asian policy? And it seems to me that that discloses such a depth of ignorance that it is very hard to begin to deal with it. The peoples of Asia are so incredibly diverse and their problems are so incredibly diverse that how could anyone . . . believe that he had a uniform policy which would deal with all of them. On the other hand, there are very important similarities in ideas and in problems among the peoples of Asia and so what we come to, after we understand these diversities and these common attitudes of mind, is the fact that there must be certain similarities of approach, . . .

. . . There is in this vast area [Asia] what we might call a developing Asian consciousness, and a developing pattern, and this, I think, is based upon two factors . . .

One of these factors is a revulsion against the acceptance of misery and poverty as the normal condition of life. Throughout all of this vast area, you have that fundamental revolutionary aspect in mind and belief. The other common aspect that they have is the revulsion against foreign domination. Whether that foreign domination takes the form of colonialism or whether it takes the form of imperialism, they are through with it. They have had enough of it, and they want no more. . . .

Now, may I suggest to you that much of the bewilderment which has seized the minds of many of us about recent developments in China1 comes from a failure to understand this basic revolutionary force which is loose in Asia. The reasons for the fall of the Nationalist Government2 in China are preoccupying many people. All sorts of reasons have been attributed to it. Most commonly, it is said in various speeches and publications that it is the result of American bungling, that we are incompetent, that we did not understand, that American aid was too little, that we did the wrong things at the wrong time. . . .

. . . Now, what I ask you to do is to stop looking for a moment under the bed and under the chair and under the rug to find out these reasons, but rather to look at the broad picture and see whether something doesn’t suggest itself.

. . .

. . . What has happened in my judgment is that the almost inexhaustible patience of the Chinese people in their misery ended. They did not bother to overthrow this government. There was really nothing to overthrow. They simply ignored it . . . . They completely withdrew their support from this government, and when that support was withdrawn, the whole military establishment disintegrated. Added to the grossest incompetence ever experienced by any military command was this total lack of support both in the armies and in the country, and so the whole matter just simply disintegrated.

The Communists did not create this. The Communists did not create this condition. They did not create this revolutionary spirit. They did not create a great force which moved out from under Chiang Kai-shek. But they were shrewd and cunning to mount it, to ride this thing into victory and into power. . . .

Now, let me come to another underlying and important factor which determines our relations and, in turn, our policy with the peoples of Asia. That is the attitude of the Soviet Union toward Asia, and particularly towards those parts of Asia which are contiguous to the Soviet Union, and with great particularity this afternoon, to north China.

The attitude and interest of the Russians in north China, and in these other areas as well, long antedates communism. This is not something that has come out of communism at all. It long antedates it. But the Communist regime has added new methods, new skills, and new concepts to the thrust of Russian imperialism. . . . [W]hat is happening in China is that the Soviet Union is detaching the northern provinces of China from China and is attaching them to the Soviet Union. . . .

What does that mean for us? It means something very, very significant. It means that nothing that we do and nothing that we say must be allowed to obscure the reality of this fact. All the efforts of propaganda will not be able to obscure it. The only thing that can obscure it is the folly of ill-conceived adventures on our part which easily could do so, and I urge all who are thinking about these foolish adventures to remember that we must not seize the unenviable position which the Russians have carved out for themselves. . . . We must take the position we have always taken – that anyone who violates the integrity of China is the enemy of China and is acting contrary to our own interest. That, I suggest to you this afternoon, is the first and the greatest rule in regard to the formulation of American policy toward Asia.

I suggest that the second rule is very like the first. That is to keep our own purposes perfectly straight, perfectly pure, . . .

What is the situation in regard to the military security of the Pacific area, and what is our policy in regard to it?

In the first place, the defeat and the disarmament of Japan has placed upon the United States the necessity of assuming the military defense of Japan so long as that is required, both in the interest of our security and in the interests of the security of the entire Pacific area and, in all honor, in the interest of Japanese security. We have American – and there are Australian – troops in Japan. I am not in a position to speak for the Australians, but I can assure you that there is no intention of any sort of abandoning or weakening the defenses of Japan and that whatever arrangements are to be made either through permanent settlement or otherwise, that defense must and shall be maintained.

The defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands3, and those we will continue to hold. In the interest of the population of the Ryukyu Islands, we will at an appropriate time offer to hold these islands under trusteeship of the United Nations. But they are essential parts of the defensive perimeter of the Pacific, and they must and will be held.

The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands. Our relations, our defensive relations with the Philippines are contained in agreements between us. Those agreements are being loyally carried out and will be loyally carried out. Both peoples have learned by bitter experience the vital connections between our mutual defense requirements. We are in no doubt about that, and it is hardly necessary for me to say an attack on the Philippines could not and would not be tolerated by the United States. But I hasten to add that no one perceives the imminence of any such attack.

So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.

Should such an attack occur – one hesitates to say where such an armed attack could come from – the initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations which so far has not proved a weak reed to lean on by any people who are determined to protect their independence against outside aggression. But it is a mistake, I think, in considering Pacific and Far Eastern problems to become obsessed with military considerations. Important as they are, there are other problems that press, and these other problems are not capable of solution through military means. . . .

So after this survey, what we conclude, I believe, is that there is a new day which has dawned in Asia. It is a day in which the Asian peoples are on their own, and know it, and intend to continue on their own. It is a day in which the old relationships between east and west are gone, relationships which at their worst were exploitations, and which at their best were paternalism. That relationship is over, and the relationship of east and west must now be in the Far East one of mutual respect and mutual helpfulness. We are their friends. Others are their friends. We and those others are willing to help, but we can help only where we are wanted and only where the conditions of help are really sensible and possible. So what we can see is that this new day in Asia, this new day which is dawning, may go on to a glorious noon or it may darken and it may drizzle out. But that decision lies within the countries of Asia and within the power of the Asian people. It is not a decision which a friend or even an enemy from the outside can decide for them.

Study Questions

A. Why does Acheson believe it is impossible to have a single “Asian policy”? What common factors should the United States consider in its policies in the Pacific and Far East? Why do the Chinese nationalists lose the war to the Chinese communists? Why is the Soviet Union (which Acheson also calls Russia) interested in north China? Why is Japan important to the United States? What is the “defensive perimeter” (that is, a line to defend) the United States should have in the Pacific and Far East? What does Acheson say nations on the other side of the perimeter should do if attacked?

B. In this speech, Acheson defends the Truman administration against criticisms that it is “soft” on communism in Asia – how do Senator Joseph McCarthy and General Douglas MacArthur step up these criticisms in Documents 5 and 9? Does Document 8 show Truman following the policies recommended by Acheson in Document 4?

Footnotes

  1. The rise to power of the Chinese communists and the creation of the People’s Republic of China, a communist state.
  2. The Chinese Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, had fought the Chinese communists during China’s long civil war.
  3. Islands southwest of Japan.