Acheson and Truman

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
RWB. Michael H. Shirley

Any discussion of “greatest in history” about, well, anything will produce some debate. In part, it’s because it’s nearly impossible to agree on a definition of “greatness,” and in part, it’s because greatness varies with the field of endeavor. I can, and have, spent hours in amiable discussion with friends on various of our “ten greatest players” in sports without coming to much in the way of a definitive list. I’m sure my list of greatest major league ballplayers by position is different than yours, although there will likely be some overlap, and we can agree to disagree (that said, if your list doesn’t include Ernie Banks, you need to rethink your position). So it’s generally more interesting and less heated to talk about “favorites.” We can argue all day long about “the greatest president in history,” but a discussion of favorites is more subjective. Anyway, as anyone who’s read this blog for a while already knows, my favorite president is Harry Truman, but I don’t think he’s the greatest president in history. I would argue, however, that he embodied greatness, and at least one eminent American agreed with me.

Harry Truman’s best friend in his later years was Dean Acheson, who served as his Secretary of State from 1949-1953. They respected each other without reservation, visited each other when possible, and wrote to each other regularly until Acheson’s death in 1971. At a dinner in 1953, Acheson presented Truman with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award. His remarks on that occasion probably meant more to Truman than the award did:

“I hope that it will never be thought of me that I approach the matter of doing honor to the President Truman with an open mind. On the contrary, it is with unshakeable convictions [that I do him honor], one of which is that no honor which can be conferred on Mr. Truman can equal the honor which he has won for himself…. I suppose Mr. Truman would like no description of himself better than, in the words of a Seventeenth Century writer, as ‘An honest plain man, without pleats.’ That indeed he is, but we cannot let him escape with that. In my prejudiced judgment we must bring in a word which is very much abused and which I fear may annoy him a good deal. But he will testify that I have always told him the truth as I saw it—and this is no time to stop. The word is ‘Greatness.’”

Acheson was an extraordinary public servant, and was well suited to make that proclamation. A lawyer and long-time diplomat, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1970 for his memoirs, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department. He was a patrician from his brigadier’s moustache to his highly polished shoes, and might be expected to have had some misgivings about the plain man from Missouri. But Acheson and Truman both took things without much in the way of prejudice. His first meeting with Truman was two days before Truman became president on Roosevelt’s death, and his impression was immediately positive: “He is straight-forward, decisive, simple, entirely honest. He, of course, has the limitations upon his judgment and wisdom that the limitations of his experience produce, but I think that he will learn fast and will inspire confidence.” Acheson was right. 

In his summation of Truman’s presidency, performed near the end of his life, Acheson wrote, “Today no one can come to the Presidency of the United States really qualified for it. But he can do his best to become so. Mr. Truman was always doing his level best. …His judgment developed with the exercise of it.” 

It is those qualities that Acheson saw in Truman that made it possible for him to become a great man. The judgment of whether someone is “great” depends on that person’s accomplishments, and those accomplishments cannot occur unless ability meets opportunity, and it is ability that Acheson saw in Truman. Blessed with an extraordinary memory, enormous stamina, and a keen mind, Truman read widely and deeply in history and biography from the time he was a boy.  He set himself a course of study throughout his life, learning as much as he could about history, society, and human nature, and it was that invariable habit of learning that led him to the White House. Learning was not sufficient to achieving greatness, but it was entirely necessary.  When the opportunity to excel presented itself, as it did again and again, he had made himself ready to seize it. 

Harry Truman’s entire life was spent in a prudent and well regulated course of discipline that enabled him to make the best use of the talents with which he’d been blessed, and so enabled him to achieve all that he achieved. The uncompromising excellence with which he lived his life is example of what a Mason can be if he pays full attention to his obligations.  Not everyone is cut out to rise as high as Truman did, but all of us can live to our fullest potential if we act as Truman acted. In our own small and varied ways, we can achieve greatness.


R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois, A.F. & A.M, as Leadership Development Chairman and Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master of the Eastern Area. A Certified Lodge Instructor, he is a Past Master and Life Member of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and a plural member of Island City Lodge No. 330, F & AM, in Minocqua, Wisconsin. He currently serves the Valley of Danville, AASR, as Most Wise Master of the George E. Burow Chapter of Rose Croix; he is also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the York Rite, Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees, Eastern Star, Illini High Twelve, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. The author of several articles on British history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.You can contact him at:

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