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David C. Acheson, a Washington lawyer who wrote and edited books that illuminated the life, philosophies and predilections of his father, former secretary of state Dean Acheson, died Aug. 16 at his home in the District. He was 96.
The cause was complications from advanced spinal stenosis, said his daughter, Eldie Acheson.
Mr. Acheson practiced law for four decades, including as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in the 1960s and as a founding partner of the Washington office of Drinker, Biddle and Reath. His specialties included strategic advice, compliance and investigations involving corporate malfeasance and securities violations, his daughter said.
Like his father, Mr. Acheson was “tall and lordly — a man with a barrister’s demeanor and a diplomat’s sense of ease,” as Washington Post book critic Marie Arana once observed in a sketch of the younger Mr. Acheson’s life. He had already graduated from Yale University, served in the Navy during World War II and received a law degree from Harvard University when his father became President Harry S. Truman’s secretary of state in 1949.
Dean Acheson, who left the office in 1953, forged a legacy as an architect of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, of NATO and of U.S. foreign policy during the Korean War and the early Cold War. Biographers would devote hundreds if not thousands of pages to his life.
David Acheson wished to add his own pages, he once wrote, to spare his father the fate of becoming “a mere, depersonalized logo of a foreign-policy style — little more than a Homburg, a mustache and the title page of NSC 68, the ‘containment policy’ paper that outlined the Soviet Union’s aim to world domination and our resolve to block it.”
After Dean Acheson’s death in 1971, David Acheson shepherded to publication a collection of his father’s writings on foreign policy, “This Vast External Realm” (1973). He later assembled his father’s correspondence in “Among Friends: Personal Letters of Dean Acheson” (1980), co-edited with political scientist David S. McLellan. The titular friends included poet Archibald MacLeish, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Truman.
Mr. Acheson assisted with the preparation of another book, “Affection and Trust: The Personal Correspondence of Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson, 1953-1971” (2010), further exploring the relationship between Acheson and the president he described as a “captain with a mighty heart.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Dean Acheson warned Truman, should be trusted “as much as you would a rattlesnake with a silencer on its rattle.” The Kennedy administration, he wrote, was overly interested in its public perception.
“This is a terrible weakness,” Acheson remarked. “It makes one look at oneself instead of at the problem. How will I look fielding this hot line drive to shortstop? This is a good way to miss the ball altogether.”
His writings taken together, “it is hard to think of a public figure today who could sustain, through a lifetime, such a varied and interesting correspondence,” Harry McPherson, a confidant and adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote in a Washington Post review of “Among Friends.”
David Acheson also wrote a memoir, “Acheson Country” (1993), depicting his father as a family man, an avid equestrian and cabinetmaker, an automobile enthusiast and a man “almost ashamed of conformity.” The book made “compelling reading in the ahistorical, all-night-pizza Washington of the Clinton era,” journalist Philip Terzian wrote in a review in the New York Times.
“For the student of the news it offers a gentle lesson,” Terzian went on, “how once our leaders — well, some of them, at any rate — were aristocrats of style, and sometimes of birth, the comfortable inheritors of power, discretion, moral example and dread responsibility, who knew how to step on the stage with aplomb, and leave when the curtain began to descend.”
David Campion Acheson was born in Washington on Nov. 4, 1921. His mother, Alice Stanley Acheson, was a painter.
After graduating from Yale with a classics degree in 1943 and from Harvard in 1948, Mr. Acheson practiced in the 1950s with the firm of Covington and Burling. He volunteered with John F. Kennedy’s successful 1960 presidential campaign before becoming a U.S. attorney.
Later in the 1960s, Mr. Acheson served as special assistant to Treasury Secretary Henry Fowler, with a portfolio that included oversight of the Narcotics Bureau and the Secret Service.
After leaving government in 1967, he was general counsel of the Communications Satellite Corp. (COMSAT) and practiced law with firms including Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue. In the 1980s, he served on the government commission appointed to investigate the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
From 1993 to 1999, Mr. Acheson was president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank that supports institutions and policies undergirding NATO.
His wife of 56 years, the former Patricia Castles, died in 2000. Survivors include three children, Eldie Acheson of Washington and Bass River, Mass., David Acheson of New York City, and Peter Acheson of Chatham, N.Y.; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Acheson wrote that, in exploring his father’s life, he discerned — with some regret — differences between the public servants of earlier eras and those of the modern day.
“Then, generally speaking, leaders determined their objectives on the merits,” Mr. Acheson wrote in The Post in 1994. “Today, I fear I must say, more often the start of the analysis is: What do the public and media want? Then, how can we accomplish it? Finally, how do we justify it as the solution to a problem? Public Relations is king, and CNN is the high priest. It seems to me that this is why things in Washington appear to be getting worse.
“With such things on my mind, writing about my father was not just an expository act. It was an education.”
Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.
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