In 1983, James Chace journeyed to Central America, sending back lengthy dispatches to the New York Review of Books on a region ravaged by civil war. One night, he was going over his notes in a hotel room in Ocotal, Nicaragua, when, suddenly, the Contras opened fire. "This other journalist rushed in and said, 'What are you doing? You've got the only light on in this whole town and they're zeroing right in on you!'" Chace recalls. "So I dove under the mattress and spent the night under fire."
Meeting this mild-mannered foreign policy scholar at his summer home in Acoaxet, Mass., it's hard to imagine him ducking for cover in the middle of a war zone. But Chace has never been content to be an armchair intellectual, coolly surveying the chaos of world politics from his comfortable perch in rural New England. "You can't make foreign policy simply by going to conferences and seeing the same people all the time," he says. "You have to go and find out what the hell is happening."
The impulse to venture into new, sometimes perilous, territory has been a hallmark of Chace's four-decade career. In that time, Chace has not only edited some of the country's most prestigious foreign policy journals but has also written a novel, a coming-of-age memoir, five books about international relations (two of which were co-authored with Caleb Carr) and the forthcoming biography of American statesman Dean Acheson, Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World (Simon & Schuster). This comprehensive, detail-packed chronicle of Acheson's life and career is sure to stand not only as the definitive scholarly work on the subject but also as an accessible portrait of the man, narrated with all the brio of an engrossing political novel.
Chace's charming, gray-shingled house in Acoaxet -- not far from his hometown of Fall River, Mass. -- lies at the end of a dirt road, just along the shore of an estuary of the Westport River. Chace divides his time among Acoaxet, New York City and Bard College (where he teaches international relations and holds the unwieldy job title, the Henry Luce professor in freedom of inquiry and expression). Most of Acheson was written in the garage that's been transformed into an author's lair adjacent to the house -- far from the world of statesmen and great power politics. Sitting on his sunporch overlooking the serene inlet, Chace seems almost an ambassador from an earlier era, when "wise men" like Acheson -- learned, humane but determined -- designed the geopolitical infrastructure that withstood totalitarianism and preserved the free world. One phrase that Chace returns to again and again while discussing international affairs is "politics, in the deepest sense of the word," as if, in the current climate, the word itself has been devalued by partisan rancor and salacious gossip.
Ironically, Chace did not set out to become a foreign policy intellectual at all. He majored in French and Italian literature at Harvard and fancied himself a budding novelist. As editor of the literary magazine, the Harvard Advocate, he ran with a social circle he later described as "positively hostile" to politics. But after graduating from college in 1953, Chace spent three formative years in Paris -- one year on a fellowship and two years as an American soldier on loan to the French army as an interpreter.
Chace arrived in Paris, he recalls, prepared to experience a "Lost Generation" existence of love, leisure and literature and then "come back in a Fitzgeraldian, Hemingway-esque way and write a novel." But in the ideologically charged city, he became "infected by politics." The influence of engagé writers like Sartre and Camus was an epiphany. "I realized that it was possible to be a writer, a novelist, an essayist, and be deeply involved in politics." Eschewing the romantic ennui of cafe life, Chace joined student protests against the French war in Vietnam (getting beaten up by gendarmes in the process). In the army, he also met Ronald Steel and David Fromkin, two men who were to become lifelong friends -- and noted scholars of foreign policy as well. The three are often the first to blurb each other's books.
Returning to the United States in 1956, Chace wrote a novel set in Paris called The Rules of the Game (published by Doubleday to little commercial success in 1960) and then embarked on a plan to educate himself in history and politics. In 1957, his entree into the magazine industry came in the unexpected form of a job writing fashion captions for GQ. But in 1959 Chace moved to foreign policy journals, becoming associate editor of Eastern Europe, a magazine about the political and economic affairs of the Soviet bloc. Since then, he has served as managing editor of Foreign Affairs, international affairs editor of the New York Times Book Review and, currently, editor of World Policy Journal, a quarterly review that stresses the cultural and economic underpinnings of international politics.
A Family's Decline
In 1990, Summit Books published Chace's memoir, What We Had, a bittersweet tale of growing up in a once proud family humbled by economic hardship. As a boy, Chace was terrorized by an abusive older brother and felt disconnected from his alcoholic mother. The memoir -- and indeed all of Chace's writing -- is informed by a deep awareness of the power that history wields over individuals and communities. "If there's any kind of theme in my work, it's the degree to which your own formation, your own past, the past itself, can haunt one, can affect one," he says.
"I wasn't brought up with a feeling that there was a lot of hope," Chace adds. "Fall River had been a very rich, powerful city which went broke in the 1920s due to the collapse of the textile industry. It was a city haunted by the past. My family had been fairly wealthy in the 19th century and had also lost a great deal of power. It's given me a very tough-minded view of life."
It has also made Chace more of a pragmatist, a quality that helped him to appreciate Acheson and his approach to world affairs. "I felt at home with Acheson's kind of thinking. He's a realist in foreign policy, emphasizing state-to-state relations rather than moralistic universalism." They also share a passion for writing. That Acheson produced two highly regarded memoirs of his own -- Present at the Creation and Morning and Noon -- only reinforced Chace's affinity for him. "I found in him a sort of kindred spirit," Chace says.
In his own foreign policy writing, Chace seeks to bridge the divide between policy wonk and scholar by producing books that situate topical events in a larger historical context. Solvency: The Price of Survival (Random House, 1981) was a bracing appraisal of American foreign policy after the Vietnam War. The two books written with Caleb Carr, Endless War (a Vintage paperback original, 1984) and America Invulnerable (Summit, 1988), challenged Reagan administration policies by placing them in the context of wider history, from the burning of Washington in 1814 to contemporary intervention in Central America.
The friendship between the two dates back to Carr's childhood, when Chace became a kind of mentor and friend after Carr's mother divorced his father (the beatnik poet Lucien Carr, once infamously charged with a Central Park murder and harbored for awhile by Kerouac) and remarried the novelist John Speicher, a friend of Chace's. Chace fondly remembers summers in the country when Carr served as his "lieutenant" in family games of capture-the-flag. Unmarried today, Chace has three daughters of his own from previous marriages. Years later, Chace hired Carr -- then a struggling writer selling T-shirts in Central Park -- as his research assistant at Foreign Affairs, where Carr helped compile the papers of legendary Foreign Affairs editor Hamilton Fish Armstrong. He later brought Carr with him to Central America to research Endless War. Although Chace hoped the partnership might continue, "perhaps even on Acheson," he says, "Caleb decided he should go off on his own so he wouldn't be under my shadow." Given the success of Carr's two novels (The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness), it was a wise decision. Carr now treats his mentor to high-priced meals in Beverly Hills, and the two remain "extremely close."
Chace's role as both writer and editor gives him an unusual dual perspective on that creative partnership. As an editor, he has teamed up with some of the most prominent foreign affairs writers; as a writer, he has worked with such publishing luminaries as Jim Silberman, Jason Epstein, Alice Mayhew and Robert Silvers. For Chace, the key to a successful collaboration is the writer's recognition that "the editor is not the enemy. I look at editors as people who are on my side, and I've rarely had a bad experience," he says, although he notes that "some are more difficult to work with than others." Pressed to elaborate, Chace demurs with a smile, "Most of my best friends are editors."
Present at the Creation
As a young man, what impressed Chace about Acheson was not so much his policies as his presence. "He was a commanding figure, imposing, extremely well-dressed with a slightly British look to him, intimidating, a quintessential diplomat," Chace says. "He seemed to me extraordinarily powerful. And it turned out I was right -- he was extraordinarily powerful." Acheson's memoir of his State Department years is the modestly titled Present at the Creation. Chace's appraisal of Acheson is less modest. He calls him "the greatest Secretary of State of the 20th century."
For Chace, Acheson's greatness lay in his ability to react to specific crises by creating lasting institutions. He and his colleagues "were confronted with problems; they created structures. The Marshall Plan, NATO, the Truman Doctrine were responses to what they saw as an expansionist Soviet Union." These structures laid the foundation for 50 years of American foreign policy, culminating in the demise of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Chace notes that the ability to "create out of chaos the enduring structures of success" is the mark of greatness not only for statesmen but for writers. "All writers deal with chaos. If they're writing novels, they deal with the chaos of their lives and the lives of others and try to make some kind of order out of it. That's true in history or biography. The challenge is to make some sense of it, without being schematic or simplistic."
Driven by a relentless curiosity, Chace has already begun research on his next project, a study of the 1912 presidential race between Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs. The focus on domestic politics will be something of a departure for Chace, who is looking forward to the challenge.
Chace wears his 67 years so lightly that it's almost impossible to imagine him slowing down. He has often invited readers to see his own life in terms of larger political events. In Solvency, Chace compared American power in the 1950s to his own youth, writing that "both seemed limitless." In What We Had, he wrote that the "Cold War was as inevitable as middle age."
Although Chace's treatment of Acheson is largely admiring, he chides the great man for growing more rigid with age, a trait Chace has managed to avoid in his own advancing years. How does he see the current post -- Cold War era, in which he is indeed present at the creation of a new international order? "I never expected that we'd be living in this kind of world. It's the great surprise -- that the Cold War ended and transformed the world. It's as surprising as old age."