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The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They…
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The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986)

by Walter Isaacson (Author), Evan Thomas (Author), Evan Thomas

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This is the story of what became known as the "American Establishment." "Establishment" was a term that originated in England to describe a circle of powerful men. Richard Rovere has proposed that the two parties in this country are really either populist or establishment, not conservative or liberal.

The American Establishment were "Atlanticists." Their similar schooling gave them an appreciation for Western European values and the perceived benefit of a traditional Europe. They were instrumental in shepherding the Marshall Plan through a hostile Congress. They felt a cosmopolitan duty to preserve the culture and civilization of the West.
This was to become a problem many years later as Asia became the focus of U.S. concern. Francophile Acheson was fundamental in recommending support for France in its futile attempt to preserve the colonial empire. Acheson's efforts resulted in an avalanche of U.S. funding, ultimately supplying France with far more than we spent on them during the entire Marshall Plan.

The establishment is profiled through the careers of Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson. They were all intelligent, educated at elite private schools, and most came from wealthy families. The six were not ideologues, preferring to adopt a pragmatic outlook, holding moderate views and they believed in consensus. Unfortunately, their sensible world view was translated by more simplistic minds in the fifties into being "soft on communism." They were not highly visible to the public (except when McCarthy made them targets), but preferred to persuade leaders privately and intellectually. They were fervent capitalists which made McCarthy's charges against them ludicrous. They believed in a strong link between free trade, free markets and free minds.

Isaacson and Thomas fill the book with marvelous anecdotes and they describe the unique characteristics of the six lucidly and with humor. For example, Dean Acheson resigned as Under Secretary of the Treasury under FDR in a dispute over whether the United States could legally buy gold at a price higher than that set by Congress. The authors explain differences among the six this way: "Acheson's friend Harriman would never have gone to the mat over a matter of principle with a President, he would likely have sidled away from the conflict to work on problems that he would be left to solve on his own. Lovett would probably have worked out some compromise, making any mountainous dispute seem suddenly like a small bump. So, too, would have John McCloy, the legal workhorse; like Bohlen, he would have been willing to go along. Kennan would no doubt have agonized about resignation only to become lost in philosophical brooding."

I had for many years vastly misunderstood George Kennan's role in the development of the cold war. The famous "X" article, which provided the foundation for containment, was misinterpreted to create the underpinning for Nitze's NSC-68 and development of the arms race. Kennan was really arguing for a non-military, less aggressive stance. Ironically, Nitze, icon of the modern American military was adamantly opposed to U.S. entry into Vietnam because he was aware of the limited resources of the United States. Prophetic indeed.

We may owe current European unity to the efforts of John McCloy who, as High Commissioner of Germany, and its virtual czar, was an exceptionally sincere and honest broker among the war-torn nations of Europe. His word was taken with equal faith in all the capitals and he laid the foundation for the economic miracle that was to take place. (There is a new biography of McCloy out recently - it's on my list.)

By the late seventies and early eighties the Establishment was out of favor. It was blamed for the cold war, Vietnam, and assorted other blunders; but its replacement, the self-centered, undisciplined, partisan, non-professional politicians-diplomats of the Reagan-Nixon era- has historians and revisionists yearning for the old order which had been, at least, consistent, selfless, and devoted to the national interest. "There was a foreign policy consensus back then, and its disintegration during Vietnam is one of the great disasters of our history," said Henry Kissinger. "You need an Establishment. Society needs it. You can't have all these assaults on national policy so that every time you change presidents you end up changing direction."
These men were responsible for building a coalition that resulted in 40 years of Pax Americana. "They were public servants, not public figures, and did not have to read the newspapers to know where they stood....In their sense of duty and shared wisdom, they found the force to shape the world." ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
This is a very enjoyable history of the origins of the cold war and national security policy making into the 70s. It's much better at covering the period between 1944 to the mid 50s than it is for the later stuff, partly because the protagonists had a more central role earlier and then found themselves on the periphery. Discussing Vietnam policy making through the experiences of the six leaves a lot undiscussed, but it isn't bad.
The early chapters are not particularly interesting, except from the fact that they provide a vivid and surprising insight into the world of the east-coast aristocracy (1st half 20C), which is probably necessary for a full appreciation of what follows.

Apart from the less informative later chapters, the only other grievance that I can cite is the fact one does get the impression that the authors have been a little less critical of their subjects (and JFK) than is reasonable. It is also perhaps too harsh on LBJ. ( )
  cwhouston | Nov 21, 2010 |
Very good, well written. Much more gossipy than a history written by professional historians. The book ends in 1986, before the fall of the Soviet Union, so the last chapter discusses what might have been by then had a, b, c happened before. I would very much like to see a revision that includes a couple of chapters on Soviet Union break up and then a couple on the years through 9/11/2001, then a couple on the time since. But that would be a whole new book, I guess. ( )
  ebethe | Feb 27, 2009 |
I stopped in the middle. Just boring hearing about how smart they were. And what bothered me most is the pot shots they consistently took at George Kennan. They clearly don't like Kennan, but how many times do I have to hear he was a Mamma's Boy?, even if it were true.
  jmcilree | Dec 8, 2008 |
Excellent Cold War history. ( )
  gsatell | Jul 9, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Isaacson, WalterAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Thomas, EvanAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Thomas, Evanmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684837714, Paperback)

A captivating blend of personal biography and public drama, "The Wise Men" introduces the original best and brightest, leaders whose outsized personalities and actions brought order to postwar chaos: Averell Harriman, the freewheeling diplomat and Roosevelt's special envoy to Churchill and Stalin; Dean Acheson, the secretary of state who was more responsible for the Truman Doctrine than Truman and for the Marshall Plan than General Marshall; George Kennan, self-cast outsider and intellectual darling of the Washington elite; Robert Lovett, assistant secretary of war, undersecretary of state, and secretary of defense throughout the formative years of the Cold War; John McCloy, one of the nation's most influential private citizens; and Charles Bohlen, adroit diplomat and ambassador to the Soviet Union.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:29 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Six close friends shaped the role their country would play in the dangerous years following World War II. They were the original best and brightest, whose towering intellects, outsize personalities, and dramatic actions would bring order to the postwar chaos, and whose strong response to Soviet expansionism would leave a legacy that dominates American policy to this day. In April 1945, they converged to advise an untutored new president, Harry Truman. They were Averell Harriman, the freewheeling diplomat and Roosevelt's special envoy to Churchill and Stalin; Dean Acheson, the secretary of state who was more responsible for the Truman Doctrine than Truman and for the Marshall Plan than General Marshall; George Kennan, selfcast outsider and intellectual darling of the Washington elite; Robert Lovett, assistant secretary of war, undersecretary of state, and secretary of defense throughout the formative years of the Cold War; John McCloy, one of the nation's most influential private citizens; and Charles Bohlen, adroit diplomat and ambassador to the Soviet Union. Together they formulated a doctrine of Communist containment that was to be the foundation of American policy." --Front flap.… (more)

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