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

by Walter Isaacson, Evan Thomas (Author)

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5651033,352 (4.24)9
This book is a collective biography of the best and brightest men in government and their foreign policies which dominate our actions to this day. It includes data on World War II diplomacy, the Cold War, Communist containment, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, Kennedy and Johnson diplomacy, and Vietnam War diplomacy. A blend of personal biography and public drama, it 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.… (more)
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  pszolovits | Feb 3, 2021 |

Who Are the Wise of Our Day?

Every once in a while you get a chance to read a book or watch a movie that you just never seemed to get around to. Some thirty plus years since it was first published in 1986, I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. It is as good a read today as the day it first came off the press, and is instructive in the similarities and contrasts of their time to this time. Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, John McCloy, and Charles Bohlen played pivotal roles at a pivotal time in modern history. Most were born to Ivy League privilege, some came from more humble backgrounds. Dean Acheson’s memoir is titled “Present at the Creation,” an appropriate tag for each of these giants who helped guide America through WWII and who, in various ways and not always in agreement, were the architects of the post-war period. Harriman was the consummate diplomat, Kennan saw into the Soviet psyche with prescience, and McCloy was the “fixer” of the bunch. One managed the Berlin airlift and another the Marshall Plan that put Europe back on its feet. They were bankers, lawyers, industrialists and such who believed that their privilege and position carried a responsibility of service.

When one considers the depth of these men against the times and trials they lived it is inspiring and sobering. Inspiring because of their commitment to the nation and world, sobering when one compares them against the likes of today’s political operators. This is not to say they were perfect or without ambition. One was known for his condescending arrogance, another for his insecurity, they were on occasion rivals, sometimes quarreled, and could be petty; but they always answered the call when it came. Together they comprised a team of statesmen, operators, policy wonks, and technocrats who were exactly what we needed when we needed them. They had entrée to presidents, prime ministers, and even Joseph Stalin based simply on their character, integrity, and wisdom. They helped usher the west through the war and its aftermath, securing the opportunity for unparalleled growth of freedom in a time fraught with geopolitical tension and uncertainties, even as freedom’s opposite grew more menacing by the day. Did they get it right every time? No. But the world is a better place than it could have been because they were true to their passion and calling.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Typical of most Walter Isaacson projects it is not a short book, which one would not expect given the subjects and their import. It is full of rich detail of the geopolitical times they lived in, which the reader will come to understand as not so different from our own, and the relationships that were so important. They were not homogenous in personality or politics, but this they did have in common – love of country and a willingness to put its needs before their own. They also had the benefit of not living in an era of 24-hour news cycles and social media, which allowed them to do the serious work of understanding the most complex and critical issues of their day and exercising diplomacy in a quiet, deliberate, and respectful manner. Imagine that.

For more, check out my blog at https://kburkhalter.com/blog/
( )
  PCHcruzr | Oct 7, 2019 |
Joint biography of Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson
  GSHale | Jun 22, 2019 |
Truly remarkab!e people ( )
  ibkennedy | May 12, 2018 |
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." ( )
2 vote ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986). Isaacson and Thomas tell the story of six men who shaped American policy during the early Cold War years: Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state and the author of my favorite Cold War memoir, Present at the Creation; Charles “Chip” Bohlen, long-time diplomat and Soviet expert; Averell Harriman, Franklin Roosevelt’s special envoy to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin; George Kennan, the foreign service officer whose “Long Telegram” and “X article” laid down the basic outlines of U.S. containment policy; Robert Lovett, Truman’s secretary of defense; and John McCloy, a lawyer who served Democratic and Republican presidents in a variety of diplomatic capacities (and who, in the interest of full disclosure, was chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations from 1953-1970).
 

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Isaacson, WalterAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Thomas, EvanAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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This book is a collective biography of the best and brightest men in government and their foreign policies which dominate our actions to this day. It includes data on World War II diplomacy, the Cold War, Communist containment, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, Kennedy and Johnson diplomacy, and Vietnam War diplomacy. A blend of personal biography and public drama, it 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.

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