on January 16, 2007
In a 1996 interview with David Gergen on NPR, one of this book's central characters makes a case for, what I will hazard to suggest, is one of the authors' central views;
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you this in terms of thinking back over then of that period of American foreign policy in the last forty or fifty years, one of the ironies here is that in an age of information you suggest we have too little wisdom.
GEORGE KENNAN: Yes, I do, and one of the things that bothers me about the computer culture of the present age is that one of the things of which it seems to me we have the least need is further information. What we really need is intelligent guidance in what to do with the information we've got.
Thus The Wise Men becomes a paean to, as the authors' admit at the outset, "the twentieth-century tradition of an informal brain trust of internationalists who first served Woodrow Wilson at Versailles and returned home to found the Council on Foreign Relations, " establishing along the way, "a distinguished network connecting Wall Street, Washington, worthy foundations, and proper clubs." The polemics about where one finds wisdom aside, The Wise Men provides a fascinating and uncompromising study of the evolution of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union from the establishment of formal relations during the Roosevelt administration to Vietnam from the perspective of six of it's most significant players; Dean Acheson, Charles "Chip" Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett and John McCloy with side trips into electoral politics and the Middle East. Although I found the authors' fascination with many of these individuals' membership in Harvard's elite Porcellian and Yale's Skull and Bones clubs a bit off-putting (to say nothing of the not-so-veiled apologia for a certain social elitism . . . call me a populist), it would be difficult to find six more pivotal characters. The arguably lesser stars make significant appearances, most notably the Alsop and Bundy brothers, Clark Clifford, James Forrestal and Paul Nitze. I will even forgive the authors' treatment of one of my heroes', George Kennan's, emotional shortcomings. For those of a certain ideological bent, John Foster Dulles and Dean Rusk are not treated sympathetically. It all rings true notwithstanding and The Wise Men makes an excellent post-war study of U.S. foreign policy particularly as a counterpoint to David Halberstam's "Best and the Brightest" for those too busy or cheap to subscribe to Foreign Affairs.
on July 10, 2008
... of a ten-year-old book that shouldn't be forgotten, the "biography" of American foreign policy from the Truman years to the apotheosis of Reagan. Like most biographies, this one concentrates on the childhood of the Cold War containment/exhaustion strategy, the DNA so to speak of neo-conservatism, born of a Democratic mother and a Republican father. Any reader of my other reviews, who doubts my assertion that Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Bush were mere inheritors of a foreign policy as rigidly sustained as if by primogeniture, should take on this book as ferociously as you dare.
The six Wise Men -- McCloy, Bohlen, Acheson, Lovett, Harriman, and Kennan -- would be the last to blush at being identified as "The Greatest Generation" or "The Best and the Brightest." Their egos and their sense of elite entitlement to lead are central to their story. This is a deeper portrait of their intellectual mode than either of those two just-mentioned best-sellers. Authors Isaacson and Thomas are clearly of the same "old school" as their subjects. Their admiration is in a sense self-adulation; even when the Wise Men acknowledged errors, the very nature of their errors turned out to reflect wisdom. My own admiration for the six is considerably more limited, but it's hard to deny the authors' thesis that these Yale and Harvard whiz-kids and their colleagues were the movers-and-shakers of administration after administration. Even as some of them lost a portion of their self-assurance in light of the massive failure in Vietnam, they continued to limn the hegemonist, exceptionalist conception of America which has continued to fail up to the current massive failure in Iraq. Given that all six were perceived as "liberals" aligned with Democratic administrations, some partisans of the other party may come to this book with an established antipathy toward its subjects. All I can say to that is "read it and learn!"
on July 30, 1999
This book is fantastically interesting. The detail and the descriptions of personalities involved make the subject matter more than palatable, even to the less scholarly among us. The book is, however, very, very long and would have perhaps been better broken up into several volumes. I would characterize it as very well written, exhaustively researched, slightly fawning and uncritical at times, and, in general, well worth lugging around.
on March 17, 2006
A very interesting book, but you have to be able to read between
the lines. Isaacson paints a picture of six powerful men who did
everything they could for US and mankind in general.
Another reviewer used the words fawning and uncritical to
describe the book. Well, there is a good reason for that.
Walter Isaacson, head of Aspen Institute, is himself a member
of the same "Insider Establishment" as the six men in
For kissing up, he has also been made a member of the
powerful Council on Foreign Relations.
This book should be combined with other more critical or
even negative writings on the subject to help build a more
For example I recommend books by the late Anthony Sutton.
Averell Harriman was a particularly unsavoury character, a
notorious Bilderberger, whose nefarious machinations are
becoming more and more known to the public, even
though still much is suppressed by the media.
Some people I have talked to think that the book should be called "the Wise Guys" instead of "the Wise Men" , but personally I wouldn't go that far.
The world isn't just black and white after all. These guys
looked after their own like everybody else on the planet and maybe, just maybe, in the meantime something good came out of it.
on February 12, 2010
The Wise Men by Walter Issacson and Evan Thomas is part homage to six men they see as the founders of "Pax Americana" the post WWII US Foreign Policy and part historical survey of the world through an American, and largely Democratic lens from 1940 to the early 1980's.
Acheson, McCloy, Lovett, Harriman, Kennan and Bohlen are Issacson and Thomas's type of guys. Like the writers they are all Harvard or Yale men who joined the right clubs, followed the right career paths to law, Wall Street and national government "service". The book is split into three sections; the early years of each of the men through to 1940, then through from WWII to the end of the Truman Administration and finally the years largely out of political office during the Eisenhower 1950's and back into the fold during the 1960's with Kennedy and Johnson dealing with the Vietnam War.
The Wise Men flows smoothly is straightforward in it's presentation of the main areas where these men were most active. Dean Acheson at the State Department, Bob Lovett at Defense, John McCloy at Defense and the World Bank, Averell Harriman as a Special Envoy, Roving Ambassador and Advisor to Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, Chip Bohlen and George Kennan as early Ambassadors to the Soviet Union and leading strategists on containment and response to communism. All were critical towards designing reconstruction loans for Europe and support and implementation of the Marshall Plan.
The book covers major events of the time; the Berlin airlift, the retrenchment of the British Empire, particularly in regards to the creation of Isreal, McCarthyism, the Korean War, Eisenhower's election, Kennedy's dealings with Kruschev and the final chapters deal with the Vietnam War. With so many events there is a need for a bit more depth and context for example the arguments for how the Soviet Union viewed Poland could have been better discussed. In each key event the book could have used a paragraph to a page more to better set events in perspective.
This is an entertaining and informative read. The first half is a bit over the top in it's "we're the elite but we're just like you" tone but as each man ages and the times change the book rewards by showing more of the ups and downs in their careers and in US policy. Written in 1986 with a brief 2012 intro the book exposes just how much we have learned since the fall of the Wall and the opening of Soviet Archives. This isn't a limitation in the book but a lesson that history's great stories need regular reinterpretation.
on January 1, 2009
This was a fascinating and well-written book about six men that are probably unknown to today's general public but shaped US Foreign Policy from post WWI through Vietnam. Their lives moved through the 20th century intertwined via elite prep schools, Yale/Harvard, investment banking firms, law firms, high level cabinet roles and foreign policy posts. Their advice to the Presidents resulted in tragic wars - some right and some wrong, the strategies that prevented nuclear annihilation but also may have resulted in elongating the Cold War.
Isaacson and Thomas also provide a multi-sided view into each one's personality but especially Dean Acheson, George Kennan and Averill Harriman. We see their strengths of brilliance, integrity and deep patriotism but also their weaknesses. Kennan was overly sensitive, conducive to self-pity and had a tendency for literary flair and verbosity. Harriman became more self interested after WWII and sometimes placed politics over diplomacy. Acheson's persona came across as elitist, condescending and pompous which turned away many liberals, moderates and conservatives even when they agreed with his views.
The right schools, the right families and the right wealth played a large role in giving these six men the opportunity to shape the century. One can argue if that tradition has continued today or not. What may be different is that their vision and actions seemed to be more defined by pragmatism rather than ideology. The results are not always what we wanted but far better than the foes they battled that placed ideology over pragmatism.
This is a fascinating "collective biography" of six major, interrelated figures in the American establishment from the 1930s into the 1960s. Some might think of this as another "Best and Brightest," set earlier in time. But Halberstam's use of that term was ironic; here, the authors are not speaking ironically when they refer to the six as "the original brightest and best" (Page 19).
The beginning lays out what follows. Isaacson and Thomas observe that (Page 19): "Six friends. Their lives intertwined from childhood and schooldays, from their early days on Wall Street and in government. Now they were to be destined to be at the forefront of a remarkable transformation of American policy." They (Page 19) ". . .knew that America would have to assume the burden of a global role." And, say the authors, their (Page 19) ". . .outsized personalities and forceful actions brought order to the postwar chaos and left a legacy that dominates American policy to this day."
Those are some powerful statements. Does the book back these up? To a considerable extent, yes. But these six can hardly be said to have been the orchestrators. They were surely players, but to say that they were the architects of the American century (the title of the chapter in which these quotations are embedded) is too strong a statement.
Who were those among this sextet? George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Charles ("Chip") Bohlen, Robert Lovett, Averell Harriman, and John McCloy. From their youth, they were trained to expect doing large things. For instance, Harriman took over his father's economic empire and grew it. Later in his life, he was elected as governor of New York (only to be defeated by Nelson Rockefeller after serving one term).
The story shows the interconnections among them. Harriman coached Acheson in rowing at Yale, for instance. As they matured, they sought careers in business. Later, all became interested in public service under the FDR Administration. The book chronicles their achievements (and some failures) in considerable detail from FDR's term on. The friction that flared among some from time to time is also discussed. They played major roles in the Truman Administration.
Later, when Lyndon Johnson tried to dissect what to do in Vietnam, he held a number of meetings, in which many of the "wise men" participated. Given Halberstam's discussion of the "best and brightest" who got the country into Vietnam and couldn't figure out how to succeed there, the "wise men" were opposed and raised their questions with Johnson.
Then, their final years and their fates. . . .
I think that there could be a somewhat more critical cast to the work, but it does a great job of portraying these eminent players in American politics. If there has been an "establishment," they were surely part of that in their time. I think that the authors may overestimate their impact, but they surely made a difference.
on June 7, 2014
"The Wise Men," like Stephen Kinzer's book "The Brothers," focuses on cabinet-level US officials who played key roles in shaping American foreign policy during the period following WW II and the beginning of the Cold War. Of the two, "The Wise Men" is by far the better book -- factually more accurate and better written, with no obvious axes to grind. "The Wise Men" illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of Acheson, Kennan, McCloy et al, as well as their relationships with FDR and Truman, more convincingly and with greater clarity than Kinzer's polemic does with the Dulles brothers and Eisenhower.
on April 6, 2014
This book gives great background on very powerful men whom you may not be familiar with. It also provided a new perspective on several periods in US history such as WWII, the Korean War, etc.
I purchased this book after reading 'Truman' to learn more about the important players in his administration and was not disappointed.
on August 18, 2013
This scholarly book truly demonstrates the great power wielded by unelected men, crossing back and forth between the worlds of business and finance, military and government, and their role in the development of the National Security State and the beginning of the Cold War. My only complaint is that the book could have gone deeper into the Establishment's backing for Hitler and Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s, and more emphasis on the Dulles brothers.
Looming large during these years is John McCloy, Wall St. lawyer and banker, Asst Secretary of War, President of the World Bank, US Military Governor and High Commissioner for West Germany, foreign policy adviser, member of the Warren Commission.