The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made

In This Review

The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made

by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas
Simon & Schuster, 1986
788 pp. $22.95

In 1986 two great statesmen died, W. Averell Harriman and Robert A. Lovett. Their passing underlines the theme of this book about "six friends and the world they made." Of the other four, Dean G. Acheson, Charles E. (Chip) Bohlen, John J. McCloy and George F. Kennan, only the latter two are still with us. This book, therefore, is about a specific era in U.S. history, the era of America's emergence as a postwar superpower, of the cold war and the war in Vietnam. The substantive narrative ends in March 1968 with the last meeting of the six in Washington as Lyndon Johnson's Wise Men-which the authors describe as the "last supper"-and the dismantling of the Establishment.

Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, young editors at Time, come from a generation-perhaps two-after their "Wise Men." They have undertaken an awesome task. The book is a narrative history; but neither far enough in the past to have matured as history nor current enough to be yesterday's news. The style wobbles from the journalistic interview to the documentary, from biography to diplomatic analysis.

One of the book's major tenets is that these six men came from similar backgrounds, grew up in the same environment and shared common views of the world, thus forming a unique association in public affairs. Of course to some extent this is true, but one might question how significant it was in terms of their impact on history. Three of the six, Harriman, Lovett and Acheson, were indeed of the same age and lived closely related lives prior to World War II. The other three, McCloy, Kennan and Bohlen, were younger and did not know the older men or each other well until their public lives threw them together.

The importance of the book has to do with its timing and, within the limits imposed by literary technique and scope, its accuracy. The section on the decision in 1945 to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, for instance, tracks remarkably well the testimony of a contemporary witness to the decision, Lewis L. Strauss,1 although Messrs. Isaacson and Evans do not appear to have consulted this admirable account.

It is the timing of the book's appearance that makes it so important. For about half of the period it covers, the American public has been subjected to an outpouring from academia of revisionist, quasi-historical polemics on the cold war period. Fewer and fewer balanced accounts appeared, and one began to wonder whether future generations would be forever burdened with a highly politicized and distorted account of America's actions and reactions in the face of Soviet efforts to achieve a menacing hegemony in the postwar world. Revisionists seemed, to many who were involved in the period, to have decided that the motivations of American leadership were almost always impure and even sinister. This book revises the revisionist record and does a lot to bring it back into balance. It is by no means a whitewash. Except for the authors' somewhat romantic impression of the Establishment, it is from the point of view of one who lived most of the reported events a sober and straightforward account of what actually happened and why. It is a tonic, long overdue.

It is also biography. Harriman and Acheson are the main actors by reason of their positions and, in Harriman's case, his extraordinary length of public service. To readers who knew them and the other four heroes, the book adds some anecdotal insights.2 To those who did not, however, it may raise some difficult questions about men in U.S. public life. With the exception of George Kennan, these men were not intellectuals, nor, with the exception of Harriman, did they ever hold elective office. Yet their integrity, their clear-minded view of the foreign problems they were facing and their intelligent restraint in reacting to them have not been discernible in the last twenty years of American leadership. Isaacson and Evans give full marks for this, but in order to balance the equation, they seem to feel it necessary from time to time to point out that Harriman and Lovett (the others were never in a position to be so accused) did not leave their partnerships in Brown Brothers Harriman and therefore must have profited somehow from a conflict of interest. As the authors point out, this is an issue that was never raised during the careers of the two men. Indeed, in his 1954 campaign for the governorship of New York, Harriman was accused by his Republican opponent, Irving Ives, of having been careless in business and responsible for several corporate failures as an investment banker. In fact, Harriman, as a limited partner, paid little attention to the affairs of Brown Brothers during the last 30-odd years of his public life. Today, however, even such a limited association while in public service would be impossible. Appearances seem to count more than substance.

Where and how is the government to find and attract men and women of experience and judgment to fill its top policymaking positions? It has always been something of an earnings sacrifice to accept a governmental appointment; today it is also likely to be a capital sacrifice. When added to the other costs and the loss of privacy, the impediments become quite serious. Perhaps this is why policy positions in foreign affairs are filled more and more with people from academic life and the military services. Recent history suggests the results are not always good. One wonders whether professionals from the Foreign Service can take up the slack. Two of the Wise Men, Kennan and Bohlen, were just such people. One might question whether the Foreign Service today, in light of the past career experiences of its senior officers, can attract such ability. The fact, which emerges only obscurely from the book, is that despite their very great talents, neither Kennan nor Bohlen played or could have played leadership roles in policy formation during their service. As often as not, their very sound views were ignored or at the least not accepted until long after they were expressed.

The book leaves one with a slightly depressed feeling. An era has ended, its heroes are gone and the future is unclear. If one takes a Tolstovian view of history, one could conclude that it was the great events of the times which thrust these six men to the front pages of history, and that actually they were the result, not the cause, of the events. But this is an un-American view. We believe in the role of the individual and we still struggle to find the best to manage our great affairs. In this context the book does a great service. It restores balance to our recent history, and some sheen to its heroes. It may generate a much-needed movement to correct revisionist history. It should be read.

2 One of the best of these appears early in the book. Harriman is reported, at age 13, to have written his father a letter describing Groton's Endicott Peabody, "You know he would be an awful bully if he wasn't such a terrible Christian."