Steven Peterson's Reviews > The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made

The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson
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Jul 05, 09

Read in January, 2009

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.
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