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The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made

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4.07  ·  Rating details ·  2,905 ratings  ·  101 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 864 pages
Published June 4th 1997 by Simon & Schuster (first published October 1st 1986)
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Average rating 4.07  · 
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John
Mar 01, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I purchased this book at the Friends of the Library used book store at the Public Library in Laguna Beach, California. It is a formidable-looking book. I bought it mainly on the strength of one of its authors, Walter Isaacson. I have read some of his other biographies and found them very engagingly written. There is an inscription on the front flyleaf of my copy that reads, "To George & Julie Merry Xmas 1986 Hope this brings knowledge to your whole family Love Francie". The book had all the ...more
Eric_W
Nov 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
This book focuses on the Wise men in Truman Administration who were architects of US policy for the cold war. These men in addition pretty much molded cold war institutions and are the quintessential figures of the foreign policy establishment. Their most important period is the early years of the cold war during the Truman presidency although their influence would still matter throughout the cold war and Kenan outlived the Soviet Union. The book was written in the 1980s or the late stages of ...more
Caroline
Feb 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
A fascinating depiction of a world both ancient and modern, and that lies in sharp contrast to our current situation.

First of all, one notes that this was written by the elite, about the elite. The authors are both Harvard alumni, and most of the subjects went to Yale. They served in government partly out of personal satisfaction, partly as noblesse oblige. While the authors occasionally insert mild criticisms, this is almost a hagiography for six statesmen of the cold war. Nevertheless, the
...more
Jana
Aug 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
True statesmen who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. We need people like this in government today.
Aaron Million
Dec 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
Part American WWII history, part Cold War history, part biography, part discussion of the "Establishment" in mid 20th century America combine to form a well-written account of several key players in U.S. foreign policy from the 1930s-70s. Isaacson and Thomas decide to focus on six men who they believe embody the views and actions of foreign affairs during and after WWII, and on into the Vietnam War era. This book is now thirty years old, and was written right when two of the six men had just ...more
Steven Peterson
Jul 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Ted Hunt
Aug 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
I purchased this book when it was published in 1986, but never read it because I was unsure about reading a book about the Groton/Yale crowd who became the U.S. foreign policy establishment's "Wise Men." I was not interested in reading about the prep school/Ivy League world that these men emerged from, and, as expected. the book began with a thorough description of that world. However, if one gets through the first hundred pages, with its crew races and polo games, then the reader gets a superb ...more
Vivek
Oct 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in American foreign policy
This book works on two levels. On one, it is an excellent biography of six men dedicated to public service who were involved in American diplomacy during a critical time in the nation's history (WWII & the early Cold War). On another it explains how the powerful ideas (containment, anti-communism) guiding American foreign policy during the Cold War were formed and the force that these ideas took on beyond the control of their creators.

This is the best book I've read about the Cold War.
...more
Joseph Sciuto
Jul 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"The Wise Men: Six Friends and The World They Made," is an extraordinary, thought-provoking, and captivating look at the six men, most of whom were graduates of the famous Groton school and later graduates of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton who helped shape American foreign policy for way over fifty years. Often working in the private sector as bankers, Wall Street Insiders, and Railroad Tycoons they immediately responded to the call whenever their government and president sought their advice and ...more
Nicole
I can't believe it's finally over. I feel like I've been reading this book my whole life. It is so. Darn. LONG. And I like long books! Yeesh.

While interesting and thorough, I felt like I couldn't see the forest because there were just too many flippin' trees. There was just way, way too much detail. This is the second Walter Isaacson book I've read, and his writing philosophy seems to be, "If a point is worth making, it's worth belaboring." Not only was the mind-numbingly comprehensive
...more
Lauren Hiebner
Mar 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: owned
This is an amazing story about the origins and early years of the Cold War as told through the lives of six individuals who shaped US foreign policy during the 1930s - 1960s. The book begins with a brief biography of all six and identifies their relationships with each other from college days on. These six men; two bankers, two lawyers, and two diplomats not only shaped US foreign policy but implemented it as well. Their Cold War policy went from wartime collaboration with the Soviets to a ...more
Book Dragon
Jan 01, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: biographies
This book provides a good overview of American foreign policy. These wise men who became part of the establishment dedicate themselves to public service and help navigate United States foreign policies through World War II, Soviet containment during the Cold War years, Arab Israeli conflict and the Vietnam war. After reading this book one may be more appreciative of the effort put forth by public service personnel to make any policy a “fait accompli”. A country’s political dogma needs to be ...more
Maria
Isaacson traces the careers and personalities of six men of the "political establishment." Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, and Charles Bohlen served 4 administrations and advised 2 more. Their outlook, assumptions and experience shaped the American century, rebuilt Europe and mired the country in 2 land wars in Asia.

Why I started this book: The title caught my eye as I was browsing my library's Overdrive collection. After waiting on hold for months, it
...more
Sean O
May 18, 2019 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned-books
Right now it's a lot about "Look at this six rich white men and how they got that way" (spoiler: they were mostly born rich white men.)

I will be more interested once they get into their "let's stop the USSR" jobs, but right now I'm a little bored with it.
Jared
Nov 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
WHAT DID THE WISE MEN DO?
- Yet collectively, this small group of men, and those who emulated their example, brought to the immense task just the right mixture of vision and practicality, aggressiveness and patience. They came together at one of those moments in history when time and place, upbringing and character, fuse into a kind of critical mass, and give ordinary men the power to forever change the way things are.
- The motives and wisdom of the old foreign policy elite can be fairly debated,
...more
Cliff
Oct 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is, without a doubt, one of the best, easiest to read yet incredibly deep and detailed, history books I've ever read. Yet it's more than that. It's also book about diplomacy and how it's done, about relationships between friends, foes, rivals, and more. It's about how Washington works, or at least worked, and what it means for those who play the game.

The book undoubtedly admirers the six men involved, Dean Acheson, Charles E. Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, and John
...more
John Ross
Mar 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
An excellent book overall. (However, I didn't realize before I read it -- because I read it on Kindle -- that it was 800+ pages long!) The authors took the biographical approach to six individuals who were the "friends" who influenced on different levels and in different ways the foreign policy of the United States from the eras of Franklin Roosevelt though Ronald Reagan. Treating it as a series of interwoven biographies was an effective approach to the subject and to the men themselves. These ...more
Sarah
Dec 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I read this book a long time ago, and it was interesting to see how my perspective on these men and their effect on foreign policy in particular has changed. This is still, in my opinion, a well researched and well written book, and while not perfectly balanced, Isaacson presents fairly balanced very of men who he clearly admired greatly.

The author does a very detailed job in explaining the webs that connect these men to each other, and to other people of power, and how those webs allowed them
...more
Kent
Oct 31, 2008 rated it really liked it
A portrait of The Establishment: the men--estrogen levels all but undetectable in this circle--responsible for defining the international role America was to play following the second world war. Very well written, and not an easy task, I imagine, intertwining the biographies of six men. It did take me a while to get a handle on the dramatis personae, though. At first, I was a bit dismayed that there was so little reference to the domestic situation of the times until I realized to what extent US ...more
Kenneth
Jul 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
Court History that shows that even at the height of democratic success in America (contrary to popular perception) relatively few individuals actually ruled the State in ways largely unbeknownst to the general public (who were mostly content not knowing having “authorized” those in office via elections).

Fast read despite the length. Covers the full gamut of history in the 20th century. The first chapters, in particular, are of interest in explaining the rise to power of the six men discussed,
...more
Ellis Katz
May 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
What a great book! The authors give us a sympathetic, yet frank study of the six men who dominated American foreign policy making from the 1930s through the 1950s. Dean Acheson, Chip Bphlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett and John McCloy constituted a foreign policy elite that crossed institutional lines to shape our policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War Era. This is not to say that thy always agreed with each other. Indeed they they had some pretty nasty fights, ...more
Harold
Sep 26, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
I bought this because it is co-written by Walter Isaacson, who wrote the Jobs biography, and a wonderful book on Kissinger.

I got about half way through. It is the six biographies of men I vaguely remember as being aging luminaries when I was a child. Unfortunately the idea of a 6 person biography (instead of a diplomatic history of the period) doesn't work. None of them was important or interesting enough for me to want to read about their formative years (but I did). And as adults, I couldn't
...more
Ben
Sep 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
From 1930 to 1970 (excepting the Eisenhower years), the true architects of American foreign policy were six men who are virtually forgotten to history: Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, Bob Lovett, and John McCloy. These diplomats, bankers, and lawyers influenced FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ, created the Marshall Plan, fought the Cold War, and managed Korea and Vietnam. This book is long and can't make its central characters quite as colorful as the more well known ...more
Zach
Oct 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Truly, a remarkable tour de force by Isaacson and Thomas about the six men that shaped the post-World War II world and the Pax Americana. If one wants to find out how the world got to where it was during the Cold War, read this book. For a Cold War enthusiast like myself and someone who wrote their master's thesis on NATO, this book really allowed me to see deeper into how these six men pushed America to become the indispensable nation that it is today. There are great thinkers in foreign policy ...more
Christopher
Apr 10, 2007 marked it as to-read
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
...more
Chris Bartholomew
Nov 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An exceptionally good book about a group of men in positions of power and influence from the close of WWII up until the Nixon years. It mostly revolves around Dean Achenson, George Kennan, John McCloy, Averell Harriman and Charles Bolhlen. All were instrumental in reshaping both U.S. policy and the future of Europe after the war. They remained over sized figures through both the Korean and Vietnam wars. The authors did a great job covering a lot of ground.
Washington Post
Jul 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A study of the men who advised Harry Truman about how to rebuild Europe and contain communism in the years after World War II.

“Washington was filled with excitement that sunny Monday: Dwight Eisenhower, the returning hero, was greeted by the largest crowds in the city’s history as he paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. Wedged into Truman’s afternoon schedule — between lunches and dinners and other ceremonies honoring Eisenhower — was the meeting on Japanese strategy.”
Leah W
Jul 29, 2008 marked it as to-read
1/17/09: I haven't finished anything to justify starting another (huge!) book, but I'm reading this in celebration of smart people being involved in government again (and for that matter, as a reminder that smart, well-meaning people in government can't always guarantee the outcome you'd like to see).
Cathy
Jan 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
I am fascinated by Isaacson's in-depth details of pre- and post- WWII government in the U.S. He takes six men who were highly instrumental in rebuilding post-war Europe and gives really good details of both their successes and failures as well as their personal background. You also get a glimpse into Turman's courage in some of his decisions.
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Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of "Time" magazine. He is the author of "Steve Jobs"; "Einstein: His Life and Universe"; "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life"; and "Kissinger: A Biography," and the coauthor of "The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made." He lives in Washington, DC.
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