The Wise Men is designed to provide an inside look at the personalities, background, and quirks of the six men the authors believe were most influential in the American development of Cold War diplomacy and policy. It certainly succeeds at providing what feels like an intimate look into the lives and actions of several key figures in the U.S. State Department from World War II until their retirement from public life during the Vietnam era. Isaacson and Thomas choose George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, Robert Lovett, Averill Harriman, and John McCloy as their subjects for approaching the period, and if their stance that these six men were the catalysts behind U.S. relations with the Soviet Union during their government service is accepted, their work is invaluable.
The Wise Men makes a case that is often dismissed in this post-modern time; that individuals and small groups can make an indelible mark on the history of the world, changing the direction of peoples and nations. The subjects of The Wise Men, according to Isaacson and Thomas, were able to exert such influence because of their background, dedication, and the virtue of being the men on the spot. All of this was made possible by the long domination of American politics by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, and the Eastern Establishment. This political environment mixed with the personalities of the men Isaacson and Thomas describe as six friends to forge the Anglo-American-Soviet Alliance of World War II and the uneasy peace of the Cold War afterward.
Isaacson and Thomas start with a quick introductory paragraph describing each of their protagonists and their role in shaping the foreign affairs paradigms of the later 20th century. This serves as a useful introduction to the cast of The Wise Men, particularly for those of us young enough to have no memory of any of the events of the early portion of the Cold War. These introductions would not be enough on their own to provide sufficient background on these men for any real understanding of their motives and intentions, but they provide a good explanation for their inclusion in the work. This is no random selection of six friends who worked in government, but the leading men of their generation.
In addition to the profiles of the cast of characters, Isaacson and Thomas provide a brief discussion of the concept of the “American” or “Eastern” Establishment. The authors define the “Establishment” as the men who created and controlled a “distinguished network connecting Wall Street, Washington, worthy foundations, and Proper clubs” in as endeavor to serve the nation. Further, those who made up the Establishment rejected ideological divisiveness, preferring “pragmatism, realpolitik, moderation, and consensus.” If any ideological strain is assigned to the “Establishment” by the authors it is one opposing isolationism and looking toward Europe as the most important region of the world. This group, according to Isaacson and Thomas possessed a more sophisticated variant of the 19th Century Manifest Destiny: they believed that it was America’s destiny to lead the world into a brighter, freer age of free trade and free men.
The themes of The Wise Men are complex to divine. It is equally plausible to interpret the text as advocating that foreign policy be entrusted to a benign oligarchy that is free of ideological interests, counting on their sense of honor and dignity, inherited from family, friends, and like-minded educational institutions, as it is to say that Isaacson and Thomas are adherents to the belief that individuals and small groups have a major impact on global events. As the authors admit, this is a controversial stance that may not see any general acceptance in the near future. Finally, The Wise Men attributes the policy of containment, including missteps and unforeseen consequences to these six friends. The problem with this tactic is that while it acknowledges their role is developing and promoting the theory of containment as applied to the Soviet Union, it ignores the role of the various Presidents and Congressmen in accepting and pursuing containment.
Because their thesis is that Harriman, Kennan, Bohlen, McCloy, Acheson, and Lovett played such a decisive role in formulating American policy in the post-war era because of their particular background, especially schooling, Isaacson and Thomas begin by examining their families, early lives and careers. Averell Harriman is a good example of this strategy.
Harriman’s family arrived in Connecticut in 1795 from London. His grandfather was an Episcopal minister, who began his career teaching in mining camps in California before returning to a more stable position in New Jersey. Averell’s father, E.H. Harriman rejected the religious life and became a messenger for a Wall Street brokerage firm after dropping out of school. After buying a seat on the Stock Exchange and garnering wealthy and prominent clients, E.H married a railroad heiress and began accumulating his own rail lines through market speculation, ultimately coming to control the Union-Pacific Railroad. From his father, the authors claim, Averrell gained much of his personality and world-view, describing both as “blunt and unvarnished.” From E.H., Averrell also learned the philosophy that, “Great wealth is an obligation and responsibility. Money must work for the country.” A further example of this attitude of helping society is E.H. Harriman’s comment to John Muir that “I have never cared for money except as a power to put into work. What I enjoy most is the power of creation, getting into partnership with nature and doing good, helping to feed man and beast, and making everybody and everything a little better and happier.”
The next piece of the portrait of Averell Harriman provided is his schooling at Groton, and experience shared by at least one of the other “Wise Men”, Dean Acheson. Isaacson describe Groton as the Eton of New England, having been established to model the English public school system. As such it was rigidly disciplined and emphasized sportsmanship over scholarship. The curriculum leaned toward a “classic” education, emphasizing Latin, Greek, ancient history, and European studies. Applied to the thesis of The Wise Men, Groton’s most important role was its emphasis on public service, as indicated by Theodore Roosevelt’s message to students that “much has been given you. Therefore we have a right to expect much from you.”
An important aspect of Isaacson and Thomas’ thesis is that the Eastern Establishment was in part merit based, that outsiders could be adopted in if they demonstrated common values, dedication, and ability. The Wise Men provides a shining example of this in the form of John McCloy. After McCloy’s father and brother died when he was six, his mother became determined that he would become part of the “world of wealth and power she admired from her vantage as a hairdresser.” Mrs. McCloy made sure to introduce her son to her wealthy clients, and chose summer jobs for him that kept him in close contact with the wealthier portions of Philadelphia society. Anxious that a public school education would not be rigorous enough to boost McCloy to the heights she dreamt of, she saved money and sent him to a series of “inexpensive” preparatory schools that landed him a scholarship to Amherst. While at Amherst he spent summers in Maine’s resort areas teaching history, sailing, and tennis to children of great families. Amherst led him to Harvard Law School, but WWI interrupted his education at Harvard. He returned to Harvard after the war, and upon graduation, set his sights on Wall Street, which seemed more interesting than private practice in Philadelphia.
Isaacson and Thomas continue to follow their subjects through what could easily be described as their “early” careers in business, law, and the Foreign Service. The time period of booming business and the endeavors of these paragons of the Establishment serve as an early indicator of the type of policies they will pursue when they occupy offices at the State Department during and after WWII. The first example provided is that of Averrell Harriman’s shipping venture with Germany at the end of WWI and his mining concession in the Soviet Union. Both ventures came at a time when the United States had not established normal relations with either country. It is easy, if simplistic, to dismiss these ventures as mere money making schemes, but they also show an understanding for the need to rebuild Europe and establish ties with foreign powers for the good of all, which would find its culmination in the Marshall Plan after WWII. (Isaacson and Thomas, 122) The deal with Soviets led to skepticism about the Soviet system, but the deal Harriman made to end the mining concession allowed the Soviets to claim they were a good credit risk and enabled Harriman to claim he understood Soviet-American negotiations better than anyone else.
Isaacson and Thomas round out the early part of The Wise Men with Chip Bohlen and George Kennan’s entry into the Foreign Service. George Kennan arguably had the largest impact on the development of the early years of the Cold War with his “Long Memo” and anonymous article for Foreign Affairs stated baldy that the Soviet Union was a threat to world peace and that the appropriate reaction was to meet the Soviets at every turn with diplomatic, political, and military force. Isaacson and Thomas show the seeds of his perception of the Soviet Union in their discussion of his and Chip Bohlen’s early careers with the Foreign Service.
Even if everything else in the text is ignored, The Wise Men proves its worth by presenting the source of George Kennan’s animosity toward the Soviet Union. Kennan and Bohlen were chosen as two of the first Foreign Service Officers to enter a program designed to create Soviet specialists. The program included a three-year course of study in Europe followed by additional training. Kennan chose the Oriental Seminary of the University of Berlin, which Isaacson and Thomas claim as the source of Kennan’s belief in realpolitik and pragmatism in diplomacy. In Berlin, instructors who specialized in the czarist era and Russian refugees, which colored his opinions against the Soviets, taught Kennan. This exposure enhanced the feeling of “foreboding” he felt upon seeing his first Communist demonstration in Hamburg.
Where others place the antagonism of U.S. diplomats toward the Soviet Union to the period after diplomatic recognition of the Soviets in the late 1930s, Isaacson and Thomas place this change in attitude much earlier, stating that by 1930, Kennan was already a hard-liner on the Soviets. The 1947 Long Memo was hardly the first Kennan paper, with his first official report in 1931 advocating that Americans who spread anti-American propaganda overseas lose their citizenship benefits. Kennan also believed, in the early 1930s, that the Soviet and American systems were so completely incompatible that any long term relationship was questionable, particularly in economic terms.
Isaacson and Thomas have clearly provided the background that makes it possible to understand many of the decisions made between regarding American foreign policy and the Cold War, including the Vietnam War. They also provide important insight to the inner workings of foreign policy decision-making during the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations, particularly the effects of political infighting and domestic politics. Examples from each administration illustrate the highs and lows of The Wise Men’s six friends.
During his presidency, FDR preferred to make foreign policy decisions himself and maintained the belief that the Big Three could continue their alliance in the post-war period to ensure peace around the world. The philosophy was based on a generous assessment of Stalin and the Soviet system as non-threatening to the United States or Europe. During the war this could easily be seen as simply pragmatic, but Kennan and Harriman disagreed with this policy, with Kennan contending that even trying to maintain a post-war Grand Alliance was “hopelessly naïve” and that the United States should force its wishes upon the Soviets when possible and not waste the effort in areas where they were helpless. The Polish issue further enhanced Kennan’s belief that the Soviets were interested expansion along traditional Russian imperialist lines.
According to Isaacson and Thomas, the Truman Administration was beset by a radically different set of foreign policy challenges, at least from the point of view of Foreign Service Officers and Ambassadors. The new President had only been Vice President for 90 days when FDR died, and his only trip outside the United States was his service during WWI. The effect of this was that Truman had little knowledge of foreign affairs, no knowledge of the Manhattan Project, and no exposure to Churchill or Stalin. Luckily for Dean Acheson and the others, the new President was willing to learn and take decisive action based on what he learned. Truman also had strongly held foreign policy ideals not evidenced in the policies of FDR, “I’ve no faith in any totalitarian state, be it Russian, German, Spanish, Argentinean, Dago, or Japanese?” while continuing to support the Grand Alliance with Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Unlike FDR, Truman utilized his advisors assiduously to navigate the crises of hi first thirty days: a visit by Molotov demanding recognition for the Soviet puppet in Poland, the public rift between the Allies, the decision to test the atomic bomb, the end of the war in Europe, and the question of whether Soviet intervention against Japan was desirable. The arrival of a new President, say Isaacson and Thomas, allowed the State Department to finally warn the Chief Executive of problem areas around the world, especially those concerning Soviet expansion in Europe. In a stark contrast to FDR, Truman saw the question of Poland in moral terms, a relief to Chip Bohlen. Clearly the six men that are the subject of The Wise Men would have a larger level of influence with the new President.
The Korean War is probably the best example, other than the larger policy of containment, of the influence of the six friends of The Wise Men at the height of their careers in government service. Although, as Secretary of State, Dean Acheson did little to control General MacArthur’s offensive into North Korea due to domestic political considerations, he was the only White House adviser to insist that the U.S. could not give up hope in Korea. He bullied the Generals of the Joint Chiefs when they claimed they needed a cease fire to withdraw American troops, saying that “There is a great danger of our becoming the greatest appeasers of all time if we abandon the Koreans and they are slaughtered; if there is a Dunkirk and we are forced out, it is a disaster, but not a disgraceful one.” Truman later admitted that Acheson’s resolve on Korea helped him stand firm and continue the war.
It is difficult to find fault with Isaacson and Thomas’ work in The Wise Men, but not impossible. One issue is that it sometimes feels like the authors focus is not so much on describing what happened during the early Cold War years as justifying the decisions that were made. An example of this is the continued emphasis on George Kennan’s discomfort with the use to which his strategy of containment had been put. Isaacson and Thomas continue to harp on this topic, emphasizing first that Kennan intended containment to be a primarily diplomatic and political doctrine that was perverted into a solely military one resulting in the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Although they admit that Kennan was far more interested in writing great literary documents rather than straightforward reports appropriate for a Foreign Service Officer, they rarely lay the blame for the misinterpretations of his Long Telegram or X article at his feet.
The lack of criticism runs throughout the text, and this may be by design. If the objective of The Wise Men is to provide an in-depth description of events and the character of the men involved in them, Isaacson and Thomas certainly fulfill that goal. The lack of substantial criticism sometimes makes the text feel like Isaacson and Thomas are cheerleaders despite the faux pas of their main characters. This extends from the “literary” reports of Kennan to Acheson’s unfortunate defense of Alger Hiss, which hamstrung many of his efforts. It is possible that Isaacson and Thomas meant for their criticism to be implicit in the text by completely illustrating all of the actions, comments, and occasional failures of the “six friends”. If this is the case their success is tremendous.