Review of “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made,” by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas

The Wise Men is the massive professional biography of Jack McCloy, Chuck Bohlen, Dean Acheson, Bob Lovett, George Kennan, and Averell Harriman. Written largely as a series of episodes revolving around the Groton School, Yale University, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the book tells the story of the old American foreign police elite, and has relevant for current trends.

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The history presented is detailed, ponderous, and heavily implies access to the personal journals of either these men, or of those around them. In the same way that Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs appeared to rely on personal access while not simply repeated what was said before, The Wise Men provided much more depth for the American foreign policy elite than I had before. I’ve read much more on the Chinese polite elite — Jie Chauzhu, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Chiang Kai-shek, and so on, and The Wise Men gives me a frame to drape knowledge of elite events on the eastern side of the Pacific in that period.

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Which would bring me to a first criticism. Both the characters and the authors go out of their way to dismiss the Asian theater, both in the Second World War and the Cold War. China is viewed as a distracting, “land war in Asia” is an insult never given context, and it’s clear the wars in Asia are most regrettable because they placed US foreign policy on a backwards and irrelevant continent. “Republicans” and “isolationists” (always so called) who wanted to focus US foreign policy on protecting Asia from communism are the most two-dimensional characters in the book. At times this Eurocentric focus is plainly stated, but its never explained or contextualized beyond the superficial level.

It’s hard for me to understand these “Wise Men,” because their faults do not fit into neat categories. In many ways they are White Protestant nationalists, they look down on Jews and Catholics and Asians in equal order. McCloy in particular has a horrific involvement with the survival of the death camps in Germany and the construction of the internment camps in the U.S., and Harriman and the rest do not lose sleep over the crushing of central Europe or Asia. But this ethnocentrism does not seem to extend to any policy recommendations for the suppression of non White Protestant populations within the United States. Perhaps a comparison might be made of the Roman Senatorial elite, a small Italian nobility that magnanimously ruled over subject populations from the Iberians to the Jews. I don’t know, and this likewise is not explored.

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The final chapter of the book, “The Last Supper of the Wise Men,” tries to shoehorn an elegy for the old foreign policy elite. It falls flat (not the least because the combined efforts of the disdained Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administration would win the cold war months after the book was published!). But there’s something to this. Isaacson and Thomas note that even the “poorest” of the wise men had second homes and personal servants. Some of this is a function of the economic development of the time. But as well, The Wise Men is the story of an elite being swept away, as an elite is being swept away in our times.

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I write this in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. The last three years have seen three elite failures in the west: the gamergate revolt in hobbyist journalism, the Brexit polling debacle, the Republican primary prediction debacle, and the general election polling debacle. These are the results of the economic collapse of the old media elite, which had lead to hiring and publication decisions which encourage low-skill analysts and click-bait headlines.

The Wise Men describes a different elite — foreign policy instead of journalism — but at the dawn of the professional class. Men like Harriman had no need for income from their work. Instead, power was a hobby, for those rich enough to afford it. We are entering that world again — the Washington Post is a hobby of Amazon-founded Jeff Bezos, and for a time The New Republic was the toy of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. If these men allow their children to inherit vast wealth, the world of that generation will be the world of Averell Harriman.

It’s hard to recommend The Wise Men because it is a very slow read — It took me 14 months to muscle through it on unabridged Audible. But it’s a fascinating look at a world that once was, and may be again.

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