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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Goodreads | The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made by Walter Isaacson - Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists

Goodreads | The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made by Walter Isaacson - Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists:


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 instrumental in shepherding the Marshall Plan through a hostile Congress. They felt a cosmopolitan duty to preserve the culture and civilization of the West.
This was to become a problem many years later as Asia became the focus of U.S. concern. Francophile Acheson was fundamental in recommending support for France in its futile attempt to preserve the colonial empire. Acheson's efforts resulted in an avalanche of U.S. funding, ultimately supplying France with far more than we spent on them during the entire Marshall Plan.

     The establishment is profiled through the careers of Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson. They were all intelligent, educated at elite private schools, and most came from wealthy families. The six were not ideologues, preferring to adopt a pragmatic outlook, holding moderate views and they believed in consensus. Unfortunately, their sensible world view was translated by more simplistic minds in the fifties into being "soft on communism." They were not highly visible to the public (except when McCarthy made them targets), but preferred to persuade leaders privately and intellectually. They were fervent capitalists which made McCarthy's charges against them ludicrous. They believed in a strong link between free trade, free markets and free minds.

Isaacson and Thomas fill the book with marvelous anecdotes and they describe the unique characteristics of the six lucidly and with humor. For example, Dean Acheson resigned as Under Secretary of the Treasury under FDR in a dispute over whether the United States could legally buy gold at a price higher than that set by Congress. The authors explain differences among the six this way: "Acheson's friend Harriman would never have gone to the mat over a matter of principle with a President, he would likely have sidled away from the conflict to work on problems that he would be left to solve on his own. Lovett would probably have worked out some compromise, making any mountainous dispute seem suddenly like a small bump. So, too, would have John McCloy, the legal workhorse; like Bohlen, he would have been willing to go along. Kennan would no doubt have agonized about resignation only to become lost in philosophical brooding."

     I had for many years vastly misunderstood George Kennan's role in the development of the cold war. The famous "X" article, which provided the foundation for containment, was misinterpreted to create the underpinning for Nitze's NSC-68 and development of the arms race. Kennan was really arguing for a non-military, less aggressive stance. Ironically, Nitze, icon of the modern American military was adamantly opposed to U.S. entry into Vietnam because he was aware of the limited resources of the United States. Prophetic indeed.

We may owe current European unity to the efforts of John McCloy who, as High Commissioner of Germany, and its virtual czar, was an exceptionally sincere and honest broker among the war-torn nations of Europe. His word was taken with equal faith in all the capitals and he laid the foundation for the economic miracle that was to take place. (There is a new biography of McCloy out recently - it's on my list.)

By the late seventies and early eighties the Establishment was out of favor. It was blamed for the cold war, Vietnam, and assorted other blunders; but its replacement, the self-centered, undisciplined, partisan, non-professional politicians-diplomats of the Reagan-Nixon era- has historians and revisionists yearning for the old order which had been, at least, consistent, selfless, and devoted to the national interest. "There was a foreign policy consensus back then, and its disintegration during Vietnam is one of the great disasters of our history," said Henry Kissinger. "You need an Establishment. Society needs it. You can't have all these assaults on national policy so that every time you change presidents you end up changing direction."
These men were responsible for building a coalition that resulted in 40+ years of Pax Americana. "They were public servants, not public figures, and did not have to read the newspapers to know where they stood....In their sense of duty and shared wisdom, they found the force to shape the world."


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