Every once in a while you get a chance to read a book or watch a movie that you just never seemed to get around to. Some thirty plus years since it was first published in 1986, I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. It is as good a read today as the day it came off the presses and is instructive in the similarities and contrasts of their time to this time. Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, John McCloy, and Charles Bohlen played pivotal roles at a pivotal time in modern history. Most were born to Ivy League privilege, some came from more humble backgrounds. Dean Acheson’s memoir is titled “Present at the Creation,” an appropriate tag for each of these giants who helped guide America through WWII and who, in various ways and not always in agreement, were the architects of the post-war period. Harriman was the consummate diplomat, Kennan saw into the Soviet psyche with prescience, and McCloy was the “fixer” of the bunch. One managed the Berlin airlift and another the Marshall Plan that put Europe back on its feet. They were bankers, lawyers, industrialists and such who believed that their privilege and position carried a responsibility of service.
When one considers the depth of these men against the times and trials they lived it is inspiring and sobering. Inspiring because of their commitment to the nation and world, sobering when one compares them against the likes of today’s political operators. This is not to say they were perfect or without ambition. One was known for his condescending arrogance, another for his insecurity, they were on occasion rivals, sometimes quarreled, and could be petty; but they always answered the call when it came. Together they comprised a team of statesmen, operators, policy wonks, and technocrats who were exactly what we needed when we needed them. They had entrée to presidents, prime ministers, and even Joseph Stalin based simply on their character, integrity, and wisdom. They helped usher the west through the war and its aftermath, securing the opportunity for unparalleled growth of freedom in a time fraught with geopolitical tension and uncertainties, even as freedom’s opposite grew more menacing by the day. Did they get it right every time? No. But the world is a better place than it could have been because they were true to their passion and calling. Their experience is a testament to the power of relationship.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Typical of most Walter Isaacson projects it is not a short book, which one would not expect given the subjects and their import. It is full of rich detail of the geopolitical times they lived in, which the reader will come to understand as not so different from our own, and the relationships that were so important. They were not homogenous in personality or politics, but this they did have in common – love of country and a willingness to put its needs before their own. They also had the benefit of not living in an era of 24-hour news cycles and social media, which allowed them to do the serious work of understanding the most complex and critical issues of their day and exercising diplomacy in a quiet, deliberate, and respectful manner. Imagine that.
The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, Simon & Schuster, 1986, ISBN 0684837714