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The Wise Men

The Wise Men

Six Friends and the World They Made

Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’s fine book is a group biography, profiling six men who molded American foreign policy from the end of World War II to the 1960s: Dean Acheson, George Kennan, John McCloy, Robert Lovett, Charles Bohlen, and Averell Harriman.

I knew the broad strokes of American history during that period, but it was thrilling to get behind-the-scenes, blow-by-blow accounts of what really happened and who did what regarding: the transition from battling the Nazis to fighting the Soviets, the Marshall Plan and the building of modern-day Europe, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the Korean War, the Cold War, the McCarthy era and Communist scare, and Vietnam.

If the Marshall Plan and Kennan’s containment policy were the high points of the Wise Men’s influence, as Isaacson and Thomas suggest, then the nadir was the Vietnam War, containment’s evil twin. It was an event that frankly baffled them all because it seemed to be such a logical extension of what they had done so successfully their entire careers. After Vietnam, they contributed randomly and sometimes successfully, but as a group they seemed to lose their way in terms of influence, imprint on foreign policy, and consensus.

The group or its individual members served Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. What a long, impressive run they had.

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