Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas have written a highly impressive book on six foreign-policy-makers whom they call the “architects of the American century.” One of the authors’ most appealing qualities is their eagerness to assess the influence that members of the Eastern upper class have had on the nation’s public life.
Our national myths do not allow an elite class to have strong influence over U.S. decisions. Throughout this century, however, the conduct of foreign affairs has been markedly affected by a group that economist John Kenneth Galbraith has called “the foreign policy syndicate of New York.” Isaacson and Thomas have sympathetically portrayed this group in a story that begins with “boys rowing at a New England prep school” and continues as these six privileged men play their foreign policy roles in Democratic Administrations from the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson.
“However one defines the Establishment, these men were at its core,” they write. They find much good to say about an elite that placed public service on at least as high a plane as making money. Observers have contrasted this older elite’s attitudes with those which have characterized the last two decades in Washington. As former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger told the authors, “My generation doesn’t produce people in the selfless tradition of a McCloy. We’re too nervous and ambitious.”
To exemplify this earlier “selfless tradition,” Isaacson and Thomas concentrate on “two bankers, two lawyers and two diplomats"--W. Averell Harriman, Robert A. Lovett, Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy Jr., George F. Kennan and Charles Bohlen. All six were united by their concern with the Soviet Union and the need to contain Soviet power, especially in Europe. Three in the group, Harriman, Kennan and Bohlen, served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Acheson served as President Truman’s secretary of state from 1949 to 1953. McCloy and Lovett, the “Heavenly Twins” who aided Secretary of War Henry A. Stimson during World War II, went on to play important roles in the Truman Administration.
An intriguing part of the authors’ approach is that they examine the social and class connections of these men as well as their foreign policy concerns. All of their subjects went to private preparatory schools, two (Harriman and Acheson) to Groton. These two, plus Lovett, went to Yale College, Bohlen to Harvard, Kennan to Princeton and McCloy to Amherst. Although the authors do not mention it, the six were all Episcopalians or Presbyterians. Their Establishment ties were knotted at the New York banks, New York and Washington law firms and New York’s Council on Foreign Relations.
Isaacson and Thomas have a feel for the Eastern upper class. They started the book in 1982 when both were youthful editors at Time magazine in New York; Thomas was recently named Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. Both authors are graduates of private secondary schools and Harvard College. (In Establishment studies, it may take one to know one.)
Their six subjects had easy opportunities to meet each other and came from a society where they had reason to trust each other. Wherever they went to school, they had some sense of the “Groton Ethic” in which men of social station had a patrician obligation to be of public service.
Isaacson and Thomas have written an often charming account of a bygone age of diplomacy and life, where wartime leaders took sea trips of many days, of playing polo on the world circuit and tennis at Washington’s Chevy Chase Club. The authors are not snide in their treatment of this social set. Rather, they are quick to see humor and to illustrate the importance of social connections. Some examples:
Harriman coached both Ellsworth Bunker, later U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, and Acheson in crew. When Harriman began to disagree with his imperious friend over Vietnam, he would growl to his aide, “To you he’s the great Secretary of State. But to me, he’s the freshman I taught to row at Yale.”
David Rockefeller, the chairman of the council of Foreign Relations, offered William Bundy the editorship of Foreign Affairs at the half-time of a Harvard-Yale game.
When a seaplane flown by Lovett and his Yale friend Trubee Davison conked out over New York City, the fliers made an emergency landing in the East River, then went off to have lunch on Davison’s yacht, which happened to be moored nearby.
This book is full of fine stories, anecdotes and quotations; it is almost compulsory reading for anyone wishing to understand modern American foreign policy. While there are sometimes too many historical facts for the selective reader, the vigorous prose easily carries one through more than 700 pages of narrative. The well-chosen photographs help.
The authors are especially skillful in conveying the period immediately after World War II, the time which they call the finest period of the “old foreign policy elite,” with the promotion of the Marshall Plan to restore war-ravaged Europe, the breaking of the Berlin Blockade, and the formation of the Truman Doctrine and NATO to stop Soviet expansion.
The “wise men” displayed their brilliance in dealing with Europe, which they all agreed to be crucial, but they stumbled in being sensitive to the Third World, especially to the different reality of Asia. They accepted the necessity of fighting in Korea in 1950 in order to save the alliance with Europe, but showed insufficient quickness as Gen. Douglas MacArthur roared north to the Yalu River to provoke an overwhelming attack by the Chinese. Acheson later said it was “the greatest disaster of the Truman Administration” and wondered why “we sat around like paralyzed rabbits while MacArthur carried out this nightmare.”
The “wise men” had been too transfixed by their respect for the offices of authority and the established way of doing things to speak up against a commander, MacArthur, even though they distrusted him. Most were also slow to speak up against the American war in Vietnam.
By the time President Johnson had become deeply embroiled in Vietnam, these significant six did not hold official positions of great power in Washington. But Johnson sought the advice of some of them, and McGeorge Bundy, his first national security adviser, used the term wise men to describe them. By early 1968, in the wake of the Tet offensive, their support for Vietnam had dimmed.
After attending the last meeting of the “wise men,” who advised Johnson to begin withdrawing from Vietnam in 1968, Walt Rostow sadly commented, “What began in the spring of 1940 when Henry Stimson came to Washington, ended tonight. The American Establishment is dead.”
The earlier achievements of the “Establishment” were significant. Its members were successful in building official opinion about the need to stand up to the Soviets, in creating the climate to rebuild Europe, and in forming a bipartisan, anti-isolationist agreement about the goals of American foreign policy which lasted, more or less, for 20 years.
Yet, the filling of short-term needs did not serve the country so well in the long run. “To win congressional support, Truman’s men consistently oversimplified and overstated the truth, and in so doing made anti-Communism dangerously rigid and U.S. commitments overly sweeping,” the authors write. They argue that the overblown rhetoric helped sow the seeds of the Vietnam tragedy.
Nevertheless, the authors clearly respect their six heroes and have whetted our interest in these men, especially Harriman, Acheson and Kennan, the insecure visionary who doesn’t quite belong with the others. To better understand Harriman, we will have to await Rudy Abramson’s forthcoming book. We can hope that biographies will be undertaken on the others, and that Isaacson and Thomas will be able to find more time to write at length. In their first major book, Isaacson and Thomas have written an engrossing work of popular history that will live well beyond the 1980s.