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The wise men.

The Wise Men. Walter Isaacson & Evan Thomas. Simon & Schuster. $22.95. There was a time when "The Wise Men" carried mixed meanings. To some within the Johnson administration, it meant the group of six men who had, during long careers in and out of government, advised presidents, managed armies, and negotiated agreements on behalf of the nation. President Johnson assembled them from time to time, hoping to obtain, and normally obtaining, their support for America's involvement in the Vietnam war.

To other audiences, bitterlyfrustrated by that war, a mocking echo followed the phrase. To them "The Wise Men" were famous and reputable figures, most of them retired from public service, who bore no responsibility for either prosecuting the war or ending it. Yet the war was seen as part of the policies they, and others like them, had shaped and administered over a quarter-century, which had thrust us upon the poisoned pungi-sticks of Indochina.

Walter Isaacson's and EvanThomas's book is a largely admiring account of these six extraordinary statesmen who came together to advise President Truman: Dean Acheson, secretary of State; Averell Harriman, armbassador and master negotiator; John McCloy, high commissioner for Germany; Robert Lovett, cabinet secretary; Charles Bohlen, career foreign servant; and George Kennan, thinker, writer, and ambassador.

The book's format--six lives intertwiningthrough history--tends to make more of essentially superficial connections than the facts warrant. Still, this personalizing of government and policy makes The Wise Men splendid reading for those of us for whom Dr. Kissinger's books, for example, are like great lumps of Wheatena.

The character of AverellHarriman--who was not particularly brilliant or articulate, yet was endowed with common sense and an indomitable will--became more important than contests over language in position papers. That character, which drove him through four decades of public service, ultimately determined the positions America took in dealing with the Russians. Dean Acheson's high standards attracted a number of superior men to the State Department, and made him able to see and revere the excellent qualities of his non-Grotonian, non-Yalie boss, Harry Truman.

When presidents needed someoneto manage Germany, deal with the Arab oil states, or organize the production of warplanes, they called McCloy at his Wall Street law firm, or Lovett at his (and Harriman's) investment banking house and asked them to get back in harness. With not much urging, they normally did--not for the Washington climate; not to lengthen their resumes and win better jobs when they returned to private life; not simply to hold power. They simply believed they should employ their power in the resolution of issues worthy of a serious man's attention.

Bohlen and Kennan, who werefor the most part had-liners, remained in federal servicE, their eyes fixed on Russia even when they represented us elsewhere. Kennan, upon learning in 1945 that Secretary of War Henry Stimson wished to share control of atomic power with the Soviets as a means of reassuring them, fired off a message from his post in Moscow: "There is nothing--I repeat nothing--in the history of the Soviet regime which would justify us in assuming that [Russian leaders] would hesitate for a moment to apply this power against us if by doing so they thought that they might materially improve their own power position." The best-known expression of Kennan's views, of course, is his famous "X" article, written in 1947 for Foreign Affairs, in which he spelled out his remedy for Soviet expansionism: containment.

The Wise Men being very muchabout character does have some fine insights. It includes a telling note from Kennan to Acheson, whose failure to define South Korea as in the U.S. sphere of protection helped trigger its invasion. He subsequently failed to stop MacArthur's progression to the Yalu that triggered the Chinese entry into the war and the terrible casualties American forces endured as a result. Kennan wrote Acheson:

"In international, as in private,life what counts most is not really what happens to someone but how he bears what happens to him. For this reason almost everything depends from here on out on the manner in which we Americans bear what is unquestionably a major failure and disaster to our national fortunes. If we accept it with candor, with dignity, and with resolve to absorb its lessons and to make it good by redoubled and determined effort--starting all over again, if necessary, along the pattern of Pearl Harbor--we need lose neither our-self-confidence nor our allies nor our power for bagaining, eventually, with the Russians. But if we try to conceal from our own people or from our allies the full measure of our misfortune, or permit ourselves to seek relief in any reactions of bluster or petulance or hysteria, we can easily find this crisis resolving itself into an irreparable deterioration of our world position--and of our confidence in ourselves."
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Author:McPherson, Harry
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1987
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