Walter Isaacson

An American Aristocracy

VTR Date: November 8, 1986

Guest: Isaacson, Walter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Walter Isaacson
Title: ”An American Aristocracy”
VTR: 11/8/86

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. As a historian, I’ve always embraced and even celebrated the role that heroes, great leaders, extraordinary men and women of vision and power have played in forging our national past. Who indeed would have the temerity or timidity to ignore or deny their part in molding our destiny. Yet it may be too easy, too tempting at a moment of pygmies and drones to indulge in hyperbole, perhaps in nostalgia that is wistfully envious of larger persons in larger roles in times past, nostalgia that enlarges more than in truth history warrants upon their real contribution to the course of history.

So that today we approach with admiration and awe a totally intriguing and brilliantly crafted new Simon and Schuster volume, The Wise Man: Six Friends and the World They Made, about Averill Harriman, Dean Achison, Robert Lovett, John McCoy, George Kennett, Charles Boland, all names quickly identified with high position and great responsibility if your age is right and memory remains. Now, one approaches this fine work with an enormous and thoroughly rewarded eagerness to see its subjects there at the creation supposedly of the modern world. But even as one marvels at the enormous contributions this influential coterie of best and brightest American friends and elitists made to the course of our nation’s history with personal character and integrity there touched on, so one must wonder whether ours is not the world these six wise friends made, but rather instead that their world, more patrician than ours, better e3ducated, more sincere, timeless in a sense, more at ease with itself, more of the nineteenth century than of the twenty-first, more of the past than of the future, more aristocratic and elitist, if you will, whether their world did not make them so different from us and our world.

In reviewing this magnificent work, Ronald Steele, Walter Lippmann’s perceptive biographer, wrote of the wise man, “They were among the last of a vanishing breed, the gentleman public servant. They were men who knew where they stood, and their strength came from being rooted in an order that did not begin yesterday and will not end tomorrow”. But today on The Open Mind I have one of their chroniclers and interpreters, the co-author of The Wise Man, Walter Isaacson, Senior Editor of The Nation section of Time magazine. And I want to ask him first if indeed that world, having been made by these six men or simply having made them, whether perhaps unhappily it hasn’t long since ended. Walter?

Isaacson: Well, Richard, that book culminates with Vietnam. These six friends and others whose world view brought us to the Vietnam era, they slowly turned against the war in Vietnam in March of 1968, and that tore apart the American establishment that we talk about in this book. So I think the establishment disintegrated Vietnam. It was torn apart like other elements of American society. And you do not find a group of people like this, a group of people who are amateurs in the true sense, going in and out of government from their lives on Wall Street, and who feel a duty and obligation, a sense of noblesse oblige to help run the world. It doesn’t exist today, and I doubt that it will ever exist again.

Heffner: Unhappily or happily?

Isaacson: Well, I hope our book conveys both the good and the bad about a system like this. Certainly it’s a good thing that we will never have a group of elitists like this who feel that they can ignore public opinion, that they know better than the people know about what we should do, that they should ignore Congress. These people have very little respect for the role of public opinion in the conduct of foreign affairs. But it is sort of unhappily in my mind that we won’t have people who are selfless, who come from a tradition where they’re not just looking out for themselves or their own ambitions, but they hold higher ideals and felt a true calling to go into government.

Heffner: Walter, do you think it’s possible to have one without the other; the upside without the downside?

Isaacson: Oh, I think it’s possible, but it does tend to go hand in hand. If you feel you have a duty and an obligation to help run the world, you’re probably less likely to worry about democracy and the constraints of Congress and that sort of thing. There’s a certain hubris that goes with this type of individual, and so I think you tend to have the good with the bad.

Heffner: Well, neither one of us is going to be in a position to make a choice. But if you had to make your choice, if you had to state your druthers, do you think even the modern world today we’d be better off with that kind of establishment?

Isaacson: Oh, I have no doubt that we’d be much better off with the type of establishment that we wrote about. People who have a clear vision of America’s role in the world, people who are pushing that vision not for their own motives or for their own power, but because they work together to help shape American foreign policy in a bipartisan way. Nowadays you have a lot of bickering in government, a lot of leaking, a lot of backstabbing, a lot of people who are just in it for themselves, a sort of smaller-than-life people who are in positions of power sometimes in foreign affairs. And I think that we’d be much better off today if people like Robert Lovett, George Kennon, Chip Boland, Averill Harriman, Dean Achison, John McCoy, were still willing and still called upon to join the government.

Heffner: You’re suggesting that people of their status are not willing any longer to do so.

Isaacson: Well, certain ones are, and I would think even a person like Secretary of State George Schultz is in some ways of that status. But you don’t see it in the Undersecretary of State or Assistant Secretary of State levels all that often, or in Assistant Secretary of Defense. Most of the people who are in these roles today come in and out of government but work in the think tanks or for consultants or for lobbyists, or they’re influence peddlers as they come in and out of government. They want the people with the enormous personal security and the enormous sense of their selves and their mission that the people in this book had.

Heffner: But you know, the great irony, it seems to me, is that you start off by saying that this group fell apart at the time of Vietnam. And yet there’s so much about The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, and as you know, I challenge that to some extent. There’s so much here that indicates that Vietnam was their creature in the sense that they made the world from which Vietnam seemed inevitably to stem.

Isaacson: Well, what I think happened is right after World War II these men came to power because they felt that America had a role to play in the world. We were an isolationist nation for 200 years, very loathe to get involved in the affairs of Europe. But these men after two world wars said that America would have to make commitments overseas and we would have to be the nation that stood up against the spread of Soviet communism, that was committed to defending freedom around the globe. And in order to sell that to a reluctant nation, to a nation that didn’t believe much in foreign aid or wanted to bring the boys home, they had to overstate their case, and they tended to make things clearer than the truth, in the phrase that Dean Achison liked to use. So they made things clearer than the truth about the world communist conspiracy and the dangers of the spread of communism, which indeed was a danger, certainly a danger under Stalin. But they made it larger than perhaps it was so that we would make these commitments overseas. And eventually people who were a little bit less flexible, a little bit less interested in balancing our commitments with our resources, people like John Foster Dulles, took over American foreign policy, and soon we were going into commitments that by the time of Vietnam this nation certainly wasn’t willing nor able to keep.

Heffner: But you know, I wonder whether that’s not, whether that doesn’t go with the territory that, the territory of the leaders and the territory of an establishment, the territory of people who are quite so aloof, so self-contained that they can ignore public opinion, whether inevitably we don’t get finally to a position where they have oversold.

Isaacson: Well, I think that’s the main, I think the problem that we see in this book is not just some happenstance. I think, as you say, it comes out of what they were and who they were, because indeed, feeling that they could make commitments for this nation that were not commitments that the rest of the country wanted to make or certainly by the time of Vietnam wanted to make, that was an inherent problem in their world view. It was an inherent problem in their feeling that they were above American democracy or above the role of public opinion. So yes, I think it stems from this, the very nature of who they were that they got out ahead of what this country could take.

Heffner: Was there any effort on their part to reshape the image that they had created, the image that did, as you suggest, lead to Vietnam?

Isaacson: Certainly. During the late 1940s and early 1950s they were creating this new world order, one based on the Marshall Plan, on containment of Soviet communism, on NATO alliances, on a buildup of our military strength, and for that matter on an arms race. I think they saw during the ‘50s and during the early 1960s how things were getting out of control. We write in the book that in the late 1940s they would have been shocked, as indeed they later were shocked, at the notion that the world was going to split into two hostile camps, east and west, locked in an arms race, fighting in the margins, places like Vietnam, for control of the third world. So I think they became upset that this idea of containment ended up being a 40-year cold war, or for that matter, 40-years-and-still-counting cold war. And I think they were upset in many ways at their creation. And by march of 1968 the last holdout in favor of the Vietnam War in our group, Dean Achison, is turned around by Averill Harriman, his old friend, Averill Harriman who he’s known for 60 years, finally convinces him that the war is not working, that they should go to Lyndon Johnson and urge him to disengage from Vietnam.

Heffner: You mention Achison and Achison seems to me to be, he and Harriman are the central figures among the six. And indeed here The Wise Men, you write, you write about the moment at which he offered his resignation, resigned from Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

Isaacson: This is Achison. Yes.

Heffner: Achison. And you say, “Years later, when another official submitted a bristling letter of resignation, Roosevelt gave it to an assistant and said, ‘Return it to him and tell him to ask Dean Achison how a gentleman resigns.’” But you also write, “Achison’s friend Harriman would never have gone to the mat over a matter of principle with a president. He would likely have merely 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.” Felicitous phrase. “So too would have John McCoy, the loyal workhorse. Like Boland, he would have been willing to go along. Kennon would no doubt have agonized about resignation only to become lost in philosophical broodings. But Dean Achison had a code, a fledgling one perhaps, but one he was stubbornly proud of.” When I read that, I wondered whether there were six men and the world they made or whether they were five plus this truly outside figure, Dean Achison.

Isaacson: No, I don’t think Dean Achison is the outsider of these.

Heffner: Not outsider, but outsize, or outside.

Isaacson: Oh, outside.

Heffner: Yeah. I mean, he seems to loom in terms of personal integrity so much larger than everyone else around him. True?

Isaacson: At times he did, but he was more stubborn than they were. This thing we describe where he resigned and he went to the mat over a matter of principle, it was partly a matter of stubbornness, as I hope we reflect later in the book during that incident. And it was always his friend Averill Harriman who sort of calmed him down and said, “Well, you don’t have to make a great, principled stand over this small issue.” Achison does loom larger than life, but he’s not the wisest of the wise men. And…

Heffner: Who is?

Isaacson: I think the wisest of the wise men was Robert Lovett. Somebody who certainly doesn’t loom as large as Dean Achison, but somebody who really knew what he stood for, had a great sense of humor, and was the one who was the best friend of a lot of the others, the one who could really hold the group together. Bob Lovett most people haven’t heard of, I don’t think. He was Secretary of Defense during the Truman years. But he and Averill Harriman grew up together because Lovett’s dad was the president of the Union Pacific Railway, which Harriman’s dad owned pretty much, E.H. Harriman. So they grew up together as young boys and used to ride on horseback together at the grand Harriman estate up on the Hudson River. And they both met Dean Achison when Achison first went to Groton and was taught how to row by Harriman, and then all three of them were at Yale. And so they became good friends as college mates, but Achison was always the haughty one, the one who felt that, with t he bristling moustache and the whole bit. He did project a larger-than-life image. But I think that people like Bob Lovett and Averill Harriman helped shape his world for him, helped calm him down at the right times. So it’s the interplay of three, four, five, six friends that we tried to show, that one could have a certain type of personality but it was really how they were shaped by the others that determined what they did.

Heffner: Now you know, Walter, I have to turn to sort of the cynical question that I raised in my introduction, whether indeed it’s possible that these men had the kind of influence, power that you suggest in this book. Obviously you suggest it, you say yes. But is there any downside to this notion of six friends and the world they made?

Isaacson: Well, let me justify first of all why we picked them and felt that they did indeed make a new world. Our, the main narrative of our book starts when Franklin Roosevelt dies. And Harry Truman has just become president. Harry Truman has been overseas once in his life as an artillery sergeant during World War I. he has never met or spoken to a Russian citizen. He did not go to Yalta, has no idea about the dispute over Poland, doesn’t know that the Soviets and Stalin are trying to cdominate central Europe. And all of these friends come converging on this new president who has no idea about foreign affairs. And all harry Truman wants to do is continue Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Well, Franklin Roosevelt ran his own foreign policy. So Truman reached out to these people, mainly these six, as well as James Forrestal, who plays an important role in our book, but who committed suicide in the ‘40s so doesn’t quite fit into the crowd. But these six or seven people, he brought them in, put them in the top positions, and let them determine foreign policy. And it may have been called the Truman doctrine, the notion of standing up to the spread of communism by helping Greece, Turkey, and all the endangered countries of central and southern Europe, but Truman never thought it up; Dean Achison did. The same is true with the Marshall Plan. The same is true with NATO. It was Achison, Harriman, Truman, Lovett, McCloy, Boland, and Forrestal who put these positions into place and Truman simply trusted them and delegated to them.

Heffner: Walter, a point of fact, and maybe I’m wrong. I thought Truman was a captain in the artillery. And I, if he was a captain in the artillery, and I, I wonder whether you are not demoting him.

Isaacson: Perhaps I am overstating it, because…

Heffner: Or understating the role of the chosen president of the United States. Chosen by Franklin Roosevelt first, and then elected by the people.

Isaacson: First of all, Truman did have an extremely god grasp of history. He knew the importance of Europe, of the Mediterranean routes, that sort of thing. But in knowing all that he delegated enormous amounts of authority to Dean Achison. Except for at Potsdam where he met with Stalin, he very rarely conducted foreign affairs on his own. And part of what happened in the ‘40s which you don’t see today is that the president didn’t feel he had to run the day-to-day foreign policy of this nation himself. It’s hard to imagine a system like that where foreign policy could be delegated as much as it was. But no, I should not denigrate Truman’s role. But I think his world view was very much shaped by these people and a few others like them.

Heffner: But I just…

Isaacson: Because I mean, Truman would have been an isolationist in many ways, I think. I mean, Truman was one of those people who at the beginning of World War II before America got into it didn’t quite even know which side to root for. He was sort of against, he said, “If the Russians seem to be wining against the Germans, maybe we should be helping the Germans and vice-versa.” Now, of course he soon became a very whole-hearted supporter of Roosevelt’s policy and when we got into the war finally, but he had no real notion of the geopolitical struggle, and pretty much did not think America should be involved in the alliances and entanglements of Europe.

Heffner: I guess I just have a hard time not in appreciating the role that these men played, or not – strike that – not in appreciating the importance of these men, but I’ve a very difficult time in undervaluing the role that the elected officials did play. And that’s why I start off by asking about the hyperbole that may be involved. They certainly came from a certain world which you describe magnificently. I quest you when you say they made the world in which we live.

Isaacson: Well, what we mean by the world in which we live, the world they made, is a world in which America feels that it has commitments to defend freedom around the world. A world quite unlike the 1930s, or for that matter the 1890s when America was content to live within its own borders, not become involved in alliances overseas, not send its troops to protect freedom around the world. This was a new notion in 1940. As Averill Harriman said when he was leaving Moscow to fly back the day Truman took office, Harriman rushes back to talk to Truman, he said, “We’re in danger. Most Americans just want to go to the movies and drink coke. Now that the war is ending, we have to teach the American people that we must take over Britain’s role in protecting freedom around the world”. The Pax Britannica it was called in the nineteenth century when Britain ruled the seas. It was now America was going to become the world’s policeman. And that was not inevitable. Left to his own devices, Truman and certainly the US Congress and certainly most of the American public would have happily avoided any world role or any major world role for this nation. But this is now the American century after the 1940s where America is involved around the world in a vast array of commitments. And now that’s the world they made.

Heffner: When you talk about the American century, I wondered whether it was modesty as a senior editor at Time magazine that led you to leave Henry Luce out of this constellation of stars.

Isaacson: Well, Luce was not a foreign policy, nor was he a government official like these were. These were all the top officials, Secretary of State, Defense, Ambassador to Moscow, national Security Advisor.

Heffner: You don’t think your estate plays as important a role in the formulation of our ideas as these gentlemen do?

Isaacson: Oh I think it does. In fact, we spend some time talking about, when we talk about the American establishment, the role that people like Henry Luce or Walter Lippmann or Joseph Kraft or the Alston brothers, the role that certain people in the press play as sort of the establishment spokesmen. So I think we, you know, we play a big role.

Heffner: Walter, you know, I brought with me to show my age the clipping that I had from The American Scholar in the autumn of 1961. Richard Revere’s very funny article, “Notes on the Establishment in America.”

Isaacson: That was one of the things that started us working on this book. Such a wonderful article about the American establishment. Tongue-in-cheek of course, partly.

Heffner: Well, tongue-in-cheek partly. The question is, if you were to turn your focus to today, could you more seriously talk about an establishment, not the same kind, but you as a journalist?

Isaacson: It would be hard. When we started working on this book, besides reading Richard Revere, it was because I was on the campaign trail in 1980, and everywhere you’d go people would hand you these leaflets telling you about the Trilateral Commission.

Heffner: Right.

Isaacson: …they’d tell you about the Council on Foreign Relations. They’d have arrows and exclamation points, I told you, that David Rockefeller and George Bush and John McCloy and Zbigniew Brzynski and Henry Kissinger were all a part of some grand conspiracy. And that was supposed to be the establishment in America today. And that of course is a paranoid view of some secret establishment conspiracy which I don’t think exists.

Heffner: But you have six friends here…

Isaacson: Well…

Heffner: And you say more or less the same thing about them. Not negatively, not pejoratively, but you say they formed us into what we are.

Isaacson: Well, that was what we tried to do, was to show the establishment through the eyes of six people who clearly were establishment types. And I think if you’re going to look for the establishment today, you know, the Ford Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations all sort of play a certain role in the establishment. But it doesn’t hold together. It’s not that elite group that it used to be. And you have to remember that back in the 1930s, 1940s, the American establishment was very closed. I mean, no Jews, no women, no blacks. You pretty much had to go to St. Paul’s or be at Yale or in one of the dining clubs at Yale or Harvard or Princeton.

Heffner: As all of these men were.

Isaacson: Yeah, as all of these men were. It was a far more closed establishment. Nowadays I think fortunately the American establishment, which was meritocratic to some extent back then, has become very meritocratic. And so anybody who, with enough talent, energy and desire probably could break into t he American establishment these days.

Heffner: Do you think it is particularly forceful these days?

Isaacson: No, I think in this country you have a pendulum that swings back and forth from respect for the establishment to sort of a populist revolt against the establishment. The real populist revolt, you know, during the ‘60s where both the left and the right were blaming the establishment and the power structure for everything, that helped us integrate the establishment. And we’ve had to presidents recently, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, both of whom ran against the establishment. So I think they are not in favor.

Heffner: But Walter, in a sense, taking President Carter and President Reagan, in a sense you would say that they inherited their ideas about the world, about America in relation to the rest of the world, from these men, from these six wise men. Is that unfair?

Isaacson: yes, I think they shape, these six wise men and their friends shaped American policy so firmly that every president since then has felt that to some extent America has a duty and commitment to stop the spread of soviet communism wherever it threatens free people. That was basically the world view of these men. And that is so pervasive I think it’s one of the things Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan share.

Heffner: If I understand correctly, you’re also suggesting that if they had known what they had wrought, they might not have forged that kind of perception.

Isaacson: I think they would have been more cautious and more pragmatic about the commitments they made. Because above e all, these people that we write about were pragmatic people, practical people. They came from Wall Street. They looked upon competitors as people who were rivals, people you struggled against, but people you also made deals with like they did on Wall Street. And they would not have conceived of the Soviet Union as an evil empire that we couldn’t do business with the way sometimes people in the Reagan administration speak. They would have thought of them just as a rival on Wall Street. And I think they would have been much more practical in the way they handled that.

Heffner: Isn’t there something contradictory between principle and practicality?

Isaacson: Not really. I mean, that’s sort of the challenge of American foreign policy, to uphold your principles, but always look after your own national interests and be practical about it. For example, Averill Harriman was one of the great capitalists of our time. Very anti-Bolshevik. He was one of the first people in the ‘40s, along with Kennon and some of the others, to warn that the Soviet Union, which was our ally in World War II, was going to be our adversary after the war. And yet, here is a man who in the ‘20s and the ‘30s and through the ‘40s made investments in the Soviet Union, had mining concessions, made deals with the concessions committee run by Trotsky and then by Stalin. He knew you can do business with them. He knew that you can make deals, enter into contracts, and very practical.

Heffner: Walter, it’s on that note that I’m getting the signal to end the program. And I just have to say to you, I think The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They made, I disagree with a lot of it, I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful book. Thanks for writing it.

Isaacson: Thank you, Richard. I really appreciate that coming from you.

Heffner: And thanks for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”