To the Editor:
I have just read with some dismay the article by H.J. Kaplan, “Requiem for the ‘Establishment’” [April], in which he discusses The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. Perhaps because Mr. Kaplan was really writing a personal memoir, he overlooked the blatant revisionism of the book as regards the origins of the cold war.
I recently reviewed The Wise Men in National Review, and I read it right down to its confusing footnotes. My disagreement with Mr. Kaplan is not a normal disagreement between reviewers. I feel that it is a disservice to your readers to allow the impression to stand that The Wise Men is some mild political history when in fact its theme is “pas d’ennemis à gauche,” better expressed, perhaps, by the phrase anti-anti-Communism.
The authors praise the Wise Men—Dean Acheson, Charles E. Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George F. Kennan, Robert A. Lovett, and John J. McCloy—for their public service, but they object to Acheson, Harriman, and Kennan for being too “ideological” in their view of the Soviet Union. In fact, a test of liberalism for the authors is avoiding any harsh judgments of the USSR.
Let me offer some examples. Isaacson and Thomas write that while seven out of ten Harvard students in the 1920’s came from Republican homes, they “were hardly all reactionary.” Proof? A survey of the class of 1926 showed that one-third were “strongly sympathetic” or “mildly sympathetic” to the Soviet Union. In other words, to be unsympathetic to the Soviet Union is to be “reactionary.”
The authors accuse Acheson “and others [who] consciously overstated the [Soviet] threat they perceived in order to sell their vision of America’s role in the postwar world.” Later, they attack Acheson again, saying that “Acheson’s liberalism was by now  all but eclipsed by his distrust of the Soviets.”
They describe Stalin as “paranoid and obdurate.” Yet perhaps because he had successfully penetrated the intelligence and counterintelligence services of the U.S. and Britain, Stalin was not paranoid and obdurate at all but was acting like a man who knew what was going on in the White House and at 10 Downing Street.
Isaacson and Thomas pay almost no attention to the espionage revelations of Igor Gouzenko. They make a peculiar reference to Alger Hiss, who, they write, “was found guilty, and, history suggests, rightfully so.” History, that jade, had nothing to do with Hiss’s guilt; it was evidence and a jury which convicted Hiss, and rightly so. As for Soviet penetration of the U.S. government: “There had in fact been Communists in government in the 1930’s—not enough to jeopardize national security, but just enough to lend credence to a Red scare.” Peculiarly, the authors never mention the activities of the Rosenbergs, Klaus Fuchs, Harry Dexter White, and Lauchlin Currie as, perhaps, lending credence to something more than a “Red scare.”
They find that the younger anti-Communist Averell Harriman had by 1970 “become aligned with the more liberal wing of the Democratic party and had mellowed in his view of the Soviets.” To be a liberal, then, you must have a mellow view of the USSR. The authors blame Harriman in the postwar period for “the ominous decline in Soviet-American relations [because] he had done so much to create the current atmosphere.”
Isaacson and Thomas conclude that “Truman’s men consistently oversimplified and overstated the truth, and in so doing made anti-Communism dangerously rigid and U.S. commitments overly sweeping.” They accuse the Wise Men (“though with less justification,” they say) of bearing “part of the responsibility for creating a world divided between East and West, overarmed and perpetually hovering at the brink.” The Wise Men oversold “their cause” and became “fixated by some of their own rhetoric.”
I could go on with more samples of the modern anti-anti-Communism whose exemplars, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, have learned how to apply the maquillage of “objectivity” while repeating the old clichés about who started the cold war.
To the Editor:
In “Requiem for the ‘Establishment,’” H.J. Kaplan notes that both George Kennan and Dean Acheson were “fiercely opposed . . . to any congressional encroachment on the President’s preeminent right and duty to manage foreign affairs.” It seems clear that both Kennan and Acheson viewed Congress as an unwieldy assemblage of lawyers and Yahoos who epitomized what, in American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 (1951), Kennan called the “legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems.” Such an approach, coupled with its unwieldiness, rendered Congress incapable of conducting foreign affairs.
The Kennan-Acheson view gradually prevailed. After the fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, congressional intrusion slowly diminished and presidential prerogative reached its zenith during the Presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The triumph was short-lived. The Wise Men, and especially what Mr. Kaplancalls “a handful of younger Wise Men,” failed. The reasons for their failure were many and complex, but the domestic political result has been a restoration of congressional encroachment, and on a far greater scale than in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. This time around it will be much more difficult to inhibit congressional intrusion than it was when Kennan and Acheson and President Truman fought the good fight in the early 1950’s. . . .
Mr. Kaplan pays eloquent tribute to the achievements of the Wise Men in the late 1940’s, but, in the 1950’s, he notes many “signpost [s] . . . on the upper reaches of a slippery slope.” Since the 1960’s we have seen, as Mr. Kaplan puts it, “four Presidencies destroyed by foreign-policy failures in twenty years” as well as “a sort of constant partisan warfare at home, and confusion, dismay, and distrust of our purposes abroad.” . . .
Mr. Kaplan believes that “the changes in our own society . . . may actually have been more profound” than the changes that have occurred among our adversaries. . . .
I submit that more than anything else what has made for Mr. Kaplan’s “very different United States” is education. In “How to Cope with the Soviet Threat” [COMMENTARY, August 1984], Richard Pipes wrote that in West Germany those Germans who “have psychologically opted out of the alliance” (and, it must be added, outright sympathizers and supporters of Marxist regimes) are centered in an element which he described as “mass-educated . . . teachers, students, and functionaries—products of the ambitious higher-education programs of postwar Germany.”
Mr. Pipes’s insight prompts a further question. What have been the consequences of “the ambitious higher-education programs” in the postwar United States and the resultant American hordes of “mass-educated teachers, students, and functionaries”?. . .
From the early years of this century, the United States was the world’s leading producer of almost everything, but in the wake of the 1960’s it has become the world’s leading producer of “teachers, students, and functionaries,” and not much else. Most of our businessmen are now highly educated “managers.” . . . Since the 1960’s, the country has been deluged with hordes of pseudo-intellectual pseudo sophisticates—most disastrously among them swarms of aesthetes, “scholars,” lawyers (Kennan’s fear in 1951 of a “legalistic-moralistic approach” must now be multiplied several fold), “counselors,” “helping professionals,” and “investigative journalists.” We are now long overdue for a hard look at the negative consequences of education and its role in the progress of American debilitation. . . .
It certainly seems clear now that greater damage was done in the late 1960’s and early 70’s than in the early 50’s. The fragile postwar bipartisan consensus was shaken but survived the Korean War, what Mr. Kaplan calls “the insubordination of General MacArthur,” and the antics of McCarthy and his Yahoos; it was shattered by Vietnam and the antics of the New Class.
Much has been written about the vulgar excesses and destructive consequences of the former period, while the vulgar excesses and destructive consequences of the latter era are still, twenty years later, being widely portrayed as heroic. This, I submit, is because McCarthyism was a blue-collar revolt which was defeated, while the 60’s rebellion was a New Class revolt which has succeeded, and our history is now being written by all those “scholars” and “investigative journalists.”
The prospects for a coherent foreign policy now seem dim indeed. It has been far more difficult to “contain” the numerous and powerful forces tending toward instability unleashed over the past two decades than it was to restrain the Yahoos in the 1950’s. Of course, much of the recent predicament stems from the failure of the Wise Men in the 1960’s. Where would we now be had the Wise Men who advised President Johnson not failed?
James E. Salyers
H.J. Kaplan writes:
I am dismayed to have dismayed my implacable old friend Arnold Beichman, who seems to have sucsumbed to the current French flu and read a book that isn’t there, even to the “confusing footnotes.” But if the revisionism of The Wise Men is so blatant, why has it escaped the notice of everyone else? Ronald Steel, for example, reviewing the book in the New York Times, takes precisely the opposite view, deploring that Isaacson and Thomas ignore the revisionist literature entirely and uncritically swallow their heroes’ version of the origins of the cold war. Perhaps Mr. Beichman should have sent his complaints to Ronald Steel, who has indeed been guilty in the past (like those Harvard students in the 20’s and countless others since then) of associating liberalism with sympathy for the Soviet Union, a historical misunderstanding far more prevalent among intellectuals than among practical men of affairs, during the postwar period at least. And the Wise Men, as Isaacson and Thomas keep telling us, were practical men of affairs. Only Kennan could be considered a card-carrying intellectual, and he was sui generis, as everyone knows, neither a liberal nor sympathetic to the Soviet Union, as Mr. Beichman uses these terms.
But what is the point of contesting the paranoia and obduracy of Stalin, so abundantly and gruesomely documented by now, even if his mental make-up did not exclude his “acting like a man who knew what was going on”? Or of concocting some diaphanous distinction to assert that it was the evidence and a jury, not “history, that jade,” that found Alger Hiss guilty? Here, in any case, the “blatant revisionism” of Isaacson and Thomas seems to have disappeared. Surely Mr. Beichman, that doughty old anti-anti-anti-Communist, can find darker villainies, nowadays, on which to vent his spleen? The answer, I fear, is that some people have been fighting the Good Fight for so long that they cannot take yes for an answer.
James E. Salyers’s suggestion that the extension and presumably the failure of higher education in this country are largely responsible for the incoherence that has overtaken our foreign policy is interesting, and I would not reject it out of hand, although it would seem at first sight (a) to be excessively reductive, (b) to beg the question of cause versus consequence, and (c) to leave equally unaddressed the problem of educational quality versus quantity. In short, Mr. Salyers has opened up a “vast question,” to quote General de Gaulle in a rather different connection, and I can only reply that it would require another article, much longer than mine, to begin to deal with it.