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Mourning the Last Brahmins

Looking at the last century through the life of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

More details President John F. Kennedy meets with Director General of the Atlantic Institute, Henry Cabot Lodge, in the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C., 1961. (Abbie Rowe/Public Domain)

The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and the Making of the Cold War, by Luke A. Nichter (Yale University Press: 2020), 544 pages.

The name Henry Cabot Lodge still carries a frisson of authority in a country that barely teaches its own history and, when it does, prefers to leave out white males of colonial heritage. Perhaps it survives in some recesses of our national political memory because two prominent individuals bore this name. Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. was the scion of two well known, if not exactly Brahmin, Boston families who racked up generations of public service dating from the founding days of the republic. He is best known as a leading “isolationist” Massachusetts senator, who opposed greater American involvement in world affairs during and after World War I, at exactly the moment when such involvement became both irresistible and unavoidable. His grandson and junior namesake had a more varied career and is the subject of Luke A. Nichter’s new biography, The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and the Making of the Cold War.

Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (1902-1985) lived his early life in a largely predictable way for a man of his era and station. Affable but not brilliant, he passed from private tutors to prep schools in Washington and New England before graduating from Harvard, where he majored in Romance languages. His father died young, apparently after eating a bad clam on an ill-fated visit to Nantucket, leaving Cabot, as everyone called him, to be tutored in politics by his grandfather. Lodge Sr.’s star was falling as he approached his death in 1924, but he still had the renown and connections to launch his grandson, who made a good marriage and travelled with all the right introductions. Burnished by a brief career in journalism, he got to know his home state well enough that his patrician heritage and manner were rarely held against him, at least until such deference became passé. He even appealed to Massachusetts’s solidly Democratic Irish vote when facing Irish opponents there.

Cabot’s gentlemanly ease helped catapult him into a Senate seat at age 34, at a time when Republicans were a fractional minority in a New Deal-era Congress. He quickly learned that he could only really be effective if he responded to the spirit of the times and advocated a cautious progressivism that played well at home while appealing to the much larger opposing caucus across the aisle. He favored tax increases, considered Franklin Delano Roosevelt a close friend, and was a longtime contributor to the NAACP, among other postures that would now make him decidedly a man of the left. Political life was dramatically less partisan in those days, but it is easy to imagine him among today’s dying breed of erstwhile Republicans who sheepishly tell people “my party left me,” as they sigh in relief that their Democrat friends still invite them to those all-important cocktail parties. Indeed, as early as 1964, when Barry Goldwater took the Republican nomination, Cabot proclaimed, “What in God’s name has happened to the Republican Party! I hardly know any of these people!”

Still relatively young when the U.S. entered World War II, Cabot relied on his relationship with Roosevelt to secure an active army commission. Without telling any of his colleagues, he became the first senator since the Civil War to resign his seat to take up combat duties. Sent as an observer to North Africa, he was among the first Americans to come under enemy fire. His prewar political relationships, international experience, and language skills won him plum staff positions as the Allies invaded Europe and marched into Germany. After the war, he almost seamlessly won another Senate election in the 1946 Republican midterm sweep of Congress, all the while maintaining his reserve commission, which saw him reach the rank of major general as his service continued into the 1960s.

Postwar America proved less agreeable to Cabot. His liberal Republican outlook, by then enhanced with a fervently internationalist orientation, faced challenges as the party gravitated to the right amid a rising communist threat and after 12 years of Roosevelt. He remained a “nice guy” to the point of self-effacement even as nice guys began to finish last in droves, including himself. After doing more than anyone else to convince Dwight Eisenhower to run for president in 1952, Ike passed him over to choose the more ruthless arriviste Richard Nixon as his running mate. Lodge did not complain but instead served so diligently as Eisenhower’s campaign manager that he neglected his own Senate reelection campaign and lost his seat to John F. Kennedy. A more assertive character would certainly have avoided that mishap and, even if not, might have politicked for a greater consolation prize, but all Cabot got was appointment as U.N. ambassador. It came with cabinet rank, and most observers felt that he did an effective job, yet it never seems even to have occurred to him to ask for anything more. When Eisenhower promoted him as a vice presidential candidate for Nixon’s 1960 campaign, Cabot made a point of telling everyone involved that he would never actually ask for the nomination. He got it anyway, but later at least pretended that he did not understand why. Despite an incredible 96 percent national approval rating, he was again on the losing end, with Kennedy taking the presidency. True to an outmoded form, Cabot was well aware of that contest’s widespread election fraud but said nothing about it for many years thereafter.

Cabot’s biography could have ended there. He was nearly 60 and had no obvious political future in a rapidly changing country that no longer had much use for people like him. Even at that time, his own son regarded his patrician public service ethos as hopelessly old fashioned, a 19th-century relic in the brash age of Camelot. Cabot seemed primed for the great Washingtonian pastureland of meaningless advisory posts and stale think tank directorships, but the bipartisan establishment kept him around. As the conflict in Indochina became a more urgent problem, Kennedy, whose early-term foreign policy had proved shambolic, cautiously dragooned Cabot’s Republican credentials and diplomatic experience for the unforgivingly tough post of Ambassador to South Vietnam.

In Saigon, Cabot had, as the documents now reveal, only one purpose: to decide the fate of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and his clique of corrupt relatives, who were endangering the war effort and, by implication, Kennedy’s 1964 reelection prospects. It was an odd role for a faultlessly polite New England gentleman of great distinction, and the sheer incongruity helped set off more than half a century of parlor speculation about the true level of U.S. culpability in Diem’s ouster and who ordered what and when. The greatest strength of Nichter’s book is that it reveals all for the first time: Kennedy, with the support of his entire foreign policy team, ordered Cabot to assess whether Diem could be reformed and, if not, to support a military coup against him. This version of events has been widely attested, including by Cabot himself in late-life television interviews, but it fit too poorly with Kennedy’s legacy to resist challenges from the president’s family and political heirs, who ironically cast Cabot as a villain who grossly exceeded his instructions in order to sabotage Kennedy. The truth is that Cabot was following orders in spotless loyalty to his commander-in-chief, who was himself assassinated just three weeks after Diem’s ouster and execution. Even sadder, Cabot’s patrician manner prevented him from doing much to defend himself. He left no substantive memoirs and confessed a “horror” of what he called “now-it-can-be-told books.”

Cabot’s reticence led to more frustration than merely keeping confidences that would have exonerated him in the ugly Diem affair. Despite serving a Democratic administration in a diplomatic post thousands of miles away, he was an early favorite for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, winning several state primaries as a write-in candidate. Yet again he lost out, mainly because he placed his immediate duties ahead of seizing the loftier opportunity as it presented itself. Within a year he was back in Saigon, where he remained almost congenitally unable to speak his mind about policies that he privately believed were doomed to failure. After a stint as ambassador to West Germany, he took over the Paris Peace Talks only to resign after months of failing to make any progress. He ended government service inoffensively dispatched as presidential envoy to the Vatican, an important post for courting domestic Catholic sensibilities but little else, and even in that failed to convince either Nixon or Gerald Ford to give him ambassadorial rank.

Nichter clearly admires his subject, and his treatment comes with a noticeable amount of gloss. Cabot was, contrary to what we read here, an early and enthusiastic supporter of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign. As such, he angrily objected to McCarthy’s treatment by his Democratic colleagues and tried hard to block attempts to discredit him. He and McCarthy later fell out, but the record is there for anyone who cares to look deeper. Often, what the book lauds as gentlemanly conduct might be better understood as ossified weakness. The author occasionally comes close to admitting that Cabot was too courtly to speak his mind over Vietnam, but he never spells out the appalling consequences. Nor does he quite realize that the cadre of young Foreign Service Officers who passed through Saigon while Cabot was ambassador there—including Richard Holbrooke, Anthony Lake, John Negroponte, and, in an extramural advisory role, Henry Kissinger in his first foray into government service—all eagerly imbibed Cabot’s fastidious style of American officialdom. They then proceeded to have greatness elude them, too, before passing down his milquetoast qualities to today’s timid generation of “polite and orderly caretakers of America’s decline.”

Nichter is sometimes unsure of his geography. Cabot’s Washington childhood home address, near 19th and F Streets NW, is certainly not “by Sheridan Circle, backing up against Rock Creek.” He also seems to miss the irony that the isolationist Henry Cabot Lodge Sr.’s statelier house, at 1745 Massachusetts Avenue NW, was later demolished to make way for the vociferously internationalist Brookings Institution, which occupies the site today. In recounting Lodge Jr.’s World War II military service, the author could have done better than to suggest that in 1944 German troops were retreating from Spain, a neutral country they never entered. Nor does Lebanon, the site of a crisis Cabot had to address as U.N. ambassador in 1958, neighbor on Egypt.

After Cabot’s brother John Davis Lodge left office as governor of Connecticut in 1955, no member of the Lodge family ever again held elected office. The author has disappointingly little to say about the fate of America’s traditional WASP elite, which now plays virtually no role in public life. In our age of political division, he mourns that “the country lost more than it gained through the exit of these families from politics and public service.” Yet he fails to realize that the very qualities and values that drew those families into public life in the first place are now so thoroughly despised that their descendants could never succeed in public service nor do they have much reason or incentive to want to if they could. No less authoritative an institution than the Smithsonian recently identified rational thought, politeness, objectivity, and the Protestant work ethic itself as undesirable “white” characteristics that perpetuate institutional racism. Today, WASP scions who are not apologizing for their “privilege” tend to run as fast as they can to the nearest hedge fund or private equity firm in the hope of regilding their fading family arms before the next divorce battle, tax bill, or unstable heir shoves them over the precipice. With shifted priorities and damaged self-perceptions, they are content to leave affairs of state to a priggish administrative-managerial caste drawn from a middle class whose idea of greatness is to accumulate minor amounts of coercive power over each other while expanding a proverbial swamp that the rest of the country hates. The Brahmins have gone into a hibernation from which they may never awaken.

Paul du Quenoy is a private investor and critic. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

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