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Best & Brightest

From Vietnam to Palestine, George Ball got it right.

When the centennial of George Wildman Ball’s birth passed in December, there were no journalistic remembrances, no retrospectives, no essay collections published in his honor. Ball is mostly forgotten, recalled only by a few surviving colleagues from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and players of Trivial Pursuit.

Yet Ball, who died in 1994, deserves to be remembered. He was a remarkably farsighted diplomat, who was right when almost everyone else was wrong about Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, America’s relationship with Israel, the Lebanese civil war, and the Iranian Shah. If President Obama truly wants to craft a foreign policy based on what Walter Russell Mead has called “High Jeffersonianism”—engaging with the world while avoiding military entanglements—he should turn to advisers like George Ball.

The former under secretary of state was once well known in foreign-policy circles. He briefly became an antiwar hero when the Pentagon Papers revealed him as the only senior Johnson administration official opposed to the Vietnam conflict. “From the outset of the war, Ball was very consistent in his position, which was that the United States should never have been in Vietnam and would not win the war,” says David DiLeo, author ofGeorge Ball, Vietnam, and the Rethinking of Containment. “He never wavered in that view.” Many of the war’s architects, including Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, eventually came to regret their roles. But Ball was the only one who had it right the entire time.

His antiwar stance stemmed from his view that Europe was the chief—perhaps arguably the only—front in the Cold War. Like George Kennan, Ball had a lifelong affection for Europe and Western civilization that immunized him against fashionable utopian theories of “modernization” in the developing world. A lawyer by training, he knew and cared little about Vietnam, a fact that ironically turned out to be essential to his perspective on the war. He had enough distance to see the irrelevance to American national security of this obscure Third World country. What Ball did know about Vietnam was its recent history. He constantly reminded his colleagues of the French failure against the Viet Minh, to the point that they became annoyed at his insistence on the parallels between French and American policy.

He was a voracious reader, born in Iowa, educated at Northwestern University, and not at all intimidated by Bundy’s Ivy League polish or McNamara’s technocratic wizardry. He took his intellectual bearings from another Midwesterner, George Kennan, and the University of Chicago’s expatriate German realist Hans Morgenthau. His chief confidant and ally in the U.S. Senate was the “Dixie Dove,” Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright, who once hailed Ball as “the living American who had been most effective in changing things for the better.”

As Murray Polner mentions earlier in this issue, in November 1961, Ball warned President Kennedy that the administration’s deepening intervention in South Vietnam would sink America into a quagmire—that if JFK poured 300,000 men into the rice paddies, we would “never be able to find them.” Kennedy called him “crazy”—“That just isn’t going to happen.” The president was correct: the U.S. soon had not 300,000 but 500,000 troops in Vietnam.

Though Ball proved to be the president’s most prescient counsel, Kennedy was irritated by his confrontational approach. So Ball learned to refine his methods, concentrating on the administration’s Europe portfolio and offering only occasional advice about the war in Southeast Asia.

He would truly come into his own during the Johnson administration. Between May 1964 and May 1966, crucial years in the escalation of the war, Ball produced more than 20 internally circulated papers challenging U.S. policy in Vietnam. These disputed everything about the intervention, from tactical moves in the war to the flawed assumptions underpinning it. He debunked the effectiveness of air raids and dissected the Domino Theory. “The South Vietnamese are losing the war to the Viet Cong,” he wrote in a July 1965 memorandum. “No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong or even force them to the conference table on our terms, no matter how many hundred thousand white, foreign troops we deploy.” It was the bluntest language President Johnson heard about Vietnam, and it came from a ranking official in his own administration. “I know that the president listened to George with respect because he called me and said, ‘Do you known about this guy Ball?’” former Johnson press secretary Bill Moyers recalls. In his 1997 book George Ball: Behind the Scenes in U.S. Foreign Policy, James A. Bill concludes that although Ball failed to change the direction of U.S. policy in Vietnam, he at least “forced the president and his inner circle to think through their premises and assumptions.” Moyers, Dean Acheson, and Clark Clifford all credited Ball and his memos with moving them into the antiwar camp. According to Moyers, “He would marshal tremendous amounts of evidence to make the case against the war, these brilliant, long, 30-40 page memos that the president really valued as a challenge to this thinking.”

As Ball’s dissent on Vietnam policy became widely known, he was criticized for remaining in the administration. His friend Walter Lippmann, among others, considered it an error of unforgivable proportions for Ball to be publicly supportive of the war while privately opposing it. Critics have accused him of prioritizing access to power over his convictions. With his establishment credentials and insider knowledge, he could have provided invaluable credibility to the antiwar movement.

But Ball’s defenders say the critique misunderstands his reasoning. “It was a matter of leverage,” says Moyers. “As soon as he left the administration, his influence inside would have been finished.” Moyers believes that Ball’s resignation over Vietnam would have made headlines for a day or two, but ultimately would have had less impact on President Johnson than did his staying on as a high-level internal critic.

Fulbright was alarmed at Ball’s eventual departure, remarking that it left Johnson exposed to fewer contrary views. And James Bill writes that whatever doubts might be raised about the effectiveness of Ball’s decision to remain in the cabinet, there are no grounds on which to question his sincerity, personal courage, and commitment to his goals.

Though his shrewdness on Vietnam would earn him the esteem of Cold War historians, Ball’s outspoken views on Israel and the Middle East were equally astute and even more brave. He publicly criticized the unprecedented coziness of the U.S.-Israel relationship, a move that may have cost him an appointment as secretary of state in the Carter administration. Instead of backing down, however, Ball continued to put his reputation on the line. In 1977, he published an article in Foreign Affairs called “How to Save Israel From Itself,” which still resonates more than 30 years later:

Because many articulate Americans are passionately committed to Israel, the slightest challenge to any aspect of current Israeli policy is likely to provoke a shrill ad hominem response… . [The question] is not whether we should try to force an unpalatable peace on the Israeli people, but rather how much longer we should continue to pour assistance into Israel to support policies that impede progress toward peace and thus accentuate the possibility of war, with all the dangers that that holds not only for Israel but for the United States… . The hard fact is that the national interests of the United States and of Israel cannot, in the nature of things, be precisely congruent: there will necessarily be situations in which United States policies must diverge from those of the Israeli government if our country is to be true to itself.

In 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon further convinced Ball of the folly of unconditional American support for the Jewish state. He called his last book The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement With Israel, aptly taking his title from the warning in George Washington’s Farewell Address that “nothing is more essential [for the survival of the Republic] than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded.” In addition to examining the U.S.-Israel relationship and detailing the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Ball’s book also included an explosive chapter on the Israel lobby, similar in many ways to Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, but written more than 15 years earlier.

If the unmatched sagacity of Ball’s political judgment has largely gone unheralded, it has not been because of his modesty. Like almost everyone else at the top ranks of American government, Ball was deeply ambitious and didn’t hesitate to promote himself. But he was also wise. As President Obama fights another protracted war in a distant land, he would do well to find an adviser as bold and prescient as George Ball.

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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