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Satirical Pastoral

The Triumph: A Novel of Modern Diplomacy

by John Kenneth Galbraith
Houghton-Mifflin, 256 pp., $4.95

Judged as a light novel, The Triumph makes very pleasant and sometimes hilarious reading. It is rather closely related to Our Man in Havana and The Comedians; more distantly to Scoop and Harold Nicholson’s Public Faces. It is a good English tradition and The Triumph is in some ways a rather unAmerican work. The author seems, to a surprising degree, a stranger in the Washington world he describes; no doubt that world has always had its Anglophile tradition, but this is not the manner of an American Anglophile; this eye is not only ironic but perceptibly alien. Mr. Galbraith has been an Ambassador of the United States, but as a writer he is a Canadian of English nostalgia. As such he belongs spiritually more to the world over which America dominates than to the world of the dominators. The detachment, and a faint latent repugnance, which this position implies seem to enhance his sense of the ridiculous and give an edge to his prose, applied to some of the activities of some of our rulers.

As a political fable The Triumph is valuable above all for its picture, limned by one whose familiarity with the original cannot be gainsaid, of the terms in which official Washington assesses news of political change in the poor countries of its unacknowledged empire. Those on the Left and elsewhere who are apt to assume that anti-communism is simply a rhetoric issued to the vulgar by an elite whose actual calculations are carried out on quite other terms will find from The Triumph that theirs is not the world of Washington as an ex-Ambassador and senior adviser knows it. In The Triumph, anti-communism is not just a mode of presenting issues to the public; it is a mode of apprehending them.

The triumph of the administration in The Triumph is to install in office in Puerto Santos, through an excess of anti-communist wariness, a communist government. An official of the shortlived, would-be liberal, and would-be progressive government of Puerto Santos (with which the author’s sympathies clearly lie) aptly describes the near impossibility, for an independent politician in an underdeveloped country, of attaining justification in the sight of the jealous god of American anti-communism:

Some American, officials, we must face it, are not easy to reassure. If you are not a Communist, they suspect you of being a fellow-traveller. If you are not a fellow-traveller, they suspect you of being a stooge. If you are too smart to be a stooge, they suspect you of being a stalking horse. If assured on all these counts, they will still conclude that you are an opening to the left.”

But anti-communism is not only a mode of assessing situations directly: it is a mode of assessing other peoples’ assessment of the situations. A Washington official who is not in sympathy with the system—but with whom Mr. Galbraith is in sympathy—expounds the theory of “multiple interconnected blind spots”:

Miró is believed by Washington to have a blind spot where Communism is concerned. So when I argue that Miró is okay, it means that I have a blind spot where Miró is concerned. O’Donnell argues that I am right. It follows that he has a blind spot where I am concerned. Besides he is a Catholic, and Catholics are now thought to have a special blind spot where Communism is concerned—that includes the Pope. The boys at the White House are sympathetic. That is because they have a general blind spot resulting from inexperience. In other words, all who disagree with the official line are disqualified by blind spots. They are a great handicap.”

Through this process all views which are opposed to those of the impeccable anti-communist Worth Campbell, the official hero of The Triumph, are necessarily self-discrediting. We get a glimpse, no more, of the society which has allowed an anti-communist interpretation of world history to attain this self-sufficient and self-perpetuating authority. Worth Campbell speaks to the “Foreign Relations Council” on the imminent danger of Communism in Puerto Santos and afterwards ruminates about his audience:’

They were influential men; clearly they had appreciated what he had to say; it was good that they now had the full picture. Campbell did not stop to consider on whom they had influence. Not on the Senators from New York. These were liberals and not, unhappily, the kind whom the yearning for respectability makes decently susceptible to the established view. Not the Congressmen; they were far too plebeian even to hope for notice by members of the Council. Not the New York Times or the Post; it was their influence he was seeking to offset. His audience did not, as Marxists would imagine, control banks or investments in Puerto Santos. Since United Fruit pulled out and Martínez had moved in, foreign investment had been negligible. Influence is evidently a rather subjective thing: in foreign affairs a man is influential if he so regards himself. But influence does have a practical aspect. Various of the men to whom Worth Campbell had just spoken, because they were influential, spoke regularly to the Secretary and to the President. Or they were consulted. On such occasions they might now mention their concern about possible Communist penetration in Puerto Santos or their satisfaction that it was being competently watched. While Worth Campbell did not reflect on the sources of his audience’s influence, he thought briefly of this latter fact.

This is interesting but a little too vague and not quite true. Those vulgar Marxists who “would imagine” that this particular audience control banks or investments in Puerto Santos are no doubt wrong; here the facts are at the disposition of the novelist. One has the impression, however, that the members of the audience are the kind of people who are likely to control banks or investments elsewhere, and probably in places not unlike Puerto Santos. If so, their concern about a danger of communism in Puerto Santos, and their approval of the anti-communist vigilance of such officials as Worth Campbell, are not irrational or accidental, though they may be excessive and self-defeating. Also, it is more elegant than true to say that “in foreign affairs a man is influential if he so regards himself”; the addition of the adjective “rich” before “man” would align the statement more closely to reality, but this would imperil the mood of urbanity from which the author never departs very far.

THIS URBANITY, which is among the charms of The Triumph as a light novel, weakens it as political satire. This is not the feigned and deadly calm of Swift, but a basic good humor, and a kind of acceptance beneath the ridicule. Worth Campbell, like Harold Nicolson’s Peabody, is a silly pompous fellow, but not a bad chap really, and if he could be retired matters could be set right fairly easily. The external world, in so far as it appears in The Triumph, is adjusted to this concept. Worth Campbell’s suspicions about the Government which takes over in Puerto Santos after the fall of the dictator are entirely groundless. This Government is free from any taint of Communism; it poses no threat of any kind to any American interest, public or private; Puerto Santos is not an area of government. Worth Campbell’s anti-communism is therefore as irrelevant as it is obsessive. But the real world, with which the real Worth Campbells have to deal, is not often like this. Poor countries with Latin names very often are areas of American investment; revolutionary movements very often do have some kind of communist support or associations, or programs which American investors could sanely regard as Communistic; genuinely liberal, genuinely progressive, genuinely popular governments, like the one Mr. Galbraith confers on Puerto Santos, are rare objects.

What, then, of the situation in which the movement which overthrows the dictator has wide popular backing, communist associations and authoritarian methods, and threatens American investments? What do Professor Galbraith’s good guys do in that situation? If they do not intervene, then they acquiesce in the spread of “Castroism,” or expressions of similar forces, to any poor country which, left to itself, would be likely to move in that way; there is no indication that the “good guys” would be likely to acquiesce in anything so drastic. If, however, they intervene—“containing Castroism”—their chief quarrel with Worth Campbell is really that he is obtuse in the application of a policy which they too support; his obtuseness is in part a function of a highly artificial situation created for him by the novelist.

My impression is that the fable is constructed as it is in order to allow Professor Galbraith to poke fun at an anti-communist position which he dislikes emotionally—with some of the feelings of a subject person—but with which he has not yet broken intellectually. He has constructed a world in which he does not need to break with the anti-communist position intellectually, since it is not intellectually relevant; it is just a manifestation of the stupidity of a certain type of man. So the fable swings uneasily away from satire, the critique of a real world, toward pastoral, the creation of a world that never was.

The political implications of this shift into pastoral are, however, not without significance for the real world. Professor Galbraith may—we must even hope that he will—be again an important adviser in Washington. From certain passages in The Triumph—including some which I have quoted—the reader might get the impression that his advice would be widely different from the kind of thing current in contemporary Washington, where the Worth Campbells blatantly flourish. No doubt it would be different and for the better. Yet The Triumph as a whole—if I have read it correctly—suggests that the advice would be less widely different in the real world than it seems in the invented one. It would be more prudent—which is certainly a gain—more elegant, and more sophisticated, but it is not yet clear that it would depart from Worth Campbell’s basic anti-communist assumptions. If so, the pressures of the real world would be likely to bend Professor Galbraith’s advice, contrary to his personal inclinations, toward various forms of intervention in the internal affairs of poor countries, once it can be shown that Communists are really there. The substitution—to the extent that it may take place—of people like Professor Galbraith for people like Worth Campbell would still be a clear gain, but the extent of the gain is placed in question by the existence of these common assumptions.

Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that noted liberal anti-communist (and avowed foe of “obsessive” anti-communism), helped to provide smokescreens for the Bay of Pigs, and other CIA-led anti-communist schweinerei such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter. Professor Galbraith, to the distress of his admirers—of whom the present reviewer is one, though not to the point of fanaticism—associated himself (New York Times, May 9, 1966) with Professor Schlesinger (and Messrs. George Kennan and Robert Oppenheimer) in an attempt to represent the Congress as genuinely independent (“the Congress has had no loyalty except an unswerving commitment to cultural freedom” etc.). Professor Schlesinger has subsequently admitted that he knew, at the time when he signed this letter, that the body whose independence he proclaimed to be beyond question had been subsidized by the CIA. Professor Galbraith, after the Congress’s CIA connection had surfaced, admitted that the joint letter had been a little “fulsome”; the epithet is wry, urbane, funny, and not quite sufficient, like The Triumph itself.

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