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Practical Sense

As evidence of the military difficulties mounted, American policy entered the second stage, in which the real objective was not to save South Vietnam from communism but to save ourselves from humiliation. This stage lasted from the last few years of the Johnson administration through nearly all of Richard Nixon’s term. Part of this attitude, Ball says, could not be addressed by rational rebuttal; neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon had a taste for going down in history as the first president to lose a war. But another part rested on the familiar contention that, if we decided to cut our losses in Vietnam, friend and foe would question our other commitments around the world. The battle for Saigon, therefore, was really a battle for Berlin. Ball replied that just the opposite was true; “What we might gain by establishing the steadfastness of our commitments we could lose by erosion of confidence in our judgment.”

Ball places heavy emphasis on the personal quirks that lay behind these decisions, especially Lyndon Johnson’s sense of educational inferiority in the face of the well-pedigreed elite. His most important advisers worked out their disagreements among themselves, rather than arguing them in front of the president. As a result, Ball says, Johnson saw an apparently solid editice of brilliant men supporting the war. “A determined President might at any point have overruled his advisers and accepted the costs of withdrawal,” Ball says. “but only a leader supremely sure of himself could make that decision; Lyndon Johnson, out of his element in the Vietnam war, felt no such certainty.”

The principal sources of Johnson’s uncertainty, according to Ball, were Rostow (who, he says, prefigured Zbigniew Brzezinski in his facility “for inventing abstractions that sounded deceptively global and profound—at least to Presidents not inoculated by early exposure to the practice”), McNamara, and Bundy. In 1968, he recalls, Bundy changed his view, telling Johnson in a meeting of former “senior” advisers, “I must tell you what I thought I would never say—that I now agree with George Ball.” This does suggest questions about the current views of Robert McNamara. Throughout his tenure as president of the World Bank, McNamara flatly declined comment on military questions, past or present. In publishing his recent Foreign Affairs article with Bundy, George Kennan, and Gerard Smith, he has broken his silence.3 Perhaps some day he will see the public interest in sharing his reflections on where he and others went right or wrong.

George Ball’s analysis of Vietnam is not exactly news, although its clarity and coherence make it valuable even now. But in one aspect of his presentation he is disappointing. That is his reluctance to look deeply into the effect of his dissent and resignation.

As Ball saw it, he stayed in the government as long as he felt he was making a difference by being there. He might not be winning many converts by giving his “usual speech” about the war, but if he were not there the speech would not get made, and things would be even worse. Then, the crucial choices of 1965 were made. The big buildup of troops was under way, and in Ball’s mind the outcome was more or less foreordained, in view of Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to back off and the impossibility of winning the war. Ball left the government in September, 1966, telling himself that it no longer served a purpose for him to stay.

But he went out quietly. While in the government, he had kept his opposition to the war a secret—or rather, in a nice illustration of Washington folkways, he had kept it a “secret” by confiding in two of the most prominent journalists, Walter Lippmann and James Reston. Lippmann urged him to make his views public when he left; Ball declined. He “did not consider that I was leaving over a principle.” He stayed on call for Lyndon Johnson and even gave in to Johnson’s opportuning and served briefly as ambassador to the United Nations.

Elsewhere in the book, Ball shows that he knows about the human nuance of government. He explains why a national security adviser or secretary of state who loves to travel will become so harassed and preoccupied that he cannot maintain a clear, steady vigilance over America’s many interests. He describes the way tides can turn inside a meeting. A man who knows these things should also be able to see more than Ball allows himself to see about his dissent inside the government and his silence outside.

Ball says that when he was in the government, Lyndon Johnson was the very opposite of a tyrant intolerant of dissent. Each time Ball raised his objections to the established wisdom, the president would listen long and hard, and then would sincerely thank Ball for speaking up. And after he had listened, the president would go on as before.4

The Washington Monthly once described Ball during this phase as the “captive dove”: having let old George have his say, the others in the government could proceed on course, satisfied that they had considered all relevant objections. Ball quotes a transmittal note that McGeorge Bundy submitted to the president along with one of Ball’s memos of dissent: “My hunch is you will want to listen hard to George Ball and then reject his proposal. Discussion could then move on to the narrower choice between my brother’s [William Bundy, then an official in the State Department] course and McNamara’s.” Ball presents this in a context designed to illustrate the fair-mindedness of Bundy, who unlike some of his successors took care to see that dissent reached the president’s desk, and also the mountain of opposition against which Ball labored. But it seems an even more powerful piece of evidence about the ritualized nature of Ball’s dissent—not on Ball’s part, for he was tireless in pressing his argument, but on the part of everyone else.

If Ball was relegated to the position of “captive dove,” that is a comment on the system and not on the man. But his behavior on departure reveals much about his values. Ball says that he left without protest because he did not want to betray the confidence of his colleagues, or add to the misery of a president already taking too many cheap shots, or give aid and comfort to the nation’s enemy. “Simply put, I did not want to be a hero of the yippies.”

Sound reasons all. But how important was the Vietnam policy, anyway? If Ball believed his dark predictions about the damage the war would do to the nation’s economy and its alliances, to say nothing of its soldiers, could he not have found a way to speak? Was there no way to lay out the arguments he had presented in his tightly written memos without betraying men he had worked with and respected? The one line in this book that rings absolutely false is Ball’s assertion that “were I to resign, it would be a non-event—at the most, a one-day wonder.” It could, of course have been far more than that, as it would have been in Robert McNamara’s case, if, as was widely supposed, he had grown demoralized about the war by the time he left the Pentagon for the World Bank.

It is easy to understand and admire the human loyalties, similar to those among men who have endured combat together, that would bind Ball to the men he had worked with for so many years and make him reluctant to be classed with their enemies. Hubert Humphrey was trapped by the same forces, and he paid a higher price. For Humphrey, speaking out against the war would have meant repudiating not just friendships but also, or so he must have thought, his chance at the office from which he could have changed the policy in Vietnam and done so much else. (The irony, of course, is that by the end of the 1968 campaign Humphrey’s chances for election depended on putting distance between himself and Lyndon Johnson.) For Ball, speaking out would have meant checking out of the game, and this was a step he was apparently unwilling to take.

For the previous two decades, Ball had positioned himself to be a player, a participant in the foreign policy establishment. He would be consulted, listened to—and hired by clients—when his party was out of power, and he might have a seat at the main table when his party was in. The virtue of such an establishment is to give its members the personal contacts and experience necessary for a broad, steady view of the world. Its danger is the ability to mute, through charges of amateurishness or irresponsibility, opinions expressed from outside its ranks. Ball was aware of this threat; he mentions, among the reasons for not speaking out, that “the official leakers in the White House would let it be widely known that I had quit to avoid being fired.” He knew that a man could protest as an insider only once in a career, for after that he would not be an insider again. He decided not to cash in his chips on this occasion and instead to save them—but for what?

The war in Vietnam marked the end of “an uncritical globalism that reflected our postwar preeminence,” Ball says. What should come in its place? In a few pages near the end of his book, Ball sketches his idea of our national interest.

In our dealings with the Soviet Union, Ball says, we must recognize that we are in a struggle. “If the Soviets’ buildup of a vast, costly military establishment does not by itself prove an intention to wage large-scale war, it does suggest that the Soviets will, as they have consistently done, continue to take advantage of opportunities to extend their influence.” But the inferences Ball draws from this struggle differ from current policy in two ways.

First, Ball says that the Reagan administration insists on defining “even the most localized tribal or religious quarrels—including squalid disputes over boundaries…in terms of the East-West struggle.” That has led to commitments to places whose intrinsic importance is small, and where our power to control events is questionable. Second, Ball says we should not conceive of our relations with the Soviet Union purely in military terms—and especially not through comparative counts of each other’s nuclear weaponry. It is a fantasy, he says, sustained only by those who are blind to all practical considerations, to think that nuclear weapons might ever be used in a “winnable” war. Their only purpose is deterrence, and we could feel more confidence in that function if we negotiated reductions in the levels of nuclear arms. This means calm, patient pressure on the Soviet Union; it means a willingness to improve our conventional force. It also means consistent pressure on our own armed forces, so as to break the pattern of the SALT negotiations, in which each new agreement ratifies the services’ ambitions for expanding the nuclear force.5

In our dealings with other nations, Ball insists on the obvious but overlooked fact that certain countries matter to us more than others. Western Europe and Japan are more important to us than other countries, and when we forget that we neglect our self-interest. Ball insists on another distinction, between our interest in another nation and the interests of that nation’s government. In South Vietnam and Iran, we failed to distinguish between the American interest and the interests of those governments, to our ultimate sorrow. Ball says that the same process is under way in the Middle East. The American interest is a settlement that will ensure Israel’s survival but also accommodate the Palestinians. The European and Japanese interest—and therefore a consideration for us—is stability that protects the flow of oil, on which their economic survival (far more than ours) depends. Israel, however, has defined its interests more narrowly and has, in Ball’s view, bullied American governments into compliance. The Israeli government is capable of perceiving and acting on its self-interest; so must we be.

Finally, Ball suggests our vulnerability to forces outside the sweep of great-power relations, first among them nuclear proliferation. No national security policy is complete if it does not do whatever is possible to forestall this threat, he says. Demonstrating our determination to control the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union is one such step; encouraging nuclear-free zones, especially in the Middle East, is another.

Such proposals lack the theoretical symmetry that would appeal to academics. They do not ring with ideological fervor. All they have to recommend them is their practical sense.

  1. 3

    Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance,” Foreign Affairs, Spring 1982.

  2. 4

    Ball mentions one important exception. In the late summer of 1964, after the attacks on the Maddox and the Turner Joy that led to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Robert McNamara proposed sending the destroyers back into the same waters to show the North Vietnamese that we meant business. President Johnson approved the decision, but then Ball spoke up. He quotes himself thus: ” ‘Mr. President, I urge you not to make that decision. Suppose one of those destroyers is sunk with several hundred men aboard…. Everyone knows the [patrols] have no intelligence mission that couldn’t be accomplished just as well by planes or small boats at far less risk. The evidence will strongly suggest that you sent those ships up the Gulf only to provoke attack so we could retaliate. Just think what Congress and the press would do with that! They’d say you deliberately used American boys as decoy ducks and that you threw away lives just so you’d have an excuse to bomb. Mr. President, you couldn’t live with that.’

    No one spoke for a long moment. The President seemed disconcerted and confused. Then he turned to McNamara: ‘We won’t go ahead with it, Bob. Let’s put it on the shelf.’ “

  3. 5

    Ball wrote without knowing about the administration’s START proposal, but it unfortunately confirms his point. If successful, the START negotiations would lead to a reduction in nuclear forces, which can only be welcomed. But nothing in the proposal would stand in the way of the nuclear modernization plans the American services now contemplate. The MX missile, the Trident modernizations, extra cruise missile deployments, and the B-1 bomber could all fit comfortably under START as initially proposed.

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