Practical Sense

The Past Has Another Pattern: Memoirs

by George W. Ball
Norton, 527 pp., $19.95

George Ball
George Ball; drawing by David Levine

With John J. McCloy still in action, it would be premature to consider a new chairman for the Establishment. But if there were a vacancy, one of the candidates would have to be George Ball. Ball, who at age seventy-two is a partner at Lehman Brothers, has since World War II been part of the group that held stewardship for American foreign policy, rotating in and out of government, maintaining contact with their counterparts overseas. It goes almost without saying that in 1954 Ball was a founding member of the Bilderberg Group, whose secret consultations between European and American leaders have stimulated countless conspiracy theories about the threat of one-world government.

The failings of this establishment have been widely discussed, especially after so many of its members presided over America’s entry into Vietnam. Ball’s career reveals some of the biases of his class—though not about Vietnam, on which he was the most consistent internal dissenter. But to judge by the evidence Ball presents in this graceful and instructive memoir, at least some members of the postwar establishment understood things about the continuity of America’s interests that might usefully be recalled today.

George Ball was raised in Iowa and Illinois, son of a man who began working for Standard Oil as a tankwagon driver and became one of its vice-presidents and directors. After receiving his law degree from Northwestern in 1933, he joined the rush of bright young men to Washington, where he worked under Henry Morgenthau at the Farm Credit Administration and the Treasury.

In 1935, Ball went home to Chicago to set up private practice. When the war began, he took his friend Adlai Stevenson’s advice that he could do less for the country in uniform than by helping to manage the wartime government. He worked first for the Lend-Lease Administration, where his objective became agreements that would not saddle the European allies with another crushing burden of postwar debt. Later he became part of the Strategic Bombing Survey, where his final assignment was, in partnership with John Kenneth Galbraith and sometimes with Paul Nitze, to interrogate Albert Speer about the just fallen Reich.1

Ball spent one year after the war working for Jean Monnet and the French Supply Council, which was trying to restore the rudiments of a functioning economy in France, and as an adviser to Leon Blum when he came to Washington to negotiate a loan of $1.37 billion for French recovery. Ball’s experience in the Forties left him with an understanding of the shared interests between the US and Europe—and more practically, with extensive contacts on both sides. During the next fifteen years, he established himself as a bigtime Washington lawyer who often represented foreign clients in their dealings with the US.2 He took part in negotiations for the Marshall Plan and for the treaty establishing the Coal and Steel Community, which was the…

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