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 first step toward the creation of the European Economic Community, and which, like the EEC, Euratom, and the French government, retained Ball as its counsel in Washington.

During those same years, Ball helped manage Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns. He reports one of Harry Truman’s lines of attack in his first effort to persuade Stevenson to run: “Adlai, if a knucklehead like me can be President and not do too badly, think what a really educated smart guy like you could do in the job.” In the summer of 1960, as part of an effort to improve Stevenson’s standing with the Kennedy forces and perhaps land him an appointment as Kennedy’s secretary of state, Ball proposed that Stevenson direct a task force that would have a report on foreign policy ready for the new president right after the election, assuming that he won. Ball ended up doing most of the work on the report; and after Kennedy read and admired it, Ball was appointed the new administration’s undersecretary of state for economic affairs. There he remained for nearly six years, until he resigned in discouragement over—but not, he is careful to point out, in protest of—the war in Vietnam. Since then, Ball has remained on tap to presidents of both parties while earning his daily bread on Wall Street.

Despite his long involvement at or near the center of American foreign policy, Ball occasionally attempts to present himself as a modest son of the Midwest, his view of the world steadied by the feel of the broad prairies beneath his feet. This pose is roughly as convincing as its equivalent from Clark Clifford, another one-time Midwestern boy. But Ball suggests another, more persuasive difference between himself and many of the others who have helped make foreign policy.

When Ludwig Erhard was chancellor of West Germany, Lyndon Johnson was entertaining him at breakfast with a description of the unparalleled “galaxy of talent” that worked for him. There was Dean Rusk the Rhodes scholar and foundation president, McGeorge Bundy the Harvard dean, et cetera. According to Ball, who was also at the table, Johnson then said, apparently as an afterthought, “I’ll tell you something else, Chancellor, George Ball’s an intellectual too.” As soon as he could talk with the president alone, Ball told him, “Those are fighting words where I come from, and I hope you’ll never say that to me again.”


Under the circumstances, this might be seen primarily as a way for Ball to ingratiate himself with the president, who “laughed and slapped me on the back and said, ‘I know you’re not one of those smart-ass eggheads.”‘ But it is also a fair characterization of the style of thought Ball displays in the book. When we have come to grief in our foreign policy, he suggests, it has usually been because of those who are so infatuated with theory that they cannot see the wrinkles and complications of the real world (e.g., W.W. Rostow on Vietnam), or because of those who set out on ideological crusades, such as John Foster Dulles and his contemporary heirs. What both approaches omit is a calm consideration, based more on experience than on theory, of the places where our moral and material interests are at stake, and an even more coldblooded assessment of precisely what power we have to change the course of events. The consideration of these questions underlies most of the book and is the explicit subject of its ending.

It would be misleading to suggest that Ball has attempted to make this book an international-relations text with a super-serious air. In fact, he seems to have decided that he can drop the diplomat’s politeness and skewer the various fools he has encountered along the way. For example, he says of the coronation ceremony the Shah of Iran staged for himself in 1967, “Though the garish affair was played straight it still had the atmosphere of operetta. We waited expectantly for the Empress to burst into an Offenbach aria or the Shah to shuffle smartly into a soft-shoe routine.” Still, as Ball presents the chronicle of his own experience, its cumulative effect is to argue unmistakably that we need to distinguish our enduring natural interest in Europe from the illusory interests that have drawn us to other stray patches of real estate around the globe.

This is clearest of all in Ball’s description of the matters he handled in the State Department that had nothing to do with Vietnam. By the time the reader has followed him through more than two hundred pages covering subjects from the UN’s war in the Congo to the rituals of courtship and separation involving Britain, France, the Common Market, and NATO, it is obvious why Ball considered Vietnam so tangential to real American interests, even as the war there was growing to eclipse everything else.

The Kennedy administration’s introduction to Indochina was the fighting in Laos, which Ball presents as a variety of farce. On the Plain of Jars, armies ran from each other while their commanders hid in their tents and wrote dispatches about imagined valor. What was said of Austria in the 1930s could, Ball says, be said as well of Laos: the situation was hopeless but not serious.

Vietnam was a different story. It was more serious than Laos, in the sense of armies doing battle, but it was also hopeless, and to Ball that was the conclusive point. In his dealings with the French throughout the 1950s, he had been impressed by the futility of fighting colonial, antiguerrilla wars, whether in Indochina or in the Maghreb. Charles de Gaulle later told him, after the American commitment had been made, that Vietnam was “rotten country.” And so, Ball argued from the beginning, the US should steer clear of Vietnam. The country was peripheral to our interests, and the war was impossible for us to win.

Those two arguments were closely connected, for Ball said that the disparity in the two sides’ stake in the fighting amounted to a crucial military difference. “For Hanoi’s leaders, control of the whole of Vietnam was a fanatical, almost religious, objective they had relentlessly pursued for twenty years, for America, the war was a marginal affair not worth a head-on clash with Peking or Moscow, a struggle to be waged with a limited commitment of manpower and weaponry.”

In addition, Ball said, our commitment to defend freedom did not compel us to participate in this war. In 1961, he argued that “unlike Korea, the Vietnam problem was not one of repelling overt aggression but of mixing ourselves up in a revolutionary situation with strong anticolonialist overtones.” He wrote in a memo to President Johnson in 1965, “To be sure, the French were fighting a colonial war while we are fighting to stop aggression. But when we have put enough Americans on the ground in South Viet-Nam to give the appearance of a white man’s war, the distinction as to our ultimate purpose will have less and less practical effect.”


Throughout the book, Ball quotes freely from his own speeches and memos, and he is freest of all with his arguments about Vietnam. In this he is not really fair; Ball gives hundreds of words from his eloquent dissent, and then quickly sums up the argument he was rebutting. But the temptation is easy to understand. For years, he was the man no one agreed with inside the White House, even though the things he was saying, and now is quoting, turn out to have been right.

Ball describes America’s commitment to the war as passing through two stages. The first was based on the assumption that we could win the war. A crucial step in this direction was the mission of W. W. Rostow and Maxwell Taylor to Vietnam in 1961, which ended in an optimistic report about the military prospects. Ball cannot resist quoting its conclusion that “the risks of backing into a major Asian war by way of SVN are present but…not impressive,” among other reasons because North Vietnam was “extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing.”

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 edifice 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.

This Issue

June 24, 1982