Book Review: George Ball: Behind the Scenes in U.S. Foreign Policy

George Wildman Ball, undersecretary of state in the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, was one of the few heroic public figures in the United States during the Vietnam War. In 1965, he alone among Johnson’s senior advisers argued against United States military escalation in South Vietnam and predicted with chilling accuracy the tragic course of the war. Why was Ball able to see so clearly what others could not? What are the lessons about statesmanship to be learned from this prescient and prudent public servant? James A. Bill probes those significant questions in this hard-hitting biography. An unabashed admirer of Ball, the author declares Ball’s career “a model of effective statecraft for the future.” Bill notes the diplomat’s faults—Eurocentrism, elitism, stubbornness—but concludes that Ball possessed the cardinal political virtue that Aristotle labeled phronesis, a careful balance of means and ends in a clear moral framework premised on the public good.

Ball quietly fashioned Kennedy’s European initiatives, served on Kennedy’s Executive Committee during the Cuban missile crisis, and managed crises in the Congo and Cyprus. Despite his low profile, he could be controversial. There were allegations that personal business connections influenced his Congo decisions. As acting secretary of state, he flashed the “green light” that led eventually to the assassination of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem. In each case, Bill deftly defends Ball’s actions. Some of Ball’s critics have contended that he should have resigned in 1965 rather than allow himself to be used by the White House as its token dove. Like David DiLeo and David Barrett, Bill argues that Johnson took Ball’s warnings seriously. According to Bill, Johnson wanted action alternatives that Ball had no time to provide.

To promote Ball as a model statesman invites comparisons between him and other policy makers. Bill contends that, unlike Ball, Robert McNamara had no insights into the intangibles of the human spirit, but the author does not explore some strong parallels between Ball and McNamara. Most notable is that, after having decided on the futility of American armed intervention in Vietnam, both still supported it publicly. Bill’s explanation of Ball’s decision cites loyalty and continued efforts to influence Johnson. It is a rationale similar to McNamara’s much maligned self-defense in his memoirs, and it blurs some of the distinctiveness that Bill claims for Ball’s style of public service.

Bill stridently attacks Henry Kissinger’s record and makes a good case for Ball as the better role model. The self-promotion and expediency that Kissinger exhibited and Ball eschewed, however, brought Kissinger a level of power that Ball never attained. As Ball’s friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once observed, an approach that is honorable and high-minded can be “so concerned with being right in the abstract that it forgets to be effective.” Still, Bill provides a provocative and persuasive account of how Ball’s prudence and moral perspective enabled him to understand the why, and not just the how, of policies. Bill makes his point that George Ball was a statesman to be emulated.

By: James A. Bill