Commentary Magazine

The Past Has Another Pattern, by George W. Ball

Misplaced Priorities

The Past has Another Pattern.
by George W. Ball.
Norton. 527 pp. $19.95.

Although he has not held an important government position since briefly serving as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1968, George W. Ball remains a figure of controversy and influence. Probably no past or current high-ranking foreign-policy official has been as outspoken in castigating the actions of the Israeli government, and Ball has coupled his increasingly harsh rhetoric with concrete proposals for punishing Israel, most recently advocating the “deduction” of aid promised Israel and its diversion to Lebanon. The Middle East is not Ball’s only preoccupation. He has, for instance, denounced the Reagan administration’s efforts to thwart construction of the Siberian pipeline as “marked by hypocrisy, self-deception, and an astonishing ignorance of past experience.”

Concerning the two above-mentioned issues—Israel and the pipeline sanctions—Ball’s views are consistent with the prevailing judgment of our foreign-policy elite. Yet Ball’s opinions on these and other matters carry special weight. In part this is due to the fact of his long and varied experience in politics and government affairs. Ball’s credentials are, in fact, impressive: administrator in the lend-lease program; director of the Strategic Bombing Survey; adviser to Jean Monnet, the guiding figure in the movement for European unity; aide and speech writer to Adlai Stevenson in his two presidential bids; Under Secretary of State during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. And there is a strong possibility that Ball would have capped his career by being named Secretary of State had Hubert Humphrey won the Presidency in 1968 or 1972.

Ball has also attained a certain stature because of his reputation for political and intellectual independence. No doubt this reputation has been cultivated by Ball’s sharply polemical (and increasingly self-righteous) writings. Nevertheless, as this book of memoirs suggests, George Ball’s opinions and attitudes concerning the conduct of foreign policy do not fit neatly into orthodox liberal-conservative categories. It is, I suspect, precisely because Ball takes a dim view of many trendy, revisionist notions that he is taken more seriously than, say, Robert McNamara or McGeorge Bundy, to name two of his former colleagues in the Kennedy-Johnson years.

Thus, despite his opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, Ball is contemptuous of the antiwar movement and bitter toward the movement’s academic cheerleaders. He views the embrace of Marxism by underdeveloped countries as a prescription for economic disaster, and was dubious about the grandiose schemes for Third World development which were promoted so confidently during his years in the State Department. He sees the United Nations as an irrelevant institution. He expresses no regrets about the tough American response to the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis. Nor is he philosophically opposed to the manipulation of events by the United States or even outright intervention. He regards the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 with equanimity, having decided that Juan Bosch was a demagogue and potential dupe of the Communists. More significantly, he believed that the coup which led to the overthrow and death of Ngo Dinh Diem was unfortunate but necessary, and he even helped draft the fateful cable which gave American sanction to the enterprise.

Thus while Ball counts among his friends such liberal eminences as Chester Bowles and John Kenneth Galbraith, liberalism as a philosophy appears to have influenced the direction of his political views to a lesser extent than did his many years’ experience in the world of corporate finance. As a private attorney, Ball represented many prestigious foreign clients in the years after World War II, most notably the Patronat, a federation of major French industries. He moves comfortably in those rarefied circles where the representatives of business and finance intermingle with elected officials and government bureaucrats; Ball even played a prominent role in the establishment of the Bilderberg group, a transnational organization which brings the free world’s elite together for private discussions, and is the bête noire of conspiracy theorists. He has worked since his retirement from government service with the investment house of Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb.

Ball himself is a confirmed believer in a form of welfare-state capitalism, a capitalism, however, untainted by the corrupting influence of protectionism. Although Ball was not among those who thought that increased trade relations with the West would necessarily temper the global adventurism of the Soviet Union, he has long opposed the employment of economic restrictions as a foreign-policy weapon. Furthermore, Ball tends to stress the West’s economic interests as paramount in the formulation of foreign policy, above and beyond strategic or ideological considerations.

It is hardly surprising, given Ball’s essentially moderate stance, that the public figure with whom he had the closest association was Adlai Stevenson. As Ball emphasizes, Stevenson was by no means the convinced liberal that so many of his supporters from the reform movement assumed him to be. Ball’s experiences in Stevenson’s presidential efforts taught him to share the candidate’s disdain for electioneering and for many of the people involved in the campaign process, and to despise the special pleading of ethnic and interest groups, Jews prominent among them. In Stevenson the presidential nominee, such attitudes proved to be fatal flaws, and Ball is attuned to the weaknesses in Stevenson’s personality, particularly his need to be constantly surrounded by a coterie of mostly female admirers. Nevertheless, Ball seems inevitably drawn to men, like Stevenson, who radiate an aura of culture, reserve, and an aristocratic bearing. Jean Monnet was one such man, and Ball treats Monnet almost reverentially. Another, more problematical figure, was Albert Speer. Ball was among a small group of Americans (Galbraith and Paul Nitze were others) to interview Speer immediately after the fall of the Third Reich. Ball and his colleagues got on rather well with Speer, even though “secretly ashamed” of their sympathies for a high-ranking official of a regime they loathed. Explains Ball:

I knew I should feel repelled by Speer because his willing association with the filthy Nazi thugs marked him as a man who had touched evil; yet, try as I might, I could not sustain that mood. Speer was not at all in the mold of the brutal Nazi—instead, and this is what made my tolerant attitude toward him so inexcusable—he seemed, to use Noel Coward’s derisive phrase, “like us.”

Now Ball is not unique in having had to grapple with the dilemma of how to deal with the enemy on a personal basis; and he is certainly more self-aware and candid than the Western visitors who regularly report back on how “refined” and “cultured” this or that Kremlin notable is, most recently Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief who is seen as a possible successor to Brezhnev.

Unfortunately, Ball is not satisfied with a simple explanation of his own feelings toward Speer; he feels compelled to insert a gratuitous disquisition on the potential for the emergence of an authoritarian or fascist regime in the United States. In the course of these ruminations, Ball asserts that had Richard Nixon and his associates not been brought down by Watergate, they might well have “dangerously undermined” the democratic fabric here. This is one of many highly critical, even vitriolic, observations he makes about Nixon in this book. Ball can feel compassion for a Nazi leader who admitted to having employed slave labor in his mammoth construction enterprises; but he maintains an attitude of intense dislike toward Nixon, a man whose crimes cannot reasonably be compared to Speer’s. The conclusion is inescapable that it is Nixon’s gracelessness and street-fighter impulses that offend Ball as much as his involvement in Watergate or his Vietnam policies. Similarly, one suspects that Ball’s intemperance toward Israel is caused in part by the rough, aggressive style of Menachem Begin and other Israeli leaders.



Ball’s treatment of Speer is revealing in another sense. In justification of his leniency toward the German, he notes that he and other American officials considered reports of the Holocaust “exaggerated.” He adds that the “idea of mass extermination was so far outside the comprehension of most Americans that we instinctively refused to believe in its existence.” Again, Ball is by no means alone in having failed to recognize early on the full horror of Hitler’s Final Solution. Yet he seems to have only partially learned the lesson of totalitarianism’s capacity for evil. He makes not one reference to the genocide committed against the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge, and this in a book which deals at great length with the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Nor, in the surprisingly brief sections devoted to the Middle East (marked by several snide references to American Jews), is there a hint of recognition that the irrationalism and violence of the PLO and other Arab regimes may be a major reason for Israeli unwillingness to accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank.

Not that Ball is naive about totalitarianism. Indeed, it was his conviction that a democratic country is ill-equipped to engage totalitarian forces on a distant Third World battlefield which played a large role in his decision to oppose American participation in Vietnam. Ball, moreover, clearly understood the implications of his position: American withdrawal would inevitably lead to a total victory for the Communists. As he puts it: “The North Vietnamese would never agree to any settlement that did not offer them a virtual certainty of gaining domination of the whole of Vietnam within a reasonable time frame. That was the major point I incessantly argued, with no success.” To have prevailed, Ball says, would have required a massive, long-term American presence, and the employment of tactics too brutal for the American public or world opinion to accept.

Ball did not believe that the war was immoral, at least as prosecuted by Kennedy and Johnson, although he was seriously disturbed that our allies might think so. He felt, with others, that it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Given this point’ of view, one is taken aback by his unsympathetic, even angry, attitude toward the Saigon government. To be sure, the successive governments which held sway in South Vietnam posed many problems for the U.S. Yet as Ball states elsewhere, an inability to develop strong, non-totalitarian leadership is an endemic problem in post-colonial societies; he even refers to difficulties engendered by “premature independence.” Nonetheless, he writes that America “could never achieve terms that would satisfy the Saigon government; its war aims were rigidly defined by the desire of those in power to keep their jobs.” It seems never to have occurred to him that the South Vietnamese, like himself, recognized that an American withdrawal would guarantee a Communist triumph, and perceived American proposals for coalition governments and other concessions as opening wedges toward an eventual disengagement.



While Ball has written that a great nation like the U.S. should never “bully” its allies, this stricture seems to apply only to our allies in Western Europe and Japan. It most certainly does not extend to small non-European nations, like South Vietnam, that are aligned with or dependent on America. Ball, as noted earlier, has advanced several schemes to pressure or discipline Israel. In a similar vein, despite his professed anti-Communism, Ball is capable of maintaining an attitude of detached forbearance where the Soviets are concerned; in contrast, he responds to proposals for economic sanctions with anger. And while sympathetic to the captive East European nations, he regards their plight as less serious than possible Soviet “overreaction” to liberation efforts. Concerning this issue, he notes: “If the Kremlin felt key bloc countries slipping their harness, it might well be driven to strike out blindly to the point of a dangerous collision.” The emergence of Solidarity, or of future Solidaritys, is not, he seems to imply, in America’s interest.

George Ball believes that his philosophy of foreign affairs is motivated by a perception of America’s interests, a perception which embraces the spread of democratic values and other humane ideals. His outlook would be appropriate in an orderly world, where nations, and even adversaries, adhere to a set of mutually recognized principles and where rational behavior prevails. Unfortunately, we live in a world where terrorist forces and huge, totalitarian powers, unrestrained by the sentiments of their own people and impervious to world opinion, seek out every opportunity to subject others to their control. Confronted by these harsh realities, Ball turns, often in cold fury, not against our adversaries, but against those in the democratic camp who present impediments to a coming to terms. His priorities are sadly misplaced.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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