Where Is Joe Biden’s ‘Devil’s Advocate’?

Where Is Joe Biden’s ‘Devil’s Advocate’?

The wisdom of LBJ’s resident contrarian George Ball is as relevant today as it was in the Vietnam era.

The phrase “the Wise Men” referring to the American postwar foreign policy elite was popularized by the authors Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas nearly 40 years ago, in a book of the same name. 

Isaacson and Thomas chronicled the lives of “six friends” who, they claim, shaped American foreign policy in the postwar era. Yet of these 20th century giants, perhaps the wisest of their number received second billing. Indeed, I would argue today that George W. Ball (1909–1994) is among the least heralded of that generation of diplomats and policymakers. But Ball, who came to be known as “the Devil’s Advocate” within the Johnson administration for his tenacious opposition to the American war in Vietnam, deserves another look—especially today, with the Biden administration leading the country into a proxy war against Russia, a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, and military action against the Yemeni Houthis, among other foreign misadventures.  

Ball’s career in public service spanned half a century, from the 1930s to the 1980s. And everywhere one looks, from the New Deal to Lend Lease, from the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey to the birth of the European Steel and Coal Community, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the war in Vietnam, one will find George Ball.

Such was the esteem with which Ball was held by his contemporaries that by 1980, our country’s wisest diplomat, George Kennan, was expressing to the era’s most famous historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., his wish that Ball be named Secretary of State. But that exchange took place nearly 45 years ago, and in the intervening years, Ball has fallen quite unfairly into obscurity alongside other giants of the era, including Charles “Chip” Bohlen and Llewellyn Thompson. 

As early as 1961, Ball warned President John F. Kennedy that, with regard to Vietnam, “Within five years, we’ll have 300,000 men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again.” To which Kennedy responded, “George, you’re just crazier than hell. That just isn’t going to happen.”

So who was George Ball, and how did he foresee that things would go so wrong before everyone else?

Ball, a brilliant, self-assured product of the American Midwest, was part of the wave of bright young New Dealers who came to Washington in the middle 1930s. Initially posted to Henry Morgenthau’s Treasury Department, he came to represent a species of Democrat that has nearly vanished, a foreign policy hand who intuitively understood the interplay of power, of interests, and of nationalism in an anarchic world. His early forays into foreign affairs came through his work on Lend Lease, the Strategic Bombing Survey, and then, fortuitously, through his work with the architect of the European Coal and Steel Community, Jean Monnet. Needless to say, the French experience in Vietnam in the 1950s, during which time Ball served as the French government’s chief legal counsel in the U.S., was not a happy one. In his memoir, The Past Has Another Pattern, Ball recalled that he

had listened to innumerable French military and civilian experts discuss their nation’s plans, fears and doubts…. From that experience, I concluded — and have never ceased to believe—that we should rigorously avoid land wars in Asia.

President Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam met immediate opposition from Ball, who was by then serving as undersecretary of state. The series of memos and briefings put together by Ball throughout the mid-1960s were so prescient that years later the journalist and author David Halberstam observed that, “Someone reading his papers five years later would have a chilling feeling that they had been written after the fact, not before.”

As early as 1964, responding to the argument that American “credibility” was on the line in Southeast Asia, Ball wrote to the president that “what we might gain by establishing the steadfastness of our commitments, we could lose by an erosion of confidence in our judgment.” We were, in those years, in constant danger of, in Ball’s words, “becoming the puppet of our puppet.” The national security advisor McGeorge Bundy felt that what was really at stake was the country’s image abroad, or as he put it, “the confidence of America’s allies and America’s self-confidence.”  Looking back on that period, when all of the president’s top advisers, including Bundy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk counseled greater American involvement on that basis, Ball noted,

America had become a prisoner of whatever Saigon military clique was momentarily in power. Like a heroine in an eighteenth century novel who gets her way by fainting if anyone spoke crossly, each clique understood how to exploit its own weakness. If we demanded anything significant of it, it would collapse; so we never made any serious demands.

Does any of that sound familiar?

The arguments from the pro-interventionists of the Vietnam era are eerily, indeed, wearingly similar to those advanced in our own time in favor of further U.S. involvement in Ukraine. Rusk and the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., advocated for more boots on the ground on the basis of their belief that if we failed to stop the Communists there, there was no telling how far they would go. President Biden’s warning in his recent State of the Union address that, “If anybody in this room thinks Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you, he will not,” is simply a warmed-over recitation of the Domino Theory, which remains, all these decades later, nothing so much as a fantasy—and one that that becomes all the more dangerous the more one believes it. 

Given the risks as laid out so cogently, so painstakingly by Ball, why did Johnson and his men insist on moving forward? Why didn’t McNamara, who for years privately expressed grave reservations, step forward and challenge the escalatory policy of the President?

Part of the answer lies with the fact that the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policy was driven by the fear of an influential foreign lobby.  In a 1968  interview with the pioneering oral historian Jean Stein, Sen. Joseph Tydings of Maryland found it “amazing” how

all of the top persons were deceived in Vietnam each time they would go over. It was partly the holdover atmosphere from the McCarthy era…the people in the State Department who should have been speaking out were scared to death. No one except George Ball seemed to question and speak out against our policy. They’d seen the power of the China lobby…the young, inquisitive objective voices in the State Department were so scared by what happened…and by the purges by Dulles, Congress, and others during and after the McCarthy era.

Today, the role of ideological enforcer is played not by the China Lobby but by the Captive Nations lobby, led, of course, by the most  fanatical interventionists in Washington. Anyone doubting that such a lobby exists might refer themselves to the current controversies roiling the Helsinki Commission on Capitol Hill. In such an atmosphere, where even relatively meek expressions of dissent are drowned out and condemned by pro-interventionists, one must wonder how many within the administration or on the Hill are dissuaded from speaking out by a fear of being smeared as apologists for Russia.

Johnson’s last secretary of defense, Clark Clifford (who emerged as a voice of dissent once Ball left State in September 1966) shrewdly observed that “individuals sometimes become so bound up in a certain course it is difficult to know where objectivity stops and personal involvement begins.” Clifford’s analysis applies with equal force to the current coterie of new cold warriors who seem to place foreign interests well before the interests of the United States. 

Ultimately, however, one must concede that Ball’s opposition to Vietnam was ineffective: By the end of 1968 the US had 549,000 troops in Vietnam. Ball later wrote that he had “no inflated view” of the effectiveness of his advocacy.  “I like to think that I somewhat slowed down the escalation,” but even so, “I provided no more than a marginal constraint on the momentum.”

The temptation, then, might be to say: So what if Biden does or doesn’t have a Devil’s Advocate of his own? 

Given the risks involved, it is far better to have a truth-teller like Ball on the inside, even if he, as Ball was, is faced with insuperable opposition. After all, the pressure on the President to escalate remains immense. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has in recent weeks repeatedly signaled his determination to send boots on the ground should the Russians break through the current line of contact. The Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, who has deep ties to the American political establishment, recently expressed his view that “the presence of NATO forces in Ukraine is not unthinkable.” And within the U.S. establishment the war drums beat as loudly as ever, with articles in organs like Foreign Affairs urging the president to send military advisers to Ukraine. 

Indeed, the U.S. has been a co-belligerent in all but in name for some time; after all, three weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, national security reporter Dan Dorfman reported that “U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence have even participated in joint offensive cyber operations against Russian government targets.” And more recent revelations from the New York Times indicate that US involvement on the ground has been more robust than often assumed.

In the end, the absence of a Devil’s Advocate, means, inevitably, as Ball put it, “no restraints and no alternatives.” And alternatives to war are needed now more than ever.

The post Where Is Joe Biden’s ‘Devil’s Advocate’? appeared first on The American Conservative.

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