Who's Your George Ball?

Seymour Hersh / Seymour Hersh's Substack
Who's Your George Ball? President Johnson and George W. Ball discuss policy in the Oval Office, 1965. (photo: Mudd Manuscript Library)

Every president needs a voice of dissent—does Joe Biden have one?

This is an account of another American who, like Daniel Ellsberg, did the right thing at the right time in the middle of a war. But unlike Ellsberg’s, his act of courage did not make the headlines, and he suffered little for it. His name is George W. Ball. He was a Midwestern lawyer who did not politically support John F. Kennedy in his 1960 presidential campaign and did not serve bravely or endure violence during World War II. But he had played a key role in the American postwar rebuilding of Europe and was appointed early in 1961 as an undersecretary of state in the Kennedy Administration. His main task was to deal with international economic and agricultural affairs.

Ball had directed the American postwar bombing survey in London at the end of the war. He understood, as the survey had shown, that the intense daytime bombing of German cities had not destroyed morale, as had been assumed, but had increased citizen support for the Nazi regime—and perhaps extended the duration of the war. Ball would later be the only senior Kennedy Administration official who directly warned the president of the dangers of committing American soldiers to the Vietnam War, as had been recommended by his generals. In his 2000 book Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975, A.J. Langguth, who covered the war for the New York Times, recounted Ball’s gutsy warning in late 1961 to the president: “If we go down that road we might have, within five years, 300,000 men in the rice paddies of the jungles of Vietnam and never be able to find them.”

In a 1982 memoir, Ball recalled Kennedy’s irritated response: “George, you’re just crazier than hell. That just isn’t going to happen.” Back in his office, Ball told an aide, “We’re heading hell-bent into a mess and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do about it. Either everybody else is crazy or I am.”

Ball, who had worked with and supported Adlai Stevenson, the liberal former governor of Illinois, in two failed presidential campaigns in the 1950s, was disdained by many of the tough-minded and tough-talking war planners inside the administration not as a truth teller but as a “dove.”

Kennedy had been shaken by his early failure to oust Fidel Castro, Cuba’s communist leader, in the first months of his administration and a brutal summit meeting weeks later with a dismissive Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He would make a stand in South Vietnam. In 1962 he also chose to become the first American president to try to thwart what Washington saw as the Soviet Union’s ambitions to weaponize its enormous reservoirs of oil and natural gas. Russia had announced its intention to build a 2,500-mile pipeline from its oil and natural gas fields in Tatarstan, 700 miles to the east of Moscow, that would be capable of supplying much-needed cheap energy to countries in the Soviet bloc within five or so years, with smaller pipelines that could spread deeper into Europe. All were still struggling to rebuild from the devastation of World War II.

Kennedy responded through NATO in a futile effort to impose an embargo on the imports from Western Europe to Russia of the materials to build the pipeline. In a 2018 study, Nikos Tsafos, an expert who was named last year as the energy adviser to the prime minister of Greece, described what happened next: Kennedy’s “goal was to delay or even stop the . . . pipeline that would increase Soviet oil exports. The embargo split the [NATO] alliance, with the United Kingdom being the most vocal against it; the pipeline was completed with only a slight delay, and the embargo was removed in 1966.” Tsafos quoted a colleague as noting that “one could argue that the pipe embargo caused more damage to US-European relations than to the Soviet economy.” That assessment, Tsafos noted, “applies to almost every transatlantic effort against Soviet and, later, Russian hydrocarbons.”

President Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 determined to confront what he would come to call the “evil empireand quickly escalated tensions between Washington and Moscow. He revived the B-1 bomber program that had been canceled by the Carter Administration; announced that his Administration would invest billions in an anti-ballistic missile defense system; and deployed Pershing II missiles, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, to West Germany. In a 1982 speech he talked of consigning the Soviet Union to “ash heap of history.”

Reagan, too, attempted to block a second Soviet pipeline that would run from Western Siberia to Western Europe. The West German government had approved the concept and agreed in principle to lend $4.75 billion to help finance it. Reagan offered to supply the West German government with coal and nuclear power if it would withdraw from its agreement with Moscow. The Germans said no. France subsequently signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Soviet Union for the purchase of the Siberian gas. The Reagan Administration responded by escalating the existing sanctions against American business support for the pipeline to include any foreign companies doing business with Russia. All such firms would be barred from doing any business with the United States.

Enter George Ball again, now just retired after many quiet years as a managing partner of Lehman Brothers in New York. He published an essay, “The Case Against Sanctions,” in the New York Times Magazine in the fall of 1982 that is eerily prescient of the anti-Russian views repeatedly voiced today by President Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.

“The Reagan Administration,” Ball wrote, “has now brought to the shaping of governmental decisions an ideological bias one might call the Manichaean Heresy. Present day Manichaeans espouse the doctrinal concept that Soviet Communism is the Antichrist—an evil element that must be extirpated if we are to have peace in the world. . . . [T]hat view is now shared by neo-conservative intellectuals. . . . As their major operational tactic, the Manicheans would have the United States seize every pretext to harass the Russians. . . .The Soviet economy is huge, the Soviet Union commands vast raw materials resources within its borders. . . . Niggling sanctions, no matter how persistently applied, could never prove more than a marginal nuisance. . . . With arrogance in inverse proportion to their own credentials of experience, Administration leaders are using crude methods to try to ride roughshod over the considered judgments and interests of allied governments, acting as though the United States had a monopoly of wisdom.”

Three decades later, in 2014, Vice President Joe Biden would reprise Reagan’s language and his fears of Russia’s gas and oil reserves in a speech to the Atlantic Council Energy and Economic Summit in Istanbul. Russia’s use of its energy was “a weapon undermining the security of nations,” he warned. “Here in Europe energy security is an especially vital regional security interest because of Russia’s track record in using the supply of energy as a foreign policy weapon.

“My message here,” Biden continued, “is not that Europe can or should do away with Russian imports. That is not the case at all. I have no doubt that Russia will and should remain a major source of energy supplies for Europe and the world . . . but it has to play by the rules of the game. It shouldn’t be able to use energy policy to play with the game.” Biden was warning Russia that it must play by America’s rules. Therein lie the seeds of the demise of the Nord Stream pipelines eight years later.

In his 1982 essay, Ball offered a future America what would be unheeded guidance about the way to deal with an unwanted Russian pipeline: “If our government thinks, for whatever reasons, that the pipeline is not a good idea, it should quietly urge that view on its allies and try to persuade them to pursue a different course; that is what alliances are all about.”

President Biden chose last September to ignore America’s European allies. More than that, he put those allies at risk of not being able to keep their people warm by approving the destruction of Nord Stream pipelines. He and his national security team did not have the courage or integrity to say what was done and why. At this point, barring a major defection among the few in the know, Biden and his aides will likely never admit the truth.

It is impossible to know, pending disclosures by the administration, why Biden chose that day to destroy the pipeline, but it is a fact that ten days earlier he had been indirectly mocked by Vladimir Putin during a press conference following a summit meeting of the Russian-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan. Putin was asked about the rising price of natural gas throughout Europe, which was depicted as a consequence of the war he chose to start with Ukraine. Putin claimed that the energy crisis in Europe was not triggered by the war but was the result of what he called “the green agenda” and the shutting down of gas and oil facilities in response to environmental protests.

The Russian president then said if the West needs more gas “urgently . . . if things are so bad . . just go ahead and lift sanctions [that had been applied by the German government, with American approval] against Nord Stream 2 with its 55 billion cubic meters per year. All they have to do is press the button and they will get it going. But they chose to shut it off themselves . . . imposed sanctions against the new Nord Stream 2 and will not open it. Are we to blame for this? Let them [the West] think hard about who is to blame and let none of them blame us for their mistakes.”

Ball’s criticism of sanctions is little remembered now, but his courage in confronting Kennedy early on in the Vietnam War has lingered in the minds of a few senior Washington policymakers. While reporting for the New Yorker on the pernicious and secret foreign policy intrigues of Vice President Dick Cheney in the years after 9/11, I was called one afternoon by the secretary to Representative David Obey. The Democrat from Wisconsin was chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, and he was unquestionably one the most important, and reclusive, members of Congress. He’d been in the House since 1969 and was one of those almost invisible representatives who made Congress what it should be. Obey was also one of four members of a subcommittee, two Democrats and two Republicans, with access to the CIA’s secrets—the findings on all covert operations that the agency under law has to provide to Congress. Obey’s message to me was very direct: he was reading in my dispatches about alleged covert operations that were not known to him. What happened next remains a private matter, but sometime after Obey retired in 2011, two years into Barack Obama’s first term, I made a point to get in contact with him.

Obey told me a story about George Ball of all people. It turned out that the memory of Ball’s willingness to confront Kennedy with an unwanted truth about the Vietnam War still burned brightly in some. Obey said that as a ranking Democratic member of the House he had been invited by Obama to a small meeting early in the new administration to discuss the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Obey told me that he had stayed quiet while generals and legislators discussed how many troops the new president should add to current levels. His worry was a matter of budget concerns. (The only hint of dissent voiced in the meeting, Obey recalled, had come from Joe Biden. This early caution foreshadowed Biden’s decision last year to admit defeat and pull the American military out of Afghanistan. It was a decision marred by poor planning, a lack of sufficient force, and a suicide bombing that killed thirteen American soldiers in the evacuation process.)

As the meeting ended, Obey said, he asked the president if he had a moment for a quick chat. Obey warned Obama that expanding the Afghan War “would crowd out [from the budget] large portions of your domestic program—except perhaps health care.” He asked the new president if he remembered the White House recordings of Lyndon Johnson in the days after the assassination of Kennedy that were released a few years earlier and had become constant Saturday morning public radio fodder. Obama did. Did the president remember Johnson’s talk within a few months after the he took office with Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the conservative head of the Armed Services Committee, in which both men acknowledged that adding more troops in Vietnam, then sought by the U.S. commanders in Saigon, would not help the war effort and could even lead to a disastrous war with China? Johnson also worried, he told Russell, that many thousands of American soldiers would die in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Again Obama said yes, he remembered those exchanges. Obey then asked Obama, “Who’s your George Ball?” There was silence. “Either the president chose not to answer,” the disappointed Obey told me, “or he did not have one.” With that question the conversation was over. Obama subsequently authorized an increase of 30,000 troops for the war.

COMMENT SECTION PROBLEMS: Our comments section is not that great. It’s very strong on privacy, but weak on features and interactivity. If we switch to a system called DISQUS you will get state of the art features, but the privacy will roughly equivalent to Facebook. Who wants state of the art features and Facebook-like privacy and who wants to stick with the current format and rock solid privacy? Go to our CONTACT PAGE and express yourself. (Hint, if you already use Facebook and other social media sites, keep it real ;)

rsn / send to friend

form code