WHO’S YOUR GEORGE BALL?
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.”
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