Watching Barack Obama’s press conferences over the last three days and his interview with Barbara Walters tonight, I really could not be any more impressed. He is a truly gifted politician…even more gifted than Bill Clinton, for all his astonishing talents. Yet, even while Obama inspires a tremendous amount of trust, I join some of my progressive comrades in their concern about the relative lack of truly progressive voices in his economic and foreign policy shops. The precedent I keep going back to is George Ball, who served as Undersecretary of State in the administration’s of JFK and LBJ, and was a prescient skeptic about our involvement in Vietnam.
Here’s a little history of his skeptical role during the Kennedy administration.
Ball expressed his concern over this issue in November 1961. Following a proposal from General Maxwell D. Taylor and Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs Walt W. Rostow to dispatch combat troops to Vietnam, Ball spoke candidly to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Roswell L. Gilpatric, the deputy secretary at the Pentagon:
[W]e must not commit forces to South Vietnam or we would find ourselves in a protracted conflict far more serious than Korea. The Viet Cong were mean and tough, as the French had learned to their sorrow, and there was always danger of provoking Chinese intervention as we had in Korea….The Vietnam problem was not one of repelling overt invasion but of mixing ourselves up in a revolutionary situation with strong anticolonialist overtones.
A few days later Ball took his case to JFK. “Within five years we’ll have three hundred thousand men in the paddies and jungles [of Vietnam] and never find them again,” he warned the president, if the Taylor-Rostow proposals were implemented. Ball also emphasized the precedent of the French defeat in Vietnam. Kennedy seemed unimpressed by Ball’s arguments: “George, you’re just crazier than Hell…. That just isn’t going to happen.”
After Kennedy called him ‘crazier than hell’ he became more reticent about voicing his dissent. Yet, when the real decision came in 1965 on whether or not to really commit to a land war in Indochina, Ball stepped up to plate again. His memorandum to the president, arguing against escalation, was part of the Pentagon Papers, and it stands as one of the most brilliant pieces of foreign policy analysis that we have in the archives.
In fairness, George Ball’s record on Vietnam is mixed. But the point that I want to make is that Barack Obama needs a dissenting voice in his administration that will press back against the conventional wisdom. Ultimately, Ball’s advice was ignored by both Kennedy and Johnson, but they were better off for having someone in their midst who was willing to challenge the prevailing winds.
I think Obama has great instincts and I think he is exhibiting a lot of wisdom in seeking to unite the country by including centrists and center-rightists in his administration. But Obama needs allies and dissenters that will bring a progressive point of view to foreign policy debates. I won’t presume to suggest who those voices should be, but they should be people that, like Obama, opposed the invasion of Iraq from the very beginning.