GEORGE BALL was a Cassandra at Camelot. Though clearly one of 'the best and the brightest', that glittering array of talent which the newly elected president John F. Kennedy had appointed to help him 'get America moving again', he alone warned against the danger of becoming involved in Vietnam. Like Cassandra, his prophecies were ignored, but like hers they came true.
For it was Kennedy, not Lyndon Johnson, who increased the number of United States troops on the ground in Vietnam from 400 'advisers' to 16,000. This was a fateful decision: too few to win the war, but too many to bring home without loss of face. Ball saw that this level of involvement would end up with more than 300,000 American soldiers in combat. Kennedy told him this was crazy. But after JFK's assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson raised the number to more than 500,000.
By then Ball seemed to have lost his argument that America could not possibly win a guerrilla war. Johnson had inherited all his team, and the war they had blundered into, from his predecessor. Never sure-footed in foreign affairs, he had been especially dependent upon hawks like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy.
Still seeking victory in July 1965, cabinet and advisers were weighing the options about further increasing American ground forces. This was when Ball came into his own. He sent a long, rigorously argued paper to the president urging the case for withdrawal rather than greater involvement. 'George]' Johnson exclaimed. 'Nobody told me we could do that]'
After a week of passionate discussion, Ball's advice was rejected in face of the insistent technical arguments of McNamara and the others. The following month Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave the president a blank cheque. Even then Ball continued to argue the case, especially against bombing the north. Here his experience as director of the 1945 Strategic Bombing Survey was a qualification nobody else could match. The survey had concluded that carpet bombing of Nazi Germany had largely failed.
It would do so in Vietnam, Ball argued, unless it had a design. What was the philosophy of the bombing, he asked: what was its purpose? But he got no clear answer. Some said it was to raise morale in Saigon, others to interdict supplies, others that it was a painless way of escalating conflict, or weakening the will of the enemy.
So the bombing went on until more bombs had been dropped on the north than by all sides in the Second World War. Finally overruled on Vietnam, Ball resigned in 1966 and briefly became American ambassador to the United Nations until Nixon was elected president in November 1968.
Ball may have appeared to be an archetypal example of that East Coast, Ivy League corporate-lawyer establishment which has run foreign affairs in the United States for as long as anybody can remember. But in fact he was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and graduated from Northwestern University, Illinois, in 1930. Like a lot of young lawyers in the Depression he joined government service during the New Deal in the 1930s and later Lend- Lease during the war. Taken up by Adlai Stevenson, the great inspirational figure of Liberal Democrats in the 1950s, Ball developed a deep understanding of foreign affairs, especially in Britain, France and the Middle East. It was America's loss that the nation's leaders did not heed him when taking the crucial decisions which led to dishonour and defeat.