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George Ball’s Dissent in the 1960s

by Mark White

Another time, another conflict, different participants, but one readily sees similarities with current controversies at least in outline in this story, decades ago, of one opposed to an unpopular war. The author, a British scholar, develops his thesis along the lines of a nuanced, phased — if not to say sometimes inconsistent — opposition by the official under study. —Ed.

The issue of dissent in American diplomatic history is an intrinsically important one. Officials who opposed the foreign policy of the president under whom they served helped to define the range of options considered in the crafting of United States diplomacy, revealed the different choices presidents could have made, and in some cases challenged the assumptions underpinning the policies that were carried out. One of the most prominent dissenting U. S. officials in the Cold War epoch was George W. Ball.

The role played by George Ball in contesting American policy in Vietnam during the 1960s has received much praise over the years. As is well known, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s under secretary of state disagreed with the policy of escalation in Vietnam and ultimately the decision made by Johnson in July 1965 to go to war. Given the calamity that the war would become—more than 58,000 Americans dead, a presidency crippled, a nation divided, and a credibility-sapping defeat on the world stage—Ball’s dissent seemed commendable. His arguments against the war turned out to be sound, and he was willing to stand alone when the rest of Johnson’s advisers were urging escalation. Ball was prescient and courageous, therefore, even heroic. Not surprisingly, those who have written on Ball’s dissent over Vietnam have found much to admire.1

This article seeks to offer a fresh interpretation of Ball’s role. While he did succeed in articulating a number of cogent arguments against U. S. policy in Vietnam, and did take a clear stand against going to war in those crucial July 1965 meetings with Johnson and other senior officials, his opposition was inconsistent. At most of the key moments in terms of the deepening of American involvement in Vietnam before July 1965, Ball did not demur. Indeed on two occasions—in the summers of 1963 and of 1964—he was active in enlarging the U. S. commitment in that part of the world. Hence, with Ball’s protest over Vietnam, it was a case of too little, too late.

The story of Ball’s dissent centers on the Johnson years, but the prologue took place during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. By 1960 Ball had become a notable figure in the Democratic Party. Having spent his early years in Iowa and Illinois, with time in Washington as an evaluator of the American bombing against Germany during World War II, Ball in the 1950s became one of the chief supporters of Adlai E. Stevenson as his old friend from Illinois sought the presidency. Kennedy initially appointed Ball under secretary of state for economic affairs, but in November 1961 JFK promoted him to under secretary of state, as a replacement for Chester B. Bowles.Ball soon developed reservations about American involvement in Vietnam. His work as a lawyer after World War II had often taken him to Paris. As a result he became well informed on the French defeat in Vietnam. He came to fear that the United States would repeat the mistakes made by France in Southeast Asia. Ball’s overall conceptualization of American foreign policy also shaped his outlook. He strongly believed that Washington should concentrate on relations with Europe, not with Asia and Africa. The idea that the United States could successfully carry out a policy of nation-building in the Third World was, he felt certain, a chimera. Thus Ball was sceptical about the idea that Vietnam should become a focus for American foreign policymakers.

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.2A 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.”3

That represented the extent of Ball’s dissent during the Kennedy years. He attended twenty-five meetings on Vietnam with Kennedy, but not once did he speak out as he had in November 1961. He was equally reserved with JFK in their various phone conversations on Vietnam. Ball’s dissent in November 1961, therefore, was an anomaly.4This raises the issue of why Ball kept his feelings under wraps, despite harboring deep reservations about the direction of American policy in Southeast Asia. The reason for his reticence was that he had no desire to become isolated in the Kennedy administration, a figure whose unconventional views relegated him to the periphery of Camelot. Unlike other Cold War dissenters, such as Henry A. Wallace during the early part of Harry S. Truman’s presidency, Ball was an adroit politician. If necessary, he would bite his tongue in order to preserve his influence within the administration. In resisting U. S. escalation in Vietnam, he would choose his moments carefully—and only occasionally.

Not only did Ball provide no sustained dissent while JFK was in the White House, he played a significant role in the late summer of 1963 in entrenching the United States further in Vietnam. By this point Ball had aligned himself with officials such as State Department officials Roger Hilsman and W. Averell Harriman, who believed that the removal of Diem, America’s ally in South Vietnam since the mid-1950s, might well be needed if a popular Saigon government capable of diminishing the appeal of the communists were to be established. Diem’s suppression of the Buddhists that summer, thought to have been encouraged by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, fortified Ball’s belief that Diem should be ousted unless he distanced himself from Nhu.5On August 24, 1963, Ball got the opportunity to act on this conviction. With JFK, McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and CIA Director John A. McCone all out of Washington, a telegram arrived from Henry Cabot Lodge, the U. S. ambassador in Saigon, reporting the imminence of a coup by South Vietnamese generals against Diem. Ball seized the moment by endorsing (with a few modifications) a reply to Lodge, composed by Harriman and Hilsman, that said if Diem did not part company with Nhu, the Kennedy administration would not discourage those generals plotting Diem’s overthrow. Ball also phoned the president to procure his approval of the telegram, which was forthcoming once the backing of Rusk and Gilpatric had been secured. The telegram was dispatched.6

Once Kennedy, McNamara, Rusk et al returned to Washington, the idea soon crystallized that Ball, Hilsman, and Harriman had been reckless. McNamara, for instance, wondered whether any other leader would prove more able than Diem. But Ball was in no mood for backing down. On August 28 he told his colleagues: “We had no option but to back a coup. We are already beyond the point of no return. The question is how do we make this coup effort successful.” When McNamara and Kennedy raised objections, Ball persisted: “We can’t win the war against the Communists with Diem in control. We must decide now to go through to a successful overthrow of Diem.”7The generals did not carry out a coup against Diem in the late summer, but two months later they did. The result was the death of Diem. As the U. S. encouragement of the aborted coup generated much of the momentum that led to the subsequent overthrow of Diem, the Kennedy administration in effect played a role in creating the series of unstable, short-lived Saigon governments that followed Diem’s. This magnified the sense of America’s responsibility for the government in South Vietnam. Ball, therefore, had played a role in bringing about this heightened commitment.

When Johnson became president, Ball gave no indication that he was a dissenter. At a key meeting held only two days after JFK’s assassination, Johnson told his advisers, “I will not lose in Vietnam.” Ball was one of only six officials present to hear Johnson make that commitment. He could have used this opportunity to alert the new president to the dangers of staying the course in Vietnam. Instead he said nothing.8Taciturnity or acquiescence was the hallmark of Ball’s stance on Vietnam during the first six months of the Johnson presidency. Talking to McGeorge Bundy in December 1963, he said an effort should be made to stifle press reports that the communists were in a stronger position since the coup against Diem—not that such reports cast doubt on the viability of the U. S. course in Vietnam. Similarly, Ball did not argue that the January 1964 coup, which overthrew the military junta that had been in power in South Vietnam since Diem’s death, showed the fundamental instability of the Saigon government that Johnson was trying to prop up; and that this necessitated a reappraisal of U. S. policy. When in the middle of May, moreover, Johnson spoke to him about the need to secure more funding from Congress for the struggle against the communists in Vietnam, Ball did not demur. 9

As in his relations with Kennedy, Ball was anxious to show his loyalty to Johnson. He did not wish to give the impression during the early months of Johnson’s presidency that he was an erratic maverick. Hence Rusk was no doubt remembering accurately when he said that “George Ball didn’t come into my office every other day saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to do something radically different in Viet Nam.’”10

It was not until late spring 1964 that Ball began to express his concerns about U. S. policy in Southeast Asia. In a letter to Dean Rusk on May 31, Ball revealed that in the previous fortnight he had “had the feeling that plans [for Vietnam] were going forward too precipitously and that there was an inarticulate wish to sweep the difficult issues under the bed.” Collaborating with Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson, Ball had formulated a number of questions, which he appended to his letter to Rusk. These queries, which Ball advised the secretary of state to put to other U. S. officials, included: whether American air strikes on the North (which were being contemplated in the Johnson administration) would hamper the Viet Cong in the South. If U. S. backing for Saigon led to the deployment of American troops in the South would that not make the United States look like a colonial power? What would be the response in the United Nations to a U. S. attack on North Vietnam?11

Five days later Ball gave a further sign of his emerging dissent. Meeting with Charles de Gaulle at Johnson’s behest to request France’s support should LBJ decide to escalate in Vietnam, Ball learned that the French leader was unwilling to play ball. America would lose in Vietnam, de Gaulle declared, and France would not be lending a helping hand. A diplomatic settlement, rather than military engagement, was, he argued, the better way to go. Ball reported all of this in a telegram from Paris to Johnson and Rusk. Saying that de Gaulle was speaking sincerely, from deep conviction, and without any animosity toward the United States, Ball hinted at his own endorsement of the French leader’s views.12

Despite his explicit opposition in late May to greater American entanglement in Vietnam and his implicit support for the opinions of the like-minded de Gaulle, Ball again failed to take a stand when in early August Johnson decided to commit himself more deeply to the defense of the Saigon government. In response to alleged North Vietnamese attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin—the first of which took place, the second (recent evidence suggests) probably did not —Johnson secured passage of a resolution in Congress that essentially gave him a blank check to do whatever he judged necessary to meet the communist challenge in Vietnam. America was ready, the resolution stated, “as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force.”  As well as the introduction of this resolution, Johnson authorized a retaliatory strike against North Vietnam that was soon carried out.13

Ball’s response to all of this was one of quiet acquiescence. In key National Security Council discussions on the Gulf of Tonkin episode, he said nothing. He expressed no opposition to Johnson’s decision to order a retaliatory strike against North Vietnam, and likewise went along with the introduction of the congressional resolution. Moreover, not only did Ball refrain from objecting to the resolution, he was actively involved in drafting it. In later years Ball was coy about this matter. He once stated that he had been involved only “in tinkering with the language,” and his memoirs make no reference to his writing the resolution. In fact, his role had been an important one. Johnson said Ball and Rusk were the main drafters, Assistant Secretary of State William P. Bundy recalled Ball and State Department legal adviser Abram J. Chayes doing most the work on it, and in a phone conversation on August 5 Rusk reported that Ball and McGeorge Bundy were putting “the final touches” to the resolution. Hence Ball did much to produce the resolution that was designed to legitimize any escalation in Vietnam authorized by Johnson.14

It was not until the fall of 1964 that Ball’s campaign to force a reappraisal of U. S. policy in Vietnam gathered any sort of momentum. Even then, it seems that Ball’s greater willingness to articulate his dissent was not so much of his own volition as it was a response to an instruction from Johnson to play the role of in-house dissenter.

The turning-point came at a meeting on September 19 when Ball spoke vigorously against McNamara’s recommendation that the president respond to another alleged Communist attack on American vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin by sending a naval patrol into the Gulf to show that the United States would not back down. Johnson responded by saying he found Ball’s arguments persuasive, but went on to state that he also saw merit in the proposals of those officials in favor of resuming the patrols. He then announced that he was attracted to the idea of Ball offering a critique of the position taken by his more hawkish advisers, and asked Ball to “serve as critic of the argument thus developed so that he could make a judgment on the matter.”15

It was following this encouragement from Johnson that Ball, by October 5, completed his first substantial (sixty-seven page) memorandum detailing his reservations about U. S. involvement in Vietnam. Ball provided Rusk, McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy with copies, but not Johnson, whom he did not wish to distract during the final weeks of the 1964 presidential campaign.16

In this paper, entitled “How Valid are the Assumptions underlying our Vietnam policies,” Ball argued that there were four salient options for LBJ:

continue with the present policy;

send U. S. troops to South Vietnam;

bomb the North;

negotiate a settlement. The first approach would end up in failure, said Ball, and dispatching American troops would be an egregious error, as U. S. casualties would increase, as would the animosity among the Vietnamese people toward the United States. Bombing the North would also prove ineffective: it would not create a more stable Saigon government, would cause Hanoi to send troops into the South, and hence would force Johnson to retaliate by dispatching U. S. troops to the South to save the Saigon government. Diplomacy, Ball concluded, was the best option for the United States. A coalition government in South Vietnam, which included the Viet Cong, would be an acceptable outcome for the Johnson administration.17

Ball had the opportunity to discuss his paper with McNamara, Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy on November 7. His colleagues, however, were united in their opposition to Ball’s recommendations. McNamara was particularly opposed. In fact he was “absolutely horrified,” Ball recalled. “He treated it [the memorandum] like a poisonous snake…. He really just regarded it as next to treason.” Ball’s first elaborate articulation of his dissenting views had thus been rebuffed. It was not until 1965 that Ball would again oppose with vigor the administration’s course of action in Vietnam.18

The next milestone on the road to full American involvement in the war came in February 1965 when Johnson initiated Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign of North Vietnam. A Viet Cong attack on a U. S. air base at Pleiku, in which eight Americans were killed, prompted Johnson to retaliate against the communists by authorizing an air strike against the North. In the administration discussion on how to respond to the provocation at Pleiku, Ball did not speak against the consensus in favor of military retaliation, even though Senator Mike J. Mansfield, invited by Johnson to attend the meeting, did just that. Ball would later account for his reticence on tactical grounds: opinion was so strongly behind the idea of a retaliatory strike that it would have been pointless for him to object as his dissent would have inevitably ended in failure.19

Such tactical thinking probably explains his failure two days later, February 8, to oppose Johnson’s decision to go a step further and authorize a prolonged bombing campaign against the North. Ball spoke about dealings with Soviet officials and the U.N. Secretary General, but did not raise objections to a program of sustained bombing. A few days later Johnson confirmed his decision to initiate Rolling Thunder; and by early March the operation was under way. As with the coup against Diem, the start of the Johnson presidency, and the Tonkin Gulf episode, Ball had offered no dissent at a critical moment in U. S. policy.20

Thereafter, however, Ball did begin to speak against Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam on a more consistent basis. On February 10 Ball argued in vain that U. S. strikes on North Vietnam, in response to a Viet Cong attack at Qui Nhon that had killed a number of Americans, be delayed until after the Soviet leader Alexei N. Kosygin, then in North Korea, had left the Far East. Three days later Ball provided Johnson with a paper urging a diplomatic solution to the Vietnam problem, and explaining that both he and Llewellyn Thompson differed from McNamara and McGeorge Bundy in that they did not believe the bombing of the North would force its leader Ho Chi Minh to end the uprising in the South. Johnson displayed little interest in Ball’s memorandum.21

Johnson’s frosty response highlighted his ambivalence to Ball’s emerging dissent. On the one hand, the president himself was deeply concerned about the way the United States was being drawn into Vietnam. Throughout 1964 he had showed a good deal of prudence in resisting pressure from administration hawks who wanted to implement a more hard-line U. S. policy. It had taken him a long time to agree to the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. From this point of view, Johnson was sympathetic to what Ball was saying. Back in the fall of 1964, he had actively encouraged Ball to play the role of dissenter. He seemed keen on having at least one in-house critic.

On the other hand, Johnson was less satisfied when Ball sought to gain the cooperation of others, such as Llewellyn Thompson, in opposing escalation. Johnson evidently did not like the idea of Ball winning over converts and in this way creating a major division within the administration between those who backed and those who opposed a tougher Vietnam policy. The president was obsessed with loyalty. Hence while he thought it salutary to have Ball as his devil’s advocate, he believed that one such advocate in the administration was quite enough.

Johnson’s icy reaction to Ball’s February 13 memorandum did not discourage the under secretary of state, however, for on February 24 he gave Johnson’s aide Bill Moyers his October 1964 paper on Vietnam—which McNamara, Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy had read, but not the president. As Ball had hoped, Moyers passed on the memorandum to Johnson who, as Moyers informed Ball, “found it fascinating and wanted to know why he had not read it before.”22

Showing the seriousness with which he took Ball’s lengthy examination of the U. S. dilemma in Vietnam, Johnson convened a meeting with his advisers to evaluate it. McNamara took the lead in challenging Ball’s arguments: the under secretary of state had vastly exaggerated America’s problems in Vietnam, he asserted. The result, as Ball recalled, was that his desire “to force a systematic re-examination of our total situation had manifestly failed.”23

In April, when a meeting of U. S. officials in Honolulu resulted in a recommendation to Johnson that he increase American forces to 82,000, Ball was again spurred into action. He implored the president to show restraint, telling him there could be “a chance of transferring the contest from the battlefield to the ballot,” and furnishing him with another memorandum, entitled “Should We Try to Move Toward a Vietnamese Settlement Now?” Arguing that the continued infiltration of the North Vietnamese into the South showed that Operation Rolling Thunder was not working, and that the deployment of more U. S. military personnel in the South would Americanize the war and increase U. S. casualties, Ball highlighted the value of diplomacy. He recommended a ceasefire, supervised by an international commission, and elections in the South in which the Viet Cong would be permitted to participate. If backed by the South Vietnamese and its new government, Vietnam could then be reunified.24

Although these arguments and proposals did not convince Johnson, he indicated that he remained “very interested” in Ball’s ideas. Accordingly, Ball collaborated with others, including veteran Democrat Dean G. Acheson, in producing a memorandum that elaborated on the program he had recommended to Johnson. U. S. officials in Saigon, however, refused to endorse Ball’s latest plan for a diplomatic settlement. Once again his efforts had come to naught.25

Realizing that the point of no return was close at hand for the United States in Vietnam, Ball was determined—as spring turned into summer—to press his case. Between June 18 and July 1, with military officials urging Johnson to send large numbers of troops to South Vietnam, Ball prepared three memoranda. In the first of these, Ball told Johnson he could countenance an increase in U. S. forces in the South for a trial period. But in the latter two his position was unequivocal: rather than going to war, Johnson should begin to extricate the United States from Vietnam. This would represent a sensible tactical withdrawal that would not trouble America’s allies. A diplomatic resolution to the struggle in Vietnam should be sought. A failure to adopt this approach would spell disaster, as the nature of jungle warfare in Vietnam would render America’s technological superiority over the communists irrelevant. The outcome, a Casssandra-like Ball predicted, would be a humiliating defeat for the United States.26

The culmination of Ball’s dissent in 1965 was the stand he took in those tense White House meetings in July when the Johnson team discussed whether to accept the recommendation made by McNamara that the United States send 175,000 troops to South Vietnam to prevent it from falling to the communists. What McNamara was proposing was that Johnson go to war. Ball understood that. Hence he decided to pull no punches in expressing his opposition to McNamara’s plan. Johnson’s evident caution encouraged Ball to do just that. “We must make no snap judgments,” the president stated in the Cabinet Room meeting on the morning of July 21. “We must consider carefully all our options.”27

When Johnson asked whether any of his advisers had reservations about McNamara’s proposal, Ball was candid. “I can foresee a perilous voyage—very dangerous,” he said, adding that he had “great apprehensions that we can win under these conditions.” Johnson said he knew going to war in Vietnam was “dangerous and perilous,” but wondered whether there was any other option. “There is no course that will allow us to cut our losses,” Ball asserted. “If we get bogged down, our cost might be substantially greater. The pressures to create a larger war would be irresistible. Qualifications I have are not due to the fact that I think we are in a bad moral position.” So what should he do, Johnson asked. Engage in diplomacy, Ball replied, knowing that such negotiations would probably end up with the communists taking control of South Vietnam. The president queried whether a convincing case could be made for that approach. “We have discussed it,” observed a seemingly resigned Ball. “I have had my day in court.”  But Johnson was not prepared to let the matter rest. He had not yet made an irrevocable commitment, he explained. He indicated that Ball had succeeded in alerting everyone to the dangers involved in McNamara’s proposed escalation, but had not provided a feasible alternative. To see whether Ball could do so, another meeting was scheduled—for the afternoon.28

After that first meeting had finished, Ball carefully prepared the remarks he planned to make in the second. They would be aimed at winning over Johnson to a more dovish perspective, as Ball knew the minds of McNamara, Rusk, and other senior officials were already made up.29

In the afternoon meeting in the Cabinet Room, Ball made sobering observation after sobering observation. The war would be protracted; American soldiers would struggle given the nature of jungle warfare; the Chinese communists could intervene; the backing of the American people for the war would diminish once casualties increased; international opinion would likewise turn against the war; and, in the end, the United States would lose. A “tactical withdrawal” was what Ball suggested if this catastrophe were to be averted.30

Johnson seemed impressed by Ball’s prediction that U. S. soldiers would find it difficult to prevail in Vietnam. “Can westerners, in [the] absence of intelligence, successfully fight Orientals in jungle rice-paddies?” the president asked. Ball went on to emphasize the weakness of the South Vietnamese government that the United States was trying to bolster, and to argue that a long war would make America look weak, not strong.31

Once again, Ball succeeded in alerting Johnson to the dangers that lay ahead, but not in providing the president with an alternative that he found palatable. The bottom line for Johnson was that South Vietnam must not go communist. What Ball suggested in this afternoon meeting, that Johnson make proposals the Saigon government found so unacceptable it would ask the United States to get out of Vietnam, was unappealing as far as LBJ was concerned. “Wouldn’t all these countries say Uncle Sam is a paper tiger,” he worried, “wouldn’t we lose credibility breaking the word of three presidents,” if South Vietnam went communist. “It would seem to be an irreparable blow. But, I gather you don’t think so.” “The worse blow would be that the mightiest power in the world is unable to defeat guerrillas,” Ball replied. The under secretary of state added that the Western European powers would lose no sleep should Johnson decide to pull out of Vietnam, and that such a withdrawal had only short-term drawbacks—in comparison to the long-term calamity that a war would bring about.32

Ball had fought valiantly that afternoon to stop the United States from going to war in Vietnam. But it was to no avail. McGeorge Bundy, Rusk, and Lodge made clear that they believed McNamara, not Ball, was offering the president sounder advice. In the days that followed, it became apparent that Ball had also failed to change Johnson’s mind.33

Ball’s attempt to discourage Johnson from war was almost at an end—but not quite. After the meetings on July 21, Ball pinned his hopes on Clark M. Clifford, a close friend to Johnson. After a meeting on the 22nd, Ball asked Clifford whether he was right in thinking he was against escalation. Clifford replied this was indeed the case. When Ball asked Clifford to read the series of cautionary memoranda he had produced in recent months, he agreed to do so. Staying up late into the night, Clifford worked his way through Ball’s papers on Vietnam. He was enormously impressed, telling Ball over the phone that they were “persuasive.” This buoyed Ball, who felt there was just a chance that Clifford could get through to Johnson. This, however, turned out not to be the case. At a Camp David meeting Clifford echoed many of the arguments made by Ball. But they fell on deaf ears. By this point, Johnson could not be persuaded to change course. On July 28 he announced at a press conference that he was sending large numbers of American troops to fight in Vietnam. In effect, he was telling the American people that he was taking them into war.34

What this essay suggests is that it is inaccurate to argue that Ball opposed U. S. policy in Vietnam in a sustained way during the Kennedy-Johnson years. He did take a strong stand against going to war in July 1965; and in the few months preceding that momentous decision he had peppered Johnson with memoranda highlighting the dangers involved in escalation. However, at all the key junctures prior to July 1965, Ball did not dissent. Not only did he indicate no disapproval of the coup against Diem in the fall of 1963, a development that bound the United States more closely to South Vietnam, he was actively involved in promoting that coup. Immediately following John Kennedy’s assassination, Ball said nothing when Johnson declared that he would stay the course in Vietnam. Ball expressed no reservations about the introduction in Congress of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave Johnson a blank check in Vietnam. In fact, he played a major role in the drafting of that resolution. In the debate on whether to initiate a prolonged bombing campaign against North Vietnam, what became Operation Rolling Thunder, Ball went along with the consensus. It was only then that Ball’s dissent became consistent and forceful.

Prior to February 1965, therefore, Ball’s opposition to escalation was the exception rather than the rule. He had spoken about the dangers of the U. S. being drawn deeper into Vietnam with Kennedy in late 1961, in a letter to Rusk in May 1964, and in his lengthy October 1964 memorandum. But that constituted almost the entirety of his dissent prior to the decision being made to initiate Rolling Thunder. And by then the die had been cast. The momentum toward escalation and, specifically, troop deployment was irresistible.

That being the case, it perhaps makes more sense to think of Ball as one of those insightful officials, such as Hubert Humphrey, Clark Clifford, Llewellyn Thompson, and Adlai Stevenson, who intermittently expressed reservations about U. S. policy in Vietnam. Ball’s understanding of the fundamental problems facing the nation in Vietnam was more profound than that of any of his colleagues. But worried that his dissent would ostracize him from Johnson and other U. S. officials, he failed to articulate that understanding with sufficient force and regularity. A more nuanced view of Ball’s dissent, therefore, is required—one that recognizes its limits as well as its virtues.End.

End Notes

1. The two important works on Ball are David L. DiLeo, George Ball, Vietnam, and the Rethinking of Containment (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), and James A. Bill, George Ball: Behind the Scenes in U. S. Foreign Policy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997).
2. George W. Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern: Memoirs (New York and London: Norton, 1982), p. 366.
3. Ibid., p. 366; DiLeo, George Ball, p. 56.
4..DiLeo, George Ball, p. 57.
5. Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, p. 370.
6. Ibid., pp. 371-372.
7. Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 57; Bill, George Ball, p. 155; Bromley Smith, memorandum of conference with the president, August 28, 1963, Papers of Bromley Smith, box 16 (temporary box), Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas.
8. John McCone memorandum for the record, November 25, 1963, meeting notes file, presidential papers of LBJ, box 1, Johnson Library; quoted in Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999), p. 77.
9. Transcript, Ball-McGeorge Bundy telecom, December 15, 1963, Papers of George Ball, box 7, Johnson Library; transcript, Johnson-Ball telecom, May 13, 1964, Ball Papers, box 7, Johnson Library.
10. Oral history of Dean Rusk, interview II, tape 1, p. 34, Johnson Library.
11. Ball to Rusk, May 31, 1964, in Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, pp. 400-404.
12. Ball to LBJ and Rusk, June 5, 1964, National Security File (NSF), Country File-Vietnam, box 53, Johnson Library.
13. John Prados, “40th Anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” August 4, 2004, National Security Archive website (; Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), p. 118.
14. Oral history of George Ball, interview I, p. 23, Johnson Library; Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, p. 380; Johnson, Vantage Point, pp. 117-118; oral history of William Bundy, tape 1, p. 28, Johnson Library; memorandum, Rusk-William Bundy telephone conversation, August 5, 1964, 2:22 p.m., Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1964-1968 (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1992), vol. I, Vietnam, 1964, p. 634.
15. McGeorge Bundy, memorandum for the record, September 20, 1964, FRUS, 1964-1968, vol. I,, pp. 778-780.
16. Ball, “How Valid are the Assumptions underlying our Vietnam policies,” October 5, 1964, NSF, Country File-Vietnam, box 222, Johnson Library.
17. Ibid.
18. Oral history of Ball, I, pp. 16-17; Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, p. 383.
19. Summary notes of 545th NSC meeting, February 6, 1965, NSF, NSC Meetings File, box 1, Johnson Library; Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, p. 389.
20. Summary notes of 547th NSC meeting, February 8, 1965, NSF, NSC Meetings File, box 1, Johnson Library.
21. Minutes, meeting of principals, February 10, 1965, and summary record of 548th NSC meeting, February 10, 1965, both in NSF, NSC Meetings File, box 1, Johnson Library; Ball, memorandum for Johnson, February 13, 1965, NSF, NSC History – Deployment of Major US Forces to Vietnam, July 1965, box 40, Johnson Library.
22. Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, p. 392; Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York and London: Norton, 1982), p. 48; transcript, Moyers-Ball telecom, February 25, 1965, 10:30 a.m., Ball Papers, box 7, Johnson Library.
23. Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, p. 392.
24. Oral history of Ball, interview II, p. 3; Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, p. 393; Ball memorandum for Johnson, “Should We Try to Move Toward a Vietnamese Settlement Now?,” April 21, 1965, NSF, Country File-Vietnam, box 213, Johnson Library.
25. Transcript, Moyers-Ball telecom, April 23, 1965, 11:05 a.m., Ball Papers, box 7; Ball, Past Has Another Pattern, p. 394; oral history of Ball, interview II, pp. 3-4, Johnson Library.
26. Ball memorandum for Johnson, “Keeping the Power of Decision in the South Viet-Nam Crisis,” June 18, 1965, NSF, Country File-Vietnam, box 19, Johnson Library; Ball memorandum for Rusk, McNamara et al, “Cutting Our Losses in South Viet-Nam,” June 28, 1965, and Ball memorandum for LBJ, “A Compromise Solution for South Viet-Nam,” both in Papers of Paul C. Warnke, John McNaughton Files, box 1, Johnson Library.
27. Minutes of Cabinet Room meeting, July 21, 1965, 10:40 a.m., Presidential Papers of LBJ, Meeting Notes File, box 1, Johnson Library.
28. Ibid.
29. Bill, George Ball, p. 11.
30. Minutes of Cabinet Room meeting, July 21, 1965, 2:45 p.m., Presidential Papers of LBJ, Meeting Notes File, box 1, Johnson Library.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. 415-416; Clifford-Ball telecom, July 23, 1965, 7:30 p.m., Ball Papers, box 7, Johnson Library; minutes of Camp David meeting, July 25, 1965, 5:00 p.m., Presidential Papers of LBJ, Meeting Notes File, box 1, Johnson Library; president’s news conference, July 28, 1965, U. S. Government, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1967), pp. 794-803.

Dr. Mark White, born in the United Kingdom, has taught history at universities in Britain and North America. He is currently a Reader in History at the University of London (Queen Mary). Among his six books is Missiles in Cuba (1997).

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