In his long and multifaceted career as a diplomat, international lawyer, and statesman, George W. Ball has been at the center of many crises. His book is filled with candid portraits of major figures on the world stage, as well as keen and controversial insights into past and present international problems. Perhaps the most dramatic chapters describe the lonely and protracted fight waged by Mr. Ball, then undersecretary of state in the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, against our Vietnam involvement. He presents a spirited account of that struggle and reveals how Nixon and Kissinger, through a fatal error in negotiating strategy, prolonged the war for four years.
George Ball - New Deal "dogsbody," Lend-Lease policy-shaper, strategic-bombing investigator (#1 source: Albert Speer), "ardent advocate of liberal trade," international lawyer (#1 client: the French government), full-time Stevenson supporter, Under Secretary of State (1960-66) - was often told by his friend Jean (European unity) Mennet, he recounts, that he spread himself too thin. But that very absence of driving ambition or a fixed commitment, whatever the cost to a public career, is a godsend in a memoirist: with the events, we get the afterthoughts, the open questions; with the certitudes, the doubts. A less inquiring, less skeptical man would also not have been the only top official to challenge, from day one, American intervention in Vietnam. But then, too - apropos of family dinner-table wrangles: "no Ball ever had an unexpressed thought." After a snug Iowa boyhood and a "less tranquil" Evanston adolescence, Ball went to Northwestern and passed into the hands - manna for a shaky ego - of upstart instructor "Benny" De Voto and 18th-century specialist Garrett Mattingly. Voltaire attracted: "Since I then believed - and still do - that the only acceptable working hypothesis for a self-respecting man is optimism, it seemed sensible to regard the human condition as fundamentally comic." On a first, 1929 trip to Europe, Ball met - in Paris, Nice, Rome, London-his future wife. ("I found" - she wrote later of their honeymoon - "that my husband was no fritterer of time or opportunity.") New Deal Washington was for him, as for others, a moment when "nothing was impossible." Chicago law practice began a 35-year friendship with Stevenson. Lend-Lease planted the idea of "a postwar economic environment" free of the constraints and conflicts of the inter-war period. On the strategic-bombing survey, in a still-armed Reich: "Speer met us in the Great Hall, friendly and self-consciously affable... 'I'm glad you've come,' he said. 'I was afraid I'd been forgotten." (What made liking Speer "so inexcusable" - and frightening - was the very fact that he was "like us." What would we have done in his place?) There then follows (the Speer episode concludes on p. 68!): reducing Jean Monnet's visionary ideas of a unified Europe "to coherent expression" ("and, in the process, helping him think"); the first exhilarating Stevenson campaign, the "dismal" 1956 anticlimax ("Adlai was exceptionally vulnerable to uncritical praise and encouragement. He suffered from not having a wife [the institutionalized candid friend]"); the multifarious foreign-policy embroilments of the Kennedy and early Johnson years - the Congo, the Cuban missile crisis, Cyprus, de Gaulle and NATO, the Dominican intervention; LBJ himself ("under his inurbane exterior a compelling idealism"); and, in Ball's words: "The Vietnam Aberration"-which may be the finest exposition extant of the refusal to ask "why?" and the reluctance to turn back. (When Ball finally left, in late '66, he left quietly - so as not to use his "privileged information" to undercut the US; but that question, too, he throws open to discussion.) It's one of the great, examined public lives of our time. (Kirkus Reviews)