George Ball

George Ball (1909-1994) was a classic Atlanticist who promoted both strong ties between the United States and Western Europe and the development of an economically united Europe. He served as undersecretary of state during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and wrote extensively on foreign affairs.

George W (ildman) Ball was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on December 21, 1909. He received both bachelor of arts and doctor of jurisprudence degrees from Northwestern University. Graduating from law school in 1933, Ball went to Washington, D.C., where he worked for Henry Morgenthau, first at the Farm Credit Administration and then at the Department of Treasury. In 1935 he returned to Chicago to practice law. In the late 1930s he became greatly interested in world affairs. When war began in Europe, Ball followed his friend and colleague, Adlai Stevenson, into the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, an interventionist organization usually known as the White Committee.

When the United States entered World War II, Ball reentered government service, developing a specialty in international economic affairs. From 1942 to 1944 he served in the Office of Lend-Lease Administration and the Foreign Economic Administration. In 1944 he was appointed director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in London. He returned to Washington in 1945 to work for Jean Monnet as general counsel for the French Supply Council, a post he held until his return to private practice in 1946.


Monnet's Influence on Ball

Monnet was probably the greatest single influence on Ball's subsequent thought and career. Out of the shambles left by the war, the brilliant French visionary sought to create a united Europe with an integrated economy. His dream captured Ball, who worked with him toward creation of the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Common Market. Ball also represented a number of Common Market agencies in the United States in the years that followed.

Ball became a classic Atlanticist, profoundly committed to the idea that Western Europe was central to America's future, as it had been to America's past, and that the well-being of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the vitality of the European Common Market were the essential interests of the United States. He believed that events in the Afro-Asian world were relatively less important and should never be allowed to corrode the links between the United States and Great Britain and France.


Economic Affairs and Trade Matters

In the 1950s Ball aided Henry Wallace in his defense against McCarthyism and, most importantly, helped orchestrate the "drafting" of Stevenson as Democratic presidential candidate. He remained with Stevenson through the 1960 campaign, managing the candidate's affairs at the Los Angeles convention. Nonetheless, the victorious John F. Kennedy was induced to appoint him undersecretary of state for economic affairs in January 1961.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk had little taste for economic affairs and left Ball a clear field. For most of 1961 Ball concentrated on trade matters, working to eliminate trade barriers by reducing American tariffs and giving the president broad powers to retaliate against nations that restricted imports. He helped draft the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which embodied his ideas.

In November 1961, Ball replaced Chester Bowles as undersecretary of state, the second-ranking position in the department. Rusk delegated power easily, giving Ball full authority whenever the secretary travelled or was otherwise preoccupied. Rusk was also unusually tolerant of dissent and allowed Ball free rein to express his views to the president.


The Congo Crisis

Spared complicity in the Bay of Pigs debacle and the Laotian situation Kennedy inherited, Ball was less fortunate in the Congo crisis. In the Congo, a government which had won independence from Belgium in 1960 was threatened by internal strife from which the former Soviet Union, Belgian industrialists, other western investors, and various Congolese politicians sought to benefit. Moise Tshombe, who became the darling of American conservatives, led a secessionist movement in the mineral-rich province of Katanga. Ball was probably more sympathetic to the Belgians than Rusk, but no less aware that colonialism in any form was doomed. Both men were obsessed with fear that the Soviet Union might gain a foothold in the Congo, which Ball purported to believe was the key to the destiny of Africa in the Cold War struggle. Neither man was as committed to the United Nation's policy of suppressing the Katanga secession by force as were Bowles, Stevenson, and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams. Indeed, Ball and Stevenson argued bitterly on the issue. Taking charge of the problem, Ball successfully negotiated the political minefields, contained the Left, pacified the Right, satisfied advocates of the United Nations, and minimized the irritation of NATO allies.


Antagonized By de Gaulle

Ball's arch-antagonist in Europe was Charles de Gaulle, whose intensive nationalism could not abide the Monnet-Ball images of France's place in a united Europe. Ball led the "theologians" who sought the further integration of Europe. He was the force behind the American effort to drive Britain into the Common Market and to solve the nuclear weapons control issue with the Multilateral Force (MLF). Always de Gaulle thwarted him, and neither Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson would allow him to undertake a broader challenge to the French leader.

Questioned American Involvement in Vietnam

Ball's most memorable role was not widely known until publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971. Alone among senior foreign policy advisors of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he consistently questioned American involvement in Vietnam and argued that intervention would not succeed. In part his views were based on understanding of the futility of the earlier French effort. They were also based on an Atlanticist's conviction that Southeast Asia, like the rest of the Afro-Asian world, mattered little. If the United States could protect the sources of industrial power in Europe, the Middle East, and Japan, it would prevail in the struggle against Communism.


Life After Politics

In September 1966, weary of the struggle, Ball resigned—in a quiet, establishment-approved way that preserved future opportunities to serve. He returned to government briefly as ambassador to the United Nations in 1968. He resigned that post to help Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign.

In private life, Ball built his fortune as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers and wrote regularly on foreign affairs. His criticism of the policies of the administrations of the 1970s and 1980s appeared in frequent articles and books. An articulate and forceful writer, he never lacked a forum for his views. Ball passed away in 1994, but his legacy as a friend of Europe lives on.

Further Reading on George Ball

The most useful sources of information are Ball's own memoir, The Past Has Another Pattern (1982), George Ball: Behind the Scenes In U.S. Foreign Policy by James A. Bill, Yale University Press (1997), and Warren I. Cohen, Dean Rusk, volume 19 in Samuel F. Bemis and Robert H. Ferrell, editors, The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (1980). See also David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972); Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point (1971); The Pentagon Papers (1971); and Jean Monnet: The First Statesman of Independence by François Duché, with a foreword by George W. Ball (1995).