The Legacy of John Kenneth Galbraith
By Richard Parker
- Chicago Humanities Festival
Thursday, November 04, 2004
Speech delivered by Richard Parker
at the Chicago Humanities Festival
November 4, 2004
As most of you undoubtedly know, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith is not only a quite famous. and gifted writer and scholar, but proud to be a Democrat. And although he turned 96 last month, he is still a man who still takes politics quite seriously, 64 years after casting his first vote for president.
He is moreover nowadays an increasingly uncommon kind of Democrat--proudly liberal, and allied without apologies or regret to the best traditions of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson (in all of whose administrations, I might add, he served). Like most of us, he was up until midnight on Election Day two days ago, and before leaving Cambridge yesterday I asked him his reaction to President Bush's narrow victory. He was quiet for a second, clearly pondering my question carefully, then replied, "I never thought I would ever long for Ronald Reagan."
Tuesday's election results--not here in Illinois or back in Massachusetts, but in America's so-called "Red States"--go beyond the immediate scope of my lecture today and yet they relate directly to what I am about to say. Galbraith himself believes they pose both a profound challenge and a demanding question for liberal men and women like him, because these electoral results, perhaps more so than any since 1960, were a fundamental measure of the nation's direction--and represent not only a continuation but a deepening and strengthening of political, economic, and cultural conservatism in the United States in a way almost unimaginable to Galbraith and his generation.
Where are we going, and what world are we going to leave for our children and theirs? Since the subject here today is the legacy of John Kenneth Galbraith, I think it fair to begin by looking backward almost exactly 43 years, to the first week in November 1961 in order to highlight what Galbraith was doing then--and then propose its relevance for today. Using the privilege of hindsight, I intend to suggest that we can see and weigh not only choices he was making then, but discern lessons for ourselves about how to face the challenges ahead of U.S. today.
In remarkable ways, the situation in November 1961 bears eery parallels to the situation in November 2004. President John F. Kennedy, like President Bush today, had been elected on a paper-thin margin (and his victory had been disputed almost as sharply as Bush's). Kennedy, like Bush, moreover faced the difficulty of leading a sharply divided nation caught up in several profound domestic and international struggles at once. But there the parallels end--and paradox appears: Kennedy was the Massachusetts Democrat, and the liberal Catholic, while his defeated opponent was Richard Nixon, the Sunbelt conservative whose divisive politics reflected a bitter battles by conservatives who not only openly derided the integrity of their liberal opponents but accused liberalism of debasing the nation's "traditional" moral and cultural values. And claiming to see dark and evil forces abroad, Nixon had not only advocated an overtly aggressive military policy abroad but also sharp restrictions on our civil liberties as necessary to fight that threat. Needless to say, we would hear much more of Nixon soon enough after he won the Presidency in 1968--and set about using his particular skills to build his dream of a "permanent conservative majority" by leading the white South out of the Democratic Party. But that story--and its consequences and parallels today--must be saved for another time.
What we must realize is that the new president--that is, the liberal one from Massachusetts, President Kennedy--had soon after taking office led the country into the highly risky and contentious invasion of a foreign country, an invasion meant to overthrow a dangerous dictator that had gone terribly wrong. That invasion of course had ended briefly, and with the loss of only a handful of lives because Cuba in 1961, unlike Iraq in 2003, had repulsed its invaders. But failure at the Bay of Pigs had only whetted the appetites of some in the new Kennedy administration--or more accurately some in the strange new "permanent government" that after World War II had grown into a power that transcended individual presidents or parties, a "permanent government" built in the name of national security around America's giant new military and intelligence services, and no less around the business and political interests they supported.
To the surprise of many, Dwight Eisenhower, in his Farewell Address just before Kennedy took office, had called it "the military-industrial complex," and warned of its threat. This was, he said, an entirely new kind of peacetime American government--a kind in fact that the Founding Fathers had sought to prevent ever emerging, one that in fact had been unknown before World War II, but which by the 1950s was consuming half of all federal spending.
Galbraith had joined the Kennedy Administration at the start of 1961 as Ambassador to India, after first declining the chairmanship of the Council of Economic Advisors. By then he was no neophyte in the ways of Washington: he had first gone to work in the nation's capital in 1934 as a 25-year-old, fresh out of graduate school and just about to join the Harvard faculty as a young instructor. He had returned to Washington in mid-1940, after Paris fell to the Germans, initially to help ready the nation for war. Eighteen months later, after Pearl Harbor, he was then appointed to oversee the wartime economy as "price czar," charged with preventing inflation and corrupt price-gouging from devastating the economy as it swelled to produce the weapons and materiel needed to guarantee victory against fascism. In this, he and his colleagues at the Office of Price Administration had been stunningly successful, guiding an economy that quadrupled in size in less than five years without fanning the inflation that had haunted World War I, or leaving behind an unbalanced post-war collapse of the kind that had done such grievous damage to Europe in the 1920s. As the war ended, he was then made a director of the Strategic Bombing Survey, where he assessed (quite critically, as it turned out) the effectiveness of the Air Force's massive bombing of Germany and Japan--and got his first sense of the new forces that after the war ended would propel the "permanent government" to unprecedented power when a new Cold War appeared.
But in the years between 1945 and 1961, Galbraith had seen a new sort of American economy emerge alongside this surging globe-spanning military power--one marked by unprecedented prosperity, but also by new problems associated with it that, just as much as the nation's new world-changing role, profoundly challenged the nation's traditional direction and purpose. "The Affluent Society"--as he famously dubbed it in 1958--was delivering a cornucopia of privately-produced material goods and services, but was leaving the public sector starved for good schools, good roads, good parks, good medical care. In this Affluent Society, he warned openly, Americans were now being manipulated by advertising (especially through the new technology of television) to embrace a mindless and endless process of unneeded consumption that did far more to enrich and stabilize the profits of large corporations than it did to increase the real well-being of Americans themselves. As he wittily but corrosively observed in 1958,
The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered,
and power-braked car out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved,
made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that
should long since have been put underground.
They pass on into a countryside that has been rendered largely invisible
by commercial art ... They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable
icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a
menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air-mattress,
beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect
vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings.
Thirty years before the arrival of the SUV, the Mc Mansion, the $3 cups of latte macchiato, and obesity for a third of our children, Galbraith asked, "Is this, indeed, the American genius?"
Behind the satirical edge, in short, there was a darker indictment: America was, he warned ominously, fast becoming a place where "the production of the frivolous is viewed with pride, while creation of the significant, the lasting, and the civilizing is looked on with regret." As you know, this concern with what he deemed the crucial "social imbalance" of modern economies--and the role of modern economic theory in defending that imbalance as an inviolable matter of free "consumer choice"--became the basis for his fame, and the explanation why he has sold more than seven million copies of his books, making him the best-selling economist of the modern age (with the sole exception of Karl Marx in the old Communist countries, where presumably a percentage of Marx's sales involved something other than consumer choice).
But an economy devoted to the frivolous and ephemeral was only one part of Galbraith's concern. The additional and far more dangerous problem, as he had also made clear by the mid- 1950s, the danger which truly defined this new era was the Cold War, its attendant risks of nuclear annihilation--and the mindset on both sides of the Iron Curtain which perpetuated it. From a single atom bomb in 1945, U.S. and Soviet arsenals had in just 15 years grown to include tens of thousands of thermonuclear warheads, ready to be carried aloft by intercontinental missiles, by lumbering bombers and even by battlefield artillery. By 1961, the possibility of ending human life--all life, in fact--on the planet was no longer a fantastic nightmare for religious fanatics or science fiction writers but an ever-present possibility.
It would be comforting in some small partisan way to claim that support for this horrifying state of affairs was confined to just one political party--but we all know it was not; both Democrats and Republicans fully embraced the new national security state and its Doomsday weaponry. Moreover the doctrine of nuclear annihilation was not simply a military one but an essential component in domestic electoral competition. Kennedy had watched the Democrats lose the White House in 1952 and 1956 and was determined in 1960 not to be "out- nuked" by Richard Nixon. He had thus run on an alleged--and as we now know, spurious-- "missile gap," claiming that the Soviets had surpassed U.S. in deploying ICBMs that left only 15 minutes' warning before their deadly payloads could strike America.
Once in office Kennedy--who increasingly now wanted to back away from the exaggerated claims of nuclear war--found himself instead held prisoner not only by his own campaign rhetoric, but by the ambitions and beliefs of his advisors, men--and they were only men--who were part of this new and bipartisan "permanent national security state" that transcended the parties themselves. Thus in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco--an invasion plan he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, and about which he had always harbored the most serious doubts--Kennedy found himself that summer caught up publicly in the Berlin Crisis, in which his failed first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna had led to new Soviet pressures on West Berlin, pressures that Kennedy had been forced to answer by putting the nation on military alert, calling for a nationwide civil defense program, and authorizing an immense supplemental Pentagon appropriation. To do otherwise, however, his National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy told him starkly at the time, was to be guilty of "appeasement."
Throughout that first spring and summer of the New Frontier, Galbraith had watched the dangers unfold--and had been appalled by the pressures Kennedy's Cabinet, White House, and military advisors were placing on him to answer force with force, and thereby escalate the risks of nuclear and non-nuclear war alike. Just before the invasion of Cuba that spring, in fact Galbraith had eloquently warned Kennedy in private against undertaking it, recalling the fiasco Truman's generals had made of Korea by pressing up to the Chinese border, and the destruction of Eisenhower's hopes for arms reductions talks with the Soviets by the downing of Gary Powers' unneeded U-2 flight weeks before those talks. Kennedy had listened in seeming agreement to his warnings, as well as those of Senator Fulbright and a few others--but had been drawn along in the Cuban mess by a combination of aides' pressure and his own inexperience. In the wake of its failure, however, he was deeply angry at the advice he'd heard, though the evidence is that his anger did little to damp their self-confidence as the new "permanent government."
Although the nation's attentions the summer after the Bay of Pigs were taken up with Berlin, Galbraith from his post in New Delhi knew that secretly the pressures for Kennedy to deploy U.S. armed forces in Asia were even greater than they had been in Cuba, and contained an even greater risk of nuclear war. Unbeknownst to the public, in the month after the Cuban invasion failed that spring, it's now clear that the National Security Council and Pentagon occupied themselves not with analyzing what had gone wrong in Cuba, but amazingly with how the United States should invade the tiny and primitive kingdom of Laos ten thoU.S.and miles away.
Like Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos was part of old French Indochina, and was considered by Cold Warriors a "front-line state" in the "global struggle against Communism." The kingdom was a kingdom in name only, however, in reality a fragile coalition of mutually-hostile tribes whose ambitions to compete in the Armageddon battle of East and West were attenuated at best.
But in the seven years since the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, America had taken it upon itself to serve as the new overseer of France's former Asian colonies, and now in 1961 a Laotian tribal civil war was being interpreted by White House national security personnel as the latest move in the great contest with Moscow. Here they felt the Kennedy administration must not only stand firm, lest this tiny "domino" tip over innumerable others, but that it should definitively seek to "roll back" Communist influences. As declassified records of top-secret NSC meetings that spring now show, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in fact wanted to send 60,000 American soldiers at once to Laos, and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay openly urged the President to plan for a nuclear attack on China should Beijing be so foolish as to oppose the arrival of those U.S. troops on its southern border.
Galbraith's role as ambassador to India in this situation was far from incidental. India chaired the so-called International Control Commission, the trilateral body set up following France's withdrawal that was meant to guarantee the neutrality of the former Indochinese states, Laos included. Galbraith thus found himself at the heart of the diplomatic negotiations that Kennedy passionately hoped would be the alternative to a U.S. invasion, and which in fact proved successful that spring after Galbraith persuaded Nehru to back a Laotian peace accord that forestalled the American invasion.
By the fall of 1961, Laos was thus quiet once again, and the Berlin Crisis (and with it the risk of a nuclear war in Europe) had started to fade; but in the White House, there were new calls from the President's advisors for U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia--this time in Vietnam.
Kennedy, we now know, was no more anxious to commit U.S. forces in Vietnam than he had been in Laos--but was coming under tremendous pressure to do so. Walt Rostow, his deputy National Security Advisor, was particularly adamant in this, convinced that Vietnam offered America the opportunity to test out the new "flexible response" military doctrine advanced by former Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor that would allow the U.S. to combat those it considered enemies through use of the Special Forces and other means for "unconventional warfare" that didn't rely on America's nuclear superiority. Nuclear weapons were too cumbersome and ill-fitted, the new doctrine argued, for beating back the Third World "liberation" wars and the terrorist tactics that were now seen as key to Moscow's attempts at world domination. As Rostow wrote Kennedy of these new unconventional weapons, "We have worked long and hard to develop these new toys--and at great expense. Vietnam now offers U.S. the chance to use them. We ought not miss the opportunity."
Over that summer, Galbraith had meanwhile sent to Kennedy his own far more skeptical thoughts on Vietnam, as it became apparent to him from cable traffic that in both the State Department and Pentagon, there was growing enthusiasm for intervention. As he told Kennedy, not the use of toys but fundamental American values were at stake here: "All of U.S.," he wrote the President, "have been reared with the same instincts, more or less--that we should combine courage with compassion, suspect pompous or heroic stances, respect our capacity to negotiate, refuse to be pushed and most important seek solutions in social stability rather than military prowess." He then went on to warn Kennedy of what he saw as a profoundly dangerous trend in post-World War II America, a warning which may bear our careful attention today. Reciting the pressures building in Washington for action in Vietnam, Galbraith said,
Ahead of U.S....are the same difficulties that beset the Truman Era. The right
in the United States will always criticize reasonableness as softness. To be
sensible is to appease. And to knock the Soviets or the Chinese into the gutter
is not the least bit warlike. It is they only thing they understand or respect.
Democrats are warlike because they are weak-kneed.
The Truman Administration never developed a way of dealing with
this dialectic. Sometimes it brought Republicans, including Dulles, into the Administration with the hope that this would blunt the attack. Sometimes
it tried to show that it could talk as pugnaciously as the Republicans. Neither
The answer, I am sure, is to pin the label of warrior firmly on these
goons. This is not an emotional reaction but a sound political tactic to which
they are vulnerable. When they speak of total victory they invite total annihilation.
They aren't brave but suicidal. There is a curious superficial pugnacity about the American people which, I am persuaded, does not go very deep. They applaud
the noisy man but they reconsider if they think him dangerous. We must, I feel,
make it clear that these men are dangerous. They survive because we have let them
have the best of both worlds: they could appeal to the pugnacity as a defender of the peace.
Then, in a paragraph that can only chill the heart of any American who lived through the years that lay ahead, he told the young President,
Although at times I have been rather troubled by Berlin, I have always had the
feeling that it would be worked out. I have continued to worry far, far more about
South Viet Nam. This is more complex, far less controllable, far more varied
in the factors involved, far more susceptible to misunderstanding. And to make
matters worse, I have no real confidence in the sophistication and political
judgment of our people there.
This was advice that Kennedy was getting from almost no one else in his administration.
As luck would have it, Galbraith's warning--contained in a top secret eyes-only telegram for the President that bypassed the State Department--reached Kennedy just as General Taylor and Walt Rostow were being sent out to Vietnam for an assessment of what the Administration should do. After reading Galbraith's telegram, Kennedy suddenly sent Taylor and Rostow revised secret instructions, telling them they were no longer to "evaluate what could be accomplished by the introduction of United States forces into Vietnam" (as Taylor had proposed they do), but rather were merely to come back with advice on what the U.S. might do to "prevent further deterioration of the situation" there, bearing in mind--as Kennedy now told them--"that the responsibility for the effective maintenance of South Vietnam rests with its own people and government," not our own. "Political, economic and social factors," he wrote, "were to be weighed as carefully and as thoroughly as military ones in considering any recommendation." Kennedy, in short, was telling his hawkish advisors very clearly that whatever they might want, he was not interested in their laying the ground for U.S. military intervention.
On November 4--43 years ago today--a remarkable set of events began unfolding in Washington. Rostow and Taylor had just returned from their tour of Vietnam, convinced just as they been before they left that the time had come to intervene militarily. But as recently- declassified transcripts of meetings among Kennedy's aides now show--as General Taylor lamented in one of them--"the President is instinctively against introduction of U.S. forces." This, Kennedy's aides found appalling--an impossible weakness on JFK's part when, as Rostow claimed, "America was facing the greatest threat since WWII."
Their challenge as they saw it was how to make the President do what they--not--hewanted to do. He after all, was merely elected and thus subject to the whims and fears of an ignorant electorate--a world the new "permanent government" members were confident they stood far above.
Taylor's plan thus was to lead Kennedy into larger commitments step-by-step, by seeking the dispatch of an initial 8-11,000 troops, limiting them to non-combatant duties--and then waiting for the inevitable attacks on them to begin. McNamara and the Chiefs however found this too timid; they instead wanted to tell the President he would immediately need to commit over 200,000 troops or face the question, "Who lost Asia?" Among the President's top advisors thus the argument that first week in November 1961 wasn't about whether America should wade into Vietnam but how hard and how fast--even though these men knew full well that John F. Kennedy wanted nothing to do with what they were proposing.
As Rostow and Taylor arrived back in Washington, however, someone else did as well. Accompanying Indian Prime Minister Nehru on a state visit to America, Ambassador Galbraith also stepped onto the airport tarmac just outside the nation's capital--and he immediately got to work.
First, to the horror of the State Department, he arranged for a small-private luncheon between Kennedy and Nehru at which he, Galbraith, would be the only U.S. diplomat present. It would, Galbraith knew, be the perfect opportunity for the two leaders to meet, take the measure of one another, and explore diplomatic rather than military options in Southeast Asia.
But second, Galbraith also understood that he needed to get hold of the Taylor Report, even before the President saw it, since he'd discovered that Kennedy's aides had scheduled a National Security Council meeting a few days hence at which they hoped to force the President quickly and without reflection to approve the Report's recommendations. But getting hold of the top-secret report would not be easy--only a dozen or so copies were being prepared, since its backers knew just how explosive its consequences would be.
Never lacking in confidence, Galbraith decided to get his own copy from Walt Rostow himself. He'd known Rostow for 15 years--ever since they'd worked briefly together on the reconstruction of Germany at the State Department in 1946. So Galbraith went to Rostow's office that afternoon, and after initially chatting about Nehru's visit, turned the conversation to Taylor's mission. What had Rostow learned in Vietnam? What sorts of recommendations would he and Taylor make to the President? After seeing the situation at first hand, were they now urging caution or greater commitment?
Rostow said he was reluctant to talk about the group's findings because Kennedy himself hadn't yet seen the report, and because it was so heavily classified, Galbraith wryly recalled, as "to limit access to God and the President of the United States; specifically excluded were the other members of the Trinity." But there on a pile of memos on Rostow's desk the Taylor Report sat in plain view. Galbraith asked again to see it; Rostow again demurred. Then the phone rang. When Rostow momentarily turned to answer it, Galbraith instantly decided what to do. "My authorized access as an ambassador being equal to that of the authors of the report, I simply picked up the copy and walked out." For whatever reasons, Rostow did not stop him--one can imagine the headline "Ambassador Arrested at White House"--and Galbraith left the White House with the Taylor Report tucked under his arm.
Rushing to his room at the Hay-Adams Hotel, he began to read--and was soon appalled. After glancing through just the first few pages, he began furiously scribbling notes on a legal- pad. Here, he realized, were outlines for what could become America's next great war.
Taylor and Rostow were calling for the initial dispatch of 8,000 to 10,000 American troops in the guise of "flood relief workers." Covert operations, cooperation between the CIA and Vietnamese intelligence, and U.S. training of South Vietnamese soldiers were all to be "radically increased." Toxic herbicides--including something later known as Agent Orange, which Galbraith had never heard of, and which Dean Rusk was shortly to describe mendaciously to Kennedy as a benign "weedkiller"--were to be used for the first time to defoliate vast swaths of jungle. U.S. helicopters and light aircraft squadrons, manned by uniformed American personnel, were to be sent out in support of what would henceforth be South Vietnamese operations jointly planned with the Americans. U.S. air and naval forces were to prepare for direct but unspecified "harassment" of North Vietnam itself.
These recommendations needed only the President's initials to make them the nation's new battle plan in far-away Asia. Galbraith, working all night in his hotel room, drafted his response. It begins with these words:
The situation in South Vietnam is perilously close to the point of no return. Serious thought is being given to a military operation in South Vietnam which would entail all the risks of the operation in Korea ten years ago, without the justification of a surprise attack across the boundary, without the support of the United Nations, and without a population determined to fight for independence.
To prevent such a disaster, Galbraith told the President he should initiate a program that would end the fighting, yield a neutral and democratic Vietnam, and put a U.N. presence in place to supervise the peace.
To that end, he urged Kennedy to promptly replace Ambassador Nolting with Ambassador Harriman in Saigon, persuade the U.N. to dispatch observers there immediately, put the few U.S. military advisers already in Vietnam since the Eisenhower days under U.N. command, and open talks with the Soviet Union to help stop the fighting. Thereafter, Galbraith urged negotiations on renewed trade between Hanoi and Saigon, reciprocal diplomatic relations, and major U.S. economic assistance to U.N.-supervised reconstruction. These actions would avoid "the high risk and limited promise of armed intervention," but would also help greatly to contain Soviet and Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
But Kennedy, after reading Galbraith's memo and largely agreeing with it, realized once again that he was in a terrible bind. On the one hand, his own instincts, not to mention his fresh memories of the Bay of Pigs and the Pentagon's eagerness to invade Laos, told him to put off sending any troops; on the other, he was once again under near-uniform constant and heavy pressure from his national security advisers, who were arguing that anything less than a major engagement in Vietnam would risk disastrous consequences.
After reading the Taylor Report Kennedy compared, to his aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the troop commitments that his aides wanted with an alcoholic's need for a drink.
"They want a force of American troops," he told me [Schlesinger later wrote] early in November. "They say it's necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.' The war in Vietnam, he added, could be won only so long as it was their war. If it were ever converted into a white man's war, we would lose as the French had lost a decade earlier."
Over the next several days in consequence a remarkable power struggle unfolded, invisible to the public but one that reminds U.S. that Presidents, especially once the U.S. took on its globe-dominating economic, political and military role after World War II, have rarely if ever enjoyed decision-making power free from the power of that "permanent government" always around them.
First, Kennedy postponed the crucial NSC meeting--not once but three times--to gain time to weigh his options. A flurry of press leaks then followed, saying "senior officials at the White House were expressing doubts" about the Taylor Report, to the great consternation of his advisors who knew just who the "senior officials" were.
But apart from Galbraith, Kennedy found frighteningly few allies in his own administration. The morning just before the long-delayed NSC meeting was finally convened, Kennedy ordered Galbraith to leave immediately for India but to return via Saigon not Europe, where he was to report back directly through back channels to the President alone.
That afternoon, Kennedy finally met with the advisors. For years afterward, no records of the discussion could be found; finally in the late 1990s, personal notes taken by General Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were discovered accidently after his death. They paint a striking picture. For over two hours, Kennedy remained quiet and aloof as members of the group commented, one by one, on Rusk's presentation. But their plan to ensnare the President began breaking apart when Robert Kennedy broke in to insist, "We are not sending combat troops. Not committing ourselves to combat troops," and the President himself then refused to accept Rusk's advice that he formally declare "saving Vietnam" as a stated national policy goal. "Troops," JFK coldly told his advisers in open rebuff, "are a last resort."
After more discussion, during which his aides kept pressing on him the need to follow Taylor's advice, if not McNamara's, the President changed course: he now abruptly said he would endorse the various short-term military recommendations Taylor had made--sending a few thousand U.S. troops (as advisers but not combatants), more economic aid, and stepped-up cooperation between American and Vietnamese armed forces and their intelligence services. But beyond that, he said firmly, he would not go. McNamara's proposed commitment of more than 200,000 troops was not up for discussion. Then he adjourned the meeting.
It was not at all the decision the advisers had wanted, and they thus set about trying to reverse it. Two days later, Secretary Rusk met with the French and British Ambassadors to brief them on what the President had decided. He told the French ambassador "no troops" would be sent, suavely overlooking the 10,000 non-combatant troops to which the French were just as opposed, and which violated the terms of the Geneva Accords. With British ambassador Rusk was franker: 10,000 non-combat troops would be sent to Saigon immediately--and more important, "combat troops might be sent in a matter of weeks depending on the situation the first deployment found." This was a decision, however, that Kennedy had clearly not approved.
McNamara meanwhile ordered the Chiefs to deploy the 10,000 troops immediately--and simultaneously to begin immediate contingency planning for deploying the much larger combat forces he and they wanted, and which the President had refused.
At the next NSC meeting, scheduled five days after the first, the President was meant to approve the final draft of his instructions, based on the prior meeting's discussion of the Taylor Report. By the time the group convened, however, Kennedy had gotten wind (likely from the British ambassador, who was a personal friend and confidant) of what his own aides were doing- -and as notes of the meeting make clear, he was coldly furious.
Mr Rusk explained the Draft of Memorandum on South Viet Nam. He added
the hope that, in spite of the magnitude of the proposal, any U.S. actions would
not be hampered by lack of funds nor failure to pursue the program vigorously.
The President expressed the fear of becoming involved simultaneously
on two fronts on opposite sides of the world. He questioned the wisdom of
involvement in Viet Nam since the basis thereof is not completely clear. By
comparison he noted that Korea was a case of clear aggression which was opposed
by the United States and other members of the U.N. The conflict in Viet Nam is
more obscure and less flagrant.
The President the expressed his strong feeling that in such a situation
the United States needs even more the support of allies in such an endeavor as
Viet Nam in order to avoid sharp domestic partisan criticism as well as strong
objections from other nations of the world. The President said that he could
even make a rather strong case against intervening in an area 10,000 miles
away against 16,000 guerillas with a native army of 200,000, where millions
have been spent for years with no success.
The President repeated his apprehension concerning support, adding
that none could be expected from the French, and Mr. Rusk interrupted to
say that the British were tending more and more to take the French point of
view. The President compared the obscurity of the issues in Viet Nam to the
clarity of the positions in Berlin, the contrast of which could even make leading Democrats wary of proposed activities in the Far East.
Kennedy, in short, like Galbraith wanted no wider war and no precipitating U.S. escalation in Vietnam. And days later, to further make his point to his advisors, he reshuffled the State Department along the lines Galbraith had recommended. He moved Galbraith's friends Averell Harriman to Assistant Secretary for Far East and George Ball to Undersecretary; but--to Galbraith's dismay (though he understood the reasons why)--Kennedy did not replace Rusk at State, McNamara at Defense, or Bundy at NSC.
Two years to the day after that reshuffle was announced, Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. But as newly declassified documents make clear, during those two years he and Galbraith had kept fighting to keep the U.S. out of Vietnam. In spring of 1962, Galbraith laid out a detailed strategy for negotiations with the Russians over Vietnam in Geneva, and Kennedy ordered State to open those negotiations--but the Department didn't, simply burying his instructions in its massive bureaucratic files. By spring of 1963, Kennedy--after living through the Cuban Missile Crisis--had become profoundly sobered not only by risks of Vietnam, but of nuclear war, and the underlying dangers to both America and the world posed by our "permanent government."
In the winter and spring of 1963, Kennedy thus set about crafting with a few select aides his legendary American University speech, in which that June he would set forth his impassioned arguments for the arms negotiations he believed were now necessary to contain the frightful risks of nuclear Armageddon. His words today still bear repeating:
I have chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived -- yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.
What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women -- not merely peace in our time but peace for all time. I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces.
To those in America who still sought to place exclusive blame on the Soviets for the Cold War, he had these further words, unprecedented for an American President:
Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament -- and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude -- as individuals and as a nation -- for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward -- by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home.
It was, in fact, so extraordinary a speech--and so at odds with the faith of America's "permanent government" around him--that Kennedy hid its very existence--and the plans he had for negotiating arms reductions with the Soviets--from his own State and Defense Departments until forty-eight hours before he delivered it. They were, needless to say, stunned.
Kennedy's insistence on keeping the speech secret from his own government was however of a piece with the decision the young President had reached in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Several months before the speech, he privately asked Galbraith to become his U.S. ambassador to Moscow--an offer that Galbraith carefully weighed, but finally declined, painfully and regretfully, out of the conviction that with Dean Rusk as Secretary of State, he would never truly be able to serve the President's interests. Kennedy however proceeded on his new course after the American University speech, not only negotiating a nuclear test ban treaty with Moscow but ordering Secretary MacNamara and the Chiefs to have all 15,000 U.S. troops out of Vietnam by 1965, shortly after what Kennedy presumed would be his reelection in November 1964. To make sure the "permanent government" understood his determination, he ordered that the first 1,000 be withdrawn by December of 1963.
We know of course what instead came about in Vietnam following Kennedy's death that November.
Having shared this remarkable history with you, what conclusions might I suggest we draw from it in terms of this talk's title, "The Legacy of John Kenneth Galbraith." First, I would argue that we can now see how encompassing Galbraith's sense was of what it was to be what he later called "a truly useful economist." His actions and advice to President Kennedy on Vietnam were of course diplomatic and political on an immediately obvious level; but they were more deeply based in Galbraith's encompassing sense of "political economy." Mathematical models of economics which took no account of the Cold War context for Keynesian-led growth, that drew no distinction between public spending for a global military machine and other kinds of public goods fatefully misunderstood, Galbraith always felt, the social, political, and ideological foundations of economic relations themselves. The prosperity that was built in the 1950s and 1960s on "military Keynesianism," as it came to be called, was to him always not only illusory but profoundly dangerous, because "the toys" constructed in its course were always at risk of being used..
From this stemmed a second conclusion for Galbraith: that only by challenging the "conventional wisdom" of the age, could he or someone like him hope to serve a truly useful role in history. Power here and its role in American decision-making and the role of what I have called "the permanent government" were necessarily for him the objects of that challenge. And today, even better than in the early 1960s, we can understand why. Near the end of the twentieth century, the Brookings Institution calculated America's total military spending since World War II, and concluded that it amounted to more than $20 trillion--with more than a third of that spent on nuclear weapons alone. For Galbraith, the question posed by that gargantuan sum--a question too few of the rest of us consistently raise--has always been, how else might it have been spent?
Third, for Americans today, standing as we seem to be at the dawn of a global "war on terror" that risks repeating in its own way so many of the tragedies and mistakes that characterized the Cold War, there is the question of what parallels need to be drawn. If indeed we stand at the opening stage of a prolonged, costly and deadly new conflict, what can we learn from Galbraith's and President Kennedy's insights and actions more than forty years ago?
I have related this story to you today not just to convey those events and the questions they raise for us here today, but finally to convey a sense of the character of John Kenneth Galbraith, and why I believe that the way in which he has lived his life is of significant relevance to our own. During the course of this presidential campaign that ended two days ago, there was much bitter shouting and arguing, but too little real honesty, about the importance of "moral" and "traditional" values. In John Kenneth Galbraith's life and actions--especially during the Kennedy years I've just recounted--I would submit to you that we can see at work the very best of what you and I would count as the most important of "traditional" values--the value of courage, for example, the value of vision allied with steadfastness, the value of wisdom, and most of all the value of commitment to an open and just society in which the economy and government alike serve the democratic interest.
Whether our own age will produce men and women capable of living lives like his remains to be seen--but we should not doubt why we need them.