George Ball

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George W. Ball (1909-1998) was a U.S. attorney and diplomat, who was Undersecretary of State between 1961 and 1966. In that senior diplomatic role, he was under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.[1]


Ball was opposed to major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, in part because he believed the U.S. focus should be on Europe. [2] He regarded the involvement as a reality, however, and remained an advisor, although often a dissenting one. His comments made it very clear that his opposition was a matter of priorities, calling antiwar protesters "stupid and unattractive" who declared "...sanctimonious tones that American policy is thoroughly in the wrong and that we as a nation are as brutal and viciously ambitious as the other side."[1] In an October 1964 memo recommending we should "cut our losses," with short-term consequences but benefits in the Far East, Europe, neutralist countries, etc. long-term we would gain by it, which I set forth in relation to each country: countries in the Far East, countries in Europe, the neutralist countries, and so on."[3] It went Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk, whom, according to McNamara, were cautious over Ball's European focus. Nevertheless, while McNamara found Ball correct about the problem statement, he said Ball gave no practical way to get out, short of unconditional withdrawal, seemingly a geopolitical and diplomatic impossibility. Nevertheless, McNamara said, the admittedly preliminary memo deserved more discussion. It did not get to Johnson until February 1964; McNamara later believed it should have been reviewed by experts and then sent quickly to Johnson.[4]

Kennedy Administration

In 1963, he favored the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem, as an "enormous humiliation to the United States, that we were supporting a regime which was behaving in the most unconscionable and cruel, uncivilized way toward a significant minority of the population."[5]

He took credit for firing, with the enthusiastic support of Dean Rusk, Roger Hilsman, who had become "very difficult... so full of his own omniscience with regard to Vietnam, and he was lecturing the generals on strategy. He became rather a nuisance. So we got rid of him."[6] In particular, he was critical of Hilsman's emphasis on covert operations, of the sort that Kennedy had encouraged with Edward Lansdale and MACV-SOG.

Johnson Administration

Even though Ball believed that the involvement in Vietnam was wrong, he thought Lyndon Johnson would have great domestic problems had he disengaged immediately, which would have seemed a rejection of Kennedy. "What concerned me then as it did much more intensely even later was that the more forces we committed, the more men we committed to Vietnam, the more grandiloquent our verbal encouragement of the South Vietnamese was, the more costly was any disengagement."[7]

Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, directed Ball to obscure the more aggressive U.S. policy that included the Operation ROLLING THUNDER airstrikes against North Vietnam. [8]


He was a member of Kennedy's Executive Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


  1. 1.0 1.1 McFadden, Robert D. (May 28, 1994), "George W. Ball Dies at 84; Vietnam's Devil's Advocate", New York Times
  2. Robert S. McNamara (1995), In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Times Books division of Random House, p. 347
  3. Mullholan, Paige E. (July 8, 1971), Oral History Interview with George W. Ball, Interview 1, p. I-4
  4. McNamara, pp. 156-159
  5. Ball oral history, p. I-4
  6. Ball oral history, p. I-5
  7. Ball oral history, p. I-8
  8. McMaster, H. R. (1997), Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, Harpercollins, pp. 239-240