Rogue Diplomats by Seth Jacobs

“Diplomacy,” said the writer and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce, “is the patriotic art of lying for one’s country.”

In Rogue Diplomats: The Proud Tradition of Disobedience in American Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 406 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $17.20, Kindle) Seth Jacobs examines the role and conduct of diplomats in the shaping U.S. foreign policy. American diplomacy—often overlooked by historians and political scientists who concentrate on executive power and the military—has had a profound impact on the many achievements that have helped establish contemporary America.

Seth Jacobs is Professor of History at Boston College. His books include Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam and America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia.

Jacobs’ opening thesis statement is striking; he contends that the most important triumphs in American history came a result of American diplomats disobeying orders. Using a case-study approach, Jacobs uses six examples:

  • John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin negotiating the Paris Peace Treaty that ended the Revolutionary War
  • Robert Livingstone and James Monroe bargaining for the Louisiana Purchase
  • Nicholas Trist ending the 1946-48 war with Mexico
  • Walter Hines Page as Ambassador to England during the World War I
  • Joseph P. Kennedy in the same post in period immediately preceding the Second World War
  • Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963.

In all five of the six cases, Jacobs argues, insubordination was ultimately the correct course of action.

Of particular interest is the case study on Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. The patrician Republican Lodge was a curious choice for the Democratic President, John F. Kennedy, as the new U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963. Aside from their party differences, Kennedy had defeated Lodge for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952, and again when Lodge was Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960.

When Lodge arrived in Saigon in August 1963, the embers of the Diem Administration’s raids on Buddhist pagodas in South Vietnam were still smoldering. A lone wolf who kept his own counsel, Lodge soon dominated the diplomatic scene in South Vietnam and forged his own policy in the wake of vacillation from Washington.

Henry Cabot Lodge looming large over Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963

In Saigon, the South Vietnamese populace had tired of Ngo Dinh Diem’s autocratic rule, and there were as many as twelve coup d’état plots against his government. Lodge delicately walked the tightrope of not thwarting any of the coups while maintaining plausible deniability of American involvement.

Jacobs overstates the case of Lodge’s perfidy, but there is no doubt that he, as much as any American, helped cause the overthrow of the Diem government.

Lodge’s rogue quality rested more on his unmanageability than dishonesty. Despite Jacobs’ characterization of Lodge’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador as one rife with disobedience and insubordination, he credits Lodge with ultimately making the right choice in helping oust the Diem government.

Jacobs’ book is an original piece of scholarship that is written in a manner that makes it entertaining, informative, and relevant. It is a rare book of American foreign policy that is accessible to both the casual reader and the academic.

The diplomats he writes about were both a reflection and a refraction of the culture of their times, rendering a distinctly American approach to foreign policy. In the end, Jacobs proves his provocative thesis that America was made by knaves and scoundrels who went their own way.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Last Brahmin by Luke A. Nichter

Very few people know the burden of being born with a famous name. Some struggle with unfair expectations. Some shun the public and seek anonymity. Of those who enter the same field as their legendary predecessors, few reach the same levels of accomplishment.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1902-1985) was a three-term U.S. Senator, the longest-serving American Representative at the United Nations, as wall as U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam (twice), West Germany, and the Vatican. He also advised five presidents and was continuously in public service for nearly five decades. As a young man with wealth, looks, and a Harvard degree, he made a curious choice to join the Army Reserve when the military was at its post-World War I nadir. He would serve his entire adult life in the Reserves before retiring with the rank of Major General.

Lodge, out of now-antiquated notions of probity, wrote two autobiographical sketches of his life, but no memoir. Luke A. Nichter’s The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and the Making of the Cold War (Yale University Press, 544 pp. $37.50, hardcover;  $22.99, Kindle) is the first complete biography of this consequential American statesman. Nichter is a History professor at Texas A&M University–Central Texas and the co-editor of The Nixon Tapes, 1971-1972. In The Last Brahmin Nichter mines the wealth of secondary scholarship and Lodge’s archived material, as well as those of all the presidents from Eisenhower to Ford. The exhaustive nature of his research is evidenced by the book’s ninety pages of endnotes.

Lodge was the grandson—not the son—of Henry Cabot Lodge, the contemptuous Massachusetts Senator notorious for his stand preventing the United States from joining the League of Nations after World War I. The Cabots and the Lodges were the epitome of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy. Their forbearers gained wealth in shipping before turning to public service. Lodge’s forefathers included a Secretary of State, a Secretary of the Navy, and six U.S. Senators.

At age 42, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. became the first sitting U.S. Senator since the Civil War to resign his seat and enter active military service and fight in a war. As it did for a generation of Americans, World War II changed Lodge from an isolationist (like his grandfather) to a zealous internationalist. He was re-elected to a third term in the Senate in 1946, but continuously clashed with the conservative Republican Old Guard. Determined to prevent another Republican loss in 1952, he convinced Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to run. Lodge spent so much time working as Ike’s campaign manager that he neglected his own re-election campaign and lost his Senate seat to a young Congressman named John F. Kennedy.

After eight years at the UN, Richard Nixon tapped Lodge to be his running mate in the 1960 presidential election. They narrowly lost to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. After the election Lodge considered himself too old to run for political office, but too young to retire. He crossed party lines and agreed to become Kennedy’s Ambassador to South Vietnam in the summer of 1963. It would seem a curious move for the patrician politician—working for a man who had defeated him twice in a remote, violent land with a fledgling government.

Lodge & Ngo Dinh Diem, 1963

Despite an impressive career, the first three months Lodge served as Kennedy’s ambassador in Saigon are the most renowned of his life and the rightful cornerstone of Nichter’s work. A secretly recorded conversation implies that JFK gave Lodge approval to support a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Politically, Lodge was a nationalist in the best definition of the word; he valued loyalty and discretion, and did as well as he could in an extremely volatile situation. Lodge never explained his actions in Vietnam, but Nichter’s work is an important contribution in understanding America’s early involvement in what would become the nation’s most controversial overseas war.

In his effort to include as much as detail as possible, Nichter’s prose, though consistently accessible, can periodically be uneven. This is minor problem, though, given the scope of Nichter’s important work.

hgjkThe Last Brahmin is an impressive and authoritative account of a leading figure of the Cold War.

–Daniel R. Hart