Part V: The Pre-Vietnam Richard Holbrooke – A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Richard Holbrooke’s parents were Jewish, but they only told him when he was a teenager. His father was a refugee from Europe, a General Practitioner, a Democrat and a political internationalist who took his son to visit the site of the UN building. At 16 years-of-age, Richard Holbrooke went to Europe to visit his mother’s relatives and viewed the Suez crisis from a European perspective. He became critical of Eisenhower’s passivity and his lack of understanding of the British and French position. There is no mention of the Israeli position and its seizure of the Sinai, and Israel would remain a blank page for the rest of the book. The only mention of the Middle East was that Holbrooke wanted nothing to do with it.

“Dick wanted America in the lead…Now [Ike] must, as leader of the West act, not hesitate.” (13) American leadership. Action without hesitation. Bywords for Holbrooke’s life as a diplomat. “Holbrooke lived through action, and it’s through action that we can know him.” (14) But not if we do not know whether he was or was not active, whether he responded or did not respond, to international crises that Charles Packer does not write about. In 1956, I was 19-years old and in second year of premeds. The year before, I had discovered the world of literature. I was beginning to discover the world of politics.

In 1956, the Russians invaded Hungary. A well-known student theatre director called a rally and summoned us to join a resistance group that would go as volunteers to fight the Russians alongside the Hungarian students as his parents had volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain in the 1930s. But Hungary had been crushed before we could even get organized to offer our bodies as fodder for a war in Europe. By Remembrance Day, in only two weeks, the uprising was over. Russian tanks crushed the Nagy communist regime. The episode marked the end of any effective Communist Party in Canada, even under the cover of The Labour-Progressive Party of Canada, as Joe Salsberg, my federal representative in Parliament, resigned from the party in 1957 over the assault. There is no mention of how Richard Holbrooke responded to the invasion or the flight of 200.000 Hungarian refugees in November of that year. Later, he, and Charles Packer, would mistakenly refer to the War in Former Yugoslavia, as the first in Europe since WWII.

Is this erasure Holbrooke’s or Packer’s? Was it influenced by Holbrooke’s father’s death in January of 1957? “Smothering silence.” For Packer, “that was an action.” “The self-creation that begins in self-erasure was another.” (14) There were many figures in the post WWII period, particularly Jews, who gave birth to themselves. Erik Erikson is but one example. Richard Holbrooke’s father was another. But Richard Holbrooke, who seems to always put himself fully on display, did not seem to be such a candidate.  Packer claimed that Holbrooke “became, the son of no one and nowhere – of himself, of America.” But he had just written that Holbrooke’s destiny in the pursuit of internationalism had been implanted in him by his father. Further, he could not both be the son of America, which he certainly was, and the son of nowhere.

Though Packer’s book is moving and brilliant, in many ways, probing, I have tried to show that in at least one area, that of refugees, he fails. He also, as in this case, seems to favour a clever comment rather than consistency. Did Holbrooke’s mind get fixated on a foreign service career in 1958 by a speech of his surrogate father, Dean Rusk, the father of his best friend David, the Dean Rusk who himself had such a stellar diplomatic career and was named Secretary of State by John Kennedy? This happened when Holbrooke was 19-years-old, a junior at Brown and the new editor of the Brown Daily Herald. Certainly, Packer makes a powerful case that becoming Secretary of State became Holbrooke’s lifelong goal, a goal which always eluded him, or managing editor of The New York Times. Two roads diverged in the wood and Holbrooke got on the diplomatic rather than journalist track, probably because Packer was correct, he was more committed to being an actor than a witness.

However, Rusk was quiet, loyal, discreet and reliable. Holbrooke lacked every one of these qualities. If Rusk was his political muse, why did he not try to cultivate those same qualities? Why did he exemplify ones that were the very opposite – loud, not always loyal, indiscreet and with a reputation for unreliability in conforming to the policies dictated by those higher in the political tree? Holbrooke, according to Packer, tried to compress the gap between diplomacy and journalism. “Diplomats envied and distrusted him for preferring the company of journalists, journalists pursued and suspected him for being a diplomat.” (16) I do not know whether journalists suspected him is true or not, but Packer throughout the book makes an excellent case that other political figures distrusted Holbrooke for leaking to reporters, but absolutely no case for the proposition that reporters distrusted him for being a diplomat. But one very pithy sentence that depends on balance seems more important than evidence.

Woodrow Wilson was another icon of Holbrooke’s intellectual interest in WWI when America first occupied the centre of the world stage. Is it Holbrooke or Packer or both who saw Wilson as “a great and tragic figure” who believed in universal peace and freedom, but was “too moralistic and rigid to carry it out.” (17) Though this was, and perhaps remains, a pervasive caricature of Woodrow Wilson, was this the same individual whom I had read about? In 2015, 12 years after I had taught a course on refugees at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University where Wilson had once been President, Princeton students stormed the office of University President Christopher Eisgruber demanding that Wilson’s name be removed, not only from the school, but from all programs and buildings at Princeton.

Wilson, who became Governor of New Jersey and President of the USA, had been a blatant racist. In 1914, before America entered WWI and Wilson pronounced his vision of a League of Nations, he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter, a graduate of Harvard (he could not have attended Princeton for Wilson ensured blacks would not be admitted), and his onetime supporter, out of the Oval Office. And it was under Wilson that Jim Crow was introduced into the federal civil service by providing separate toilets in, for example, the U.S. Treasury and the Interior Department and separate eating facilities, dressing rooms and lockers. Wilson argued that segregation was a benefit to blacks “to protect them from friction.”

It is not as if, in writing his praise of Woodrow Wilson, that Holbrooke could have been ignorant of the President’s racism. The story of his contretemps with Trotter had been front page news at the time. Wilson was a Southern-born outright segregationist and white supremacist, not only with respect to America, but in his observations about the world. He was appalled that in the French army, blacks served alongside whites. He defended the Ku Klux Klan who, driven by “an instinct of self-preservation,” organized to protect Southern values. As for their practice of lynching, he deplored the embarrassment it brought to whites, but he expressed no empathy for the blacks that were strung up or even for the abuse of the rule of law. He even defended slavery, insisting that black slaves were happy and well cared for. He explicitly referred to blacks as belonging to “an ignorant and inferior race.” And if you think that Donald Trump is a racist with respect to immigration, Wilson defended the policy of national exclusion in fear of Oriental Coolieism and because, “We cannot make a homogenous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race.”

Did Holbrooke, as editor of a university newspaper in the early sixties, write about the emerging civil rights movement? In his Wilson academic paper, did Holbrooke mention Wilson’s racism? Instead, Holbrooke criticized Wilson’s “moralism,” but not his racism, his rigidity, but not with respect to the institutionalized discrimination in the USA. Pragmatism but not moralism for Holbrooke. But a different kind of moralism led the fight against the testing of nuclear weapons and the civil rights movement. There is no mention of whether Holbrooke paid any attention to either issue.

In 1962, Holbrooke passed his Foreign Service exam and began his career as a diplomat, at 21, the youngest member of his class. He did so allegedly as a response to President Kennedy’s request that he ask what he could do for his country. When we in our jeans and sweatshirts were protesting to prevent nuclear weapons from being deployed by the U.S. into Canada, when we were protesting the numerous U.S. nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site, the USSR nuclear tests in Eastern Kazakhstan and America’s resumption of above ground testing, when my brother was trapped in Cuba as a result of the American blockade, when Kim Philby had defected to the USSR and that repressive authoritarian state was trading Francis Gary Power (captured after a U2 was shot down) for Rudolph Abel, a communist spy, when Charles De Gaulle was ending the French War in Algeria, when the bus boycott started in Macon, Georgia and, shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court forbad race separation on public buses, Holbrooke had purchased a conservative suit, wore a tie for his new career, abjured moralism, and began to offer a different interpretation of the new Beatles’ hit, “Please, Please Me.”  From Packer, we learn nothing of Holbrooke’s attitudes to any of these issues.

His assignment in the State Department was Vietnam. It was the same time that the U.S. Military Forces in Operation Ranch Hand sprayed the jungles of Vietnam with defoliants, such as Agent Orange. Americans began their first combat mission just before Vietnamese air pilots failed in their attempt to assassinate President Ngô Dinh Diêm and U.S. advisors first engaged in combat operations. However, according to Packer, Holbrooke was simply excited to be part of the action. If young people were doing the twist on the dance floor at that time, Holbrooke began by introducing the twist to diplomacy just when antimatter had first been discovered. Holbrooke would begin his education as an anti-diplomatic diplomat. Though no one had ever discovered how to produce significant amounts of antimatter, Holbrooke almost single-handedly created anti-diplomatic diplomacy. While singularly focused on a problem in international relations, Holbrooke threw away the tools of tact and avoiding offence and traded in a concern with hurting feelings for a career in manipulating emotions.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

One comment on “Part V: The Pre-Vietnam Richard Holbrooke – A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

  1. Kelly Morefield says:

    Hi Howard,
    I recently finished an online University of Oxford course called The First World War in Perspective. There was an enormous amount of discussion about Wilson, particularly around his role with the postwar peace settlements. There was absolutely no mention of his racism, either in the course material itself or within the many discussion groups with the professor or fellow students. I found your comments about this issue particularly illuminating.
    And, on a personal note, anything to do with Vietnam always makes me think of you and our Centre for Refugee Studies program with the Vietnamese translators and refugee camps. Very fond memories.

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