Part VIC: Women: Richard Holbrooke’s and My Vietnam A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

In Thomas Power’s review of George Packer’s biography of Richard Holbrooke (“The Fog of Ambition,” The New York Review of Books, 6 June 2019), he sums up Holbrooke’s life as follows: “Holbrooke had the serious intent, the energy, the friends, the wit, and even the luck needed to accomplish great things, but he fell short…Holbrooke was not only physically big but had an emphatic personality, could dominate a room, make friends and kept most of them, read widely and greedily, and was a bit overwhelming when he turned his attention on you.” (p. 12) Packer fell under Holbrooke’s spell, according to Powers, and it was Holbrooke’s warmth, energy, and big presence that produced that effect.

Power sums up Packer’s enchantment with Holbrooke in Packer’s own words: “Holbrooke is our man – the perfect example of ‘our feeling that we could do anything…our confidence and energy…our excess and our blindness…That’s the reason to tell you this story’.” Packer attaches many adjectives to Holbrooke – abrupt, dismissive, vain, self-absorbed, wild, crass. Unlike his equally talented, bright and dedicated fellow diplomats, and in spite of these detracting personal traits, Holbrooke was driven, driven by the demon ambition.

In Packer’s and Power’s interpretation, that demon allowed the realist side of Holbrooke to keep his eye on the prize, Secretary of State, rather than allow his actions to be determined by his perceptions and analysis. Packer wrote, “It might have been better to be stupidly, disastrously wrong in a sincerely held belief like some of us.” This is the essence of Packer’s thesis. When it came to the crunch, Holbrooke surrendered to his realism, sacrificed his idealism and keen analysis to support unsupportable causes, such as the Iraq War.

While not denying the validity of the claim, I think that it is necessary to go deeper to explain why, and not simply assert that, realism trumped idealism. For what was that realism? Not an assessment of realpolitik, but placing career ahead of intellectual conviction. But why? Especially why when that very demon sabotaged the possibility of realizing the highest goal of that ambition?  At the same time, without that ambition, without the desire to make an impact and change the world, there would be no heroic career, but only a relatively mundane one. The question needs reframing. Why did career success and survival – not desire, not flaming ambition – undermine his real desire and ambition – to make the world a better place? Why did Holbrooke become a slave, not to his ambition, but to careerism and survival in the worldly world of careerism?

Approach the question from another angle. The American idealist love for counterinsurgency did not get Americans into the war, but it was this false faith in counterinsurgency that led them to expand the war and drag it out for years. What in Holbrooke’s personality and psychological make-up led him to criticize first his assignments, then the tactics and strategy of the war and even eventually the war itself, but not America as a fighting power? Packer’s thesis is that Holbrooke never did come to recognize himself or get at the root of these dichotomous forces at work within his soul. But neither did Packer. My thesis is that Holbrooke had a romantic, and twisted, view of love – love of both women and America – that was at the root of his mindblindness.

Packer writes that Holbrooke needed women to crack him open, to expose his tenderness, his vulnerability, and, in the final analysis, his bad judgement. “In their company, the hard, gemlike flame adjusted to a soft, illuminating glow.” (p. 85) But his hard-core principles were forged in Vietnam, in the absence of women close to him and in the absence of critical self-examination. The frustrating part is that Packer collects the clues that could reveal an answer, but does not in the end put the pieces together. And the clues can be found in his love life.

Unlike most of the bachelor diplomats in Vietnam (and many of the married ones), Holbrooke did not have a Vietnamese mistress. “Holbrooke might have wanted to, but he didn’t. He was too inexperienced, too geeky, too consumed with the war. And he was the kind of man who required more after sex than Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Soap – who needed the intimacy that talk brings. And then there was the possible fiancée,” Larrine Sullivan or Letti. Inexperience, a geek and preoccupation with war. And sex meant talk. And talk meant love. And love meant commitment.

Holbrooke was not a humourless scold who treated his promiscuous friends to a superego trip. He respected that his and their appetites were different. So were their ambitions. His appetite for women and his appetite for power had many parallels. But also many diametrically opposite dimensions. Holbrooke may have been a power-hungry driven individual who might push a Holocaust couple out of the way to obtain a better position. But with respect to women, he was the opposite – he took years and agonized over dropping a love, for a love was, he believed in each case, the love of his life.

Thus, Holbrooke was a prude, but not a manners prude. Manners and civility soften the exercise of power. Civility moderates aggression. Universally, Holbrooke was infamous for his lack of manners. If civility inhibits the propensity to use violence as an option, in Holbrooke his incivility was yoked to the pursuit of peace and in opposition to war.

Plato in Phaedrus describes the chariot of understanding being thrust forward by a pair of winged horses yoked to one another. One was appetite that was wild and Dionysian and impervious to the entreaties of reason. The other horse, in contrast, was possessed of passion that could be guided by reason; it was passion of a more noble breed rooted in righteous indignation and a moral impulse rather than an uncontrollable disposition. In Holbrooke, his uncontrolled passion was married to incivility precisely so he would not be or become violent or be prone to support violence; it was also driven towards unbridled ambition. On the other hand, his moral sensibility was reined in and governed by analysis and reason and that was protected by sex married to talk and to commitment. Hence, his propensity to think “good thoughts” alongside their fearsome and corrupt opposite.

It should be no surprise that the three loves of Holbrooke’s life were Litty, Blythe and Kati, with Toni Lake the one constant in background. Holbrooke’s relationship with Litty provided the metaphor for his Vietnamese phase. Litty was unworldly but possessed a cheerful solidity. She hated and avoided conflict or confrontation. Though very bright, perhaps brighter than Holbrooke, she vested all her ambition in him. He was playful, pushy and preachy. She was polite, personable and prudent. Where she was reticent, Holbrooke demanded that all feelings be expressed with his “bothersome insistence,” his nudging, rather than careful use of persuasion. Instead of a partnership, he insisted on commanding centre stage and Litty agreed to enter into a relationship of bondage to his career.

That’s it in a nutshell. Instead of the uncontrollable passion and ambition being moderated by the shared sex, talk and commitment, the sex, talk and commitment were all in service to his unbridled ambition and the savage art of bureaucratic careerism that in 1965 made him Ambassador Maxwell Taylor’s staff aide. While his best friend at the time, Tony Lake, rose faster and higher to become Vice-Consul in Hué, Lake was also more conflicted and took much longer to turn against the war, in part because he was in a real partnership with his wife, Toni, but betrayed that partnership by censoring his doubts which she much more readily expressed. In very different ways, the very different expressions of careerism in Lake and Holbrooke led to their betrayal of themselves, at least the best in themselves, and their wives. Toni, Tony Lake’s wife, felt betrayed. Litty was simply left more and more behind even as she and Holbrooke made a home together and had children when he returned to Washington in 1966 to enhance his form of abrasive diplomacy and unbridled ambition in a context of leaders wedded to a doctrine of self-deception.

Ironically, in 1967, when opposition to the war was rising like the waves of a tropical hurricane, the seeds had been planted by McNamara himself that would destroy the monster storm of self-deception that was the Vietnam War. Les Gelb, who became Holbrooke’s lifelong friend, was put in charge of what would become the Pentagon Papers, that assemblage of material, of exchanges and mountain of lies that repeatedly covered up the disaster of the war, all contained in forty-seven volumes of analysis and documents.

Vietnam had corrupted them all, from the diplomats in the field to Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Deception was the order of the day. Holbrooke could be more frank about the war than anyone, but dishonest about his dying love for Litty. Just when Holbrooke was in his third phase of doubt, doubt about the strategy being pursued, and quite willing to tell his mis-informed superiors unwelcome truths, he began to close down to Litty. The man who insisted on open and uncensored expressions of feeling, began to shut down when his feelings were no longer congruent with his image of himself. As he became cut off from his feelings, he surrendered further than most to practicing deception – leaking documents to the press and undercutting rivals. But his indiscretions were still only akin to the winds of a Category 2 tropical storm.

Holbrooke spilled the beans in a 17-page document that Packer dubbed the best piece of writing on Vietnam by an American official that he had ever read. Holbrooke was twenty-six when he told Johnson and his Wise Men that America would not and could not win the war. His words were ignored, but they proved to be prescient. On 30 January 1968, a week after the North Koreans captured the Navy intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, and interned 83 of its crew, the Tet offensive, the battle that the North Vietnamese lost but which finally led to them winning the war, began. Within two weeks, 543 American soldiers were killed in action. Less than a month later, 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed by Americans in the Mỹ Lai massacre.

1968 was the year of Prague Spring and Canada welcoming 12,000 Czech refugees into this country. (Cf. Jan Raska, 2018, Czech Refugees in Coldwar Canada.) In 5 January, Alexander Duček defeated the Stalinist, Antonín Novotný, and had been elected as first secretary of the country’s Communist Party. However, Russian tanks crushed the new regime. It was a time of worldwide turmoil.

In 1968, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. 1968 was the pinnacle of student revolts from the streets of Berkeley to the streets of Paris and Stockholm. I was in Sweden undertaking a study of student housing when a Maoist-led demonstration filled the street with 3,000 sit-inners and when 12 American deserters, the first from Vietnam itself, arrived and were feted in Sweden that same weekend. The times they were tumultuous and the Chicago Democratic Convention was just one important expression of the turmoil that would lead to the disastrous presidency of Richard Nixon. Richard Holbrooke spent a good part of the year in the peace non-talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris. Nixon’s election freed him from being immersed in Vietnam.

As Packer writes, Holbrooke continued to be an absent husband and an indifferent father. While American (and Canadian and world) youth turned against not only the Vietnam War but America itself and against the Washington establishment but not against Americans per se, Holbrooke left a position at the Princeton Advanced Institute to run the Peace Corps in Morocco accompanied by his increasingly bored wife, Litty. And Holbrooke confessed his love for Toni Lake, who had become alienated from her husband while Litty had suffered for years in unfulfillment, in loneliness, and all but invisible to Holbrooke’s associates. The marriage was effectively over as was the War in Vietnam. It just took time and an enormous toll to peter out. Richard Holbrooke, who had voiced his opposition to the betrayal of the American leadership in Vietnam, betrayed both his wife and his close friend, Tony Lake.

Holbrook became editor of Foreign Policy but would not have qualified to even be a copy boy for Domestic Policy. And this is the nub of it. Holbrooke displaced his conflicted self in the larger public world onto his domestic life. However, he always remained faithful to the United States but not to his first two wives. In neither sphere was he able to resolve the contradictions within himself.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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