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

Holbrooke asked for Southeast Asia. He was not just sent there. Holbrooke wanted to be in a war and worried that the war would be won before he arrived. Could he have been so naïve? Had he been so easily convinced by the briefings he received? Packer writes that Holbrooke already considered the deployment of 15,000 military advisers and almost fifty American casualties as too many. But what about the dropping of Agent Orange? What about “advisers” fighting alongside local troops? That had already happened before he was deployed to Vietnam. Packer, however, focused on Holbrooke’s poor preparations – he was taught the northern rather than southern Vietnamese dialect. His trainers on the culture of the Vietnamese were not experts on Vietnam. He was sent as a community development expert, but his lessons were theoretical and he had no practical experience in the field of any kind.

Bernard Fall, who had been immersed in Vietnam with the French military, subsequently served as an American journalist covering the continuing conflict and then became an American academic. Holbrooke read Bernard Fall’s award-winning 1961 volume, Street Without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946-1954. The Street Without Joy is named after the road that ran north from Hué, a road which, in Operation Camargue, the French were determined to clear of Viêt Minh. They failed. Ironically, in 1967 on that same road, Fall would be killed by a landmine in 1967 while accompanying American troops. It was the same road on which my youngest son rode a motorcycle when we were vacationing in Mexico one winter. We received an overseas phone call. The road had been wet. His friend on another bike lost control when rounding a curve. He died.

In chapter 7, Fall focused on the counter-insurgency effort of the French in 1953 to clear that road of Viêt Minh guerillas. In Operation Camargue, the French fought a counter-insurgency war rather than the set-piece battles, such as the fight over Điên Biên Phŭ that ended the war with the French defeat and withdrawal. The Geneva Accords officially ending the war saw the French withdraw, the creation of an independent South Vietnam and the withdrawal of the Viêt Minh to North Vietnam.

I am not sure whether Holbrooke read Fall’s other books already in print, Le Viêt-Minh 1945-1960 (1960), which I believe had been the subject of Fall’s PhD thesis, and The Two Vietnams. A political and military analysis (1963), especially since Fall made clear in all his writings that the war in Vietnam was a political, not a military war, one that had to be won by political means. Fall predicted that the Americans, like the French before them, would lose the war.

Packer also wrote that Holbrooke had read Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel, in the English translation by Xan Fielding, The Centurions. Bernard Fall loved the novel and noted that it was one of France’s bestsellers since WWII. (If you have not read the novel – it won the 1960 Prix Èva Delacroix – you many have seen the film starring Anthony Quinn called Lost Command.) General David Petraeus quoted the novel and credited it with providing insights to support his thesis on how to conduct counter-insurgency warfare.

The latter became Holbrooke’s, as well as President Kennedy’s, passion with a focus on Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries. But no focus on the necessity of good government. Packer wrote, “If they hadn’t been so young and confident, the class of 1962 might have taken it (the accounts of the wars in Vietnam) as a bad sign.” In 1961, we too were young. We were confident. We “knew” we could and would stop nuclear testing. In 1963, we opposed the American War in Vietnam because it was based on an erroneous domino theory, because the Vietnam War was more a nationalist rather than an ideological war, but mostly because America was backing a corrupt authoritarian government.

Perhaps it was because we were Canadian, but 30,000 Canadian volunteers joined the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam. 137 died or went MIA, missing in action. But the Canadian government, on the other hand, refused to become involved in America’s war in spite of pressure to do so. Perhaps it was because, as a result of the Geneva Treaty that ended the French military involvement in Vietnam, Canada served on the International Control Commission alongside Poland and India to monitor whether each of the parties observed the terms of the peace agreement and the scheduled 1956 elections on reunification. Those elections never took place.

Canada also refused to become involved as a military ally of the U.S. for the following reasons:

  • The war was not supported by the Vietnamese people
  • The war was perceived as a continuation of French colonialism
  • The war was not endorsed by the UN
  • The war was not supported by Asian democracies in the region

Thus, although we were also young and confident, we were not Americans who believed in America’s good intentions; militarism and economic expansionism went far back in American history to its War of Independence. Further, America was a democratic monarchy rather than a parliamentary democracy in which the Executive branch of government had enormous power, especially in foreign affairs. We believed that the system encouraged adventurism. However, our objections to the Vietnamese War were not simply based on our being Canadians, for we accused our own government of hypocrisy since it supplied Agent Orange to the American military. In fact, Canada had a relatively large military export industry, mainly to the U.S. 

The reality – Holbrooke was not blinded because he was young and sure of himself, but because he was a gung-ho American with an almost religious faith in the goodwill of his country. However, he was attached to a Rural Affairs program of USAID, the American International Development Agency. He became an aid worker as part of a sideshow in counter-insurgency warfare. Packer’s stated aim was not to provide a critique of the war, but to show what Holbrooke “had gotten into and why at first it all seemed promising.” (p. 26) However, my point is that the war was not promising even at that time, was never promising, and my question is why Holbrooke got into such a war at all.

Packer did not write the book I would have wished he had written, but a very exciting book that he did write.  He tried to explain why the counter-insurgency doctrines of Colonel Edward Lansdale so entranced Holbrooke that, initially, he became such a strong critic of the American military’s role in the Delta region to which he was assigned. That initial critique evolved from that initial implementation or misimplementation of local development theory because of the failure to integrate development practices alongside military exercises. His criticism went successively through three more stages, from a more general critique of American military tactics and not just the misapplication of those tactics, to the criticism of the whole strategy of the war and, finally, to the conclusion that America’s involvement, and not just conduct of the war, was not only mistaken but immoral.

But why did Holbrooke take so long? Packer cannot answer that question because, to repeat, he was guided by his own dominating question and had not written the book I would have preferred he had written. If the North Vietnamese had left cadres behind when they evacuated northward with their 50,000 troops, Lansdale, Holbrooke’s guru on rural development, seemed less concerned with them and economic development in the south than with black ops sabotaging the Hanoi regime in its own territory. And he befriended Ngô Đinh Diêm, the new “emperor” of South Vietnam. Try as he might, Lansdale could not convert Diêm into a democrat and a believer in rule by and for the people. Packer saw the illusion and contradiction at the root of this misguided effort, an outside power pushing democracy on a people when democracy by definition had to come from within a nation.

However, this is a doctrine of democratic populism from a country that used that ideology as a cover for expansion and exploitation. America itself was and is the contradiction. It fails to recognize that key members of the founding fathers believed in democratic institutionalism, namely that democracy is a product of historical accretions of institutional democratic building blocks and not a popular will. Neither Holbrooke nor Packer get this far in their critiques; their criticisms remained focused on the war itself rather than the contradictory core values of America, and a faith in counter-insurgency, in grass roots reform, in “self-help,” “civic action,” “people first approach,” “hearts and minds,” all alongside “pacification.” After all, Americans were not in Vietnam to run the place, but to help the Vietnamese defend themselves against communism. But it had to be run, and if it were to be run democratically, the building blocks of democracy had to be put in place.

Packer wrote that in 1963 there was hardly a soul in the American government who didn’t believe that communism had to be stopped in Vietnam. (p. 31) But that was untrue, even at the highest levels. George Kennan, the very author of the doctrine of “containment” that was first adopted by the Truman administration to counter Soviet expansionism, left government in 1950 precisely because he criticized containment as a dogmatic ideology rather than a general strategy in dealing with the USSR, though he returned, as did Holbrooke, for brief stints as an ambassador, first to Russia and then, ironically in light of Holbrooke’s future role there, to Yugoslavia. But for years, and throughout the Vietnam War, Kennan criticized the militarization of the doctrine of containment from his perch in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Kennan had his acolytes at all levels of the U.S government, including in the military. Lieutenant-General James M. Gavin, who had been the third Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division in WWII, was an example. Gavin, as Army Chief of Research and Development, pioneered the use of aircraft, particularly helicopters, to drop units into hot spots that had the first widespread application in Vietnam. In 1958, he retired from the army as a critic and became the highest-ranking dissenter concerning the Vietnam War. Though President Kennedy recruited and sent him as ambassador to France, both because of his experience in Europe and his relations with the French, the appointment was also motivated because that move silenced him as a critic of America’s creeping involvement in Vietnam.

The pinnacle of that criticism came in 1966 when Kennan appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright, another critic of the war, and that testimony was broadcast by NBC. (Fred Friendly resigned from CBS because it had bowed to pressure from President Johnson not to broadcast the testimony.) Almost single-handedly, Kennan was responsible for shifting American public opinion from 63% who supported the war to slightly less than a majority. Kennan said that he saw no reason why America should be in Vietnam and several why it should not. However, since it was (mistakenly) there, a “resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions” was required rather than the precipitate and disorderly withdrawal that eventually, and very belatedly, took place.

Hô Chi Minh, though a communist, was primarily a nationalist. A defeat of North Vietnam was possible, but the cost in human lives and to American moral principles would be so great that America’s leadership of the West would be permanently corroded, much as happened following George Bush Jr.’s invasion of Iraq.

But that was 1966 not 1963. Since there is no index in Packer’s book, I could not recheck whether Holbrooke read or followed George Kennan, America’s greatest diplomat of the post-WWII era. Instead, Holbrooke became enamoured with the zeal, though not the politics, of George Melvin, who believed that China was a puppet of the USSR and Vietnam a puppet of China, and that communist subversives had penetrated throughout America. But Holbrooke followed him on his criticisms of the Strategic Hamlet Program, a program of counter-insurgency that never worked, and could never have worked absent a democratic institutional framework. However, Holbrooke believed that it had worked in Malaysia purportedly to defeat the communist insurgency there, and could work in Vietnam.

Whatever criticisms I may have of Holbrooke and of Packer’s inadequate analysis, Holbrooke was a quick learner. Further, he loved journalism and journalists and learned from intrepid reporters like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan that the war was being lost, more as a result of the cruelties of the Vietnamese officers than the ingenuity and bravery of the Viet Cong, and that the American military leadership in Saigon simply consisted of liars, proclaiming victories where there were none and reporting insurgents killed in counts that included dead women and children. They hid American losses. American and Vietnamese defeats were called victories. As Packer writes, deception was the byword of both the military and the administration in Washington, including Holbrooke’s hero, Dean Rusk. Holbrooke came to believe that the most fundamental error of all was ignoring and misrepresenting the facts. In that sense, he became a hardened realist.

One of the best themes of Packer’s book is the narrative of Holbrooke’s deep friendship, difference from and rivalry with one of his diplomatic classmates, William Anthony Kirsopp Lake, a member of “the upper class of accomplishment” rather than money, the very world that Holbrooke aspired to join. As it turned out, Holbrooke eventually gained a prominent membership in both the diplomatic and moneyed worlds. One of the major differences is that, in Lake’s imagination, his fears expanded into nightmares while, in Holbrooke, they disappeared in the illusion of self-immunity from harm, perhaps a necessary piece of mindblindness characteristic of many humanitarians, journalists, academics, military officers, development officials and diplomats working in highly dangerous areas. Bernard Fall was an example. Holbrooke was perhaps another.

In Holbrooke, that mindblindness towards danger was complemented by a passion for facts, as I noted above. While Holbrooke was also coming to the conviction that Ngô Đinh Diêm had to go, he did so at the very time that Undersecretary for Political Affairs in the State Department, Averell Harriman, along with his assistant secretary for Far Eastern Affairs, Roger Hilsman, set in motion accumulating the “facts” that became an integral part of the Defence Department’s Pentagon Papers documenting the U.S. military and political involvement in Vietnam and the doctrine that unsuccessful (and corrupt) Vietnamese leaders could and had to be “removed” at American instigation. Harriman’s position had been occupied by Dean Rusk, Holbrooke’s hero, under Harry Truman. Holbrooke would eventually himself become Undersecretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In Packer’s opinion, this is why Vietnam was such an excellent preparation, in contrast to my view that the same period reinforced and perhaps implanted Holbrooke’s basic misdirection.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

On False Prophets: R’eih Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

If I claim that, due to current and immediate past human behaviour, unless we change that behaviour, climate change in the not very distant future will be so dramatic as to threaten life on earth, am I being a prophet? If I claim that predictions of global warming are lies, am I a false prophet? I am at least a prophet assuring the world that the natural world in the future will be much as it has been in the past, buffeted by nature to go this way and that. Many might argue that neither is a prophecy. The second is an outright lie. The first is a rational estimate based on the best scientific evidence. Further, it is a conditional statement – if we do not change human behaviour, if we do not reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, if we do not reduce the destruction of our tree canopy so critical to the reabsorption of carbon, then widespread disaster will result.

Is scientific prediction prophecy and is scientific denial false prophecy? Can our sages in the past help us or is this just a semantic argument over the meaning of prophecy? Marty Lockshin, Professor Emiritus and a rabbi, was a colleague of mine at York University and is an expert on the history of biblical interpretation. He wrote a commentary, “Can a false prophet perform miracles?” ( Though that is not my question, his discussion of prophecy is very instructive.

He took as his textual reference verses 13.2-4 of Deuteronomy.

דברים יג:ב כִּי יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵתיג:גוּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתָּם וְנָעָבְדֵם. יג:ד לֹא תִשְׁמַע אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ אֶל חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא כִּי מְנַסֶּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֶתְכֶם לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם. 13:2 If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner—and he gives you a sign or a portent13:3and the sign or portent that he named to you comes true—saying, “Let us follow other gods—whom you have not known—and worship them,” 13:4 do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For YHWH your God is testing you to see whether you really love YHWH your God with all your heart and soul.

Note that the false prophet in this text can offer a prediction that is true. Further, in some interpretations, he can even perform the miracle that brings about that truth. For mediaeval interpreters, the issue was how could God allow someone who neither believed in God and even tried to undermine such a belief to have such super-human powers. One commentator, Rabbi Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) offered three possibilities: a) the false prophet stole the sign from a true prophet; b) even if it came true, the prophecy should be rejected since it is anti-rational, and proofs based on miracles should not be a basis for worshipping false gods; c) a false prophet cannot perform a miracle nor predict the future but can only perform a symbolic act that may tempt one to believe in him. The temptation to believe a miraculous prediction is the test.

Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, c. 1080-c. 1165), on the other hand, believed that false prophets were able to perform miracles and/or predict the future. “God granted powers to the forces of sorcery to be able to predict the future in order to test the Israelites and to increase their merit.” In Marty’s words, “God created a world where false prophecy is possible and actually happens.”

My opening introduction to the topic seemed to favour Ibn Ezra’s rationalist approach, namely that it is reason in the end that dictates truth and evaluates performances. Now I would suggest that both views may be true, namely that Rashbam’s interpretation may not only be closest to the meaning of the text which accepts the possibility of miracles, but is true in the sense that there are miracles, events that happen contrary to reasonable assessments insofar as we can make them. But, if so, how can Ibn Ezra’s imposition of a Greek philosophical frame also be correct?

The reconciliation begins by taking the emphasis off of whether the future unfolds as the professed prophet predicted. Since the future may unfold over time, the critical matter is to determine whether a prophecy offered in the present is or is not false. We cannot await the future to determine the validity of a prophecy. I suggest the difference between the false and the true prophet is not whether the prophecy is accurate but whether it is a) conditional or categorical; and b) whether or not it is supported by existing empirical evidence. I will offer three additional clues for determining whether an individual is a false prophet later in this blog.

A false prophet makes predictions categorically. Climate change is a fiction and we are not headed towards an apocalypse. True prophets make predictions which are conditional – disaster will be forthcoming unless we change our behaviour drastically.  It is the trajectory that must be accurate based on current knowledge, not the ultimate result. Why? Because miracles can occur. Not super-natural forces. A large asteroid can strike earth and destroy our way of life before the worst effects of climate change take effect. Scientists were not wrong for their predictions always include the condition “provided the absence of any significant intervening condition.” The intervention does not have to be catastrophic. Human ingenuity may develop a mechanism for carbon reabsorption that is both economical and can be quickly and widely put in place.

Secondly, false prophets ignore or misrepresent empirical evidence and/or depend on the above types of magic to allow their assertions and contentions to be realized. True prophets pay very close attention to what can be perceived and understood and can and do utilize the best of current methods to discern what information is reliable.

This brings into play a third factor – Popperian falsifiability. Is there any method of proving that the claims of the false prophet are false – not because they are wrong about the future, but because they misrepresent and ignore the present? If they cannot be invalidated, that is, if those who hold such beliefs cannot be proven wrong according to the evidence available, then those proffering such beliefs are certainly false prophets. In contrast, true prophets always include methods to test and possibly falsify their prediction. The test they are subjected to is that they recognize that they are being tested, that they should be tested and that they have established methods for conducting those tests.

Is a prophet who does not rely on scientific prediction a liar? Not necessarily. He or she may simply be a person who insists that, in spite of the scientific evidence, a miracle will take place that will save humans from the self-destructive trajectory. In that case, such individuals are neither liars nor false prophets. Or they may believe all the evidence of science, but also believe that the world community lacks the will to act sufficiently and in a timely fashion to save us from destruction and that, without a miracle, we are doomed.

A false prophet is a liar because he denies the evidence available, because he uses that denial to deceive others, because he will not subject his beliefs to any reasonable test. In fact, I would venture to say that one has to be a liar to be a false prophet.

There are two other indicators of a false prophet. One has to do with the use of signs and portents. The other has to do with the use of the prophecy to lure the listener into following false gods.

According to Marty, for “ibn Ezra, the words אות and מופת (signs and portents) here do not refer to anything supernatural, but to symbolic actions. Isaiah’s walking naked and barefoot involved no supernatural element; it was a symbolic action. I concur. When language or behaviour is used to construct a social reality, when language is used to arouse individuals to engage in collective action, when words or images or gestures are used to generate identification and induce division, when words or images are used to represent a thing or an object or an action, then we are working in the realm of symbolic action. Words and thoughts are powerful tools that can change reality. They can be used as a form of black magic. A false prophet may mumble and stumble, may be grammatically obtuse and sometimes inarticulate, but at the same time be a great and effective communicator.

Demagoguery is the specialty of a false prophet and meme magic is his or her specialty. The symbolic action and portents and symbols of false prophets serve to create a world of alternative facts and a realm of occult politics. Reference and uses of portents are specific kinds of symbolic action that use signs to presage, forecast, forewarn and prognosticate.

There is also a belief in actual magic.

“It was almost raining, the rain should have scared them away, but God looked down and he said, we’re not going to let it rain on your speech. In fact, when I first started, I said, oh, no. The first line, I got hit by a couple of drops. And I said, oh, this is too bad, but we’ll go right through it.  But the truth is that it stopped immediately. It was amazing. And then it became really funny.  And then I walked off and it poured right after I left. It poured.”

A portent is also a person who regards him or herself as a marvellous and wondrous being. Self-aggrandizement is inherent to his character, as is bullying and prevarication. If you are offering official recognition (and benefits) to the first responders of 9/11, a false prophet will seek to identify with them and insist he was there even though he wasn’t. More than that, he helped search through the rubble. False prophets are serial exaggerators and fabricators.  

When appearing before the commemoration wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia that honours the 117 CIA officers who sacrificed their lives overseas, in his speech he denounced the media, spoke of his enormous inaugural crowds and even asked the CIA officers to, “Trust me, I’m like a smart person.”

I allow the reader to identify any false prophets they might recognize, especially when they use memes both to identify themselves and to send forth a self-image to others. A week ago, requoting what a sycophant said about him, a tweet appeared referring to himself as the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.” That same day, he referred to himself as “the Chosen One” in response to a question about trade with China.  

And that meme includes the reference to the false prophet’s children. He said “Behold, I, and the children whom God has given me, are לאותות ולמופתים—for signs and for portents” (Isaiah 8:18). A false prophet embraces his children as part of his prophetic role and is intent on becoming the portent of an era.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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