Part VIIA: Diplomatic Deception by Holbrooke re former Yugoslavia A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

The Dayton Accords ending the war in former Yugoslavia are widely seen as the major accomplishment of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic role as well as a first-rate achievement of post-WWII American diplomacy. I eagerly read the biography to check whether my critical view of Holbrooke’s diplomacy in former Yugoslavia held up or whether I ought to alter my assessment of him. I was particularly concerned with the issue of diplomatic deception. By diplomatic deception, I do not just refer to misleading the militant parties who are deceived by a mediator in trying to help reach an agreement, but also the mis-directions aimed at one’s own political diplomatic superiors and colleagues.

If Holbrooke can be justly criticized for the Dayton Accords rather than complimented, can that be explained by the subtle corruption of American diplomatic work in Vietnam, as Packer implies? (p. 156) Packer considered the introduction of viciousness and deception that had already wormed itself into the heart of American diplomacy during the Vietnam War, to be further firmly pounded into place by the work of Zbigniew Brzezinski (Zbig), President Jimmy Carter’s Security Policy Advisor. In negotiations with the Chinese and Vietnamese governments and with the U.S.S.R. on the Salt II Agreement, Zbig finished the job of destroying a traditional lofty and honourable approach in favour of the misleading and bullying tactic, (primarily with one’s own team). Cyrus Vance dubbed Zbig “evil, a liar, dangerous.” And Zbig was. Further, he admired the use of muscle as a key element in diplomacy.

Perhaps I raise this question because I am a Canadian, because Canada has relatively little muscle to bring to the table and because of what I learned in my work with Canadian diplomats. I was taught that the central skill in international diplomacy was creative equivocation, the ability to forge language that allowed each side to take different interpretations of text, each favourable to one’s own side. As a variation on a standard Jewish joke, one party asks, “Does what you propose mean this?” The mediator replies, “Yes.” The other party takes the mediator aside and asks, “Am I correct in believing the proposal means this?” (That is, the opposite of the other side’s interpretation). And the diplomat again answers, “Yes.” Then an academic along as an adviser, who is trained in philosophy and a belief in “clear and distinct ideas,” takes the diplomat aside and says, “Those two interpretations cannot both be true.” The diplomat replies, “You are correct as well.” Diplomacy is interpreted as the art of making a deal by allowing each party to believe that the new arrangement serves each party’s interests, even if this has to be accomplished, in the worst case, by using equivocation.

However, equivocation is not bullying, that is, putting pressure on the parties by the threat of military force. Equivocation is more akin to a gestalt experiment in which different parties are given room to make their own minds up about meaning reflective of their own beliefs. The conviction is that, once the benefits of peace, and even the belief in it, have taken root, the differences may remain on the table, but they are no longer differences that the respective parties will be determined to settle by violent conflict.

Further, when is the use of military threat an act of humanitarian intervention rather than bullying? Former (and failed) Democratic presidential candidate. George McGovern, who had been a peace ideologue on Vietnam, became a militant proponent (as was Holbrooke) of what later came to be called “The Responsibility to Protect” in terms of a Canadian international commission and proposal to which I had contributed. R2P is defined as the duty to insert military force into a country to prevent the use of massive violence against a regime’s own people, as in the genocide of the middle class in Cambodia. Vietnam, actually carried out the job of intervention in Cambodia in 1979 to stop the genocide, or, as perhaps, should have happened in Srebrenica in former Yugoslavia.

In our own time, R2P was applied in one bombing run by the Trump administration in Syria in retaliation against the use of chemical weapons against its own people by the Syrian government, but then stopped. Holbrooke’s period as Undersecretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was marked in good part by an effort to advance that doctrine. With one important caveat. “The thing called the national interest always came first. Holbrooke’s overriding goal was to re-establish the United States as a Pacific power.” (p. 196) But Zbig was several notches further towards the hawkish side than Holbrooke. He facilitated the Thai government supplying the Khmer Rouge and refused to allow what was taking place in Cambodia to be called “genocide,” both policy measures opposed by Holbrooke.

In the midst of Packer’s depiction of the tensions among the use of military muscle, realpolitik and R2P, Packer made a major error. He wrote: “After the fall of Saigon, President Ford had let 130,000 South Vietnamese into the United States. Then the gates closed.” (p. 201) As my colleague, Astri Suhrke, wrote in a 1981 article, “As of 31 October 1980, the distribution of Indochinese resettled in other countries were: The United States – 429,302 (including 130,000 evacuated to the United States in 1975).” The 130,000 is the number of Indochinese evacuated before the U.S. embassy in Saigon shut its doors. But, as I have written in an earlier blog, America continued to take Indochinese refugees, both under Ford and Carter. I do not want to repeat my explication of the error with any greater depth. Instead, I want to use it to highlight the difference between Holbrooke and Zbig on refugees. Holbrooke favoured continuing and increasing the intake. Zbig was at best indifferent.

Holbrooke left government with the defeat of Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan and went into the private sector to make money. But during this period, he became the ghostwriter for Clark Clifford’s memoirs, Counsel to the President. The result: “At its heart a book like that had to be a fraud. I don’t mean that it contained fabrications, or even that it was self-serving – all autobiographies are. I mean that, pushed down beneath the self-sacrificing public servant and sober statesman whose favorite descriptors were ‘gracious,’ ‘charming,’ and ‘delightful,’ there was, there had to be, a monomaniac whose ambition was so insatiable that he took on the running of a bank in his eighth decade.” (pp. 225-6) Packer described Clifford as a ruthless fixer consumed with power and money, but who had been transformed in the autobiography into a bore. Holbrooke, as a sycophantic hero-worshipper of Clifford, managed to convert him into a saintly sludge.  

In 1994, Holbrooke rejoined the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton (following the advice of Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state) as assistant secretary for Europe – a step sideways from his previous position rather than up. In his own words, Holbrooke wrote: “I thought the administration had never done a correct action on Bosnia. Having inherited a mess, they’d made it worse, and I suggested we shouldn’t make tactical decisions on a day-to-day basis until we had a strategic objective, tried to figure out what it might cost, and whether it would be worth pursuing, and whether we could get public support for it.” (p. 292) That strategic objective became forging a peace, even an unfair peace, as long as the war was ended, and using the big stick as pressure to help force the parties to make a deal.

The second point to note from Holbrooke’s own writing is that he now placed the importance of character as equal to that of intelligence. He never lacked the latter. What was that character? “(A) set of guiding principles, a value system, and rock-hard integrity…Without character, one can lose one’s way.” (p. 293) Particularly relevant to the present, Holbrooke noted: “My private conversation with Biden was difficult. His ego and the difficulty he has in listening to other people made it uncomfortable.” (p. 296) What did the Dayton Accords reflect about Holbrooke’s character, especially in a time when the public no longer respected public service or the national interest? Voters had become cynics and believed that one went into public service simply to advance one’s personal interests.

However, the answers to the issue of character and how to balance diplomacy with the threat of force must await the next blog. It is first necessary to summarize the state of play of the military and political forces on the ground.

With respect to the war in former Yugoslavia, America could have lifted the arms embargo on the Bosniacs or Bosnian Muslims so they could not only defend themselves, but recover the territory seized by the Republika Srpska. Holbrooke believed the failure to lift the embargo was immoral. But he had great difficulty in planning and executing a plan to bring that about. As an interim measure, Holbrooke favoured a UN resolution combined with the use of airpower in the region to enforce a cease fire by NATO on the Serbs who were using international airspace to attack the Bihać pocket.

But the Europeans would not use military force to help the Muslims. And the U.S. would not insert troops on the ground. On this basis, there was no realistic way to intervene militarily to help the Muslims and punish Serb aggression, especially since the attack on the Bihać pocket had been instigated as a counter-offensive to a Muslim military initiative.

However, events on the ground were changing. The ceasefire was unravelling totally. The Croatian army was now stronger than the Serbian one. The Bosniacs were now being supplied with military equipment by Iran and Turkey. Under this pressure, the Serbs counterattacked, tried to strangle Sarajevo further and capture the enclaves of Goražde, Žepa and Srebrenica. The latter was accomplished by totally embarrassing and emasculating the Dutch peacekeepers and by the massive slaughter of 7,000 Bosnian men and older boys in Srebrenica. UN-guaranteed protection had been a complete failure.

On the other hand, time was no longer on the Serb side. The Croatians were now stronger and the Bosniacs were beginning to develop some ability to defend themselves more effectively. Further, Milošević wanted to redeem himself in the eyes of the international community and seemed no longer willing to backstop the Serb leadership of Republika Srpska, particularly General Mladić, a genocidal killer.  At the same time, both the UN and NATO had proven to be paper tigers. Clinton’s closest advisers were urging the U.S. simply to adopt a strategy of preventing the war from spreading.

Tony Lake, however, now dissented. He insisted that the U.S. either allow Bosnia to defend itself and regain territory or develop a new strategy to end the war. But if the Americans bombed, UN peacekeepers who, no matter how ineffective in deterring any massive Serbian attack, would have to be withdrawn. Boutros Boutros-Ghali procrastinated, dithered and deflected criticisms. NATO was an impotent enormous military machine. In the meanwhile, Žepa too fell to the Serbs. A red line was drawn. If Mladić attacked Goražde, NATO would bomb his forces and this would not be stopped by a UN veto.

Just at that time, the Croats launched an offensive, Operation Storm, in western Slavonia and ethnically cleansed the Krajina region of Serbs who had lived there for hundreds of years. Milošević sent the refugees to Kosovo, disrupting the population ratio there and accelerating Kosovo’s eventual path to militancy and independence.

Suddenly, Serbs who had controlled 70% of former Bosnia-Herzegovina were now reduced to 50%. Finally, Clinton authorized a strategy marrying the threat of force with diplomacy. Holbrooke was assigned the task of heading the diplomatic initiative. However, he was not given a free hand and this was the major lesson that I was forced to take into account in assessing Holbrooke’s performance in the peace negotiations. The end game plan provided to Holbrooke by Tony Lake included:

  • A comprehensive peace
  • A cease fire with three-way recognition
  • Two autonomous entities, a Muslim-Croat one on 50% of the land and a Serb one on the other 50%, within a single Bosnian state
  • Negotiation of borders based on ground-level reality and land swaps
  • The lifting of sanctions on Serbia
  • The return to Croatia of the last piece of Serb-held land in eastern Slavonia.

What was clear from this framework is that the political result – marrying three estranged nationalistic political entities within a single state – would be a foreseeable nightmare. Further, the Bosniacs would not only have suffered the most but would be left as the bottom-line losers.

To be continued – Holbrooke’s execution of the peace plan.

With tthe help of Alex Zisman

Nationalism & Honourable Men: Ki Teitzei Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

There is more moralizing in this segment of the Torah, I believe, than any other, and more about the treatment of women than any other topic. We are well acquainted with the connection between a growth of a certain kind of nationalism and a very paternalistic attitude to women. Does this section emulate that pattern and throw light on the issue since these rules were formulated at a time when Israel was developing a sense of national identity in the context of a myriad of interactions with other peoples?

Look at the variety of situations with respect to the treatment of women. I list them below into groupings to make the analysis more manageable:

  1. Differentiating men and women – Cross dressing (22:5)
  2. The women and wives of others: a) The treatment of captive women (21:10-14) b) Relations with the wife of a man killed in a duel (25:11-12)
  3. Favouritism and Despising: a) A man with two wives who favours one (21:15-17); b) A man who hates his wife and questions her virginity (22:13-21); c) Second marriages (24:5)
  4. Forbidden sexual relations: a)Adultery with a married woman (22:22); b) Adultery with an engaged woman, urban vs rural (22:23-27); c) Sex with a virgin (22:28-29); d) Sex with your father’s wife (23:1); e) Sex with Ammonite or Moabite women (23:4)
  5.  Obligations towards a deceased brother’s wife (25:6-10)
  6. Other Restrictions: a) Harlotry (23:18-19); b) Divorces (24:1-4)

Let me discuss each category in turn.

  1. Differentiating men and women – Cross dressing (22:5)
ה  לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה:  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה.  {פ} 5 A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. {P}

Women now wear slacks. They even wear soldier’s uniforms and carry guns. When my male colleague in the philosophy department at York University periodically appeared and taught in a matronly dress, there were some raised eyebrows, but otherwise the costuming was ignored. Do we still buy pink items for baby girls and blue for baby boys?

Women should not wear items related to male functions is one interpretation of the first edict. These include either religious, military or sexual functions, or perhaps all of them. Does this mean tallit (a prayer shawl), tefillin (the leather phylacteries wrapped on an arm and forehead during prayer) and tsitsit (the stringed undergarment), all worn by religious Jewish males, should be forbidden to women? Does it apply to guns and the issue of women in fighting units of an army? And why is cross-dressing permitted on Purim?

Some have interpreted the passage to be simply a prohibition against misrepresentation. But then why does the text not say that? And what about the effects on gays, transvestites and transgender persons and the assault on their rights? Why is crossdressing abominable? I believe the issue of differentiating the sexes is fundamental to a regime that has different laws for men and women. The premises of those other laws are: a) there are basically (but not exclusively) two genders, male and female, and b) a judge, including God as my judge, must be able to distinguish the two sexes in practice since, in spite of appearances, the injunctions mainly pertain to men.

B. The women and wives of others

  • The treatment of captive women (21:10-14)
  • The treatment of a wife who intervenes in her husband’s conflict (25:11-12)

The text says that if you capture a woman in war, fall in love with her and want to get married, then the woman – it is not clear whether she has a choice – shall mourn for a month for the loss of her parents and only after that can the captor and captive have sex. If, subsequently, the man wants to divorce her, then he cannot treat her as if she were still a slave; she is free to go and do whatever she chooses.

The second case is very different. Two men are fighting. The wife of one of them intercedes and grabs her husband’s opponent by his private parts. For this intervention, she is to have her hand amputated. Abigail may not have grabbed David “by the secrets,” but she did intervene on behalf of her husband, Nabal. Was this an unseemly intervention and, if so, why was Abigail’s hand not cut off?  

Nabal is described as a hard, surly man and an “evildoer.” Abigail, his wife, is a prominent socialite. David, with his own militia, is on the run from King Saul and he sends ten of his men to get “protectzia” from Nabal in the usual gangster habit of extortion. Nabal tells them to go to hell and David prepares his men for attack. Abigail, fretful over the imminent conflict, intervenes, confronts David before he attacks and insists that her husband was a boor who did not hear or understand David’s needs. Notably, there is no mention that she grabbed David by his private parts (as the wife of the Syrian general and future president does with Eli Cohen, played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Netflix series, The Spy). Abigail, like a prophet, blesses David and professes that he will win the throne. Nabal learns about what happened after waking up from a drunken stupor. Ten days later, he suddenly dies. Did Abigail poison him or did he die of shame or did Abigail let his vile nature and bitterness at the affront of being saved by his wife eat him up from within?

There is no evidence that Abigail seduced David, at least sexually, but she did dissuade him from attacking. The implication is that she was really a charmer and shared with David his diplomatic skills, prescience and wiliness. She did not get her hand cut off because there is no indication that she offered David her sexual favours as much as she might have flirted with him. But then, in light of the likely electricity between the two, did she kill her husband or was his death fortuitous so that she could then marry David, the future king? She could have just let David kill her husband. Instead, this vile, willful and self-destructive man was humiliated, saved, in fact, by a woman.

The answer, I believe, is that Abigail would have been put in a terrible position if she had not acted. She risked David seizing Nadal’s wealth to support his insurrectionary force. The lesson: if you are clever and play your cards right, you can end up with the wealth and the position, but do not give in to trading sex for favours. Use your brains. The lesson for the man – do not accept the offer lest you be diminished in everyone’s eyes and become, not a principled militant, but one who takes advantage of women in dire straits. Always be a gentleman in your treatment of captive women or the wives of those who get in the way of your ambitions.

Favouritism and Despising: a) A man with two wives who favours one (21:15-17); b) A man who hates his wife and questions her virginity (22:13-21); c) Second marriages (24:5)

These injunctions are more straightforward. The first instructs a man to give a double inheritance to the first-born son, even if the husband grew to hate the mother. Obey the rights of the first-born. In the second case, there are two different scenarios, one in which a man, who marries and finds that he dislikes his bride, accuses her, falsely, of not being a virgin. In the second scenario, he discovers that his new bride is not a virgin. In the first case, upon proof of the husband’s perfidy in falsely accusing his bride, he is chastised, fined and denied the right ever to divorce her. In the second scenario, if proof is not offered that she was a virgin, she shall be stoned for she brought dishonour on her father’s house. The final case is one when a man remarries, he should take a sabbatical year to ensure he has time to please his wife.

What should be clear by now is that these norms are not primarily about the conduct of women so much as about the honour of men in the context of a shame culture. Let’s examine the next batch dealing with:

  • Forbidden sexual relations

Do not commit adultery with a married woman or you both shall die. If you do harass and seduce an engaged woman in an urban setting when she could cry out and get help (the empirical foundation for this might be very faulty), both shall die, but in a rural setting when there is no one around to hear her cries for help, then the male only is the one who should die. But if you have sex with a virgin, then you have to pay the bride price and marry her. Don’t have sex with your father’s wife or, interestingly enough, Ammonite or Moabite women, but you are obligated to have sex with a deceased brother’s wife lest his line die out. These again are mainly about restrictions and obligations on men, not women, until we get to the condemnations of prostitution. Even the injunction about not having sex again with a woman you divorced, who remarried and divorced again, is about male behavior.

But why the severe restriction on Moabite and Ammonite women, that is women descended from Moab and his brother Ben-ammi (Genesis 19:30-38) who were products of the incest between Lot and his daughters? If you recall, the Moabite women in Numbers 25:1-5 were blamed for seducing the Israelite men and getting them to worship Baal-Peor. That was supposedly the reason for Solomon’s downfall. Ezra and Nehemiah adamantly condemned intermarriage between Israelite men and Moabite women.

But how can this be the case in light of the fact that David is descended from a Moabite woman, Ruth, who is perhaps the most noble female character portrayed in Torah. She and her Moabite sister-in-law, Orpah, married the two sons of Naomi. They did not seem to convert until after their husbands died, indicating a deep and sincere desire to be Jewish and not simply an opportunistic arrangement. Neither did they ever try to seduce their husbands into worshipping a foreign god.

Naomi was impoverished. Ruth supported her and Naomi reciprocated by helping her daughter-in-law get a second well-off husband, Boaz. I believe that, although at certain periods of national stress, prophets prohibited all intermarriage, even though Moses married a Midianite, the general injunction is against intermarriage, not to another ethnicity, but to women who not only would not practice the Jewish faith, but who would draw their men into worshipping other gods.

The gender rules are not primarily about women, but about making Jewish men live up to a code of honour, about bringing honour to themselves and their people. The norms are not about encouraging a reactionary nationalism reinforced by severe restrictions on women and a very paternalistic attitude towards them. The text is not simply about Jewish survival of a people, but about the character of that people that requires its male members to follow a code of honour. The text is about both preserving the people, but even more about ensuring the quality of those people. The men need to be menschlichkeit.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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

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

Chapter IV is an insert from Holbrooke’s own writings while he was in Vietnam, particularly from his first posting to that country. “[W]ater everywhere, rising, raining, so that literally this province, even the ground around our building, is water; the waiting; the ugliness, the cruelty, the tragedy. And in Saigon a regime so totally bankrupt and disgusting it is hard to describe. Events of the last 2 weeks and the family he is captive of [my italics – the reference is to Ngô Đinh Diêm] will be able to lead this country anywhere but towards more death and dissension. So now we wait – for many things; above all, the end of this regime.” (p. 57)

They did not have to wait long. In November of 1963, a military coup overthrew the regime. Diêm and his brother were captured and murdered. And it was not clear why Holbrooke would not pin the responsibility for misrule on Diêm but instead insisted that he was a puppet on a string held captive by his family.

The U.S. military was training and arming the military units guarding the hamlets to which the peasants had been moved, ostensibly for their own protection. Holbrooke was handing out aid to help families relocate, thereby denuding the towns and villages of any population to protect. “The country is so sad, and I feel it more and more.” (p. 58) But what does Holbrooke conclude? “Much is beyond our power, and winning the war will in the end depend on factors we may not be able to control. But we are here now, and there is of course no other choice.” (pp. 58-9) But, of course, there was a choice. America could have left Vietnam in the way George Kennan recommended and without ten more years of suffering and deaths.
“I am fast deciding that the Mekong Delta is perhaps the most supremely unlivable place I have ever seen – yet 50% of Vietnam’s 15 million people live here…I feel myself on the edge of a terrible precipice, and I hope I do not do anything to fall in.” (p. 61) “[W]hy I couldn’t recognize myself I don’t know. I looked so goddam mean and serious, and didn’t look like I would ever smile again.” (p. 62) For Holbrooke, Saigon was grim. “I do not like the American women of Saigon at all, and I emphasize this point.” (p. 64) I will return to this feeling of Holbrooke’s in the next blog.
Simply put, Holbrooke, a normally very upbeat guy, had become depressed. Given the situation he was in, that is no wonder. But the real source of his depression was not just what he witnessed, but the tension and contradiction between what he saw and interpreted versus his fatalism and his inability to see an outcome other than “sticking to it.” He had become very critical of the military, not only for specific actions, not only for their lies, not only for their failing strategies and tactics, but for their:

  1. Lack of intellectual acumen – “These are guys who pride themselves on their toughness and skill, but they show so little perception.”
  2. Behaviour – “The Army…makes men complainers who respect only rank, and consider their own rank as a mark of their intelligence.”
  3. Attitudes towards himself – “They feel that I am a ‘Bulgar wheat salesman’.”

Col. Montague, who respected civilians involved in helping the Vietnamese directly, was a rare exception in the military. In contrast, the dominant American military method was to bomb them: “if the enemy is possibly around, ahead of advancing troops, stop all movement, and call for a smothering air strike or an artillery barrage. Never go in after them on the ground.” As a result, “a sizeable percentage of all casualties in the air and cannon fire are non-combatants, the peasant forever trapped in the middle of the war.” (p. 66) Then the ultimate betrayal – counting them as killed Viet Cong and enemy military casualties. Of course, the Viet Cong did worse, especially when the fighters were Cambodian. In the destruction of the Cn Ngành military outpost in the district of Ba Xuyên, 7 children and 4 women, family members of the Cambodian soldiers, were killed.

Holbrooke was revolted by the scenes and revolted intellectually. The war was wrong both “morally and tactically.” Victory Through Air Power was guaranteeing defeat. For the enemy shot at the helicopters to draw American retaliation on the hamlets they were there to protect. The result – more support for the Viet Cong. “I have no doubt that we kill more civilians than the VC, and with what might generally be admitted are less selective, less ‘right’ tactics.” (p. 70) But what are Holbrooke’s last plaintive words about his own role in a war he had come to believe was tactically, strategically and morally wrong? “But there is no choice, really, is there?” (p. 70) And I want to scream.
It is not as if President Kennedy had not been told. Packer tells the story of Rufus Phillips being asked to brief the President when Holbrooke happened to be in Washington. This was in the presence of all the important military and political muc-mucs advising the president to escalate the air war. Phillips sacrilegiously stated, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Mr. President, but we are not winning the war.” Sixty strategic hamlets had been destroyed. Diêm had ordered that troops responsible for the defense of these hamlets be confined to quarters lest they end up supporting a coup.

The result – McNamara and Taylor sent back to Vietnam on another “fact” finding tour in which officers and Vietnamese officials would compound the lies collected and put if forth as reliable intelligence. The Americans endorsed the coup that was the first in a series that would bring different military officers to power in charge of the totally destructive folly that the Vietnamese called the American War. Three weeks later, President Jack Kennedy was assassinated. It was Friday 22 November 1963.

I was in my office at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. It had been my first faculty appointment. The walls were paper thin and I heard the ruckus in the hall. I put on my jacket, closed the door to my office and went for a walk around the campus. The silence interrupted by odd people weeping was eerie. Students and faculty stood in scattered clusters as if to comfort one another. Unlike my friends, most of whom admired Kennedy, I had been a critic of Kennedy ever since he appeared at a Hart House debate in 1957 when he was a senator and campaigning to become president three years later.

There is a picture, or there was a picture, that hung for years on the wall of the Debates Room in Hart House at the University of Toronto. The Debates Room was panelled in oak with a raised speaker’s chair. It sat 250 male students (more on this soon). I can be spotted in the picture as the only person without a jacket because I did wear a white shirt and thus stood out in this piece of memorabilia. I did not happen to own a sport or suit jacket and someone brought another person’s jacket out to me so I could get in. I had just finished pre-meds and was in first year of medical school.

The topic of debate was: “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” Kennedy was slated to support the opposition to the motion. I was surprised he had come. Why Canada when he was fighting to become the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States? We assumed it was to establish his bona fides. At the time we did not realize that debating at UofT was seen as second best to debating in Oxford. Steve Lewis, who would later serve as Canadian ambassador to the United Nations during the Mulroney government, led the “Ayes.” We had played football together in high school. Steve had been the quarterback and I had been a running end, chosen because I was tall, but benched because I almost invariably fumbled his excellent passes.

Steve was a superb debater. He had been elected president of our high school student council based on his brilliant rhetorical style that he had learned from his father, David, a Rhodes Scholar, who had become leader of the CCF. Steve soon became leader of the student CCF, the Canadian Commonwealth Federation that evolved into the New Democratic Party (NDP) 3 or 4 years later, and would eventually become leader of Canada’s federal social democratic party. Lewis then was an international sensation as a debater, leading the UofT team to a number of awards and had, if I recall, been named best speaker at one international competition.

Kennedy read from a prepared text. It seemed obvious that he had not written his remarks. Further, they were banal and delivered without any feeling. Kennedy was remarkable then, to me, for being dull and almost boring – perhaps he was using Canada as a practice forum. As I recall, and my recollection may be faulty because I could not find his speech on line to check, he rejected the idea that public opinion should influence foreign policy and insisted that, in spite of a number of errors in foreign policy under President Eisenhower – I cannot remember which, if any, he cited – America was a force for good on the world scene. Lewis argued the reverse and insisted that America under the driving force of the two Dulles brothers was not only in violation of international norms and treaties, but its own Constitution. [I apologize to Steve in advance if I have misrepresented what he said long ago.]

The Ayes clearly and unequivocally won the debate based both on style, content and, most importantly, the logic of the respective sides. But in the vote of the audience, the Nays won, by only a small margin as I recall, but they did win. Perhaps Kennedy was right that you cannot rely on public opinion to determine policy. I feared that the many groupies around the Kennedy aura would carry the day rather than thoughtful and reflective discussion. In America, patriotism would be married to celebrity to carry the election towards even greater militancy even if Kennedy failed to get the Democratic nomination or, if he did win, failed to be elected. If that audience in Hart House had been his electorate, he was a shoo-in as Democratic candidate and perhaps president, especially since he admitted that he was an accidental Democrat because he came from Massachusetts, but he shared the foreign policy objectives of the Republicans, and was perhaps more hawkish, only criticizing some of their decisions.

However, it was not Kennedy’s presentation that bothered me the most. Mary Brewin (another prominent child of a famous CCF leader) – or was it her older sister? – led a protest against the debate for continuing the practice of male exclusivity in Hart House. There are only males in that picture on the wall of the Debates Room. I was not torn enough about my objection in principle to male exclusivity to overcome my principles and stay away from hearing Jack Kennedy. In the paper the next day, when Kennedy had been asked why he had attended a debate from which women had been excluded from attending, he said, and I think I am pretty correct about this, that he believed in having some exclusively male clubs.

I had come to believe that in November of 1963, Kennedy was no more a prisoner of the hawks than Diêm was a prisoner of the Nhus. He was the lead Cold War warrior. Holbrooke seems to have seen him as a leader duped by short-sighted and misguided advisers. However, Kennedy was directly responsible for expanding the air war in Vietnam and then approving American involvement in the ground war, continuing America’s involvement in a vicious and unjustified international conflict that killed hundreds of thousands. Most disastrously, he did it in the name of patriotism, in the name of the duty to serve a nation, a nation deeply immersed in an immoral enterprise.

Richard Holbrooke, though he had become a critic of the war from four different angles, nevertheless was a deep believer in patriotism and carrying out his duties as part of the war effort. Kennedy had lauded those students who heeded the urgent summons and reported to their local Draft Boards, praised those who sacrificed to serve as American warriors or diplomats overseas, and, at the top of the peak of this self-sacrifice, elevated politicians to stardom. Politicians who fought in elections to win positions of power and had to make the tough decisions were heroes. Men like Holbrooke at the end of 1963 had a heightened sense of doubt and had become somewhat disillusioned. But only somewhat. They had a deep faith in America and its leadership, even as it erred. They seemed to have no ability to penetrate that faith to discern the source of those errors. The Air War would be supplanted by a vastly expanded military presence on the ground and General William Westmoreland’s new strategy of “attrition.”

Americans were now fighting wars like Charlie Brown in the Peanut’s cartoon played baseball, exclaiming when they were shattered on the field, “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” In 1964, Holbrooke circulated that cartoon to demonstrate his by now enormous scepticism without any willingness to put his loyalty to the test. Why do Americans keep falling in love with insurgency? Packer’s answer: “We’re no good at it because we don’t have the knowledge or patience, few of our people are willing to learn the history and language and spend the years necessary to understand the nature of conflict.” But that is why Americans failed, not why they fell in love.

The American idealist love for counterinsurgency did not get them into the war, but it was this false vision 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 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. My thesis explaining this is that he had a romantic view of love – love of both women and America.

With help of Alex Zisman

Judges, Justice and the Rule of law – Shoftim: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9.

Shoftim is the Hebrew word for judges. It is also the name for the Book of Judges as well as the portion of the Torah for this week. The topic of judges is very intimately connected to the issue of justice, but judges lack an exclusive control over the delivery of justice. At the very least, the responsibility for justice is shared with those who make the laws and execute them.

The gist of the Torah message is summarized as follow:

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue.

Tor repeat, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

On the other hand, there are the rulers and legislators. In Moses view of the executive branch, the king or ruler is chosen by God and not the people. But there are restrictions – no excessive wealth or power (epitomized by the clause: “The king must not have many horses.” Why? If one visits the archeological site at Megiddo, more specifically, all the stable and the training arenas, one recognizes why a horse is a stand-in for military power. Jeroboam II built the fortress to breed horses to be sold to the Assyrian Empire. Limits had to be placed on the ruler lest his heart go astray. Where to – wealth, sex and military might. The ruler must NOT set himself above his brethren or turn aside from the law. He has boundaries.

The divisions between executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are provided in outline. They will influence the entire history of civilization. I want to bring the issue into the present by considering two items:

  1. Fiddler on the Roof
  2. The current situation in Britain (a change from the U.S.)

Why Fiddler on the Roof? One simple reason: we saw the documentary, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles directed by Max Lewkowicz last evening at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, the revamped Midtown Theatre where I watched double bills after going to shul on a Saturday morning. It is a brilliant film placing the development of the musical in the context of political history that is culturally time-bound, but making that context universal so that the film shows versions of the production in Japan, Thailand and by schoolkids in Brownsville, Brooklyn with a cast that seemed to be mostly African-American. There was even a production in Anatevka, Ukraine, at which refugees from eastern Ukraine were in attendance.

For the documentary is about, as the musical Fiddler on the Roof was about, universal values and issues – about love between a man and his wife, love between a father and a daughter, love among sisters, about different forms of love between men and women, about oppression, persecution and ethnic cleansing, about parental prerogatives, the tension between tradition and modernity, and female rights. The song, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, follows Sholem Aleichem’s deep critique of the “profession” in the ironic mockery by Tevye’s three oldest daughters of a practice that had become reduced to avaricious horse trading of daughters.

The tension between tradition and modernity is related, not only to the events over one hundred years ago and the pogroms after the failure of the 1905 revolution in Russia, not only to the tensions when Fiddler on the Roof first appeared on the stage in America in 1964 as the feminist movement began, the civil rights struggle was heating up and protests against the Vietnam War were in their initial phase, but also to the present where widespread efforts are underway to reconnect with traditions that have begun to move into the twilight zone.

The documentary combines odes to both Sholem Aleichem (who wrote the Tevye the Dairyman short stories) and Marc Chagall, including cartoon drawings in Chagall’s style, as well as historical film footage and talking heads. The documentary moves smoothly through the analysis of different songs in the musical and the various highlighted themes, acknowledges and shows great appreciation for the different and unique contributions of the composer, Jerry Bock, the lyricist, Sheldon Harnick (currently 95 and the only survivor of the original creative team – he does not look 95 and in the opening plucks out a version of “Tradition” on the violin), the librettist who provided the narrative, Joseph Stein, Harold Prince, the producer, and especially Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer of the distinguished innovative dance numbers. The documentary recognizes the different interpretations of Zero Mostel on a Broadway stage and Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who has the part in the film. I want to focus on a theme that was present but not highlighted, at least as conceptions – that of injustice, the rule of law and the role of tradition.

At the core of the film, in my belief, is Tevye’s very interesting relationship with his only friend outside his family, as revealed in the musical, his relationship with God. We never hear God, but Tevye addresses God directly – except he no longer does when his beloved daughter, Chava, runs off to marry a very handsome gentile, Fyedka. (“I’m a pleasant fellow – charming, honest, ambitious, quite bright, and very modest.”) At the same time, the local militia commander gives the occupants of Anatevka three days to vacate their homes and move into exile. We are not told whether Tevye feels betrayed by God or whether he has just become bewildered and no longer knows what to say.

In fact, the film offers two very different and alternative ways of communing with God. There is the one as conceptualized by the prickly perfectionist Robbins in the exhilarating “Bottle Dance” at the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel. The ecstatic and wild dancing of Hasidim as they cross arms allows them to engage in their very own and very physical joyful expression of a union with God versus the verbal and plaintive and perhaps even ultimately disenchanted verbal dialogue of Tevye.

As Bartlett Sher comments in the documentary, “The Bottle Dance” is the epitome of a very visual metaphor of the struggle for achieving balance in the wild struggle through life between the demands of the law and individual passions, between tradition and change – after all, the scene is a tribute to the dancing tradition of the Cossacks, the prime perpetrators of the pogroms. How does one keep one’s balance amongst all the competing tensions in one’s life? “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But, here, in our little village of Anatevka, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

Loveable, human-all-too-human, raging and resigned, affectionate and stubbornly turning his back on his own daughter, as Chava exits voluntarily, Tevye is not permitted to stay home. The fiddler on the roof balancing on the upside “V” of a roof and inspired by Chagall always remains precariously balanced, but out of reach, and remains out of reach as Tevye has to pull his own wagon when his horse has died. Why? Because the Jewish traditions that once preserved that balance no longer work. Tevye, in his initial expression of faith, says: “because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.” However, Tevye, with an upbeat spirit as mammoth as his chest, gradually grows silent, resigned and depressed. In the end, he no longer talks to God.

However, this is an uplifting musical about the most profound and serious matters. Tevye has his lighthearted doubts. “Sometimes I wonder, when it gets too quiet up there, if You are thinking, ‘What kind of mischief can I play on My friend Tevye?’ Sometimes with ironic challenges. ‘It may sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. After all, with Your help, I’m starving to death. Oh, dear Lord. You made many many poor people. I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor… but it’s no great honor either. So what would be so terrible… if I had a small fortune?’” If I Were a Rich Man. For, “As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.”

Tevye cannot spit in God’s face for, “As the Good Book says, if you spit in the air, it lands in your face.” Yente, the matchmaker, is more direct and earthy. “If God lived on earth, people would break His windows.” Tevye cannot throw God’s words back in his face at the injustice of it all, at the failure to fulfil promises made. “Am I bothering You too much? I’m sorry. As the good book says… aaahh, why should I tell You what the Good Book says?” And by the end of the musical, after his daughter has run off with a tall, blond goy, Tevye has lost his sense of balance altogether. There is no longer Rabbi Dow Marmur’s, “On the one hand …and on the other.” Tevye remains silent and will no longer speak to his daughter, Chava, whom he will never see again as she departs “Far from the Home I Love.”

Balance! We live in a world that seems to have totally lost any sense of balance. When I once worked with the UN, I learned that it was Britain that was viewed as the responsible party for running the Security Council. Other states deferred to Britain to interpret the rules and protocols by which that august body made its decisions. That deference is the equivalent of oral law. It is tradition. Now Britain cannot even seem to govern itself.

Jonathan Sumption, who took a seat on the Supreme Court in Britain in 2011, has written a brief book, Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics based on his 2019 Reith Lectures. There has always been a tension between judges who must interpret the law and legislators who must make the law. The sources of the tension are many. But the main ones are that, to make law, legislators must act within the rule of law. At the same time, judges build on those inherited laws and they set deep limits on how and what direction changes in the law may take. Balance is particularly difficult in a time when the executive seat of government is occupied by a George IV or a Prime Minister Boris Johnson or a President Donald Trump. Because all of these were or are disrupters and had or have insufficient respect for the role of tradition. For Sumption, a conservative legal theorist, the courts must not overstep their boundaries and fail to recognize that it is the legislature that has the primary responsibility for making the law.

These rulers have been or are reckless, irreverent and disruptive. They paid or do not pay attention to administrative detail. Trump challenges, weakens and tries to delegitimize American political institutions. Johnson in the pursuit of Brexit also is at war and actively undermining democratic government.

What if the executive branch goes legally “mad,” what if it transfers enormous sums of monies approved by the legislature to building a monument to madness, a wall on the American-Mexican border to keep out unwanted “aliens”? How do courts remain a source of continuity in touch with constitutional principles and responsible for political stability? The costs of instability are enormous. After 1905 in Russia, the rule of law broke down. Edicts issued were arbitrary and harsh and none suffered from them more than the Jews in the Pale of Settlement.

What happens if the judiciary is stacked such that judicial review of actions undertaken by royal or presidential prerogative has withered on the vine? What happens when the legislature has become dysfunctional and has become either subservient to the ruler or in open revolt against that ruler? Parliament in Britain has refused to follow the leader, Boris Johnson, and dissolve Parliament without conditions. What happens if the judicial review of the power has become silent or ineffective, if God, or God’s appointee, the Queen, reveals herself to be impotent and operates as an automaton acquiescing in the request of the Prime Ministerial will of a mad leader and issued an Order in Council proroguing Parliament after 9 September and before 12 September? Who is in charge? As Dan Balz wrote in Politics, “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has eclipsed President Trump as the chaos-maker-in-chief…the new leader tried to take a wrecking ball to the political system and ended up hitting himself as well.”

We have a plague of leaders around the world, including Israel, making enormous and consequential decisions without the authority of legislatures. Judges now hold the balance of power and have a duty to decide whether to protect ancient constitutional principles that only the legislature may change the law. This is orthodoxy. This is tradition. And when the tradition of substance breaks down into dysfunctionality, the tradition of process must rise to provide a backstop.

Tevye lacked that. He had two rulers, his God above and a Tsar who thought he was god. His God seemed to have slipped into silence so, in the end, Tevye no longer bothered addressing Him anymore. And the ruler in Moscow had lost his bearings. So a local militia officer could order the villagers of Anatevka to leave within three days. But Tevye neither had a legislature which he could help elect nor a court of law that would determine, as Sumption did, that, “It would be inconsistent with long-standing and fundamental principle for such a far-reaching change to the UK constitutional arrangements to be brought about by ministerial decision or ministerial action alone.” Arbitrary decisions made on the fly are no way to execute laws.

Moses erred in expressing a belief in the divine right of kings allegedly appointed by God. But not wrong in recognizing that leaders often took themselves to be appointed by God, if not gods themselves. There must be executive restraint. There must be judicial restraint. There must be a parliamentary willing to exact restraint, especially when the executive ignores the grossly excessive destruction of our planet which jeopardizes all life and earth, an issue that was highlighted in the presentations of the Democratic candidates for president on Wednesday.

What happens when the well-trodden paths of tradition break down and people are forced to take roads to elsewhere? Jewish institutions and systems of law possibly have the honour of having the longest record in the history of humanity, but the executive role has been intermittent and the tiny historical legislative role has only recently been revived. No matter the length, and Britain can boast the longest record of all three at the same time, imbalance has displaced balance and unrestraint had buried restraint just when restraint is absolutely necessary to control the murder of planet earth.

Sumption wrote ominously, “Politics may be a dirty word, but the alternative to it is bleak: a dysfunctional community, lacking the cohesion to meet any of its social or economic challenges and exposed to mounting internal and external violence. This is a potential catastrophe in the making. But there is nothing that law can do about it.” In my free translation, Tevye said to God, “Ok, punish me, for what I do not know. But my horse? My planet?” However, as the organizers of the climate crisis debate showed, there is plenty that people can do when the rule of law fails us. We can organize to inform, educate and solicit the cooperation of our sisters and brothers. But the prime line of defence is our shoftim, our judges. The courts cannot stand by if the legislature cow tows to the executive to erode the rule of law and allow wanton destruction to continue.

Credit where credit is due. There has been enormous restraint in the use of military power, though in America that has been offset by the unrestraint in economic matters, whether it be with respect to fair contributions from the rich or the negotiations on international trade.

Justice, justice shall you pursue.

With the help of Alex Zisman

My Memories of Milton


On Monday, I learned that Milt Zysman had died. From speaking to his brother, Simon, I found out that he had pancreatic cancer. He had been diagnosed nine months ago and had been on chemotherapy. His immune system was compromised. He got pneumonia on Friday. Two days later, he was dead. I cannot get him out of my thoughts.

In the notice of his death that his daughter, Leslie, sent out, she said that Milt had dodged the death bullet many times in his life – but not this time. Milt was on a regimen of dialysis requiring that he spend three days a week in hospital. Milt told me it was not too bad. He had not told me that he had cancer, but perhaps he had been diagnosed since I had last spoken to him before we left for Mexico for the winter. The last email correspondence between us was last October concerning Immanuel Velikovsky.

Evidently, Milton was still working on his book on Velikovsky (V) until a few days before his death. In the 1970s, Milton became enamoured with V, particularly with two of his books, Worlds in Collision and Ages of Chaos. I have the impression that Milt had read everything by and about V. He certainly viewed V as the pioneer of modern catastrophism, that is, that the geological and climate history of this planet and, for V, human history. Both had been deeply affected by comets and other objects crashing into earth. V was not a freak as he is often treated, though I believe that the vast array of scientific and mythological criticism do not support V.

If my memory is correct, V helped found the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a practicing psychiatrist. But he certainly was widely criticized by scientists, not so much, I believe, for his catastrophism as much as his use of biblical texts and cultural myths to try to provide a correlation to actual cosmological catastrophes. But the only thing I know about V is what Milt told me. I was never convinced by Milt, much as he tried to persuade me, that I had to read V’s books.

I got to know Milt in Harbord Collegiate where we were both high school students. He was a much closer friend of my older brother Al, but we were all in the same year. One memory of Milt is a game of basketball. He belonged to Club Vertis and Al and I belonged to Club Albion. Milt was the wildest player that I have ever seen play basketball, with long strides and his body stretched almost horizontally as he dribbled the ball. And he would risk the longest shots imaginable and then, alternatively, push ahead as if there was no one between him and the basket to try a rebound shot.

Milt was a unique being. But he was not the only one that was unique in his family. I recall once being in Milt’s house when he lived on Madison Avenue just north of Bloor St. and before his family moved north to Old Forest Hill Rd. Madison Avenue was already north for us downtown Harborites. There was a party. Milt’s cousin Joey (also the name of Milt’s son) was in town from New York. He played the guitar.

He was singing some tunes and I asked if he could play a folk tune. Ruth, Milt’s extremely beautiful older sister, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come out of the living room to talk to her. She took me aside and scolded me for requesting a song. I have a memory of her sitting on me, but that is probably a product of my wild imagination. But she certainly did scold me. “You do not ask a musician to play a song unless you are absolutely certain that the vocalist already knows the lyrics.”

I have never before or since had such a forceful lesson in social etiquette. I have also never ever asked a singer since then to sing a favourite song. When I later told Milt what his older sister had done, all he said was, “That’s Ruthie.”

In high school, Milt became notorious for one incident. Milt’s form and mine shared an outstanding French teacher, Dr. Hislop, however, not so outstanding as to be able to teach me French. One day, she had a hissy fit. She claimed that one of the students had stolen her French textbook. She told us that she would not teach us until the text was returned to her desk. Harbord Collegiate was widely renowned, not only for academic excellence, but for the revolutionary propensities of its students. The student body went on strike for three full days when Principal Graham tried unsuccessfully to regain control of the student assemblies. However, this was the first time we experienced a teacher going on strike.

The strike went on for almost two weeks. It was clear that Dr. Hislop would not give in. But neither would we. We opposed both collective punishment and charges made without any evidence that a student had taken her text. Besides, many of us were happy to escape formal French classes and use the time to do other homework. Milt evidently thought that both sides were being stubborn and irrational. A new text was placed on Dr. Hislop’s desk allowing her to save face and end the strike. Milt had purchased the book. But instead of being hailed as a peacemaker in an irrational and meaningless struggle, he was reviled for breaking student solidarity and for being an appeaser. I was a proud and stupid member of the ideological critic’s club.

During high school, Milt and my brother Al became summer partners in a tuck shop at Balfour Beach on Lake Simcoe just 2 miles north of Keswick on the south-east shore where Milt’s family had a cottage. The next year, I and another high school buddy got the concession at the Tides Hotel for their tuck shop and snack restaurant. The Tides Hotel was two miles west of Jacksons Point on the east side of Lake Simcoe, about 12 miles from Balfour Beach. As it turned out, the summer season was disastrous. It was cold and rainy. We were losing money and we desperately needed to make money.

Milt made a suggestion. He and Al offered to get some booze from their customers at Balfour Beach that we could buy from them at a modest profit to bootleg to hotel guests at a good markup. Suddenly, for about a month, we were making good profits from this alternative service – until we were caught when the manager overheard a conversation between the bellhop and a guest. (The bellhop was a procurer of clients for a commission.)

It was an end, but not an ignominious one, to our tiny imitation of Samuel Bronfman’s bootlegging operation during Prohibition that provided the foundation for the Seagram Distillery fortune. For, as a condition of quitting our bootleg business, we were given new cups and dishes and access to top quality coffee by management for, as we told the enraged manager, he had much more to lose if the cops found out than we did.

In university, Milt became an expert in pornographic literature, not as a voyeur, but as a great appreciator. He introduced us to Samuel Richardson and François Rabelais, Daniel Defoe and Henry Miller. At first, as the prude I was then, I thought that Milt had become a pervert, but gradually learned that he was intimately attuned to the fine points of and variations on the genre.

Milt went to law school, and “went” is the correct word. He faked his year of articling with the help of a lawyer-friend. And he never completed his bar admjssion exams. He was never going to be a practicing lawyer. He was a creator and inventor.

His father owned a mattress and upholstering supply business. Milt invented a mattress handle that was much stronger than the historical cloth strap and which could much more easily and economically be inserted in the side of a mattress. His family, I believe, became the largest supplier in the world of mattress handles to the industry, either directly or through license agreements. Simon will have to tell me whether this was just a boast.

Over four summers, Milt and my burgeoning family – Margaret and I added another child almost every year – shared different cottages and once a farm house where my family planned to move so I could write. The farm house burned down in the summer of 1965. Those summers were communal social events. Milt was an entertainer and had a wide assortment of friends. The summers were happenings and I let them happen as I did my own work. I was not a social creature, but Milt’s initiatives gave me a bit of sociability without any effort on my part. Milt became the godfather to our fourth child, Eric.

I do not know the year Milt became deathly ill. It was only a few years after he became Eric’s godfather. He had been admitted to the Toronto General Hospital for a relatively routine gastrointestinal operation by Dr. Khursheed Jeejeebhoy. He was the chief gastroenterologist at the hospital if my memory is correct. The operation went well. Unfortunately, while in the hospital, Milt got a fungus infection. Milt literally became deathly ill. We were told that it would be unlikely that he would survive.

Dr. Harold Wise had been in the same medical class as my brother and I. He had become the head of the Martin Luther King Jr. new and very large medical clinic in the South Bronx in New York. In running that facility designed to train locals in medical technical skills as a step out of poverty, during his tenure there, Harold became intimately acquainted with the healing techniques of local shamans. When he heard that Milt was imminently facing death, he flew up to Toronto.

When he entered Milt’s hospital room on College Street, I was sitting beside Milt as each of his friends rotated to keep him company and try to ease his suffering. I am not sure I was of any help. I did not read to him. I felt useless. I had left medicine to become a philosopher. Milt was too much a liver of life to become enamoured with philosophy.

Harold took off his jacket, but did not sit down. He leaned over Milt and began to quietly talk to him. He did not ask him how he was feeling. That was obvious. We were expecting Milt to die. After about ten minutes of talking in almost a whisper, Harold got up on the bed and laid on top of Milt. Milt very feebly started joking. “Since when did you become queer?” Harold hugged Milt, firmly but not hard. I sat still in utter amazement and could not even participate in the growing witty repartee between Milt and Harold. Harold was on top of Milt for fifteen minutes. Milt’s voice grew visibly stronger and his comments actually became really funny. Harold laid on top of Milt for perhaps another half hour.  

It was miraculous. Colour had returned to Milt’s face. He could actually speak so that we could clearly understand him. It was self-evident that Milt was no longer at death’s door. What could I say? I witnessed what I did not believe. And I have never got to believe, but at least I subsequently remained an agnostic. Milt recovered, though he had lost his sight.

I found the obituary of Harold that had been published in The New York Times.

WISE-Harold. We deeply mourn the loss of our visionary founder, Dr. Harold Wise, who pioneered family-centered health care at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center in the South Bronx and the Valentine Lane Family Practice in Yonkers. When he could not find other physicians who shared that vision, he created the award-winning residency program in social medicine to train them. His healing legacy lives on in its alumni, faculty, staff and all their patients. Robert Massad, MD, Chair, Department of Family Medicine. Hal Strelnick, MD, Director, Residency Program in Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Milt, while blind, went on to invent a combination foam and coil mattress that was produced by a long machine that produced and laid out wire coils and then baked foam around them to create an independent coil mattress. Most of his friends invested in his creation. But it never worked properly. The machine would get gummed up and production would stop until the machine was cleaned. Eventually, after years of struggle and efforts to both improve the machine and open his own bedding stores, Foamcoil went bankrupt.

However, Milt was never daunted. He went on to try other inventions, to come up with other creative endeavours, to organize soirees and always to collect more friends. Most of those who know him now are far better acquainted with his later endeavours. Our worlds no longer collided. In fact, we had begun to live in different worlds. While he read and studied wars in the celestial sphere, I attended to earthly wars and their calamitous results.

Most of Milt’s old cohort of friends have passed away. My brother died 20 years ago. As did Harold 21 years ago. Dave Berger died almost 40 years ago. At 83, Milt outlived them all and was always dedicated to celebrating life. He looked death in the face and laughed.

At the cottage on the island on Saturday, I was walking down the long path to the boat dock, not to get on any boat, but to check the gas generator. On route, I kept thinking of how my life had become haunted with ghosts. I started to name them in my head. I was determined to write about them once again as I had a few years ago, for now this was no longer an infrequent occurrence. My thoughts turned to Milt. I had not thought of him for months. I wondered how he was. I vowed to phone him when I returned to Toronto. It was too late.

Last night, my wife and I went to see the biopic, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love about the late poet and balladeer, Leonard Cohen and his muse and Norwegian love of his life, Marianne (pronounced Mariann – e) Ihlen. The film was directed by Nick Broomfield, another once lover of Marianne’s. I will sign off by plagiarizing Leonard’s note to Marianne as she lay on her death bed and Leonard faced his own death at an age just less than Milt’s. The film both opens and ends with the same line.

“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Hold out your hand, Milton. Reach for me. I will not be far behind. 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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