cover image George Ball: Behind the Scenes in U.S. Foreign Policy

George Ball: Behind the Scenes in U.S. Foreign Policy

James A. Bill. Yale University Press, $52 (294pp) ISBN 978-0-300-06969-3

Partly chronological, partly thematic, admittedly selective, bordering on hagiography, this hybrid biography works well despite its near worship of Ball, undersecretary of state during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, one-time U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and eminence grise. Bill, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary, is skillful at combining anecdotes, longer case studies and lucid phrasing to pull off this biography with an attitude, about the making of foreign policy inside a democracy. A 15-page prologue covering one day in Ball's controversial tenure in the state department is the book's internal masterpiece. On that day, July 21, 1965, Ball is seen at the White House, arguing against further involvement in Vietnam. But he does not stand a chance against the intransigent defensiveness of President Johnson, Secretary of State Rusk, Defense Secretary McNamara and other policy makers. Ball's doggedness in the face of high-level disapproval makes him seem immediately admirable to all who opposed the Vietnam war then or came to oppose it later. Although no section of the book matches the prologue for narrative drive, Bill maintains interest by never losing sight of his purpose--to draw on Ball's personal life and professional ideas as explaining ""the essence of the American foreign policy system,"" then to ""develop a model of statecraft for the twenty-first century."" Along the way, Bill draws on research he performed for his excellent 1989 book, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. Perhaps most controversially, he compares the style and substance of Ball to the style and substance of the more famous Henry Kissinger. Kissinger finishes a distant second in the author's estimation. (Mar.)