The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and the Making of the Cold War

Luke A. Nichter. Yale University Press, 2020. 527 pages. $37.50.

The Last Brahmin cover image

By Benjamin Franklin Martin

Recall this well-worn witticism: “The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country, The Washington Post by people who think they run the country, The New York Times by people who think they should run the country, and The Boston Globe by people whose parents used to run the country and did a far superior job of it, thank you very much.” Then, consider the extraordinary life of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., portrayed with great skill, nuance, and sympathy by Luke A. Nichter.

Lodge was born on July 5, 1902, and died on February 27, 1985.  He was a member of the “Establishment,” an enlightened aristocracy of social standing, wealth, position, intellect, and virtue, and he believed in an American noblesse oblige, that from those, like himself, to whom much was given, much was expected. Because his father died when he was seven years old, his grandfather and namesake, the Republican senator who would defeat Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, assumed a distant role over his upbringing. His mother took him and his brother and sister to France, where he reached near-fluency French; he already spoke German learned from family servants. The outbreak of war in 1914 brought them back to the United States, and he was sent to boarding school. He easily passed the entrance examinations to Harvard University and graduated in only three years, majoring in romance languages. His grandfather had written him:  “Whatever you try to do—do it with all your might & do your best.”

Believing that service was a public duty, Lodge accepted commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry of the Army Reserve. His exemplary performance won him rapid promotion to captain. He married another member of the Establishment, Emily Sears. They had two sons. He began a career in journalism with the Boston Transcript, then moved to the New York Herald Tribune, which in 1929 sent him to Indochina to report on colonial rule. He won election to the lower chamber of the Massachusetts legislature and then to the United States Senate in 1936, where he was the seventh member of his family to sit.

In the Senate, Lodge was a “liberal” Republican, supporting much of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and an “isolationist,” like his grandfather. Commitment to the New Deal continued, but the isolationism weakened after a new war broke out in Europe and he received a letter from General George C. Marshall, army chief of staff, asking him to support the Lend-Lease Act. At the beginning of February 1944, Lodge resigned his Senate seat to join American forces in Europe, the first senator since 1860 to choose military service over political power. He served in North Africa and France, acting as the American liaison with French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. By the end of the war, he held the rank of lieutenant colonel and had received the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star from the United States and the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur from France.

Lodge was reelected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 1946. His experience in the war had made him a convinced “internationalist” and therefore a maverick among the Republicans, whose leader, Robert Taft, remained an isolationist. Lodge supported the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of the NATO alliance. Because, as he said, “the Democrats have grown away from Jefferson, and the Republicans have grown away from Lincoln,” he sought a leader who might be a “renewal” and found him in Dwight David Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II.

Lodge created the “Draft Eisenhower” movement, winning his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate and then managing his successful campaign. Doing so, however, distracted him from his own reelection effort, and he lost his Senate seat to John F. Kennedy. Eisenhower had first come to respect Lodge as a staff officer during World War II and found their world views almost identical. Valuing his counsel, Eisenhower appointed him the United States ambassador to the United Nations with cabinet rank. At the United Nations, Lodge worked closely with its secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, and ably blunted the policies of the Soviet Union. Eisenhower wrote him in 1956: “I truly cannot adequately express the proper measure of my gratitude for your tireless and dedicated efforts.”

For the 1960 presidential election, the Republicans, at Eisenhower’s instigation, chose Vice-President Richard M. Nixon as their nominee, with Lodge as his running mate. The pair lost a close election, marred by reports of fraud in Texas and Illinois, to Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. One crucial moment was Lodge’s promise, made without consulting Nixon, to appoint at least one African-American to the cabinet. When Nixon refused to confirm the pledge, both supporters and opponents of civil rights were outraged.

Because Lodge possessed a combination of military and foreign policy expertise, Kennedy appointed him ambassador to Saigon as the American involvement in Southeast Asia reached a crisis in the summer of 1963. Kennedy had lost confidence in South Vietnam’s civilian leaders, brothers Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, and spoke openly to Lodge during an August 15, 1963, White House meeting of supporting a military coup to replace them. Lodge warned that the Ngos would almost certainly be assassinated. Nichter comments: “Kennedy did not seem particularly concerned.” On August 24, with Lodge in Saigon, “State 243,” a cable from the State Department, confirmed that the administration countenanced the overthrow of the Ngos. The South Vietnam military did seize power on November 1 and murdered Diem and Nhu the following day. Lodge had feared the result and had offered sanctuary at the American embassy but did not obstruct the coup.

For another half year, until June 1964, Lodge looked on as South Vietnam’s military leaders fought among themselves. It was another presidential election year, and Lodge might have been the Republican nominee if Eisenhower had endorsed him.  Instead, as Eisenhower remained silent, the party nominated Barry M. Goldwater, for whom Lodge had slight respect. Goldwater lost overwhelmingly to Johnson, who had succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of Kennedy only three weeks after the Ngo assassinations.

Determined to increase both American troop levels in South Vietnam and the bombing campaign in North Vietnam, Johnson asked Lodge to return as ambassador to Saigon. During this second tour, from July 1965 to February 1967, Lodge brought in Harvard professor Henry A. Kissinger to assess the situation and received the answer that the war could not be won as it was being fought and urged negotiations. Lodge himself thought that peace talks were necessary but eventually concluded that North Vietnam was simply waiting for the United States to grow war-weary and withdraw.

Three more assignments awaited Lodge, though he was now in his mid-60s. The first was ambassador to Bonn for Johnson, May 1968 to January 1969, where his political stature greatly impressed the West Germans. The second, under Nixon, who won the 1968 presidential election, was leadership of the U.S. delegation at Paris for the Vietnam peace talks, January to November 1969. Progress in the formal sessions was negligible because Nixon and Kissinger, by then National Security Advisor, negotiated behind his back. The third was envoy to the Vatican, 1970 to 1977 for Nixon and then Gerald R. Ford, who became president after the Watergate scandal. During 22 visits to the Vatican, Lodge, a lifelong Episcopalian, prepared the ground for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1984.

Late in his life, Lodge reflected in his diary on the standards by which he had tried, for the most part successfully, to live his life. He cited a letter in 1621 from a survivor of the first Pilgrim winter in Massachusetts: “It is not with us as other men, whom small things can discourage or small discontentments cause them to wish themselves home again.” He singled out this line of incomparable iambic pentameter from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” He cited the motto of the United States Military Academy, “Duty, honor country.” But first among equals, he chose these words from The Brothers by the Roman playwright Terence: “homo antiqua virtute ac fide, a man of old-fashioned virtue and trustworthiness.” That Lodge was.

Benjamin Franklin Martin (ΦΒΚ, Davidson College) is Price Professor of History Emeritus at Louisiana State University; his most recent book is Roger Martin du Gard and Maumort: The Nobel Laureate and His Unfinished Creation (2017).