The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and the Making of the Cold War
by Luke A. Nichter
Yale University Press
544 pp., $37.50
Even before the Kennedys took center stage in American mythology, Americans have had their share of legendary families, the decline and fall of which have been staples of both history and fiction.
Despite having been brought up to worship the self-made, Americans have nonetheless long indulged in the worship of these great families. A signal example is Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, which inspired Orson Welles’ 1942 cinematic semi-masterpiece. Both generate nostalgia by simultaneously celebrating the rise of the self-made entrepreneur and glorying in the comeuppance of the arrogant and oblivious dynastic whelp.
As for history, two of America’s most prominent legendary families are the Cabots and Lodges—they of the famous ditty where one speaks only to the other and the other speaks only to God. Wealthy and powerful Boston families of long-standing influence, they had merged by the 20th century into a single political dynasty, which sent two members to the U.S. Senate. These were Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., a proud advocate of American imperialism who became Woodrow Wilson’s nemesis in the fight against the Treaty of Versailles, and his grandson, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who is the subject of this readable and laudatory biography by Luke Nichter.
The Lodges are now in historiographical vogue for liberal Republicans. Once disdained as elitist and out of touch, the same people who cheered the Lodges’ defeats now hold them up as paragons of civility in the face of odious conservative activists, from Sen. Joseph McCarthy of 1950s fame to President Donald Trump of our contemporary political scene.
Recent works praising President Dwight Eisenhower take center stage in this trend, and it is not accidental that Nichter emphasizes Lodge’s role in getting Ike to the White House. Lodge’s use of money, connections, and media savvy to undermine “Mr. Republican,” Robert Taft, was the apex of the Massachusetts senator’s electoral career. By 1937, Lodge was already enormously successful as a young and photogenic candidate, famous for never losing an election on his way to the Senate. He resigned his seat in 1944 to serve his second tour of duty for the Army during World War II, his first having come in 1942. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1946 while continuing to serve as an Army Reserve officer.
In what would be his final Senate term, Lodge led Republicans who embraced the internationalist, bipartisan Cold War consensus. Though his support for NATO put him at odds with his namesake grandfather’s skepticism of entangling alliances, Lodge considered the anti-globalist Taft dangerously behind the times, and rallied support for Eisenhower as the avatar of modern Republicanism to woo centrist voters.
While Ike cultivated an air of studied apolitical indifference as he held his post as supreme commander of NATO across the Atlantic, Lodge mounted a relentless and ultimately successful anti-Taft campaign, allowing Ike to show up just in time to be nominated at the GOP convention in Chicago.
Ironically, Lodge’s triumph as Ike’s agent also ended his own run of electoral success. In that Republican year of 1952, Lodge lost his Senate seat to John F. Kennedy, whose own rise profited from Lodge’s success in sweeping aside an older generation of Democratic pols. Kennedy defeated Lodge, whose career he had studied, by running to Lodge’s right. Kennedy took a hard line on communism, signaling sympathy with McCarthy and drawing support from many former Taft fans, for whom the combination of bitterness at Lodge’s betrayal and the sweetness of Joe Kennedy’s cash was irresistible.
Lodge remained an important member of the foreign policy establishment but never reached the heights once expected of him. He spent eight years as Eisenhower’s UN ambassador, but Ike’s gratitude did not extend to offering Lodge the coveted role of secretary of state. In 1960, Richard Nixon chose Lodge as his running mate, and the pair again lost to JFK.
A brief boomlet in 1964, when Lodge won the New Hampshire primary as a centrist alternative to Barry Goldwater, faded swiftly. Lodge ended his public career in various diplomatic posts for both Democratic and Republican presidents. He served two stints as the United States’ ambassador to South Vietnam under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, but Nixon did not reappoint him to Saigon.
Lodge participated in preliminary Vietnam peace talks, but Nixon and Henry Kissinger did not allow him into the inner circle. Kissinger scribbled on a memo a suggestion that Lodge would only be included in the intensifying Paris negotiations “over my dead body.” Thus, the descendant of Puritans ended up as the president’s personal representative to the Holy See under Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, acting as the de facto ambassador to the Vatican. There he garnered bland encomia from those who denied him real responsibility.
Years of declining health and dwindling family fortunes followed until his death in 1985, by which time he was well on his way to the oblivion earned by most politicians. Nichter presents a solid, well-written chronicle of Lodge’s life and times in a largely successful effort to rescue him from that oblivion.
Lodge emerges as a thoughtful and ambitious patriot motivated by a sense of responsibility and a work ethic that contrasts well with the callow entitlement of a JFK. Offering a very American sense of nostalgia for the faded glory of great families, Nichter makes much of the symbolism of the Boston Brahmin “with a duty to preserve American institutions and traditions.” In his conclusion, he claims “Only now, after a sufficient passage of time… can we see that the country lost more than it gained through the exit of these families from politics and public service.”
Although Nichter’s desire for contemporary relevance by praising Lodge’s “softer, gentler kind of Republicanism designed to appeal to the masses” may be a bit too transparent, his most important historical contribution is to clarify Lodge’s role in the establishment’s signal Cold War catastrophe: Vietnam.
Nichter devotes a substantial portion of the book to Lodge’s time in Saigon (1963-64 and 1965-68). These were the years of deepening American commitment to war in Southeast Asia, and Lodge encouraged that development every step of the way. A conventional anti-communist, he went at Kennedy’s personal request; his first order of business was the removal of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm.
above: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., United States Ambassador to South Vietnam, at a cabinet meeting with President Lyndon Johnson and others on March 13, 1966 (Yoichi Okamoto / Wikimedia Commons / LBJ Library)
Diệm embarrassed Washington with his autocratic methods, inspiring communist and Buddhist rebellions and earning the unending scorn of both Camelot courtiers and the U.S. press. Even worse, by late summer 1963, Diệm and his brother Ngô Đình Nhu began flirting with a separate peace with North Vietnam, which might have forced the Americans to break off the nascent military struggle altogether.
Pace those who still harbor the fantasy that JFK would have saved the U.S. from sinking deeper into the quagmire, Kennedy and company aimed to eliminate Diệm and Nhu by encouraging a military coup, even if that meant a stronger American commitment to the subsequent regime. Kennedy needed Lodge to provide bipartisan cover. Lodge was happy to oblige, and ever since he has been held up by Camelot fans as the primary guilty party in orchestrating the coup that killed Diệm and Nhu in early November 1963, just three weeks before Kennedy’s own death in Dallas.
Nichter at least partially absolves Lodge of blame based on evidence from tape recordings and other documents that show Kennedy’s intimate involvement with, prior knowledge of, and encouragement of action against the Ngô brothers. In a conversation before Lodge’s departure that would have sounded familiar to some of his backers in Chicago and Miami, Kennedy gave Lodge “not an order for a coup, but an instruction to plan for its possibility.”
Although he cannot hide Lodge’s deep involvement in the operation, Nichter deserves credit for challenging the Camelot consensus that a blameless Kennedy was betrayed by his overzealous underlings.
All of which brings us back to our fascination with decaying dynasties and the meaning of a book such as this. The death of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. coincided with the decline of liberal Republicanism, long after the Cabots and Lodges had ceased to dominate Massachusetts. Studying him now feels like an archaeological dig to examine a lost civilization. The effort does hold a certain fascination, certainly, but it’s hard to share Nichter’s palpable nostalgia.
As Nichter observes, Lodge had political talent and served the public well according to his lights. He may not have deserved obscurity, but his dedicated service was not in some noble effort to save the establishment from catastrophe; he merely abetted it. Nor did it bring him the success he craved as the world passed him by.
That the Republic eventually had no more use for men like Lodge is neither comedy nor tragedy, but reality. We may not cheer his comeuppance as one might George Amberson Minafer’s, but, more likely, we may not feel much at all. We pass over his story with the detached silence befitting a proper Bostonian.