Soft Power and Hard Truths

28 February 2023
By Jon Spayde

A recent book published by the Brookings Institution celebrates Thomas Hughes ’47, who—while advising the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations—counseled against the United States’ calamitous war in Vietnam.

In late 2022, a book about a distinguished alumnus arrived via promotional mail at the Voice’s office. The Last Gentleman: Thomas Hughes and the End of the American Century, by Bruce L. R. Smith, is a biography of Thomas Lowe Hughes ’47, who served as a key adviser to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, ran the State Department’s intelligence unit from 1963 to 1969, and led the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for two decades.

Rich in detail regarding geopolitical maneuverings in the Kennedy, Johnson, and early Nixon eras, The Last Gentleman tells the story of a liberal internationalist and Vietnam war dove often going against the current in the American foreign policy and security establishment—a man who knew everyone in Washington and used his connections and finely honed intelligence to convey sobering truths about the country’s involvement in Southeast Asia.

We were honored to be able to interview Hughes in late December. Sadly, just 11 days after the open, edifying conversation, he passed away at the age of 97. —The Editors

Thomas Hughes

THOMAS HUGHES was born into a tradition of public service as the son and grandson of Mankato, Minnesota lawyers and city founders. In high school and at Carleton, the younger Hughes immersed himself in the Student Federalists, an organization aimed at creating a proto-U.N. He became their national president during his first year on campus, juggling nationwide travel with classes and exams.

Two years at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship followed, then a law degree from Yale and a stint in the Judge Advocate General’s Department of the Air Force as an attorney.

After leaving the Air Force in 1953, Hughes made a crucial career connection. Through a friend, he met the advertising executive-turned-politician Chester Bowles, who had served as governor of Connecticut (1949–1951); and then he spent two years as his assistant while Bowles plotted a venture into national politics.

In 1955, Hughes was invited to Washington to become an aide to Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey; it was the beginning of a long mentorship and friendship. Hughes served from 1955 to 1958 as HHH’s adviser on a range of legislative issues, but eventually grew weary of the low pay and the long hours. He then returned to Bowles, since elected to the House of Representatives. Bowles’ appointment as Undersecretary of State during the Kennedy administration led to Hughes being named deputy director of the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in 1961; he was promoted to director two years later.

Hughes was suited to the role. Well-read and vividly intelligent, he was interested in everything. (Sanford Ungar, a journalist and onetime head of the Voice of America, wrote that, “If there is anyone in Washington who can lay claim to the moniker of ‘smartest person in the room’—any room, anytime—it is Tom Hughes.”)

Research reports from Hughes’ time at INR included findings that called the American involvement in Vietnam into question practically from its beginning, warning Washington, for example, that China could be brought into the conflict if it escalated. In 1963, a report on the origins and extent of tension between South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority and its mainly Catholic governing elite called attention to corruption in the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1964, INR findings asserted that a bombing campaign against North Vietnam would be pointless, partly because of the North’s ability to reconstruct its bridges and supply routes.

The most memorable of Hughes’ interventions in Vietnam policy came in 1965. The South Vietnamese political situation was unstable and Viet Cong attacks were increasing. Lyndon Johnson was being pressured to respond with greater force. Then VC troops killed eight American military advisers at the U.S. base at Pleiku, and prominent hawk McGeorge Bundy, Johnson’s national security adviser, drafted a passionate memo advocating escalation, including bombing North Vietnam.

“Tom Hughes was aghast at the . . . memo,” writes Smith in The Last Gentleman, “recognizing it as a step toward a full-scale military engagement and one that would be difficult to reverse. He wrote an intelligence memo to [Undersecretary of State] George Ball, dismayed that Bundy had paid no attention whatsoever to the likely reactions of Peking and Moscow to the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. Bundy . . . had ignored all of the INR, CIA, and DIA intelligence assessments that any boost to South Vietnamese morale from American bombing would be temporary and that world opinion would come down heavily against the bombing.”

Ball, who, according to Smith, was “the State Department’s leading dove” and “an ardent consumer of the INR’s Vietnam reports,” attended a February 13 meeting of LBJ advisors, during which, despite Ball’s arguments, the president decided to initiate a bombing campaign but was going to postpone announcing it.

“Ball telephoned Hughes on February 13 to tell him what had been decided at the White House meeting that day,” reports Smith. “Ball told him that he had gotten nowhere with his own argument but that the situation still seemed fluid. Ball told Hughes to call Humphrey and fill him in on the latest intelligence. Hughes said Humphrey was out of town on a visit to Georgia. Ball told him that time was short. Tom should go to Georgia immediately and brief Humphrey . . . Ball felt he could not win an argument against his bureaucratic superiors and welcomed the vice president’s adding heft to the dovecote.”

In our conversation with Hughes in December, he continued the story.

“I joined Humphrey in Georgia on Saturday. He said, ‘take off your current professional hat, pretend that you’re still working for me, and advise me what I should do under these circumstances.’ And I said, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to work. You’re the Johnson expert.’

“Humphrey said, ‘Well, I find that having a paper to present to him is the best way to approach him—that way he might stop talking. Otherwise, it’ll be a monologue.’

“‘Well, if we create a paper, what’s the theme going to be?’

“He said, ‘It’s gotta be politics.’

“We decided to spin it around the necessity of getting out of Vietnam before it becomes politically devastating for Johnson.”

In Hughes’ biography, Smith quotes the Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall’s assessment of the memo, which Hughes wrote: “[It was] the most significant effort at stopping and reversing the move to war . . . a tour de force, a memorandum that must rank as one of the most incisive and prescient memos ever written on the prospect of an Americanized war in Vietnam.”

Hughes remembered Johnson’s response to the memo, as well as the aftermath.

“Johnson either read the paper at the wrong time, or he couldn’t stand thinking that there was another savvy politician in the room besides himself! In any case, he went through the roof.”

Humphrey could only repair the rift that opened by coming around to support Johnson on Vietnam. “That’s the long and short of that story,” said Hughes. “And it’s a long and unhappy story.” The story of a split Democratic party, Johnson out of the 1968 race, Nixon’s victory, and untold suffering in Vietnam and at home.

“[Tom] did not attempt to vindicate himself or to discredit others for this result,” Smith writes. “Attacking political opponents by retrospective accounts of events was not his way . . . . He left government with many friends and admirers, even among those who disagreed with him on the issues.”

Thankfully, the rest of Hughes’ story was long and happy. After leaving State, he became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which under his leadership brought in younger scholars and shifted an attention on international law to a more contemporary version of international relations—which welcomed competing visions and genuine dialogue.

In retirement, Hughes made himself available to friends and scholars, who benefited from his kindness and his detailed memory of the tumultuous years through which he lived and served. Bruce Smith recalls him “as a man all too rarely seen these days. He brought to his public roles the same qualities he displayed in person: high intelligence and a refined sensibility, fair mindedness, and a gift for seeing things whole.”

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