The Foreign Service Journal, April 2023

54 APRIL 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Inside Vietnam-Era Foreign Policy Making The Last Gentleman: Thomas Hughes and the End of the American Century Bruce L.R. Smith, Brookings Institution Press, 2022, $34.99, e-book available, 370 pages. Reviewed by John Starrels In The Last Gentleman , Bruce L.R. Smith provides the reader with an inside look into how one man, Thomas Hughes, helped shape U.S. foreign policy in the tumul- tuous 1960s and 1970s. Hughes was director of the State Depart- ment’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research during the 1960s and an important adviser in major crises from the Soviet missiles in Cuba to Vietnam. The value of this biography is two- fold. First, it should put to rest the widely held view that the diplomacy and international strategy—its success or failure, or a muddled combination of the two—of the United States rises or falls on the actions of key, highly celebrated Washington stars—say Dean Acheson or, more memorably, Henry Kissinger. The author’s meticulously crafted biography of a small coterie of less visible, but highly influential assistants, such as Hughes and countless others, proves oth- erwise: The real influencers reside within the ranks of an elite, largely invisible cadre of lower-ranking professionals who earn their modest salaries through their capac- ity to write the speeches, analyze complex papers and confidential documents, and, when necessary, provide political cover for their bosses. The second reason why we might be inclined to pick up this particular book is the unstinting light it sheds on one of the most colossal failures of U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of World War II— the Vietnam War. That failure cannot possibly be placed at the feet of one precocious, young Tom Hughes who came out of Minnesota and helped mobilize the Farmer-Labor party; who was awarded a Rhodes scholarship; and who became a lifelong friend, strategist, and key aide and confidant to fellow- Minnesotan and future Vice President Hubert Humphrey. But, largely through no fault of his own, Hughes was on board when the Vietnam ship went down, wreaking destruction on Humphrey’s relations with Lyndon Johnson and on the country at large. In perhaps the most gripping part of The Last Gentleman , the author describes in arresting detail how one memoran- dum—drafted by Hughes and sent out under the vice president’s signature to the president on Feb. 17, 1965—triggered such an angry outburst from Johnson against his vice president that the foun- dations of their mutual trust and collabo- ration were largely destroyed. In exquisite detail, Smith fashions a complex narrative detailing the reasons why. First was the content of the Hughes- Humphrey memo itself. In thinly veiled terms, the vice president told the president that further escalation of the air campaign against the communist- led insurgency in Vietnam threatened to fatally undermine the Democratic party’s core constituency: Democratic liberals, independents, and labor. In other words: Mr. President, stop the war. One would be hard put to utter such incendiary words into a more sensitive pair of ears. Another, larger, reason for the rupture, writes Smith, was Johnson’s towering but fragile ego that could not, would not, accept the presumption of rough political equality between himself and the man he—seemingly alone—had offered the job. “He [Humphrey] spoke as a partner who had just helped Johnson to win the presidency. His remarks carried an implication of equality of experience and knowledge in the arcane arts of politics.” This, Lyndon Baines Johnson refused to accept. There is little to quibble with in Smith’s biography of Hughes as a policymaker and public intellectual. Hughes’ subsequent, post–State Department career as a longtime president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is another important part of the story. In the larger scheme of things, how- ever, it is Hughes’ career as a top-level, innovative, and loyal policy adviser during his years in government that deserves attention. For this, we have Bruce L.R. Smith to thank. John Starrels, a Washington-based writer, was a senior public affairs officer at the Inter- national Monetary Fund from 1990 to 2006. His first review for the Journal ( H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt , 2008) appeared in June 2009. BOOKS Largely through no fault of his own, Hughes was on board when the Vietnam ship went down.