Thomas Hughes: Government Insider and Vietnam War Skeptic

From a New York Times obit by Clay Risen headlined “Thomas Hughes, 97, Dies; Government Insider and Vietnam War Skeptic”:

Thomas Hughes, who as a State Department official and member of the Kennedy-era brain trust stood out for his deep skepticism over the Vietnam War, and who later transformed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace into a training base for America’s foreign policy leadership, died in Washington.

Mr. Hughes was among the last survivors of the ambitious group of policymakers who gathered around the White House in the early 1960s, sometimes called the “best and brightest.” He certainly fit the part: Rhodes scholarship, Yale Law School and a rapid climb through the Washington ranks.

But he also stood in stark contrast to the Bundys, Rostows and other foreign-policy mandarins within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He came not from the East Coast establishment but from hardy Midwestern stock, and his earliest political allegiances were to the progressive liberalism of Senator (and later Vice President) Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.

After working as Humphrey’s legislative counsel in the 1950s, he spent most of the 1960s as the director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR, which provided information and analysis to the rest of the State Department. The job provided him a front-row seat to a host of foreign policy crises, including in Berlin and Cuba. But it was the slow boil in Southeast Asia that worried him the most.

While many in his cohort thought the United States had both the obligation and capacity to shape the conflict between North and South Vietnam, Mr. Hughes and his bureau were pessimistic. They pointed out that the South Vietnamese leadership was weak and unpopular, while the North was stronger and more determined than expected.

Things came to a head in February 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson was considering a major bombing campaign, called Rolling Thunder, against the North Vietnamese. Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, and McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, were pushing for it to begin immediately.

Mr. Hughes, full of doubt, called Humphrey, who was newly installed as vice president. Humphrey was in Georgia on a hunting trip with a friend.

“The die is cast,” Mr. Hughes recalled saying.

The vice president, no fan of intervention in Vietnam, had Mr. Hughes fly down to see him. They devised a set of arguments, which Mr. Hughes wrote up in a memo. He pointed out both the unlikelihood of defeating the North and the high political costs that the Democrats would pay for trying. He recommended withdrawal.

“Politically, it is always hard to cut losses,” Mr. Hughes wrote. “But the Johnson administration is in a stronger position to do so than any administration in this century,” having just won the White House in a landslide victory.

It was among the most prescient documents produced during the war — practically every prediction Mr. Hughes made came tragically to pass.

“I have my students read this memo,” Fredrik Logevall, a historian at Harvard and the author of “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam” (2012), said in a phone interview. “It’s an amazing document.”

Humphrey had the memo retyped on his letterhead and delivered to Johnson. It did not go over well. Johnson did not want to hear dissent, and he froze Humphrey out of discussions about Vietnam for more than a year. In that time, Rolling Thunder began, and U.S. troops started flowing into South Vietnam.

Mr. Hughes survived Johnson’s wrath unscathed, and continued to direct INR through the end of the Johnson administration and into the Nixon White House. After about a year in London, as the deputy ambassador to Britain, he returned home to become the president of the Carnegie Endowment.

Carnegie was a linchpin in the country’s foreign policy establishment, but as Mr. Hughes knew better than most, the establishment was beginning to crack.

Over the next 20 years, he remade it as a catalyst for new directions in foreign policy. He closed the endowment’s offices in New York and Geneva to focus its efforts on Washington. He created programs to diversify the Foreign Service. He assumed control of a new magazine, Foreign Policy, and filled it with articles by young writers eager to debate the post-Vietnam future.

By the time he retired, in 1991, he had taken on something of a dual stature in Washington. He was admired not just for his prescience and openness to change, but also as a paragon of the fast-receding golden age in American diplomacy. A 2022 biography of him, written by Bruce L.R. Smith, is aptly titled “The Last Gentleman: Thomas Hughes and the End of the American Century.”

Thomas Lowe Hughes was born on Dec. 11, 1925, in Mankato, Minn., about 60 miles south of Minneapolis. His father, Evan Hughes, was a lawyer, and his mother, Alice (Lowe) Hughes, was a homemaker and university librarian.

His small-town childhood, he recalled, was both an idyll and a cloistered world he was eager to escape. In high school, he was the second national president of the Student Federalists, a movement promoting world government — his predecessor was Harris Wofford, a future friend and senator from Pennsylvania.

The position took Thomas around the country as a speaker and advocate. He lunched with Vice President Henry Wallace in Washington and attended the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945.

Back home, he met many of the ambitious young men who were turning Minnesota into a political powerhouse, including Humphrey, Gov. Harold Stassen, future Gov. Orville Freeman and future Vice President Walter Mondale.

He also developed an abiding love for Germany. The Hughes’s were related to German royalty, and when Thomas was 13, he traded letters with the deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II, as part of his research for a book about that side of his family.

In 1947, Mr. Hughes graduated from Carleton College with a degree in government relations. He then traveled to Oxford University, where he spent the next two years as a Rhodes scholar.

He remained politically active: Among other endeavors, he went on the BBC in 1948 to defend President Harry Truman, and, that same year, he spent six weeks in Italy working for liberal political campaigns in an election that threatened to see Communists take power.

After returning to the United States and graduating from Yale Law School in 1952, he spent two years in the Air Force as a lawyer.

Mr. Hughes spent the rest of the 1950s toggling between top jobs with Humphrey and Chester Bowles, who had been governor of Connecticut and, in 1958, won election to Congress. Bowles, who had also served as ambassador to India, was a close adviser to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, and when he became deputy secretary of state in 1961, he brought Mr. Hughes with him.

He was popular enough among the Washington establishment that, in 1969, the incoming secretary of state, William Rogers, insisted he remain in place at INR. Over the objections of President Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Rogers then promoted Mr. Hughes to be second-in-command at the American embassy in London.

He left government in 1970 and never returned, despite occasional entreaties — President Jimmy Carter twice asked him to run the C.I.A. Though he was as well connected as anyone on the Georgetown cocktail-party circuit, he preferred to keep a low profile behind the scenes.

“Those who talk about power are those who lack it themselves,” he told The New York Times in 1981. “Power corrupts, and lack of power corrupts absolutely.”

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “American Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Original Spirit.”

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