Who Killed the American Century?

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

A conversation with George Packer and Pulitzer-winning historian Fredrik Logevall about the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Our talk with George Packer and Fred Logevall about Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century covered some contentious topics—what should the role of the U.S. be, globally? When is it right to quit on principle, and does a career in a particular system alter someone’s sense of either their principles or quitting? What should we look for when we look for leadership?

Fred Logevall and George Packer.

The late diplomat Richard Holbrooke prompts those questions about foreign policy, moral principles, and leadership. Packer’s book is written like a thrilling novel — in our conversation, he cites Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene — but it’s non-fiction, attentive to the very real and persistent problems encountered throughout Holbrooke’s career, problems emblematic of the end of an American era.

It’s Packer’s thesis that this second tier diplomat’s career and his hyperactive ego and ambition, often at the expense of family and close friends, embodies the history of American foreign policy over the last 50 years. And it’s our Man in Boston’s contention (our beloved host) that this sort of relentless projection of American imperial power that Holbrooke represents is exactly what’s been wrong with the American Century. “Action intellectuals,” Chris and Fred Logevall call them — people like McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara in the JFK administration (and JFK himself); later Madeleine Albright and Samantha Powers and god help us John Bolton — wonks who want to be in on the execution of power as well as the plotting of it. We’ve needed more inaction intellectuals might be the moral here.

This was a sickeningly good conversation (Chris’ description of Packer’s book). Hang on til the end when Packer describes how Holbrooke’s heart exploded in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office, and when Chris confronts Packer on his support of the Iraq War.

Read: Nostromo

We talked about “action intellectuals” with George Packer and Fred Logevall, along with the chaos that can result from that combination of contradictory qualities. Joseph Conrad, one of Packer’s influences for Our Man, is known precisely for bringing intellectual acuity to narratives of colonialist action.

Joseph Conrad.

In his fraught, lush, tragic, and psychologically astute novel Nostromo, Conrad has his narrator announce the following about action versus intellect:

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our action can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.

Conrad sets Nostromo amid political instability in South America. The Italian expat Nostromo becomes known for heroic, stabilizing action amid political chaos, but over time, ambition wreaks its own havoc, and familiar ideas about heroism no longer suffice. (If this doesn’t already bring to mind Packer’s Holbrooke, consider that “Nostromo” suggests the Italian for “Our Man”—nostro uomo.) Here’s a characteristically challenging and heartbreaking passage from Nostromo:

There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.

Watch: Graham Greene films

Back in the lineage of Packer’s Our Man is also Graham Greene’s novel, Our Man in Havana, a dark comedy about confusions and errors surrounding British intelligence efforts abroad. It was adapted into a film by Carol Reed, who directed The Third Man, the classic film written by Greene.

Greene was a sensitive novelist and screenwriter, preoccupied by the complications and calamities of interventionist international politics. Another Greene novel especially relevant for George Packer’s Our Man is The Quiet American, about an American in 1950s Vietnam who plans—with violent optimism—to revise the French colonial project, however slightly, into American intervention.

The novel was adapted into films, too. The 2002 adaptation directed by Philip Noyce, with Brendan Fraser as the American and Michael Caine as the jaded British journalist bearing witness to it all, is worth watching. And here’s a New York Times article from the ’70s on “The Prophetic Quiet American.”

The Open Source Summer Book Club

Get Busy folks! This show will be after the Fourth of July.

This Week’s Ephemeral Library:

Salman Rushdie reflects on Kurt Vonnegut, American wars, and lessons we might draw from fiction. Frida Kahlo’s voice probably has been discovered on tape, speaking to us across decades. Joe Biden’s apology tour. What do the dem nominees’ choice of walk up songs tell you? Joseph Stiglitz wants you to think of climate as WWIII:

When the US was attacked during the second world war no one asked, “Can we afford to fight the war?” It was an existential matter. We could not afford not to fight it. The same goes for the climate crisis.

Forest Bathing (the Japanese call it shinrin-yoku). It’s a thing, really. There’s even a Forest Bathing Institute in the UK, and the Duchess of Cambridge is a fan. We talked about it on our Secret Life of Trees show.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there!

Have a great week.

The OS diplomats.

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org