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The Last American Aristocrat: The Biography of David K.E. Bruce.

THE LATE AMERICAN DIPLOMAT David K.E. Bruce was neither as important in a policy sense, nor as interesting a man, as Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, John J. McCloy or many other icons of the old Establishment. But he was certainly ubiquitous, a channing presence through many a Cold War crisis. So, as his biographer, Nelson D. Lankford could have made a useful contribution to the growing field of Establishment studies.

Unfortunately, Lankford has written a nice society biography that, like its hero, manages to take the reader through some of the most contentious history of our times with barely a bump. Even if you agree with the author's "triumphalist" perspective on the Cold War, this book is neither very compelling biography nor original history. This is a shame, because Lankford has toiled arduously and obviously admires his man. To be sure, part of what rankles me in his narrative is that what Lankford admires in David Bruce--his old-world, antebellum aristocratic style--strikes me as the least attractive aspect of the man's character. There is no quarreling with personal tastes. Lankford is enthralled by Bruce's lifestyle--the Georgetown dinner parties, the wine cellar, the museum-quality art collection--all of which was made possible by inherited wealth and his first marriage to the daughter of a Mellon.

David Kirkpatrick Este Bruce was born in 1898. He grew up in Baltimore, but spent many of his summers at the family's Virginia horse-country mansion, Staunton Hill. Lankford relates that the natives of Charlotte County used to say that there were three kinds of folks in that part of Virginia--white folks, black folks and the Bruces. Young David grew up "imbibing the Old South mystique that the family's plantation evoked." Lankford provides numerous examples of the boy's "unpremeditated arrogance." At age 14, Bruce wrote home, "I will arrive Wednesday night, and I want the following preparations made for me. I want Mammy to bring all of my shooting clothes and a perfectly good pair of leggings to the house...I want you to prepare dinner...Please have all these things in readiness under pain of my great displeasure!...I am sorry to write such a sloppy letter, but my time is taken up with important business."

Private school was followed by college at Princeton where he partied with E Scott Fitzgerald. He punched another Establishment ticket by spending the summers of 1915 and 1916 at the Plattsburg, N.Y. military `preparedness' training camp where he played soldier with the likes of John J. McCloy, Hamilton Fish Jr., Elihu Root Jr. and Teddy Roosevelt's sons. When President Woodrow Wilson finally took the country into World War I, Bruce joined the army and was shipped to Europe. To his great disappointment, he arrived too late to experience the horrors of the Western Front.

After the war, Bruce wandered through Europe, and became enamored of upper-crust French society. Lankford writes that he "easily fit the definition of a frivolous reactionary in the eyes of the decade's earnest intellectuals, who were themselves besotted by the Soviet and Fascist experiments." (Lankford clearly thinks a "frivolous reactionary" compares favorably to those "earnest intellectuals.") Eventually Bruce returned to America, studied law, passed his bar exam, and in 1924 effortlessly got himself elected to the Maryland house of delegates. By this time, his father, a conservative Democrat, had become a U.S. senator. In 1926, he married the nation's richest woman, Ailsa Mellon, daughter of Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon. This love marriage gave him access to one of the largest family fortunes in the world.

The marriage quickly soured; Ailsa didn't like sex and turned out to be a slightly batty hypochondriac. Over the next 18 years, Bruce took to discreet philandering and--ever the dilettante--spent a little time in the Foreign Service, and then occupied himself with his investments and advising Andrew Mellon about his art acquisitions. He came to love his father-in-law more than his wife, and when a tax scandal enveloped Mellon in the 1930s, Bruce blamed Franklin Roosevelt, that traitor to his class. Mellon had taken enormous tax deductions on paintings he had donated to a Mellon charitable trust--except the paintings remained hanging on Mellon's (and Bruce's) walls. "Long afterward," Lankford writes, "he could hardly speak FDR's name without anger."

Only World War II rescued him from boredom; he became an aide to `Wild' Bill Donovan, chief of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Stationed in London, he fell in love with the ravishing Evangeline Bell and finally asked his wife for a divorce. After the war, by now in his late forties, he held a succession of diplomatic posts which kept him in Europe for nearly two decades.

Lankford writes uncritically of Bruce's diplomatic career, even though the list of Bruce's misjudgments and failures is not short.

Bruce embraced all the conventional wisdom about the early Cold War. In contrast to George Kennan, he inflated the Soviet military threat, misdiagnosed Soviet intentions and believed any steps towards German unification or neutrality would endanger European peace. Historians continue to argue these issues, but Lankford writes as if ignorant of the vast critical scholarship available today on the origins of the Cold War.

An exaggerated notion of the Soviet menace led Bruce to countenance extraordinary--and sometimes extra-legal--means to thwart it. Drawing on his OSS experience, Lankford quotes Bruce as favoring such covert actions as "subsidy of native papers" to counter Soviet propaganda. But Lankford makes no effort to say what happened on Bruce's watch. He fails to discuss, for instance, the well-documented CIA funds distributed in France and Italy to influence the elections of this period. And in a detailed discussion of Bruce's involvement in the Marshall Plan, he leaves the reader completely unaware of the tangled web of financial relationships between Frank Wisner's Office of Policy Coordination (an early free-wheeling covert arm of the CIA) and the Marshall Plan. Sallie Pisani's 1991 book, The CIA and the Marshall Plan, among other sources, reports that something like five percent of the Marshall Plan's local currency counter-part funds went to finance Wisner's army of European journalists, civil servants, politicians, and other agents of influence. Surely Bruce was in a position to know of this, but Lankford does not address the issue.

As Undersecretary of State during the height of the McCarthy period, Bruce expressed contempt for the senator's tactics--but sanctioned the State Department's loyalty board investigations which, of course, ruined the careers of hundreds of individuals. Lankford acknowledges that Bruce "bore part of the burden, and the blame too, for the work of these tribunals"

As ambassador to West Germany in the late 1950s, Bruce displayed gross insensitivity on the issue of Nazi war crimes. After visiting Alfried Krupp, he remarked that his host was "about the last man one would casually think of as a war criminal" Convinced that Albert Speer was wrongly tried and convicted, Bruce went to Spandau prison, vigorously shook Speer's hand and said, "You aren't forgotten." Lankford writes of this incident with studied understatement that Bruce's "emphasis on style had its limitations."

Lankford's account of Bruce's role in the Berlin crisis of 1958-61 is drearily conventional and ignores a wealth of Soviet and East German archival material released in recent years. Accessible through the Woodrow Wilson Center, these documents suggest it was the East German leadership--and not Nikita Khrushchev--that provoked the crisis. The communist monolith, in other words, sometimes could not control the actions of its own quislings. Lankford, however, is so determined that Bruce's view of the German problem was correct that he suggests, that "the fears Bruce expressed about German reunification and neutrality may yet prove prescient"

Finally, Bruce was also wrong on Vietnam. In 1949, he urged Washington to extend military aid to the French in their colonial war against Ho Chi Minh. In an early articulation of the `domino theory,' he cabled Washington that if France did not stop communism in Indochina, "Burma and Siam will fall like over-ripe apples." Later in the '60s, he had doubts about whether Vietnam was worth a U.S. commitment. But like many Establishment figures, he decided that once a commitment had been made, Washington had to stick it out. Ever the loyal apparatchik, Bruce agreed to work for the Nixon-Kissinger team as its Paris negotiator in 1970-71. His diplomacy was not only fruitless, but he lent his "gravitas" to an administration that needlessly prolonged the war. He never protested, and of course, he never went public with what Lankford calls his "conflicted feelings."

It was obviously not his intention, but Lankford's narrative will convince many readers that the Honorable David K.E. Bruce was a much over-rated figure. No doubt a gentleman, he hardly ever had an original thought in his head, and never, ever acted out of turn. No wonder the Establishment of the 1950s--when the premium on consensus was easily maintained--so liked this unflappable Virginian aristocrat that they gave him one plum job after another.

KAI BIRD, author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishments, is writing a biography of William and McGeorge Bundy.
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Author:Bird, Kai
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1997
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