A Life of Service: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and the Making of the Cold War.  The very title of this new biography affirms the many and clear connections between Lodge’s pedigree and his public career as a politician and diplomat.

A U.S. Senator, ambassador to the U.N., Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960, Kennedy’s ambassador to Vietnam, Lodge outgrew the isolationist tendencies of his grandfather—the first Senator Henry Cabot Lodge—to become one of the founders of American foreign policy’s greatest achievement: the liberal international order.

He, too, was “Present at the Creation,” as Dean Acheson famously titled his memoir of the Truman administration. But Lodge has never found his rightful place among the Wise Men of the post-war world and he is rarely mentioned in the histories and biographies of the era. Indeed, according to biographer, Luke A. Nichter, he is all but forgotten. This book seeks to remedy that defect. 

Lodge with John F. Kennedy.

Born in 1902 to the “Wasp Ascendancy” (a coinage of his friend Joe Alsop), Lodge was steeped in the tradition of public service that Henry Adams—the grandson and great grandson of U.S. presidents—called “Ciceronian.”  

That tradition, according to Adams, a great friend of Lodge’s parents and grandparents, evolved from “the idea of government by the best,” one that produced a long line of New England statesmen. The good citizens of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut “wanted to be well represented, and they chose the best they had.”

Among its products was the elder Henry Cabot Lodge highly cultivated though barren, like his native soil, his enemies said. In fact, as Nichter notes, the younger Lodge, or Cabot, as he was known, was preceded by six Lodges in the U.S. Senate, in both the 18th and 19th centuries.  On his mother’s side, he could cast his gaze backward toward more senators and several cabinet officers, including a Secretary of State.  

Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.—shown here with General Omar Bradley at Brolo, Scicily, ca. 1943—was the first sitting U.S. Senator since the Civil War to resign his seat to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

The family homes on Massachusetts’ North Shore were laced with portraits of generations of American worthies, all members of one branch or another of the tribe, all affirming a legacy of service to the nation. 

With those examples in mind (and with few others available; his father, a would-be poet, died when he was seven), Lodge chose to devote himself to public service. Actually, he had little choice in the matter. It was expected of him. In Latin, you will recall, public offices are indistinguishable from duties. “We teased him about his 19th-century concept of service, but it was his whole life,” one of his sons once said.  

Of course, those of whom much is expected, much is granted, and Lodge did not lack for advantages: his grandparents’ summer home at Nahant, the scene of his “earliest and most prized memories;” multilingual governesses, St. Alban’s, Middlesex, Harvard, the Signet Society.    

Lodge could not have remained sheltered among his class and kind for long, though, even were he so inclined. Politics, especially Boston politics, which he entered at age 29 after a brief foray into journalism, was not for the retiring.

Lodge’s horizons, social and intellectual, were also enlarged by his experience during World War II. The first U.S. Senator to resign his seat to serve in the military since the Civil War, Lodge helped manage the Americans’ wartime alliances and came to see that “we can’t repeat the mistakes we made after the last war. We must assume our responsibility in maintaining the peace of the world.”

As late as Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, Lodge believed the U.S. could remain neutral in any European war.  After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, however, he realized that “fortress America,” the preferred policy of former U.S. President Herbert Hoover and others, was untenable. The US would be drawn into any high stakes conflict sooner or later, and its self-interest dictated that it seek to prevent those conflicts from ever erupting in the first place. 

Moreover, Lodge’s belief in America’s moral purpose convinced him that it had no choice but to play a leading role in world affairs. From the same belief, his grandfather arrived at the opposite conclusion, that America should remain aloof from the European nations’ calculated balancing of powers. Arguably, both positions were residual legacies of the mens’ New England forebears and their ancestors’ belief that America was meant to be “a shining city on the hill.” 

Lodge returned to the U.S. Senate in time to help lead the 80th Congress, which convened in January, 1947.  

Lodge served eight years as Eisenhower’s U.N. ambassador. 

Among its achievements: acceptance of the Truman Doctrine, adoption of the Marshall Plan and the passage of the Vandenberg Resolutions, which led to the ratification of the NATO Treaty in 1949 and ultimately, the economic and political recovery of Europe.

“The aid which we extend now and in the next three or four years will, in the long future, result in our having strong friends abroad,” Lodge wrote in 1947.  

The 80th Congress was the first in thirty years to be dominated by Republicans. The party, however, was far from unified, with debates over foreign policy dividing the party into two wings: an internationalist and Main Street wing, led by Henry Cabot Lodge and Robert A. Taft, respectively. Taft opposed most of the post-war measures that Lodge helped to craft, and which would set the direction for American foreign policy for the next forty years. 

Were Taft to become the Republican nominee and be elected president in 1952, as appeared likely, the post-war order would be put at risk. With that in mind, Lodge launched a Draft Eisenhower movement, derailing the Taft campaign and earning Lodge the lasting enmity of his supporters.  

Nichter attributes Lodge’s 1952 loss of his Senate seat to John F. Kennedy at least in part to the active opposition of Massachusetts’ Taft Republicans, although by that time, the biographer concedes, “the Irish and the Catholics wanted a Brahmin of their own.” 

Lodge, of course, would continue to serve his country. Those who seek to be useful, however, are always in danger of being used, and by those made of baser metals. Lodge was no exception. 

He ensured, however, that the bipartisan consensus that created the post-war order would survive the passage of presidential administrations, and that is no mean legacy.

What impresses the contemporary reader most, however, is Lodge’s commitment to public service above self-interest, examples of which are depressingly few today.