Globe and Mail
Lawrence Martin, contributor, wrote this piece in the paper's issue of March 2nd., 2006.
It was typical Galbraith. In 1965, with the war in Vietnam gaining momentum, he fired off a missive to Lyndon Johnson. "Stop saying the future of mankind, the United States and human liberty is being decided in Vietnam. It isn't." LBJ occasionally listened to the graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College. This time, he called in his army chief of staff, Harold Johnson, and gave him a mouthful. "Bomb, bomb, bomb. That's all you know. Well, I want to know why there's nothing else. You generals have all been educated at taxpayers' expense and you're not giving me any ideas and any solutions for this damn little pissant country." But the hawks prevailed with the president and bomb he did -- all the way into early retirement. He probably wished he had listened to John Kenneth Galbraith.
John Kennedy listened more often. White House hawks relentlessly pressed him for an early major troop commitment to Vietnam. The leading voice of dissent, the voice that may well have saved him from doing so, was Mr. Galbraith.
He needled Mr. Kennedy when his men would get in a flap over such geopolitical hot spots as Laos. To the Canadian, they were full of globaloney. "Who is the man in your administration who decides what countries are strategic?" he wired the president. "I would like to have his name and address . . . ."
The memories, brought to mind in a recent stirring Galbraith biography, invite the question: Where is he now and why is he forgotten? Iraq and Afghanistan have replaced Vietnam and Laos, and there is no Galbraith to put it in perspective.
Although Mr. Galbraith is in his late 90s, the Bush Republicans have already put him in the bone-yard. Buried alive. They are anathema to everything he stood for. They run massive deficits in good times while the Galbraith Keynesian prescriptions call for the opposite. They shun his cherished sober sense of statecraft more than any other administration.
But there is, thankfully for him, Richard Parker's opus, John Kenneth Galbraith; His Life, His Politics, His Economics (2005, Farrar, Straus, Giroux; 0-374-28168-8). The laudatory 832 page tome didn't receive much notice when it appeared last year (2005), but it is a monumental work on a monumental figure.
Mr. Galbraith was an archetypal voice of Canadian moderation. What the book does, in effect, is give a sense of the impact of our liberal creed -- as embodied in the lanky Ontario farm boy -- on the 20th Century American narrative.
He was at large when, as William Fulbright put it, the order of American priorities was gradually reversed, when so much energy was diverted from the noble pursuit of social justice and a higher civility to the militarization and the quest for world power.
Trying to steer the Great Republic away from that kind of fate was Mr. Galbraith's driving imperative. With his 40-plus books over six decades, he brought Keynesianism into the forefront of American economic thinking, softening the hard edges of the free market. He railed against the modern conservative creed, calling it "the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness". At close quarters, he counselled presidents against seeing an enemy on every doorstep and emptying their treasuries in phantom fights.
So how, we might wonder, would he look on Canada's involvement in Afghanistan? LBJ would rate it barely as pissant. No matter who's in control, the country is a potential breeding ground for terrorists. For centuries, foreign occupiers have tried to bring Afghanistan to heel and failed. That said, Mr. Galbraith would probably agree that a country as blessed as Canada cannot sit idly by and ignore democratic development and humanitarian causes such as this one.
The long-time Harvard professor, who took out US citizenship in 1937, didn't pay much heed to Canada after leaving it. And there is some irony in the fact his moderate model was sustained and nourished in his home country, while it is being battered in America today.
But these times are transient. For the moment, John Galbraith is a forgotten force. But as the Parker book amply demonstrates, his liberal legacy on economics, governance and war is too meaningful and resonant to be hidden for long.
Lawrence Martin: email firstname.lastname@example.org