Photo by LBJ Online Photo Archive Search on WikiCommons.

The No-So-Last Brahmin: The Legacy of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Today

Luke A. Nichter—

I do not know when I first heard the name “Henry Cabot Lodge”—either in high school or college. However, I remember my reaction. He was a person with a famous-sounding name, yet I could not place him. Was he the one who was Woodrow Wilson’s nemesis? If so, how old could he have been when he ran with Richard Nixon in 1960? (He did look older, more like the grandfatherly Eisenhower than the youthful Nixon.) For this kid who grew up in the Midwest, Lodge had one of those names that you knew was important but you did not know why. For many, the misunderstanding is compounded by the fact that Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was named not for his father, who died when “Cabot” was young, but his grandfather. In addition, there are so many Cabots and Lodges, especially in the northeast, and family traditions are such that certain first names, like Henry, repeat throughout multiple generations of the family tree.

Whether one comes away from this first biography of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (1902-1985) liking him more or less, the real purpose is to show that Lodge was so much more than meets the eye. The sheer number of notable events with which he was associated makes him a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” or “Forrest Gump” figure. A member of the “Greatest Generation” crossed with the “Best and the Brightest,” Lodge’s values and sacrifice of self for bigger causes are traits in short supply that our society needs again. While some politicians give lip service to serving the greater good, most famously stated in John F. Kennedy’s admonition “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” Lodge lived it. He was the last true Boston Brahmin to be active in public life, yet his career harks back to a time when compromise was an art and comity a virtue, instead of the political liabilities they have become.

Rather than celebrate what Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. stood for, instead we largely forgot him. We should remember him for taking part in and expanding the American adventure in Vietnam, but his half-century public life was much more than that. An entire generation of Americans has been born and come of age since his death in 1985 that has not learned about him or the lessons of his life and times except, at most, a brief mention in relation to the Vietnam War. Lodge, being old-fashioned, did himself no great service by never properly explaining his side of controversial subjects or writing a tell-all memoir. “He naturally shunned self-promotion,” his son George Cabot Lodge told me when I asked why his father left so many important subjects unaddressed. “Never tell them how you did it,” Lodge once said when asked whether he planned to write a comprehensive history of his career. “I do not see myself doing a book because if it is interesting, it means I have revealed things which I should not reveal, and if I don’t reveal them, then the book will be dull,” he wrote to Evan Thomas II, at one point one of eight editors interested in publishing his memoir.

There is something appealing once again about public officials who seek opportunities to serve for a primary reason other than financial gain. Thrice Lodge gave up his political career to serve the greater good: first when he resigned from the Senate to serve in World War II, second when he sacrificed his Senate seat to manage Eisenhower’s campaign for the presidency, and third when he willingly accepted an appointment from a Democratic president to the most challenging diplomatic post in the world. Yet no one, including those who benefitted from Lodge’s sacrifices, was there to help him in 1964 when he had a genuine chance for the presidency following his surprise win in the New Hampshire primary even though his success would have helped those who withheld their support.

Lodge was an enigma who did little to redress such misunderstandings during his lifetime. Instead, he left his secrets in his papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. They remained hidden in plain sight until I began the four-year task of comprehensively reviewing them in 2015. The result is a book that I cannot say entirely removes the mystery behind the man. Certainly new evidence will one day come to light that will cause us to consider his era and his values further. What I have written will hardly be the final word. In that sense, our understanding of the life and times of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., now restored to his rightful place in history, is a lesson about the essence of history itself: it’s never really over.

Luke A. Nichter is professor of history at Texas A&M University–Central Texas. He coedited (with Douglas Brinkley) the New York Times bestselling book The Nixon Tapes: 1971–1972.

Further Reading:

Recent Posts

All Blogs