Biography and History

George Wildman Ball was born on December 19, 1909 in Des Moines, Iowa. Named after his paternal uncle, George, he was the youngest of three sons born to Amos and Edna Wildman Ball. Ball grew up in Des Moines and Evanston, Illinois, where the family moved in 1922 after his father received a promotion to the Standard Oil Company headquarters located in Chicago. Edna decided the family should settle in Evanston due to the proximity of Northwestern University, where it was decreed all three sons would attend. According to Ball, his mother was determined to keep the family intact as long as possible. There would be no reason for her sons to leave home for college, if home was located near a college.

Ball attended Northwestern (as did his brothers Stuart and Ralph) where he served as president of the university poetry society and first editor of a new literary magazine entitled MS. He graduated in 1930 and entered Northwestern Law School after briefly considering pursuing a doctorate in English. Prior to the start of his second year of law school, Ball married Ruth Murdoch whom he had met on a European vacation during the summer of 1929. He graduated from law school in 1933 at the top of his class and served on the law review editorial board. The law school dean nominated him for a position in the General Counsel's Office, under the direction of Herman Oliphant, in the newly established Farm Credit Administration. Ball accepted the position after consulting with his family and headed off to Washington, D.C. in May 1933. His work included developing credit facilities for farmers and negotiating a contract for the sale of $75 million worth of Federal Farm Bureau cotton.

Ball moved to the Treasury Department in November 1933 upon the appointment of Henry Morgenthau as secretary of the treasury. When Franklin D. Roosevelt named Morgenthau to this post, Morgenthau appointed Oliphant as his legal advisor, and he, in turn, brought along Ball. In his new position, Ball prepared briefs on international trade and tax legislation. Despite working on major New Deal policies, Ball felt his law training was too narrow and returned to the Midwest in 1935 to “master the profession of law.” He joined a Chicago law firm where he served as a tax attorney before moving to the prestigious firm of Sidley, McPherson, Austin & Harper in 1939. Ball's work involved the reorganization of railroads but more defining was the close relationship he developed with junior partner Adlai Stevenson while at the firm. It was also during this time that Ball started to become interested in foreign affairs. He began to attend Friday luncheons hosted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, which Stevenson chaired.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the German declaration of war against America galvanized Ball into action. He conferred with Stevenson, who was now an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, on his course of action. Stevenson could have arranged for a commission in the Navy but encouraged Ball to put his Washington experience to better use. Following Stevenson's advice, Ball accepted an associate position in the General Counsel's Office of the Lend-Lease Administration under the guidance of Oscar Cox. Ball spent the first months in this new position investigating the synthetic rubber program and monitoring Englishman Geoffrey Pyke's plough project. Pyke theorized that if the Allies mastered the snow, they would control Europe, and he proposed parachuting men and tanks into snow covered areas. Although the overall goal of the project never fully materialized, the project did produce an amphibious vehicle later known as the Weasel. These duties soon evolved into serving as operating head of the office and thus legal adviser to Edward R. Stettinius, Administrator of Lend-Lease.

Ball resigned in August 1944 after the Lend-Lease Administration merged with the Foreign Economic Administration, claiming he could no longer work for the combined offices' inept chairman Leo Crowley. He accepted a position as a civilian member of the Air Force Evaluation Board to study the effects of tactical operations in Europe. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which would appraise the whole strategic air offensive. Ball was specifically responsible for assessing the effectiveness of the Allied bombing of German cities and transportation systems. In May 1945, Ball and John Kenneth Galbraith debriefed Albert Speer, the Nazi minister for armaments and war production, in an effort to confirm their speculations on the ineffectiveness of Allied bombings. Ball was awarded a Medal of Freedom for this work. After the war, Ball returned to Washington, D.C. and took an interim assignment with Jean Monnet as general counsel of the French Supply Council. Ball had met Monnet during his years in the Lend-Lease Administration. In this new assignment, Ball worked with Monnet to promote France's post-war recovery. Ball agreed to serve for a three-month period prior to the official opening of a law firm he had formed with friends. Ball's departure was delayed when Monnet asked Ball to serve as former French Premier Léon Blum's advisor during his mission to Washington to discuss Franco-American relations.

Ball was finally able to join his firm, Cleary, Gottlieb, Friendly & Cox in July 1946. Monnet retained the firm to represent the French Government, and Ball soon found himself conferring with Monnet's deputy Robert Marjolin on the creation of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC). He continued to work with Monnet on establishing a European economic plan throughout 1949, and this preliminary work laid the foundation for the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Despite his close relationship with Monnet, Ball was not involved in authoring the final proposal, later known as the Schuman Plan, to establish a European common market for coal and steel under an independent authority. He was not brought into the fold until a month after the proposal had been given to French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. After the ratification of the Treaty of Paris in August 1952, Ball was retained as the ECSC's adviser and later served as an adviser to the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) and the European Economic Community (EEC).

His interest in European affairs did not preclude Ball from taking an interest in American politics. In 1952, Ball established Project Wintergreen, the code name for the Stevenson information center established in Ball's Washington, D.C. office. Ball tested the waters for a possible Stevenson presidential campaign, while at the same time trying to convince Stevenson he should be a candidate. When Stevenson finally declared his candidacy, Ball served as executive director of Volunteers for Stevenson. Ball continued to advise Stevenson after his defeat and later served as his director of public relations during the 1956 campaign. Even after the 1956 defeat, Ball remained loyal to Stevenson and supported his candidacy in 1960. As the pressure on Stevenson to support John F. Kennedy mounted, Ball urged Stevenson not to endorse Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention, reasoning that Stevenson had an obligation to his supporters who wanted him to remain available for a possible draft.

After the nomination of Kennedy, Ball sent Stevenson a memorandum encouraging him to suggest a study of post-election foreign policy to Kennedy. Kennedy approved the idea and asked Stevenson to undertake the study. Stevenson passed the responsibility to Ball since he would be campaigning on Kennedy's behalf. The Stevenson report laid out immediate and long-term goals for American foreign policy. Ball cited the gold drain, NATO strategic deterrent talks, new initiatives in disarmament and formation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as a few of the issues requiring immediate attention. Kennedy viewed the report favorably and requested additional task forces be formed. Ball spent the next six weeks preparing task force reports on the OECD, balance of payments, and foreign economic policy. Ball's hard work eventually led to his appointment as under secretary of state for economic affairs. In his new position, Ball worked on issues regarding trade and tariffs, economic affairs, the Congo, and European integration. He worked closely with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and dealt directly with the President on these matters. As the year progressed, Ball became more involved with political matters and eventually replaced Chester Bowles as under secretary of state. This promotion allowed Ball to play a key role in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While Ball's tenure as under secretary of state is most noted for his vociferous opposition to the Vietnam War, other highlights include participating in Kennedy's inner sanctum during the Cuban Missile Crisis, negotiating a wheat deal with the Soviets, attending National Security Council meetings, brokering an international textile agreement, and serving as a mediator of crises in Cyprus, Pakistan, the Congo and the Dominican Republic.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, Ball realized his ability to influence policy had diminished. He submitted his resignation to President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 17, 1966, effective September 30. Citing personal and family reasons, Ball stated he must return to private life, and he accepted a senior partner position with the investment firm of Lehman Brothers. However, he had not completely disengaged himself from governmental service, and was frequently summoned to the White House in an advisory capacity. In 1968, he served as chair of the committee investigating the U.S.S. Pueblo incident and was asked to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations upon Arthur J. Goldberg's resignation. Ball initially refused but found himself outmaneuvered when Johnson pressured his partners at Lehman Brothers to support his nomination. Ball resigned his partnership in the firm in May.

Ball's service as permanent representative to the United Nations was short-lived. Fearing a Nixon victory in the presidential election, Ball resigned in September to campaign for his friend Hubert Humphrey. After Humphrey's defeat, Ball returned to Lehman Brothers where he remained until his retirement in 1982. However, Ball remained active in political affairs throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He served as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter during the crisis in Iran and on the Panama Canal treaties, delivered numerous speeches and lectures, testified before Congress, appeared on various news programs, and penned five books and scores of articles. In fact, he was working on his sixth book when he entered New York Hospital on Wednesday May 25, 1994 and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died the next evening. Ball's wife Ruth predeceased him in 1993 after battling Alzheimer's. Two adopted sons, John C. and Douglas B. Ball, and two grandchildren survive him.

Source: From the finding aid for MC031

  • George W. Ball Papers. 1880s-1994 (inclusive), 1933-1994 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC031

    The George W. Ball papers document Ball's career as a lawyer, diplomat, investment banker and author. His involvement in Democratic politics, including his time spent on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and his service as undersecretary of state for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson is well documented, as is his often overlooked role with Jean Monnet in European integration.

  • Adlai E. Stevenson Papers. 1861-2001 (inclusive), 1952-1965 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC124

    The Adlai E. Stevenson Papers document the public life of Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), governor of Illinois, Democratic presidential candidate, and United Nations ambassador. The collection contains correspondence, speeches, writings, campaign materials, subject files, United Nations materials, personal files, photographs, and audiovisual materials, illuminating Stevenson's career in law, politics, and diplomacy, primarily from his first presidential campaign until his death in 1965.