In Flanders’ (An Interlude in Berlin, 2018, etc.) historical novel, an idealistic diplomat in the Kennedy administration becomes increasingly disillusioned by the government’s grim conduct of the Vietnam War.
Dillon Randolph was groomed to become “a member of the club, one of the young men on the rise, an Establishment favorite”; his family name is well known in American politics, and his father, John Custis Randolph, is currently a Democratic congressman. But Dillon is also a poet who’s published two collections of his work and has the soul of a romantic. In 1961, he takes a job at the State Department and joins a group of friends—they call themselves the “Group of Five”—all “moved by the young President’s stirring rhetoric and call for a new generation of leadership.” Dillon is specifically recruited to work for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research under the tutelage of its new “charismatic leader,” Roger Hilsman. It’s a position that gives him a privileged perch from which to see the unfolding of the war in Southeast Asia. When a fellow member of the Group of Five—Palmer Knox, a CIA agent—kills himself out of despair of his own involvement in the execution of the war, Dillon is faced with a grave moral crisis that challenges more than his politics. Flanders intelligently chronicles Dillon’s growing disenchantment, not only with the bloody, “grim pragmatism” that he encountered regarding the management of the war, but also the “fractures in the Great Society” to which he was so devoted after Kennedy’s assassination. Over the course of the novel, the author deftly portrays the tumultuous and complex political climate of the day, which simultaneously contained shimmering optimism about the future, dread of the dangers posed by the Cold War, and nihilistic espionage. The author closely hews to the historical record, but artfully weaves a poignant human element into it; both Dillon and Palmer are emotionally convincing as characters. Overall, this is a nuanced novel that offers a historically edifying account of a troubled time.
A remarkable tale of political maturity, and its steep price.