Category Archives: American Politics

Honest Broker

 

 

Michael Doran, Ike’s Gamble:

America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East 

 

       On July 26, 1956, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser stunned the world by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, a critical conduit through Egypt for the transportation of oil between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Constructed between 1859 and 1869, the canal was owned by the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company. What followed three months later was the Suez Crisis of 1956: on October 29, Israeli brigades invaded Egypt across its Sinai Peninsula, advancing to within ten miles of the canal.  Britain and France, following a scheme concocted with Israel to retake the canal and oust Nasser, demanded that both Israeli and Egyptian troops withdraw from the occupied territory. Then, on November 5th, British and French forces invaded Egypt and occupied most of the Canal Zone, the territory along the canal. The United States famously opposed the joint operation and, through the United Nations, forced Britain and France out of Egypt.  Nearly simultaneously, the Soviet Union ruthlessly suppressed an uprising in Hungary.

       The autumn of 1956 was thus a tumultuous time. Across the globe, it was a time when colonies were clamoring for and achieving independence from former colonizers, and the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for the allegiance of emerging states in what was coming to be known as the Third World.  In the volatile and complex Middle East, it was a time of rising nationalism. Nasser, a wildly ambitious general who came to power after a 1952 military coup had deposed the King of Egypt, aspired to become not simply the leader of his country but also of the Arab speaking world, even the entire Muslim world.  By 1956, Nasser had emerged as the region’s most visible nationalist. But he was far from the only voice in the Middle East seeking to speak for Middle East nationalism. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq were also imbued with the rising spirit of nationalism and saw Nasser as a rival, not a fraternal comrade-in-arms.

       Michael Doran’s Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East provides background and context for the United States’ decision not to support Britain, France and Israel during the 1956 Suez crisis. As his title suggests, Doran places America’s President, war hero and father figure Dwight D. Eisenhower, known affectionately as Ike, at the middle of the complicated Middle East web (although Nasser probably merited a place in Doran’s title: “Ike’s Gamble on Nasser” would have better captured the spirit of the narrative). Behind the perpetual smile, Eisenhower was a cold-blooded realist who was “unshakably convinced” (p.214) that the best way to advance American interests in the Middle East and hold Soviet ambitions in check was for the United States to play the role of an “honest broker” in the region, sympathetic to the region’s nationalist aspirations and not too closely aligned with its traditional allies Britain and France, or with the young state of Israel.

       But Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former high level official at the National Security Council and Department of Defense in the administration of George W. Bush, goes on to argue that Eisenhower’s vision of the honest broker – and his “bet” on Nasser – were undermined by the United States’ failure to recognize the “deepest drivers of the Arab and Muslim states, namely their rivalries with each other for power and authority” (p.105). Less than two years after taking Nasser’s side in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Eisenhower seemed to reverse himself.  By mid-1958, Doran reveals, Eisenhower had come to regret his bet on Nasser and his refusal to back Britain, France and Israel during the crisis. Eisenhower kept this view largely to himself, however, distorting the historical picture of his Middle East policies.

        Although Doran considers Eisenhower “one of the most sophisticated and experienced practitioners of international politics ever to reside in the White House,” the story of his relationship with Nasser is at bottom a lesson in the “dangers of calibrating the distinction between ally and enemy incorrectly” (p.13).  Or, as he puts it elsewhere, Eisenhower’s “bet” on Nasser’s regime is a “tale of Frankenstein’s monster, with the United States as the mad scientist and the new regime as his uncontrollable creation” (p.10).

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      The “honest broker” approach to the Middle East dominated the Eisenhower administration from its earliest days in 1953. Eisenhower, his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and most of their key advisors shared a common picture of the volatile region. Trying to wind down a war in Korea they had inherited from the Truman Administration, they considered the Middle East the next and most critical region of confrontation in the global Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.  As they saw it, in the Middle East the United States found itself caught between Arabs and other “indigenous” nationalities on one side, and the British, French, and Israelis on the other. “Each side had hold of one arm of the United States, which they were pulling like a tug rope. The picture was so obvious to almost everyone in the Eisenhower administration that it was understood as an objective description of reality” (p.44). It is impossible, Doran writes, to exaggerate the “impact that the image of America as an honest broker had on Eisenhower’s thought . . . The notion that the top priority of the United States was to co-opt Arab nationalists by helping them extract concessions – within limits – from Britain and Israel was not open to debate. It was a view that shaped all other policy proposals” (p.10).

         Alongside Ike’s “bet” on Nasser, the book’s second major theme is the deterioration of the famous “special relationship” between Britain and the United States during Eisenhower’s first term, due in large measure to differences over Egypt, the Suez Canal, and Nasser (and, to quibble further with the book’s title, “Britain’s Fall from Power in the Middle East” in my view would have captured the spirit of the narrative better than “America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East”).  The Eisenhower administration viewed Britain’s once mighty empire as a relic of the past, out of place in the post World War II order. It viewed Britain’s leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in much the same way. Eisenhower entered his presidency convinced that it was time for Churchill, then approaching age 80, to exit the world stage and for Britain to relinquish control of its remaining colonial possessions – in Egypt, its military base and sizeable military presence along the Suez Canal.

      Anthony Eden replaced Churchill as prime minister in 1955.  A leading anti-appeasement ally of Churchill in the 1930s, by the 1950s Eden shared Eisenhower’s view that Churchill had become a “wondrous relic” who was “stubbornly clinging to outmoded ideas” (p.20) about Britain’s empire and its place in the world.  Although interested in aligning Britain’s policies with the realities of the post World War II era, Eden led the British assault on Suez in 1956.  With  “his career destroyed” (p.202), Eden was forced to resign early in 1957.

       If the United States today also has a “special relationship” with Israel, that relationship had yet to emerge during the first Eisenhower term.  Israel’s circumstances were of course entirely different from those of Britain and France, a young country surrounded by Arab-speaking states implacably hostile to its very existence. President Truman had formally recognized Israel less than a decade earlier, in 1948.  But substantial segments of America’s foreign policy establishment in the 1950s continued to believe that such recognition had been in error. Not least among them was John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.  There seemed to be more than a whiff of anti-Semitism in Dulles’ antagonism toward Israel.

        Describing Israel as the “darling of Jewry throughout the world” (p.98), Dulles decried the “potency of international Jewry” (p.98) and warned that the United States should not be seen as a “backer of expansionist Zionism” (p.77).  For the first two years of the Eisenhower administration, Dulles followed a policy designed to “’deflate the Jews’ . . . by refusing to sell arms to Israel, rebuffing Israeli requests for security guarantees, and diminishing the level of financial assistance to the Jewish state” (p.99).   Dulles’ views were far from idiosyncratic. Israel “stirred up deep hostility among the Arabs” and many of America’s foreign policy elites in the 1950s ”saw Israel as a liability” (p.9). Without success, the United States sought Nasser’s agreement to an Arab-Israeli accord which would have required limited territorial concessions from Israel.

       Behind the scenes, however, the United States brokered a 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement, by which Britain would withdraw from its military base in the Canal Zone over an 18-month period, with Egypt agreeing that Britain could return to its base in the event of a major war. Doran terms this Eisenhower’s “first bet” on Nasser. Ike “wagered that the evacuation of the British from Egypt would sate Nasser’s nationalist appetite. The Egyptian leader, having learned that the United States was willing and able to act as a strategic partner, would now keep Egypt solidly within the Western security system. It would not take long before Eisenhower would come to realize that Nasser’s appetite only increased with eating” (p.67-68).

        As the United States courted Nasser as a voice of Arab nationalism and a bulwark against Soviet expansion into the region, it also encouraged other Arab voices. In what the United States imprecisely termed the “Northern Tier,” it supported security pacts between Turkey and Iraq and made overtures to Egypt’s neighbors Syria and Jordan. Nasser adamantly opposed these measures, considering them a means of constraining his own regional aspirations and preserving Western influence through the back door.  The “fatal intellectual flaw” of the United States’ honest broker strategy, Doran argues, was that it “imagined the Arabs and Muslims as a unified bloc. It paid no attention whatsoever to all of the bitter rivalries in the Middle East that had no connection to the British and Israeli millstones. Consequently, Nasser’s disputes with his rivals simply did not register in Washington as factors of strategic significance” (p.78).

           In September 1955, Nasser shocked the United States by concluding an agreement to buy arms from the Soviet Union, through Czechoslovakia, one of several indications that he was at best playing the West against the Soviet Union, at worst tilting toward the Soviet side.  Another came in May 1956, when Egypt formally recognized Communist China. In July 1956, partially in reaction to Nasser’s pro-Soviet dalliances, Dulles informed the Egyptian leader that the United States was pulling out of a project to provide funding for a dam across the Nile River at Aswan, Nasser’s “flagship development project . . . [which was] expected to bring under cultivation hundreds of thousands of acres of arid land and to generate millions of watts of electricity” (p.167).

         Days later, Nasser countered by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, predicting that the tolls collected from ships passing through the canal would pay for the dam’s construction within five years. Doran characterizes Nasser’s decision to nationalize the canal as the “single greatest move of his career.” It is impossible to exaggerate, he contends, the “power of the emotions that the canal takeover stirred in ordinary Egyptians. If Europeans claimed that the company was a private concern, Egyptians saw it as an instrument of imperial exploitation – ‘a state within a state’. . . [that was] plundering a national asset for the benefit of France and Britain” (p.171).

            France, otherwise largely missing in Doran’s detailed account, concocted the scheme that led to the October 1956 crisis.  Concerned that Nasser was providing arms to anti-French rebels in Algeria, France proposed to Israel what Doran terms a “stranger than fiction” (p.189) plot by which the Israelis would invade Egypt. Then, in order to protect shipping through the canal, France and Britain would:

issue an ultimatum demanding that the belligerents withdraw to a position of ten miles on either side of the canal, or face severe consequences. The Israelis, by prior arrangement, would comply. Nasser, however, would inevitably reject the ultimatum, because it would leave Israeli forces inside Egypt while simultaneously compelling Egyptian forces to withdraw from their own sovereign territory. An Anglo-French force would then intervene to punish Egypt for noncompliance. It would take over the canal and, in the process, topple Nasser (p.189).

The crisis unfolded more or less according to this script when Israeli brigades invaded Egypt on October 29th and Britain and France launched their joint invasion on November 5th. Nasser sunk ships in the canal and blocked oil tankers headed through the canal to Europe.

         Convinced that acquiescence in the invasion would drive the entire Arab world to the Soviet side in the global Cold War, the United States issued measured warnings to Britain and France to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. If Nasser was by then a disappointment to the United States, Doran writes, the “smart money was still on an alliance with moderate nationalism, not with dying empires” (p.178). But when Eden telephoned the White House on November 7, 1956, largely to protest the United States’ refusal to sell oil to Britain, Ike went further. In that phone call, Eisenhower as honest broker “decided that Nasser must win the war, and that he must be seen to win” (p.249).  Eisenhower’s hardening toward his traditional allies a week into the crisis, Doran contends, constituted his “most fateful decision of the Suez Crisis: to stand against the British, French, and Israelis in [a] manner that was relentless, ruthless, and uncompromising . . . [Eisenhower] demanded, with single-minded purpose, the total and unconditional British, French, and Israeli evacuation from Egypt. These steps, not the original decision to oppose the war, were the key factors that gave Nasser the triumph of his life” (p.248-49).

        When the financial markets caught wind of the blocked oil supplies, the value of the British pound plummeted and a run on sterling reserves ensued. “With his currency in free fall, Eden became ever more vulnerable to pressure from Eisenhower. Stabilizing the markets required the cooperation of the United States, which the Americans refused to give until the British accepted a complete, immediate, and unconditional withdrawal from Egypt” (p.196). At almost the same time, Soviet tanks poured into Budapest to suppress a burgeoning Hungarian pro-democracy movement. The crisis in Eastern Europe had the effect of “intensifying Eisenhower’s and Dulles’s frustration with the British and the French. As they saw it, Soviet repression in Hungary offered the West a prime opportunity to capture the moral high ground in international politics – an opportunity that the gunboat diplomacy in Egypt was destroying” (p.197). The United States supported a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of invading troops. Britain, France and Israel had little choice bu to accept these terms in December 1956.

       In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, the emboldened Nasser continued his quest to become the region’s dominant leader. In February 1958, he engineered the formation of the United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria that he envisioned as the first step toward a broader pan-Arab state (in fact, the union lasted only until 1961). He orchestrated a coup in Iraq in July 1958. Later that month, Eisenhower sent American troops into Lebanon to avert an Egyptian-led uprising against the pro-western government of Christian president Camille Chamoun. Sometime in the period between the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the intervention in Lebanon in 1958, Doran argues, Eisenhower withdrew his bet on Nasser, coming to the view that his support of Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis had been a mistake.

        The Eisenhower of 1958 “consistently and clearly argued against embracing Nasser” (p.231).  He now viewed Nasser as a hardline opponent of any reconciliation between Arabs and Israel, squarely in the Soviet camp. Eisenhower, a “true realist with no ideological ax to grind,” came to recognize that his Suez policy of “sidelining the Israelis and the Europeans simply did not produce the promised results. The policy was . . . a blunder” (p.255).   Unfortunately, Doran argues, Eisenhower kept his views to himself until well into the 1960s and few historians picked up on his change of mind. This allowed those who sought to distance United States policy from Israel to cite Eisenhower’s stance in the 1956 Suez Crisis, without taking account of Eisenhower’s later reconsideration of that stance.

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      Doran relies upon an extensive mining of diplomatic archival sources, especially those of the United States and Great Britain, to piece together this intricate depiction of the Eisenhower-Nasser relationship and the 1956 Suez Crisis. These sources allow Doran to emphasize the interactions of the key actors in the Middle East throughout the 1950s, including personal animosities and rivalries, and intra-governmental turf wars.  He writes in a straightforward, unembellished style. Helpful subheadings within each chapter make his detailed and sometimes dense narrative easier to follow. His work will appeal to anyone who has worked in an Embassy overseas, to Middle East and foreign policy wonks, and to general readers with an interest in the 1950s.

Thomas H. Peebles

Saint Augustin-de-Desmaures

Québec, Canada

June 19, 2017

11 Comments

Filed under American Politics, British History, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Portrait of a President Living on Borrowed Time

Joseph Lelyveld, His Final Battle:

The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt 

            During the last year and a half of his life, from mid-October 1943 to his death in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential plate was full, even overflowing. He was grappling with winning history’s most devastating  war and structuring a lasting peace for the post-war global order, all the while tending to multiple domestic political demands. But Roosevelt spent much of this time out of public view in semi-convalescence, often in locations outside Washington, with limited contact with the outside world. Those who met the president, however, noticed a striking weight loss and described him with words like “listless,” “weary,” and “easily distracted.” We now know that Roosevelt had life-threatening high blood pressure, termed malignant hypertension, making him susceptible to a stroke or coronary attack at any moment. Roosevelt’s declining health was carefully shielded from the public and only rarely discussed directly, even within his inner circle. At the time, probably not more than a handful of doctors were aware of the full gravity of Roosevelt’s physical condition, and it is an open question whether Roosevelt himself was aware.

In His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, seeks to shed light upon, if not answer, this open question. Lelyveld suggests that the president likely was more aware than he let on of the implications of his declining physical condition. In a resourceful portrait of America’s longest serving president during his final year and a half, Lelyveld considers Roosevelt’s political activities against the backdrop of his health. The story is bookended by Roosevelt’s meetings to negotiate the post-war order with fellow wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, in Teheran in December 1943 and at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945. Between the two meetings came Roosevelt’s 1944 decision to run for an unprecedented fourth term, a decision he reached just weeks prior to the Democratic National Convention that summer, and the ensuing campaign.

Lelyveld’s portrait of a president living on borrowed time emerges from an excruciatingly thin written record of Roosevelt’s medical condition. Roosevelt’s medical file disappeared without explanation from a safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital shortly after his death.   Unable to consider Roosevelt’s actual medical records, Lelyveld draws clues  concerning his physical condition from the diary of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, discovered after Suckley’s death in 1991 at age 100, and made public in 1995. The slim written record on Roosevelt’s medical condition limits Lelyveld’s ability to tease out conclusions on the extent to which that condition may have undermined his job performance in his final months.

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            Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin of Roosevelt, was a constant presence in the president’s life in his final years and a keen observer of his physical condition. During Roosevelt’s last months, the “worshipful” (p.3) and “singularly undemanding” Suckley had become what Lelyveld terms the “Boswell of [Roosevelt’s] rambling ruminations,” secretly recording in an “uncritical, disjointed way the hopes and daydreams” that occupied the frequently inscrutable president (p.75). By 1944, Lelyfeld notes, there was “scarcely a page in Daisy’s diary without some allusion to how the president looks or feels” (p.77).   Lelyveld relies heavily upon the Suckley diary out of necessity, given the disappearance of Roosevelt’s actual medical records after his death.

Lelyveld attributes the disappearance to Admiral Ross McIntire, an ears-nose-and-throat specialist who served both as Roosevelt’s personal physician and Surgeon General of the Navy. In the latter capacity, McIntire oversaw a wartime staff of 175,000 doctors, nurses and orderlies at 330 hospitals and medical stations around the world. Earlier in his career, Roosevelt’s press secretary had upbraided McIntire for allowing the president to be photographed in his wheel chair. From that point forward, McIntire understood that a major component of his job was to conceal Roosevelt’s physical infirmities and protect and promote a vigorously healthy public image of the president. The “resolutely upbeat” (p.212) McIntire, a master of “soothing, well-practiced bromides” (p.226), thus assumes a role in Lelyveld’s account which seems as much “spin doctor” as actual doctor. His most frequent message for the public was that the president was in “robust health” (p.22), in the process of “getting over” a wide range of lesser ailments such as a heavy cold, flu, or bronchitis.

A key turning point in Lelyveld’s story occurred in mid-March 1944, 13 months prior to Roosevelt’s death, when the president’s daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger confronted McIntire and demanded to know more about what was wrong with her father. McIntire doled out his “standard bromides, but this time they didn’t go down” (p.23). Anna later said that she “didn’t think McIntire was an internist who really knew what he was talking about” (p.93). In response, however, McIntire brought in Dr. Howard Bruenn, the Navy’s top cardiologist. Evidently, Lelyveld writes, McIntire had “known all along where the problem was to be found” (p.23). Breunn was apparently the first cardiologist to have examined Roosevelt.

McIntire promised to have Roosevelt’s medical records delivered to Bruenn prior to his initial examination of the president, but failed to do so, an “extraordinary lapse” (p.98) which Lelyveld regards as additional evidence that McIntire was responsible for the disappearance of those records after Roosevelt’s death the following year. Breunn found that Roosevelt was suffering from “acute congestive heart failure” (p.98). He recommended that the wartime president avoid “irritation,” severely cut back his work hours, rest more, and reduce his smoking habit, then a daily pack and a half of Camel’s cigarettes. In the midst of the country’s struggle to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, its leader was told that he “needed to sleep half his time and reduce his workload to that of a bank teller” (p.99), Lelyveld wryly notes.  Dr. Bruenn saw the president regularly from that point onward, traveling with him to Yalta in February 1945 and to Warm Springs in April of that year.

Ten days after Dr. Bruenn’s diagnosis, Roosevelt told a newspaper columnist, “I don’t work so hard any more. I’ve got this thing simplified . . . I imagine I don’t work as many hours a week as you do” (p.103). The president, Lelyveld concludes, “seems to have processed the admonition of the physicians – however it was delivered, bluntly or softly – and to be well on the way to convincing himself that if he could survive in his office by limiting his daily expenditure of energy, it was his duty to do so” (p.103).

At that time, Roosevelt had not indicated publicly whether he wished to seek a 4th precedential term and had not discussed this question with any of his advisors. Moreover, with the “most destructive military struggle in history approaching its climax, there was no one in the White House, or his party, or the whole of political Washington, who dared stand before him in the early months of 1944 and ask face-to-face for a clear answer to the question of whether he could contemplate stepping down” (p.3). The hard if unspoken political truth was that Roosevelt was the Democratic party’s only hope to retain the White House. There was no viable successor in the party’s ranks. But his re-election was far from assured, and public airing of concerns about his health would be unhelpful to say the least in his  re-election bid. Roosevelt did not make his actual decision to run until just weeks before the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

At the convention, Roosevelt’s then vice-president, Henry Wallace, and his counselors Harry Hopkins, and Jimmy Byrnes jockeyed for the vice-presidential nomination, along with William Douglas, already a Supreme Court justice at age 45. There’s no indication that Senator Harry S. Truman actively sought to be Roosevelt’s running mate. Lelyveld writes that it is tribute to FDR’s “wiliness” that the notion has persisted over the years that he was “only fleetingly engaged in the selection” of his 1944 vice-president and that he was “simply oblivious when it came to the larger question of succession” (p.172). To the contrary, although he may not have used the used the word “succession” in connection with his vice-presidential choice, Roosevelt “cared enough about qualifications for the presidency to eliminate Wallace as a possibility and keep Byrnes’s hopes alive to the last moment, when, for the sake of party unity, he returned to Harry Truman as the safe choice” (p.172-73).

Having settled upon Truman as his running mate, Roosevelt indicated that he did not want to campaign as usual because the war was too important. But campaign he did, and Lelyveld shows how hard he campaigned – and how hard it was for him given his deteriorating health, which aggravated his mobility problems. The outcome was in doubt up until Election Day, but Roosevelt was resoundingly reelected to a fourth presidential term. The president could then turn his full attention to the war effort, focusing both upon how the war would be won and how the peace would be structured. Roosevelt’s foremost priority was structuring the peace; the details on winning the war were largely left to his staff and to the military commanders in the field.

Roosevelt badly wanted to avoid the mistakes that Woodrow Wilson had made after World War I. He was putting together the pieces of an organization already referred to as the United Nations and fervently sought  the participation and support of his war ally, the Soviet Union. He also wanted Soviet support for the war against Japan in the Pacific after the Nazi surrender, and for an independent and democratic Poland. In pursuit of these objectives, Roosevelt agreed to travel over 10,000 arduous miles to Yalta, to meet in February 1945 with Stalin and Churchill.

In Roosevelt’s mind, Stalin  was by then both the key to victory on the battlefield and for a lasting peace afterwards — and he was, in Roosevelt’s phrase, “get-at-able” (p.28) with the right doses of the legendary Roosevelt charm.   Roosevelt had begun his serious courtship of the Soviet leader at their first meeting in Teheran in December 1943.  His fixation on Stalin, “crossing over now and then into realms of fantasy” (p.28), continued at Yalta. Lelyveld’s treatment of Roosevelt at Yalta covers similar ground to that in Michael Dobbs’ Six Months That Shook the World, reviewed here in April 2015. In Lelyveld’s account, as in that of Dobbs, a mentally and physical exhausted Roosevelt at Yalta ignored the briefing books his staff prepared for him and relied instead upon improvisation and his political instincts, fully confident that he could win over Stalin by force of personality.

According to cardiologist Bruenn’s memoir, published a quarter of a century later, early in the conference Roosevelt showed worrying signs of oxygen deficiency in his blood. His habitually high blood pressure readings revealed a dangerous condition, pulsus alternans, in which every second heartbeat was weaker than the preceding one, a “warning signal from an overworked heart” (p.270).   Dr. Bruenn ordered Roosevelt to curtail his activities in the midst of the conference. Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, wrote that Roosevelt had “all the symptoms of hardening of arteries in the brain” during the conference and gave the president “only a few months to live” (p.270-71). Churchill himself commented that his wartime ally “really was a pale reflection almost throughout” (p.270) the Yalta conference.

Yet, Roosevelt recovered sufficiently to return home from the conference and address Congress and the public on its results, plausibly claiming victory. The Soviet Union had agreed to participate in the United Nations and in the war in Asia, and to hold what could be construed as free elections in Poland. Had he lived longer, Roosevelt would have seen that Stalin delivered as promised on the Asian war. The Soviet Union also became a member of the United Nations and maintained its membership in the organization until its dissolution in 1991, but was rarely if ever the partner Roosevelt envisioned in keeping world peace. The possibility of a democratic Poland, “by far the knottiest and most time-consuming issue Roosevelt confronted at Yalta” (p.285), was by contrast slipping away even before Roosevelt’s death.

At one point in his remaining weeks, Roosevelt exclaimed, “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta” on Poland (p.304; Dobbs includes the same quotation, adding that Roosevelt thumped on his wheelchair at the time of this outburst). But, like Dobbs, Lelyveld argues that even a more physically fit, fully focused and coldly realistic Roosevelt would likely have been unable to save Poland from Soviet clutches. When the allies met at Yalta, Stalin’s Red Army was in the process of consolidating military control over almost all of Polish territory.  If Roosevelt had been at the peak of vigor, Lelyveld concludes, the results on Poland “would have been much the same” (p.287).

Roosevelt was still trying to mend fences with Stalin on April 11, 1945, the day before his death in Warm Springs. Throughout the following morning, Roosevelt worked on matters of state: he received an update on the US military advances within Germany and even signed a bill, sustaining the Commodity Credit Corporation. Then, just before lunch Roosevelt collapsed. Dr. Bruenn arrived about 15 minutes later and diagnosed a hemorrhage in the brain, a stroke likely caused by the bursting of a blood vessel in the brain or the rupture of an aneurysm. “Roosevelt was doomed from the instant he was stricken” (p.323).  Around midnight, Daisy Suckley recorded in her diary that the president had died at 3:35 pm that afternoon. “Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hope of the world, is dead,” (p.324), she wrote.

Daisy was one of several women present at Warm Springs to provide company to the president during his final visit. Another was Eleanor Roosevelt’s former Secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, by this time the primary Other Woman in the president’s life. Rutherford had driven down from South Carolina to be with the president, part of a recurring pattern in which Rutherford appeared in instances when wife Eleanor was absent, as if coordinated by a social secretary with the knowing consent of all concerned. But this orchestration broke down in Warm Springs in April 1945. After the president died, Rutherford had to flee in haste to make room for Eleanor. Still another woman in the president’s entourage, loquacious cousin Laura Delano, compounded Eleanor’s grief by letting her know that Rutherford had been in Warm Springs for the previous three days, adding gratuitously that Rutherford had also served as hostess at occasions at the White House when Eleanor was away. “Grief and bitter fury were folded tightly in a large knot” (p.325) for the former First Lady at Warm Springs.

Subsequently, Admiral McIntire asserted that Roosevelt had a “stout heart” and that his blood pressure was “not alarming at any time” (p.324-25), implying that the president’s death from a stroke had proven that McIntire had “always been right to downplay any suggestion that the president might have heart disease.” If not a flat-out falsehood, Lelyveld argues, McIntire’s assertion “at least raises the question of what it would have taken to alarm him” (p.325). Roosevelt’s medical file by this time had gone missing from the safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital, most likely removed by the Admiral because it would have revealed the “emptiness of the reassurances he’d fed the press and the public over the years, whenever questions arose about the president’s health” (p.325).

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           Lelyveld declines to engage in what he terms an “argument without end” (p.92) on the degree to which Roosevelt’s deteriorating health impaired his job performance during his last months and final days. Rather, he  skillfully pieces together the limited historical record of Roosevelt’s medical condition to add new insights into the ailing but ever enigmatic president as he led his country nearly to the end of history’s most devastating war.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 28, 2017

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, History, United States History, World History

Do Something

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Zachary Kaufman, United States Law and Policy on Transitional Justice:

Principles, Politics, and Pragmatics 

             The term “transitional justice” is applied most frequently to “post conflict” situations, where a nation state or region is emerging from some type of war or violent conflict that has given rise to genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity — each now a recognized concept under international law, with “mass atrocities” being a common shorthand used to embrace these and related concepts. In United States Law and Policy on Transitional Justice: Principles, Politics, and Pragmatics, Zachary Kaufman, a Senior Fellow and expert on human rights at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, explores the circumstances which have led the United States to support that portion of the transitional justice process that determines how to deal with suspected perpetrators of mass atrocities, and why it chooses a particular means of support (disclosure: Kaufman and I worked together in the US Department of Justice’s overseas assistance unit between 2000 and 2002, although we had different portfolios: Kaufman’s involved Africa and the Middle East, while I handled Central and Eastern Europe).

          Kaufman’s book, adapted from his Oxford University PhD dissertation, centers around case studies of the United States’ role in four major transitional justice situations: Germany and Japan after World War II, and ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. It also looks more briefly at two secondary cases, the 1988 bombing of Pan American flight 103, attributed to Libyan nationals, and atrocities committed during Iraq’s 1990-91 occupation of Kuwait. Making extensive use of internal US government documents, many of which have been declassified, Kaufman digs deeply into the thought processes that informed the United States’ decisions on transnational justice in these six post-conflict situations. Kaufman brings a social science perspective to his work, attempting to tease of out of the case studies general rules about how the United States might act in future transitional justice situations.

          The term “transitional justice” implicitly affirms that a permanent and independent national justice system can and should be created or restored in the post-conflict state.  Kaufman notes at one point that dealing with suspected perpetrators of mass atrocities is just one of several critical tasks involved in creating or restoring a permanent national justice system in a post-conflict state.  Others can include: building or rebuilding sustainable judicial institutions, strengthening the post-conflict state’s legislation, improving capacity of its justice-sector personnel, and creating or upgrading the physical infrastructure needed for a functioning justice system. These latter tasks are not the focus of Kaufman’s work. Moreover, in determining how to deal with alleged perpetrators of mass atrocities, Kaufman’s focus is on the front end of the process: how and why the United States determined to support this portion of the process generally and why it chose particular mechanisms rather than others.   The outcomes that the mechanisms produce, although mentioned briefly, are not his focus either.

          In each of the four primary cases, the United States joined other nations to prosecuted those accused or suspected of involvement in mass atrocities before an international criminal tribunal, which Kaufman characterizes as the “most significant type of transitional justice institution” (p.12). Prosecution before an international tribunal, he notes, can promote stability, the rule of law and accountability, and can serve as a deterrent to future atrocities. But the process can be both slow and expensive, with significant political and legal risks. Kaufman’s work provides a useful reminder that prosecution by an international tribunal is far from the only option available to deal with alleged perpetrators of mass atrocities. Others include trials in other jurisdictions, including those of the post-conflict state, and several non-judicial alternatives: amnesty for those suspected of committing mass atrocities, with or without conditions; “lustration,” where suspected persons are disenfranchised from specific aspects of civic life (e.g., declared ineligible for the civil service or the military); and “doing nothing,” which Kaufman considers tantamount to unconditional amnesty.  Finally, there is the option of summary execution or other punishment, without benefit of trial. These options can be applied in combination, e.g., amnesty for some, trial for others.

         Kaufman weighs two models, “legalism” and “prudentialism,” as potential explanations for why and how the United States acted in the cases under study and is likely to act in the future.  Legalism contends that prosecution before an international tribunal of individuals suspected or accused of mass atrocities  is the only option a liberal democratic state may elect, consistent with its adherence to the rule of law.  In limited cases, amnesty or lustrations may be justified as a supplement to initiating cases before a tribunal. Summary execution may never be justified. Prudentialism is more ad hoc and flexible,with  the question whether to establish or invoke an international criminal tribunal or pursue other options determined by any number of different political, pragmatic and normative considerations, including such geo-political factors as promotion of stability in the post-conflict state and region, the determining state or states’ own national security interests, and the relationships between determining states. Almost by definition, legalism precludes consideration of these factors.

          Kaufman presents his cases in a highly systematic manner, with tight overall organization. An introduction and three initial chapters set forth the conceptual framework for the subsequent case studies, addressing matters like methodology and definitional parameters.  The four major cases are then treated in four separate chapters, each with its own introduction and conclusion, followed by an overall conclusion, also with its own introduction and conclusion (the two secondary cases, Libya and Iraq are treated within the chapter on ex-Yugoslavia).  Substantive headings throughout each chapter make his arguments easy to follow.   General readers may find jarring his extensive use of acronyms throughout the text, drawn from a three-page list contained at the outset. But amidst Kaufman’s deeply analytical exploration of the thinking that lay behind the United States’ actions, readers will appreciate his decidedly non-sociological hypothesis as to why the United States elects to engage in  the transitional justice process: a deeply felt American need in the wake of mass atrocities to “do something” (always in quotation marks).

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          Kaufman begins his case studies with the best-known example of transitional justice, Nazi Germany after World War II. The United States supported creation of what has come to be known as the Nuremberg War Crimes tribunal, a military court administered by the four victorious allies, the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain and France. The Nuremberg story is so well known, thanks in part to “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the best-selling book and popular film, that most readers will assume that the multi-lateral Nuremberg trials were the only option seriously under consideration at the time. To the contrary, Kaufman demonstrates that such trials were far from the only option on the table.

        For a while the United States seriously considered summary executions of accused Nazi leaders. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill pushed this option during wartime deliberations and, Kaufman indicates, President Roosevelt seemed at times on the cusp of agreeing to it. Equally surprisingly, Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin lobbied early and hard for a trial process rather than summary executions. The Nuremberg Tribunal “might not have been created without Stalin’s early, constant, and forceful lobbying” (p.89), Kaufman contends.  Roosevelt abandoned his preference for summary executions after economic aspects of the Morgenthau Plan, which involved the “pastoralization” of Germany, were leaked to the press. When the American public “expressed its outrage at treating Germany so harshly through a form of economic sanctions,” Roosevelt concluded that Americans would be “unsupportive of severe treatment for the Germans through summary execution” (p.85).

          But the United States’ support for war crimes trials became unwavering only after Roosevelt died in April 1945 and Harry S. Truman assumed the presidency.  The details and mechanics of a multi-lateral trial process were not worked out until early August 1945 in the “London Agreement,” after Churchill had been voted out of office and Labor Prime Minister Clement Atlee represented Britain. Trials against 22 high level Nazi officials began in November 1945, with verdicts rendered in October 1946: twelve defendants were sentenced to death, seven drew prison sentences, and three were acquitted.

       Many lower level Nazi officials were tried in unilateral prosecutions by one of the allied powers.   Lustration, barring active Nazi party members from major public and private positions, was applied in the US, British, and Soviet sectors.  Numerous high level Nazi officials were allowed to emigrate to the United States to assist in Cold War endeavors, which Kaufman characterizes as a “conditional amnesty” (Nazi war criminals who emigrated to the United States is the subject of Eric Lichtblau’s The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men, reviewed here in October 2015; Frederick Taylor’s Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany, reviewed here in December 2012, addresses more generally the manner in which the Allies dealt with lower level Nazi officials). By 1949, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West undermined the allies’ appetite for prosecution, with the Korean War completing the process of diverting the world’s attention away from Nazi war criminals.

          The story behind creation of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, designed to hold accountable accused Japanese perpetrators of mass atrocities, is far less known than that of Nuremberg, Kaufman observes.  What has come to be known as the “Tokyo Tribunal” largely followed the Nuremberg model, with some modifications. Even though 11 allies were involved, the United States was closer to the sole decision-maker on the options to pursue in Japan than it had been in Germany. As the lead occupier of post-war Japan, the United States had “no choice but to ‘do something’” (p.119).   Only the United States had both the means and will to oversee the post-conflict occupation and administration of Japan. That oversight authority was vested largely in a single individual, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, whose extraordinarily broad – nearly dictatorial — authority in post World War II Japan extended to the transitional justice process. MacArthur approved appointments to the tribunal, signed off on its indictments, and exercised review authority over its decisions.

            In the interest of securing the stability of post-war Japan, the United States accorded unconditional amnesty to Japan’s Emperor Hirohito. The Tokyo Tribunal indicted twenty-eight high-level Japanese officials, but more than fifty were not indicted, and thus also benefited from an unconditional amnesty. This included many suspected of “direct involvement in some of the most horrific crimes of WWII” (p.108), several of whom eventually returned to Japanese politics. Through lustration, more than 200,000 Japanese were removed or barred from public office, either permanently or temporarily.  As in Germany, by the late 1940s the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union had chilled the United States’ enthusiasm for prosecuting Japanese suspected of war crimes.

           The next major United States engagements in transitional justice arose in the 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia collapsed and the country lapsed into a spasm of ethnic violence; and massive ethnic-based genocide erupted in Rwanda in 1994. By this time, the Soviet Union had itself collapsed and the Cold War was over. In both instances, heavy United States’ involvement in the post-conflict process was attributed in part to a sense of remorse for its lack of involvement in the conflicts themselves and its failure to halt the ethnic violence, resulting in a need to “do something.”  Rwanda marks the only instance among the four primary cases where mass atrocities arose out of an internal conflict.

       The ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia led to the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), based in The Hague and administered under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council. Kaufman provides much useful insight into the thinking behind the United States’ support for the creation of the court and the decision to base it in The Hague as an authorized Security Council institution. His documentation shows that United States officials consistently invoked the Nuremberg experience. The United States supported a multi-lateral tribunal through the Security Council because the council could “obligate all states to honor its mandates, which would be critical to the tribunal’s success” (p.157). The United States saw the ICTY as critical in laying a foundation for regional peace and facilitating reconciliation among competing factions. But it also supported the ICTY and took a lead role in its design to “prevent it from becoming a permanent [tribunal] with global reach” (p.158), which it deemed “potentially problematic” (p.157).

             The United States’ willingness to involve itself in the post-conflict transitional process in Rwanda,   even more than in the ex-Yugoslavia, may be attributed to its failure to intervene during the worst moments of the genocide itself.  That the United States “did not send troops or other assistance to Rwanda perversely may have increased the likelihood of involvement in the immediate aftermath,” Kaufman writes. A “desire to compensate for its foreign policy failures in Rwanda, if not also feelings of guilt over not intervening, apparently motivated at least some [US] officials to support a transitional justice institution for Rwanda” (p.197).

        Once the Rwandan civil war subsided, there was a strong consensus within the international community that some kind of international tribunal was needed to impose accountability upon the most egregious génocidaires; that any such tribunal should operate under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council; that the tribunal should in some sense be modeled after the ICTY; and that the United States shouldtake the lead in establishing the tribunal. The ICTY precedent prompted US officials to “consider carefully the consistency with which they applied transitional justice solutions in different regions; they wanted the international community to view [the US] as treating Africans similarly to Europeans” (p.182). According to these officials, after the precedent of proactive United States involvement in the “arguably less egregious Balkans crisis,” the United States would have found it “politically difficult to justify inaction in post-genocide Rwanda” (p.182).

           The United States favored a tribunal modeled after and structurally similar to the ICTY, which came to be known as International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). The ICTR was the first international court having competence to “prosecute and punish individuals for egregious crimes committed during an internal conflict” (p.174), a watershed development in international law and transitional justice.  To deal with lower level génocidaires, the Rwandan government and the international community later instituted additional prosecutorial measures, including prosecutions by Rwandan domestic courts and local domestic councils, termed gacaca.

          No international tribunals were created in the two secondary cases, Libya after the 1998 Pan Am flight 103 bombing, and the 1990-91 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. At the time of the Pam Am bombing, several years prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks, United States officials considered terrorism a matter to be addressed “exclusively in domestic contexts” (p.156).  In the case of the bombing of Pan Am 103, where Americans had been killed, competent courts were available in the United States and the United Kingdom. There were numerous documented cases of Iraqi atrocities against Kuwaiti civilians committed during Iraq’s 1990-91 invasion of Kuwait.  But the 1991 Gulf War, while driving Iraq out of Kuwait, otherwise left Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in power. The United States was therefore not in a position to impose accountability upon Iraqis for atrocities committed in Kuwait, as it had done after defeating Germany and Japan in World War II.

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         In evaluating the prudentialism and legalism models as ways to explain the United States’ actions in the four primary cases, prudentialism emerges as a clear winner.  Kaufman convincingly demonstrates that the United States in each was open to multiple options and motivated by geo-political and other non-legal considerations.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the United States – or any other state for that matter — would ever, in advance, agree to disregard such considerations, as the legalism model seems to demand. After reflecting upon Kaufman’s analysis, I concluded that legalism might best be understood as more aspirational than empirical, a forward-looking, prescriptive model as to how the United States should act in future transitional justice situations, favored in particular by human rights organizations.

         But Kaufman also shows that the United States’ approach in each of the four cases was not entirely an ad hoc weighing of geo-political and related considerations.  Critical to his analysis are the threads which link the four cases, what he terms “path dependency,” whereby the Nuremberg trial process for Nazi war criminals served as a powerful influence upon the process set up for their Japanese counterparts; the combined Nuremberg-Tokyo experience weighed heavily in the creation of ICTY; and ICTY strongly influenced the structure and procedure of ICTR.   This cumulative experience constitutes another factor in explaining why the United States in the end opted for international criminal tribunals in each of the four cases.

         If a general rule can be extracted from Kaufman’s four primary cases, it might therefore be that an international criminal tribunal has evolved into the “default option” for the United States in transitional justice situations,  showing the strong pull of the only option which the legalism model considers consistent with the rule of law.  But these precedents may exert less hold on US policy makers going forward, as an incoming administration reconsiders the United States’ role in the 21st century global order. Or, to use Kaufman’s apt phrase, there may be less need felt for the United States to “do something” in the wake of future mass atrocities.

Thomas H. Peebles

Venice, Italy

February 10, 2017

 

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, United States History

Can’t Forget the Motor City

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David Maraniss, Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story

     In 1960, Detroit was the automobile capital of the world, America’s undisputed center of manufacturing, and its fifth most populous city, with that year’s census tallying 1.67 million people. Fifty years later, the city had lost nearly a million people; its population had dropped to 677,000 and it ranked 21st in population among America’s cities in the 2010 census. Then, in 2013, the city reinforced its image as an urban basket case by ignominiously filing for bankruptcy. In Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, David Maraniss, a native Detroiter of my generation and a highly skilled journalist whose previous works include books on Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, focuses upon Detroit before its precipitous fall, an 18-month period from late 1962 to early 1964.   This was the city’s golden moment, Maraniss writes, when Detroit “seemed to be glowing with promise. . . a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things” (p.xii-xiii; in March 2012, I reviewed here two books on post World War II Detroit, under the title “Tales of Two Cities”).

      Detroit produced more cars in this 18 month period than Americans produced babies.  Barry Gordy Jr.’s popular music empire, known officially and affectionately as “Motown,” was selling a new, upbeat pop music sound across the nation and around the world.  Further, at a time when civil rights for African-Americans had become America’s most morally compelling issue, race relations in a city then about one-third black appeared to be as good as anywhere in the United States. With a slew of high-minded officials in the public and private sector dedicated to racial harmony and justice, Detroit sought to present itself as a model for the nation in securing opportunity for all its citizens.

     Maraniss begins his 18-month chronicle with dual events on the same day in November 1962: the burning of an iconic Detroit area memorial to the automobile industry, the Ford Rotunda, a “quintessentially American harmonic convergence of religiosity and consumerism” (p.1-2); and, later that afternoon, a police raid on the Gotham Hotel, once the “cultural and social epicenter of black Detroit” (p.10), but by then considered to be a den of illicit gambling controlled by organized crime groups.  He ends with President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark address in May 1964 on the campus of nearby University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Johnson outlined his grandiose vision of the Great Society.  Johnson chose Ann Arbor as the venue to deliver this address in large measure because of its proximity to Detroit. No place seemed “more important to his mission than Detroit,” Maraniss writes, a “great city that honored labor, built cars, made music, promoted civil rights, and helped lift working people into the middle class” (p.360).

     Maraniss’ chronicle unfolds between these bookend events, revolving around on what had attracted President Johnson to the Detroit area in May 1964: building cars, making music, promoting civil rights, and lifting working people into the middle class. He skillfully weaves these strands into an affectionate, deeply researched yet easy-to-read portrait of Detroit during this 18-month golden period.  But Maraniss  does not ignore the fissures, visible to those perceptive enough to recognize them, which would lead to Detroit’s later unraveling.  Detroit may have found the right formula for bringing a middle class life style to working class Americans, black and white alike. But already Detroit was losing population as its white working class was taking advantage of newfound prosperity to leave the city for nearby suburbs.  Moreover, many in Detroit’s black community found the city to be anything but a model of racial harmony.

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     An advertising executive described Detroit in 1963 as “intensely an automobile community – everybody lives, breathes, and sleeps automobiles. It’s like a feudal city ” (p.111). Maraniss’ inside account of Detroit’s automobile industry focuses principally upon the remarkable relationship between Ford Motor Company’s chief executive, Henry Ford II (sometimes referred to as “HF2” or “the Deuce”) and the head of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, during this 18 month golden age (Manariss accords far less attention to the other two members of Detroit’s “Big Three,” General Motors and Chrysler, or to the upstart American Motors Corporation, whose chief executive, George Romney, was elected governor in November 1962 as a Republican). Ford and Reuther could not have been more different.

     Ford, from Detroit’s most famous industrial family, was a graduate of Hotchkiss School and Yale University who had been called home from military service during World War II to run the family business when his father Edsel Ford, then company president, died in 1943. Maraniss mischievously describes the Deuce as having a “touch of the peasant, with his manicured nails and beer gut and . . . frat-boy party demeanor” (p.28). Yet, Ford earnestly sought to modernize a company that he thought had grown too stodgy.  And, early in his tenure, he had famously said, “Labor unions are here to stay” (p.212).

      Reuther was a graduate of the “school of hard knocks,” the son of German immigrants whose father had worked in the West Virginia coalmines.   Reuther himself had worked his way up the automobile assembly line hierarchy to head its powerful union. George Romney once called Reuther the “most dangerous man in Detroit” (p.136). But Reuther prided himself on “pragmatic progressivism over purity, getting things done over making noise. . . [He was] not Marxist but Rooseveltian – in his case meaning as much Eleanor as Franklin” (p.136). Reuther believed that big government was necessary to solve big problems. During the Cold War, he won the support of Democratic presidents by “steering international trade unionists away from communism” (p.138).

     A quarter of a century after the infamous confrontation between Reuther and goons recruited by the Deuce’s grandfather Henry Ford to oppose unionization in the automobile industry — an altercation in which Reuther was seriously injured — the younger Ford’s partnership with Reuther blossomed. Rather than bitter and violent confrontation, the odd couple worked together to lift huge swaths of Detroit’s blue-collar auto workers into the middle class – arguably Detroit’s most significant contribution to American society in the second half of the 20th century. “When considering all that Detroit has meant to America,” Maraniss writes, “it can be said in a profound sense that Detroit gave blue-collar workers a way into the middle class . . . Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, two giants of the mid-twentieth century, were essential to that result” (p.212).

      Reuther was aware that, despite higher wages and improved benefits, life on the assembly lines remained “tedious and soul sapping if not dehumanizing and dangerous” for autoworkers (p.215). He therefore consistently supported improving leisure time for workers outside the factory.  Music was one longstanding outlet for Detroiters, including its autoworkers. The city’s rich history of gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues musicians gave Detroit an “unmatched creative melody” (p.100), Maraniss observes.   By the early 1960s, Detroit’s musical tradition had become identified with the work of Motown founder, mastermind and chief executive, Berry Gordy Jr.

     Gordy was an ambitious man of “inimitable skills and imagination . . . in assessing talent and figuring out how to make it shine” (p.100).  Gordy aimed to market his Motown sound to white and black listeners alike, transcending the racial confines of the traditional rhythm and blues market. He set up what Maraniss terms a “musical assembly line” that “nurtured freedom through discipline” (p.195) for his many talented performers. The songs which Gordy wrote and championed captured the spirit of working class life: “clear story lines, basic and universal music for all people, focusing on love and heartbreak, work and play, joy and pain” (p.53).

     Gordy’s team included a mind-boggling array of established stars: Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and his Miracles, Martha Reeves and her Mandelas, Diana Ross and her Supremes, and the twelve-year-old prodigy, Little Stevie Wonder.  Among Gordy’s rising future stars were the Temptations and the Four Tops. The Motown team was never more talented than in the summer of 1963, Maraniss contends. Ten Motown singles rose to Billboard’s Top 10 that year, and eight more to the Top 20.  Wonder, who dropped “Little” before his name in 1963, saw his “Fingertips Part 2” rocket up the charts to No. 1.  Martha and the Vandellas made their mark with “Heat Wave,” a song with “irrepressibly joyous momentum” (p.197).  But the title could have referred equally to the rising intensity of the nationwide quest for racial justice and civil rights for African-Americans that summer.

      In June 1963, nine weeks before the 1963 March on Washington, Maraniss reminds us that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the outlines of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the end of a huge Detroit “Walk to Freedom” rally that took place almost exactly 20 years after a devastating racial confrontation between blacks and whites in wartime Detroit. The Walk drew an estimated 100,000 marchers, including a significant if limited number of whites. What King said that June 1963 afternoon, Maraniss writes, was “virtually lost to history, overwhelmed by what was to come, but the first time King dreamed his dream at a large public gathering, he dreamed it in Detroit” (p.182). Concerns about disorderly conduct and violence preceded both the Detroit Walk to Freedom and the March on Washington two months later. Yet, the two  events were for all practical purposes free of violence.  Just as the March on Washington energized King’s non-violent quest for Civil Rights nation-wide, the Walk to Freedom buoyed Detroit’s claim to be a model of racial justice in the urban north.

      In the Walk for Freedom and in the nationwide quest for racial justice, Walter Reuther was an unsung hero. Under Reuther’s leadership, the UAW made an “unequivocal moral and financial commitment to civil rights action and legislation” (p.126).   Once John Kennedy assumed the presidency, Reuther consistently pressed the administration to move on civil rights.  The White House in turn relied on Reuther to serve as a liaison to black civil rights leaders, especially to Dr. King and his southern desegregation campaign. The UAW functioned as what Maraniss  terms the “bank” (p.140) of the Civil Right movement, providing needed funding at critical junctures. To be sure, Maraniss emphasizes, not all rank-and-file UAW members shared Reuther’s passionate commitment to the Walk for Freedom, the March on Washington, or to the cause of civil rights for African-Americans.

     Even within Detroit’s black community, not all leaders supported the Walk for Freedom. Maraniss  provides a close look at the struggle between the Reverend C.L. Franklin and the Reverend Albert Cleage for control over the details of the March for Freedom and, more generally, for control over the direction of the quest for racial justice in Detroit. Reverend Franklin, Detroit’s “flashiest and most entertaining preacher” (p.12; also the father of singer Aretha, who somehow escaped Gordy’s clutches to perform for Columbia Records and later Atlantic), was King’s closest ally in Detroit’s black community. Cleage, whose church later became known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, founded on the belief that Jesus was black, was not wedded to Dr. King’s brand of non-violence. Cleage sought to limit the influence of Reuther, the UAW and whites generally in the Walk for Freedom. Franklin was able to retain the upper hand in setting the terms and conditions for the June 1963 rally.  But the dispute between Reverends Franklin and Cleage reflected the more fundamental difference between black nationalism and Martin Luther King style integration, and was thus an “early formulation of a dispute that would persist throughout the decade” (p.232),

     In November of 1963, Cleage sponsored a conference that featured black nationalist Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots,” an important if less well known counterpoint to King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington in August of that year.  In tone and substance, Malcolm’s address “marked a break from the past and laid out a path for the black power movement to follow from then on” (p.279). Malcolm referred in his speech to the highly publicized police killing of prostitute Cynthia Scott the previous summer, which had generated outrage throughout Detroit’s black community and exacerbated long simmering tensions between the community and a police force that was more than 95% white.

     Scott’s killing “discombobulated the dynamics of race in the city. Any communal black and white sensibility resulting from the June 23 [Walk to Freedom] rally had dissipated, and the prevailing feeling was again us versus them” (p.229).  The tension between police and community did not abate when Police Commissioner George Edwards, a long standing liberal who enjoyed strong support within the black community, considered the Scott case carefully and ruled that the shooting was “regrettable and unwise . . . but by the standards of the law it was justified” (p.199).

      Then there was the contentious issue of a proposed Open Housing ordinance that would have forbidden property owners from refusing to sell their property on the basis of race. The proposed ordinance required passage from the city’s nine person City Council, elected at large in a city that was one-third black – no one on the council represented directly the city’s black neighborhoods. The proposal was similar in intent to future national legislation, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and had the enthusiastic support of Detroit’s progressive Mayor, Jerome Cavanaugh, a youthful Irish Catholic who deliberately cast himself as a mid-western John Kennedy.

      But the proposal evoked bitter opposition from white homeowner associations across the city, revealing the racial fissures within Detroit. “On one side were white homeowner groups who said they were fighting on behalf of individual rights and the sanctity and safety of their neighborhoods. On the other side were African American churches and social groups, white and black religious leaders, and the Detroit Commission on Community Relations, which had been established . . . to try to bridge the racial divide in the city” (p.242).   Notwithstanding the support of the Mayor and leaders like Reuther and Reverend Franklin, white homeowner opposition doomed the proposed ordinance. The City Council rejected the proposal 7-2, a stinging rebuke to the city’s self-image as a model of racial progress and harmony.

       Detroit’s failed bid for the 1968 Olympics was an equally stinging rebuke to the self-image of a city that loved sports as much as music. Detroit bested more glamorous Los Angeles for the right to represent the United States in international competition for the games. A delegation of city leaders, including Governor Romney and Mayor Cavanaugh, traveled to Baden Baden, Germany, where they made a well-received presentation to the International Olympic Committee. While Detroit was making its presentation, the Committee received a letter from an African American resident of Detroit who alluded to the Scott case and the failed Open Housing Ordinance to argue against awarding the games to the city on the ground that fair play “has not become a living part of Detroit” (p.262). Although bookmakers had made Detroit a 2-1 favorite for the 1968 games, the Committee awarded them to Mexico City. Its selection was based largely upon what Maraniss considers Cold War considerations, with Soviet bloc countries voting against Detroit. The delegation dismissed the view that the letter to the Committee might have undermined Detroit’s bid, but its actual effect on the Committee’s decision remains undetermined.

         Maraniss asks whether Detroit might have been able to better contain or even ward off the devastating 1967 riots had it been awarded the 1968 Olympic games. “Unanswerable, but worth pondering” is his response (p.271). In explaining the demise of Detroit, many, myself included, start with the 1967 riots which in a few short but violent days destroyed large swaths of the city, obliterating once solid neighborhoods and accelerating white flight to the suburbs.  But Maraniss emphasizes that white flight was already well underway long before the 1967 disorders. The city’s population had dropped from just under 1.9 million in the 1950 census to 1.67 million in 1960. In January of 1963, Wayne State University demographers published “The Population Revolution in Detroit,” a study which foresaw an even more precipitous emigration of Detroit’s working class in the decades ahead. The Wayne State demographers “predicted a dire future long before it became popular to attribute Detroit’s fall to a grab bag of Rust Belt infirmities, from high labor costs to harsh weather, and before the city staggered from more blows of municipal corruption and incompetence. Before any of that, the forces of deterioration were already set in motion” (p..91). Only a minor story in January 1963, the findings and projections of the Wayne State study in retrospect were of “startling importance and haunting prescience” (p.89).

* * *

      My high school classmates are likely to find Maraniss’ book a nostalgic trip down memory lane: his 18 month period begins with our senior year in a suburban Detroit high school and ends with our freshman college year — our own time of soaring youthful dreams, however unrealistic. But for those readers lacking a direct connection to the book’s time and place, and particularly for those who may still think of Detroit only as an urban basket case, Maraniss provides a useful reminder that it was not always thus.  He nails the point in a powerful sentence: “The automobile, music, labor, civil rights, the middle class – so much of what defines our society and culture can be traced to Detroit, either made there or tested there or strengthened there” (p.xii).  To this, he could have added, borrowing from Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 hit, “Dancing in the Streets,” that America can’t afford to forget the Motor City.

 

                   Thomas H. Peebles

Berlin, Germany

October 28, 2016

9 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, United States History

Blithe Optimist

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Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge:

The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

     Rick Perlstein has spent his career studying American conservatism in the second half of the 20th century and its capture of the modern Republican Party. His first major work, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, was an incisive and entertaining study of Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican Party nomination for the presidency and his landslide loss that year to President Lyndon Johnson. He followed with Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, a description of the nation at the time of Richard Nixon’s landslide 1972 victory over Senator George McGovern  — a nation divided by a cultural war between “mutually recriminating cultural sophisticates on the one hand and the plain, earnest ‘Silent Majority’ on the other” (p.xix). Now, in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Perlstein dives into American politics between 1973 and 1976, beginning with Nixon’s second term and ending with the failed bid of the book’s central character, Ronald Reagan, for  the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination.

     The years 1973 to 1976 included the Watergate affair that ended the Nixon presidency in 1974; the ultra-divisive issue of America’s engagement in Vietnam, which ended in an American withdrawal from that conflict in 1975; and the aftershocks from the cultural transformations often referred to as “the Sixties.” It was a time, Perlstein writes, when America “suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history” (p.xiii). 1976 was also the bi-centennial year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which the nation approached with trepidation. Many feared, as Perlstein puts it, that celebration of the nation’s 200 year anniversary would serve the “malign ideological purpose of dissuading a nation from a desperately needed reckoning with the sins of its past” (p.712).

     Perlstein begins by quoting advice Nikita Khrushchev purportedly provided to Richard Nixon: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” Perlstein does not return to Khrushchev’s advice and, as I ploughed through his book, I realized that I had not grasped how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into his lengthy (804 pages!) narrative. More on that below. There’s no mystery, however, about Perlstein’s sub-title “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”

     About one third of the book addresses Nixon’s fall in the Watergate affair and another third recounts Reagan’s rise to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination, including the year’s presidential primaries and the maneuvering of the Ford and Reagan presidential campaigns at the Republican National Convention that summer. The remaining third consists of biographical background on Reagan and his evolution from a New Deal liberal to a conservative Republican; an examination of the forces that were at work in the early 1970s to mobilize conservatives after Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 defeat; and Perlstein’s efforts to describe the American cultural landscape in the 1970s and capture the national mood, through a dazzling litany of vignettes and anecdotes. At times, it seems that Perlstein has seen every film that came to theatres in the first half of the decade; watched every television program from the era; and read every small and mid-size town newspaper.

     Perlstein describes his work as a “sort of biography of Ronald Reagan – of Ronald Reagan, rescuer” (p.xv) — rescuer, presumably, of the American psyche from the cultural convulsions of the Sixties and the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam that had shaken America’s confidence to the core. Perlstein considers Reagan to have been a gifted politician who exuded a “blithe optimism in the face of what others called chaos” (p.xvi), with an uncanny ability to simplify complex questions, often through stories that could be described as homespun or hokey, depending upon one’s perspective. Reagan was an “athlete of the imagination,” Perlstein writes, who was “simply awesome” at “turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty” (p.48). This power was a key to “what made others feel so good in his presence, what made them so eager and willing to follow him – what made him a leader. But it was why, simultaneously, he was such a controversial leader” (p.xv).   Many regarded Reagan’s blithe optimism as the work of a “phony and a hustler” (p.xv). At bottom, Reagan was a divider and not a uniter, Perlstein argues, and “understanding the precise ways that opinions about him divided Americans . . . better helps us to understand our political order of battle today: how Americans divide themselves from one another” (p.xvi).

* * *

     In a series of biographical digressions, Perlstein demonstrates how Reagan’s blithe mid-western optimism served as the foundation for a long conversion to political conservatism.  Perlstein begins with Reagan’s upbringing in Illinois, his education at Illinois’ Eureka College, and his early years as a sportscaster in Iowa. Reagan left the mid-west in 1937 for Hollywood and a career in films, arriving in California as a “hemophiliac, bleeding heart liberal” (p.339). But, during his Hollywood years, Reagan came to see Communist Party infiltration of the film industry as a menace to the industry’s existence. He was convinced that Communist actors and producers had mastered the subtle art of making the free enterprise system look bad and thereby were undermining the American way of life.   Reagan became an informant for the FBI on the extent of Communist infiltration of Hollywood, a “warrior in a struggle of good versus evil – a battle for the soul of the world” (p.358), as Perlstein puts it. Reagan further came to resent the extent of taxation and viewed the IRS as a public enemy second only to Communists.

     Yet, Reagan remained a liberal Democrat through the 1940s. In 1948, he worked for President Truman’s re-election and introduced Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey to a national radio audience. In 1952, Reagan supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s bid for the presidency. His journey toward the conservative end of the spectrum was probably completed when he became host in 1954 of General Electric’s “GE Theatre,” a mainstay of early American television. One of America’s corporate giants, GE’s self-image was of a family that functioned in frictionless harmony, with the interests of labor and management miraculously aligned. GE episodes, Perlstein writes, were the “perfect expression” of the 1950s faith that nothing “need ever remain in friction in the nation God had ordained to benevolently bestride the world” (p.395). Reagan and his blithe optimism proved to be a perfect fit with GE Theatre’s mission of promoting its brand of Americanism, based on low taxes, unchallenged managerial control, and freedom from government regulatory interference.

     In the 1960 presidential campaign, Reagan depicted the progressive reforms which Democratic nominee John Kennedy advocated as being inspired by Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s rival, noted Reagan’s evolution and directed his staff to use Reagan as a speaker “whenever possible. He used to be a liberal” (p.374). By 1964, Reagan had become a highly visible backer of Barry Goldwater’s presidential quest, delivering a memorable speech in support of the candidate at the Republican National Convention. Reagan went on to be elected twice as governor of California, in 1967 and 1971.

     While governor, Reagan consistently argued for less government.  Our highest national priority, he contended at a national governors’ conference in 1973, should be to “halt the trend toward bigger, more expensive government at all levels before it is too late . . . We as citizens will either master government as our servant or ultimately it will master us” (p.160). Almost alone among conservatives, Reagan projected an image of a “pleasant man who understands why people are angry” (p.604), as one commentator put it. He gained fame if not notoriety during his tenure as governor for his hard line opposition to student protesters, particularly at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, attracting scores of working class Democrats who had never previously voted for a Republican. “Part of what made Berkeley [student unrest] such a powerful issue for traditionally Democratic voters was class resentment – something Ronald Reagan understood in his bones” (p.83).

     Early in Reagan’s second term as California’s governor, on June 17, 1972, four burglars were caught attempting to break into the Democratic national headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office and apartment complex. Throughout the ensuing investigation, Reagan seemed indifferent to what Time Magazine termed “probably the most pervasive instance of top-level misconduct in [American] history” (p.77).

* * *

     Watergate to Reagan was part of the usual atmosphere of campaigning, not much more than a prank.  Upon first learning about the break-in, he quipped that the Democrats should be happy that someone considered their documents worth reading. Throughout the investigation into corruption that implicated the White House, Reagan maintained a stubborn “Christian charity to a a fallen political comrade” (p.249). The individuals involved, he argued, were “not criminals at heart” (p.81). He told conservative commentators Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that he found “no evidence of criminal activity” in Watergate, which was why Nixon’s detractors were training their fire on “vague areas like morality and so forth” (p.249-50). Alone among political leaders, Reagan insisted that Watergate “said nothing important about the American character” (p.xiv).

     Thus, few were surprised when Reagan supported President Gerald Ford’s widely unpopular presidential pardon of Nixon for any crimes he might have committed related to Watergate, issued one month after Nixon’s resignation. Nixon had already suffered “punishment beyond anything any of us could imagine” (p.271), Reagan argued. Ford’s pardon of Nixon dissipated the high level of support that he had enjoyed since assuming the presidency, sending his public approval ratings from near record highs to near new lows. Democrats gained a nearly 2-1 advantage in the House of Representatives in the 1974 mid-term elections and Reagan’s party “seemed near to death” (p.329).

     As Ford’s popularity waned, Reagan saw an opportunity to challenge the sitting president. He announced his candidacy in November 1975. Reagan said he was running against what he termed a “buddy system” in Washington, an incestuous network of legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists which:

functions for its own benefit – increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker, who supports it with his taxes. . . I don’t believe for one moment that four more years of business as usual in Washington is the answer to our problems, and I don’t believe the American people believe it, either (p.547).

With Reagan’s bid for the 1976 Republican nomination, Perlstein’s narrative reaches its climatic conclusion.

* * *

     The New York Times dismissed the presidential bid as an “amusing but frivolous Reagan fantasy” and wondered how Reagan could be “taken so seriously by the news media” (p.546). Harper’s termed Reagan the “Candidate from Disneyland” (p.602), labeling him “Nixon without the savvy or self pity. . . That he should be regarded as a serious candidate for President is a shame and embarrassment” (p.602). Commentator Garry Wills responded to Reagan’s charge that the media was treating him unfairly by conceding that it was indeed “unfair to expect accuracy or depth” from Reagan (p.602). But, as Perlstein points out, these comments revealed “more about their authors than they did about the candidate and his political prospects” (p.602), reflecting what he terms elsewhere the “myopia of pundits, who so frequently fail to notice the very cultural ground shifting beneath their feet” (p.xv).

     1976 proved to be the last year either party determined its nominee at the convention itself, rather than in advance. Reagan went into the convention in Kansas City as the most serious threat to an incumbent president since Theodore Roosevelt had challenged William Howard Taft for the Republican Party nomination in 1912. His support in the primaries and at the convention benefitted from a conservative movement that had come together to nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, a committed “army that could lose a battle, suck it up, and then regroup to fight a thousand battles more” (p.451) — “long memoried elephants” (p.308), Perlstein terms them elsewhere.

     In the years since the Goldwater nomination, evangelical Christians had become more political, moving from the margins to the mainstream of the conservative movement. Evangelical Christians were behind an effort to have America declared officially a “Christian nation.” Judicially-imposed busing of school students to achieve greater racial balance in public schools precipitated a torrent of opposition in cities as diverse as Boston, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky – the Boston opposition organization was known as ROAR, Restore our Alienated Rights. Perlstein also traces the conservative reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion. The 1976 Republican party platform for the first time recommended a Human Rights amendment to the constitution to reverse the decision.

     Activist Phyllis Schlafly, who died just weeks ago, led a movement to derail the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, intended to establish gender equality as a constitutional mandate. Schafly’s efforts contributed to stopping the proposed amendment at a time when approval of only three additional states would have officially adopted the amendment as part of the federal constitution (“Don’t Let Satan Have Its Way – Stop the ERA” was the opposition slogan, as well as Perlstein’s title for a chapter on the subject). Internationally, conservatives opposed the Ford administration’s intention to relinquish to Panama control of the Panama Canal; and the policy of détente toward the Soviet Union which both the Nixon and Ford administrations pursued.

     Enabling the long-memoried elephants was Richard Viguerie, a little known master of new technologies for fund-raising and grass roots get-out-the-vote campaigns. Conservative opinion writers like Patrick Buchanan, former Nixon White House Communications Director, and George Will also enjoyed expanded newspaper coverage. A fledgling conservative think tank based in Washington, the Heritage Foundation, became a repository for combining conservative thinking and action. The Heritage Foundation assisted a campaign in West Virginia to purge school textbooks of “secular humanism.”

     With the contest for delegates nearly even as the convention approached, Reagan needed the support of conservatives for causes like these. But Reagan also realized that limited support from centrist delegates could prove to be his margin of difference. In a bid to attract such delegates, especially from the crucial Pennsylvania delegation, Reagan promised in advance of the convention to name Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate. Schweiker came from the moderate wing of the party, with a high rating from the AFL-CIO. But the move backfired, infuriating conservatives — North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in particular — with few moderate delegates switching to Reagan.   Then, Reagan’s supporters proposed a change to the convention’s rules that would have required Ford to announce his running mate prior to the presidential balloting, forcing Ford to anger either the moderate or conservative faction of the party. Ford supporters rejected the proposal, which lost on the full floor after a close vote.

     The 150 delegates of the Mississippi delegation proved to be crucial in determining the outcome of the convention’s balloting. When the Mississippi delegation cast its lot with Ford, the president had a sufficient number of delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, 1187 votes to 1070 for Reagan. Ford selected Kansas Senator Robert Dole as his running mate, after Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whom conservatives detested, announced the previous fall that he did not wish to be a candidate for Vice President. Anxious to achieve party unity, Ford invited Reagan to join him on the platform following his acceptance speech. Reagan gave an eloquent impromptu speech that many thought overshadowed Ford’s own acceptance address.

* * *

     Perlstein includes a short, epilogue-like summation to the climatic Kansas City convention: Ford went on to lose to Democratic governor from Georgia Jimmy Carter in a close 1976 general election and Reagan emerged as the undisputed leader of his party’s conservative wing. But as the book ended, I found myself still asking how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into this saga. My best guess is that the notion is tied to Perlstein’s description of Reagan as a “rescuer.”  Reagan’s failed presidential campaign was a journey across a great divide – over an invisible bridge.

     On the one side were Watergate, the Vietnam War, repercussions from the Sixties and, for conservatives, Goldwater’s humiliating 1964 defeat. On the other side was the promise of an unsullied way forward.  Reagan’s soothing cult of optimism offered Americans a message that could allow them to again view themselves and their country positively.  There were no sins that Reagan’s America need atone for. Usually dour and gloomy conservatives — Perlstein’s “long memoried elephants” — also saw in Reagan’s buoyant   message the discernible path to power that had eluded them in 1964.. But, as Perlstein will likely underscore in a subsequent volume, many still doubted whether the blithe optimist had the temperament or the intellect to be president, while others suspected that his upbeat brand of conservatism could no more be sold to the country-at-large than the Goldwater brand in 1964.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 2, 2016

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography

Becoming FLOTUS

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Peter Slevin, Michelle Obama: A Life 

             In Michelle Obama: A Life, Peter Slevin, a former Washington Post correspondent presently teaching at Northwestern University, explores the improbable story of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, now Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States (a position known affectionately in government memos as “FLOTUS”). Slevin’s sympathetic yet probing biography shows how Michelle’s life was and still is shaped by the blue collar, working class environment of Chicago’s South Side, where she was born and raised. Michelle’s life in many ways is a microcosm of 20th century African-American experience. Michelle’s ancestors were slaves, and her grandparents were part of the “Great Migration” of the first half of the 20th century that sent millions of African-Americans from the rigidly segregated south to northern urban centers in search of a better life.  Michelle was born in 1964, during the high point of the American civil rights movement, and is thus part of the generation that grew up after that movement had widened the opportunities available to African Americans.

            The first half of the book treats Michelle’s early life as a girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago and her experiences as an African-American at two of America’s ultra-elite institutions, Princeton University and Harvard Law School.  The centerpiece of this half is the loving environment that Michelle’s parents, Fraser Robinson III and his wife Marian Shields Robinson, created for Michelle and her older brother Craig, born two years earlier in 1962.  The Robinson family emphasized the primacy of education as the key to a better future, along with hard work and discipline, dedication to family, regular church attendance, and community service.

            Michelle’s post-Harvard professional and personal lives form the book’s second half. Early in her professional career, Michelle met a young man from Hawaii with an exotic background and equally exotic name, Barack Hussein Obama. Slevin provides an endearing account of their courtship and marriage (their initial date is also the subject of a recent movie “Southside With You”). Once Barack enters the scene, however, the story becomes as much about his entry and dizzying rise in politics as it is about Michelle, and thus likely to be familiar to many readers.

            But in this half of the book, we also learn about Michelle’s career in Chicago; how she balanced her professional obligations with her parental responsibilities; her misgivings about the political course Barack seemed intent upon pursuing; her at first reluctant, then full throated support for Barack’s long-shot bid for the presidency; and how she elected to utilize the platform which the White House provided to her as the FLOTUS.  Throughout, we see how Michelle retained the values of her South Side upbringing.

* * *

        Slevin provides an incisive description of 20th century Chicago, beginning in the 1920s, when Michelle’s grandparents migrated from the rural south.  He emphasizes the barriers that African Americans experienced, limiting where they could live and work, their educational opportunities, and more. Michelle’s father Fraser, after serving in the U.S. army, worked in a Chicago water filtration plant up to his death in 1991 from multiple sclerosis at age 55. Marian, still living (‘the First Grandmother”), was mainly a “stay-at-home Mom.”  In a city that “recognized them first and foremost as black,” Fraser and Marian refused to utilize the oppressive shackles of racism as an excuse for themselves or their children.  The Robinson parents “saw it as their mission to provide strength, wisdom, and a measure of insulation to Michelle and Craig” (p.26). Their message to their children was that no matter what obstacles they faced because of their race or their working class roots, “life’s possibilities were unbounded. Fulfillment of those possibilities was up to them. No excuses” (p.47).

     The South Side neighborhood where Michelle and Craig were raised, although part of Chicago’s rigidly segregated housing patterns, offered a stable and secure environment, with well-kept if modest homes and strong neighborhood schools. The neighborhood and the Robinson household provided Michelle and Craig with what Craig later termed the “Shangri-La of upbringings” (p.33).  Fraser and Marian both regretted deeply that they were not college graduates. The couple consequently placed an unusually high premium on education for their children, adopting a savvy approach which parents today would be wise to emulate.

      Learning to read and write  for the two Robinson children was a means toward the even more important goal of learning to think. Fraser and Marian advised their children to “use their heads, yet not to be afraid to make mistakes – in each case learning from what goes wrong” (p.46).  We told them, Marian recounted, “Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow even us to say just anything to you” (p.47). Fraser and Marian granted their children freedom to explore, test ideas and make their own decisions, but always within a framework that emphasized “hard work, honesty, and self-discipline. There were obligations and occasional punishment. But the goal was free thinking” (p.46).

       Both Robinson children were good students, but with diametrically opposite study methods. Michelle was methodical and obsessive, putting in long hours, while Craig largely coasted to good grades. Michelle went to Princeton in part because Craig was already a student there, but she did so with misgivings and concerns that she might not be up to its high standards. Prior to Princeton, Craig and Michelle had had little exposure to whites. If they experienced animosity in their early years, Slevin writes, it was “likely from African American kids who heard their good grammar, saw their classroom diligence, and accused them of ‘trying to sound white’” (p.49). At Princeton, however, a school which “telegraphed privilege” (p.71), Michelle began a serious contemplation of what it meant to be an African-American in a society where whites held most of the levers of power.

       As an undergraduate between 1982 and 1986, Michelle came to see a separate black culture existing apart from white culture. Black culture had its own music, language, and history which, as she wrote in a college term paper, should be attributed to the “injustices and oppressions suffered by this race of people which are not comparable to the experience of any other race of people through this country’s history” (p.91). Michelle observed that black public officials must persuade the white community that they are “above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just Black people” (p.91-92). Slevin notes that Michelle’s description “strikingly foreshadowed a challenge that she and her husband would face twenty two years later as they aimed for the White House” (p.91). Michelle’s college experience was a vindication of the framework Fraser and Marian had created that allowed Michelle to flourish. At Princeton, Michelle learned that the girl from blue collar Chicago could “play in the big leagues” (p.94), as Slevin puts it.

            In the fall of 1986, Michelle entered Harvard Law School, another “lofty perch, every bit as privileged as Princeton, but certainly more competitive once classes began” (p.95). In law school, she was active in an effort to bring more African American professors to a faculty that was made up almost exclusively of white males. She worked for the Legal Aid Society, providing services to low income individuals. When she graduated from law school in 1989, she returned to Chicago – it doesn’t seem that she ever considered other locations. But, notwithstanding her activist leanings as a student, she chose to work as an associate in one of Chicago’s most prestigious corporate law firms, Sidley and Austin.

       Although located only a few miles from the South Side neighborhood where Michelle had grown up, Sidley and Austin was a world apart, another bastion of privilege, with some of America’s best known and most powerful businesses as its clients. The firm offered Michelle the opportunity to sharpen her legal skills, particularly in intellectual property protection and, at least equally importantly, pay off some of her student loans. But, like many idealistic young law graduates, she did not find work in a corporate law firm satisfying and left after two years.

        Michelle landed a job with the City of Chicago as an assistant to Valerie Jarret, then the City of Chicago’s Commissioner for Planning and Economic Development, who later became a valued White House advisor to President Obama. Michelle’s position was more operational than legal, serving as a “trouble shooter” with a discretionary budget that could be utilized to advance city programs at the neighborhood level on subjects as varied as business development, infant mortality, mobile immunization, and after school programs. But working for the City of Chicago was nothing if not political, and Michelle left after 18 months to take a position in 1993 at the University of Chicago, located on Chicago’s South Side, not far from where she grew up.

    Although still another of America’s most prestigious educational institutions, the University of Chicago had always seemed like hostile territory to Michelle, incongrous with its surrounding low and middle-income neighborhoods. But Michelle landed a position with a university program, Public Alliance, designed to improve the University’s relationship with the surrounding communities. Notwithstanding her lack of warm feelings for the university, the position was an excellent fit.  It afforded Michelle the opportunity to try her hand at bridging some of the gaps between the university and its less privileged neighbors.

          After nine years  with Public Allies, Michelle took a position in 2002 with the University of Chicago Hospital, again involved in public outreach, focused on the way the hospital could better serve the medical needs of the surrounding community. This position, Slevin notes, brought home to Michelle the massive inequalities within the American health care system, divided between the haves with affordable insurance and the have nots without it.  Michelle stayed in this position until early 2008, when she left to work on her husband’s long shot bid for the presidency. In her positions with the city and the university, Michelle developed a demanding leadership style for her staffs that she brought to the White House: result-oriented, given to micro-management, and sometimes “blistering” (p.330) to staff members whose performance fell short in her eyes.

* * *

       While working at Sidley and Austin, Michelle interviewed the young man from Hawaii, then in his first year at Harvard Law School, for a summer associate position. Michelle in Slevin’s account found the young man “very charming” and “handsome,” and sensed that, as she stated subsequently, he “liked my dry sense of humor and my sarcasm” (p.121). But if there was mutual attraction, it was the attraction of opposites. Barack Obama was still trying to figure out where his roots lay. Michelle Robinson, quite obviously, never had to address that question. Slevin notes that the contrast could “hardly have been greater” between Barack’s “untethered life and the world of the Robinson and Shields clans, so numerous and so firmly anchored in Chicago. He felt embraced and it surprised him” (p.128; Barack’s untethered life figures prominently in Janny Scott’s biography of Barack’s mother, Ann Dunham, reviewed here in July 2012).  For Barack, meeting the Robinson family for the first time was, as he later wrote, like “dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver” (p.127).  The couple married in 1992.

        Barack served three 2-year terms in the Illinois Senate, from 1997 to 2004. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives, losing in a landslide. He had his breakthrough moment in 2004, when John Kerry, the Democratic Presidential candidate, invited him to deliver a now famous keynote address to that year’s Democratic National Convention.  Later that year, he won  a vacant seat in the United States Senate  by a landslide when his Republican opponent had to drop out due to a sex scandal.  In early 2007, he decided to run for the presidency.

       Michelle’s mistrust of politics was “deeply rooted and would linger long into Barack’s political career” (p.161), Slevin notes.  Her distrust was at the root of discernible frictions within their marriage, especially after their daughters were born — Malia in 1998 and Sasha in 2001. Barack’s political campaigning and professional obligations kept him away from home much of the time, to Michelle’s dismay. Michelle felt that she had accomplished more professionally than Barack, and was also saddled with parental duties in his absence. “It sometimes bothered her that Barack’s career always took priority over hers. Like many professional women of her age and station, Michelle was struggling with balance and a partner who was less involved – and less evolved – than she had expected” (p.180-81).

        Michelle was, to put it mildly, skeptical when her husband told her in 2006 that he was considering running for the presidency. She worried about further losing her own identity, giving up her career for four years, maybe eight, and living with the real possibility that her husband could be assassinated. Yet, once it became apparent that Barack was serious about such a run and had reached the “no turning back” point, Michelle was all in.  She became a passionate, fully committed member of Barack’s election team, a strategic partner who was “not shy about speaking up when she believed the Obama campaign was falling short” (p.219).

         With Barack’s victory over Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Michelle became what Slevin terms the “unlikeliest first lady in modern history” (p.4). The projects and messages she chose to advance as FLOTUS “reflected a hard-won determination to help working class and the disadvantaged, to unstack the deck. She was more urban and more mindful of inequality than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt” (p.5). Michelle reached out to children in the less favored communities in Washington, mostly African American, and thereafter to poor children around the world. She also concentrated on issues of obesity, physical fitness and nutrition, famously launching a White House organic vegetable garden. She developed programs to support the wives of American military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, women struggling to “keep a toehold in the middle class” (p.293).

        In Barack’s second term, she adopted a new mission, called Reach Higher, which aimed to push disadvantaged teenagers toward college. Throughout her time as FLOTUS, Michelle tried valiantly to provide her two daughters with as close to a normal childhood as life in the White House bubble might permit. Slevin’s account stops just prior to the 2014 Congressional elections, when the Republicans gained control of the United States Senate, after gaining control of the House of Representatives in the prior mid-term elections in 2010.

       Slevin does not overlook the incessant Republican and conservative critics of Michelle. She appeared to many whites in the 2008 campaign as an “angry black woman,” which Slevin dismisses as a “simplistic and pernicious stereotype” (p.236). Right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh began calling her “Moochelle,” much to the delight of his listening audience. The moniker conjured images of a fat cow or a leech – synonymous with the term “moocher” which Ayn Rand used in her novels to describe those who “supposedly lived off the hard work of the producers” (p.316) — all the while slyly associating Michelle with “big government, the welfare state, big-spending Democrats, and black people living on the dole” (p.315).  Vitriol such as this, Slevin cautiously concludes, “could be traced to racism and sexism or, at a charitable minimum, a lack of familiarity with a black woman as accomplished and outspoken as Michelle” (p.286). In addition, criticism emerged from the political left, which “viewed Michelle positively but asked why, given her education, her experience, and her extraordinary platform, she did not speak or act more directly on a host of progressive issues, whether abortion rights, gender inequity, or the structural obstacles facing the urban poor” (p.286).

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       Slevin’s book is not hagiography. As a conscientious biographer whose credibility is directly connected to his objectivity, Slevin undoubtedly looked long and hard for the Michelle’s weak points and less endearing qualities. He did not come up with much, unless you consider being a strong, focused woman a negative quality. There is no real dark side to Michelle Obama in Slevin’s account, no apparent skeletons in any of her closets. Rather, the unlikely FLOTUS depicted here continues to reflect the values she acquired while growing up in Fraser and Marian Robinson’s remarkable South Side household.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 17, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography, Gender Issues, Politics, United States History

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

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Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Global Hubris

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Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights 

      In The Endtimes of Human Rights, Stephen Hopgood delivers a scathing critique of the practices and institutions associated with present day global human rights. Over the course of two introductory sections and five subsequent chapters, Hopgood argues forcefully that today’s global human rights machinery is unsustainable and on the verge of collapse, as the word “endtimes” in his title suggests.  Hopgood uses initial capital letters, “Human Rights,” to describe this broken system, which he contrasts with “human rights” without initial capital letters.

     Lower case human rights refer to ground level, indigenous movements to be free from human rights abuses, which Hopwood wholeheartedly endorses. The endtimes “can never come for this form of ’human rights,’” he argues, “in the same way that nothing can stop people banding together to demand their own freedom or justice in whatever language they prefer” (p.viii).  Upper case Human Rights, by contrast, consist of a “global structure of laws, courts, norms, and organizations that raise money, write reports, run international campaigns, open local offices, lobby governments, and claim to speak with singular authority in the name of humanity as a whole” (p.ix).

    For Hopgood, upper case Human Rights are based on an elitist, one-size-fits-all approach, “overambitious, unaccountable, alienated and largely ineffectual” (p.182).  In their hubris, Human Rights advocates have sought, and have largely succeeded, in arrogating to themselves and the institutions they represent the authority to define the fundamental global norms that are “applicable always, without discretion” (p.122).  The tension between Human Rights and human rights, he argues, is “exactly” the “tension between top-down fixed authority and bottom up (spontaneous, diverse, and multiple) authorities.” (p,x).  The forthcoming collapse of (upper case) Human Rights means that locally inspired (lower case) human rights movements will have space to flourish.

    Hopgood’s arguments against Human Rights focus primarily upon international criminal justice, the process which seeks to hold accountable those who violate international norms against, for example, torture and arbitrary arrests and killings, occurring in the context of what we often term mass atrocities, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.  International criminal justice institutions of concern to Hopgood include the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and, especially, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, along with non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, gatekeeper organizations dedicated to identifying and publicizing human rights abuses and advocating for accountability for abusers.  Human Rights also embraces humanitarianism — the treatment of military and civilian personnel in wartime and crisis situations — and, more recently, has included efforts to secure equal treatment for women and for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender (LGBT) individuals.  These strains of Human Rights, although mentioned in Endtimes, are of less concern to Hopgood, a professor of international relations at the University of London and the author of Keeper of the Flame, Understanding Amnesty International.

     Readers may be surprised to discover that very little of Hopgood’s work involves a direct critique of the day-to-day practices of Human Rights. Readers need to look elsewhere if, for example, their interest is whether hearsay evidence should be admissible before the ICC.  Hopgood addresses Human Rights from a far broader perspective.  His core argument is that although contemporary international criminal justice seeks to secure accountability for human rights abusers through what purports to be a judicial process, the process is almost entirely political.  Hopgood’s interest is in exposing the political underpinnings of this process. A crucial portion of his argument against contemporary Human Rights lies in his elaboration of its European origins.

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     Today’s Human Rights may be traced to what Hopgood terms 19th century European humanism, when progressive, middle class Europeans created a “secular replacement for the Christian god” (p.x) which borrowed heavily from Christian values and concepts, especially the need to alleviate suffering.  Of particular importance was the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, the “first international church” of secular humanism (p.25). The ICRC, founded in 1863 in very Protestant Geneva, Switzerland, was a neutral organization dedicated to providing assistance to soldiers wounded in war.  The ICRC gave rise to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which established standards for the provision of relief in armed conflicts.

      A decade later, the Geneva-based Institut de Droit International (International Law Institute) came into being as a supplement to the ICRC. The institute, a standing council of international jurists charged with providing expert commentary on the laws of war, served as the first step toward international war crimes tribunals, Hopgood contends.  The League of Nations, created in the aftermath of World War I and also based in Geneva, constituted an “epiphany” for secular humanism, the “first truly international organization authorized explicitly by the idea of humanity, not the Christian god” (p.41).  The League was to be a “permanent, transnational, institutional, and secular regime for understanding and addressing the root causes of suffering” (p.41-42).

      This phase of global secular humanism “came crashing to the ground in 1939. The Holocaust and the Second World War destroyed the moral legitimacy and political power, if not the ideological ambition and cultural arrogance, of Europe” (p.xi).  But the Holocaust and World War II gave rise to a perceived need to create institutions better equipped to preserve and advance secular humanism across the globe.  The creation of new institutions began in 1945 with the United Nations and the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, which served as a model for future war crimes tribunals.  The years 1945-49 were the “last time Europe held such a central place in the design of world order. It was a last moment to embed the humanist dream before the empires were gone” (p.49), Hopgood argues.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Anti-Genocide Convention, both dating from 1948, along with a revised 1949 Geneva Convention, were products of this era and remain key instruments of global Human Rights.

       Echoing a theme which Barbara Keys developed in Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s, reviewed here in November 2015, Hopgood goes on to argue that Human Rights gained impetus in the 1970s when the United States began to prioritize human rights abroad as a key consideration in its foreign policy.  More than any other single factor, Hopgood argues, American power turned lower case human rights into upper case Human Rights, with the “secular religiosity” of European humanism giving way to a “more political, openly pro-democratic form of advocacy” that embraced the “logic of money as power” and “made explicit what had been implicit within international humanism: Human Rights and liberal capitalism were allies, not enemies” (p.12-13).  Human Rights thus became “intimately tied to the export of neo-liberal democracy using American state power” (p.xii).

     The apogee of Human Rights was from 1991 to 2008, the “unipolar moment” of American post-war dominance, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the creation of international tribunals to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities in the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  During this period, moreover, 120 countries approved the Rome Statute of 1998, the founding charter for the ICC, which Hopgood terms the “apex of international criminal justice” (p.129; the United States was one of just seven states to vote against the Rome statute, along with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen).  The ICC began hearing cases in 2002. The period also witnessed the emergence of an international “responsibility to protect” victims of human rights abuses, often shortened to R2P, now a recognized basis for humanitarian interventions authorized by the United Nations Security Council.

     But at the very moment when the notion of Human Rights was at its apogee, the “foundations of universal liberal norms and global governance [were] crumbling” (p.1), Hopgood argues.  The United States no longer retains the power it enjoyed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to foist its neo-liberal vision upon the rest of the world.  Nationalism and religious conviction have reasserted themselves throughout the world, and competing world powers, particularly China and Russia, are not proponents of liberal democracy.  Neither the United States nor any other entity is today capable of speaking and acting on behalf of the international community.

     Rather, we are entering what Hopgood terms a “neo-Westphalian world,” a reference to the 1648 peace treaties which ended Europe’s Thirty Years War and established a system of political order in Europe based on state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.  The neo-Westphalian world is one of “renewed sovereignty, resurgent religion, globalized markets, and the stagnation or rollback of universal norms about human rights” (p.166).  The “core modernizing assumption” of Human Rights, Hopgood argues, that “history brings secularism, a sense of oneself as an individual rights holder, and the erosion of collective beliefs and loyalties” is “fracturing alongside the Western power that sustained it” (p.166). Neo-Westphalia means “more politics, less morality, and less Europe,” in which the notion of genuine global solidarity becomes little more than a “conceit of human rights advocates in Geneva, New York, and London” (p.177).

    Hopgood looks with favor at the forthcoming collapse of Human Rights, its “endtimes,” much as many Christians look forward to an eschatological endtimes that culminate with the second coming of Jesus.  As Human Rights declines with declining American power, “local interpretations of what rights are and which rights might be sustainable will be essential if human rights are to flourish” (p.xv).  Once lower case human rights replace upper case Human Rights “other alliances can grow” (p.22), with “more international funding and expertise in areas like public health, disease, communication, and mediation – the Médecins Sans Frontières approach—which is more conducive to longer-lasting and effective change than are the often symbolic efforts of large-scale global institutions” (p.21).

     In the endtimes, only “issues of security, natural resources, and trade will excite multilateral engagement” (p.20), along with “very practical but time-limited relief work in logistics, search and rescue, medicine, disease control, and food and shelter” (p.21).  International Human Rights organizations will “turn increasingly to self-promotion. They will be concerned more than ever with themselves” (p.20). The one area where Human Rights seems likely to retain some clout is sub-Saharan Africa, precisely because this is the globe’s single area where Europe retains at least limited influence. “Africa will remain a laboratory for European moral spectatorship, although given Europe’s’ relative global decline, self reliance and church support will likely be the future for the poor and the suffering south of the Sahara” (p.21).

     Despite his searing rhetorical assault on contemporary Human Rights, Hopgood’s specific criticisms of the ICC and, by extension, international criminal justice, are tepid and hardly unconventional: the ICC’s prosecutions have been primarily against lower level state actors, rather than heads of state; they have focused almost exclusively on Africans, with few actions against persons from other regions; and the United States, having refused to ratify the Rome convention, remains an “embarrassing outlier for claims about liberal global norms” (p.129). The “true tragedy” of the ICC is that it is a court that “cannot conceivably exercise political jurisdiction over great powers, creating a permanent two-tier justice system in which strong states use global institutions to discipline the weak” (p.167).

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     Hopgood’s polemical and passionately argued case against modern Human Rights is problematic in several respects.  He offers maddeningly few specifics to support his broad theme that international Human Rights elites, in their hubris, have foisted “universal” and “secular” norms upon unwilling local populations.  The scattered examples he provides are drawn from efforts to secure greater rights for women and LGBT individuals in certain non-Western cultures, difficult and delicate exercises to be sure but well removed from his primary focus on international criminal justice.  Further, it is facile to argue that “renewed sovereignty” threatens international criminal justice. Nationalism and state sovereignty have always been, and are likely always to be, challenges to the aspirations and objectives of international institutions and organizations across the board, not simply to those of international criminal justice — just ask the mavens in Brussels charged with trying to hold the European Union together.

     Hopgood stops short of explicitly recommending abolition of the ICC and other publicly financed international criminal justice institutions and organizations, but his arguments lead inescapably to this recommendation. His contention that the resources presently applied to these institutions and organizations should be redirected to humanitarian relief means that any process seeking accountability for human rights abusers will have to be locally driven.  Given the weak state of domestic justice systems in much of the world, this means still less accountability for those who commit war crimes and mass atrocities than is the case with today’s admittedly imperfect international criminal justice machinery.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 4, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Politics, Rule of Law

Affirmative Government Advocate

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Andrew and Stephen Schlesinger, eds.,
The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. 

      Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was what we would today likely describe as a “public intellectual,” a top-notch historian who was also deeply engaged in political issues throughout his adult life.  Schlesinger’s father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., was himself a top-notch historian.  Both father and son taught at Harvard, with the younger Schlesinger finishing his academic career at the City University of New York.  Born in 1917, the younger Schlesinger was the author of a highly respected book on Andrew Jackson (“The Age of Jackson”) and a three volume series on Franklin Roosevelt (“The Age of Roosevelt”). He also wrote an influential 1949 political tract, The Vital Center, an argument for liberal democracy, based on civil liberties, the rule of law, and regulated capitalism, as the only realistic alternative to  fascism on the right and communism on the left.  Schlesinger was one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, ADA which, more than any other single organization, epitomized mainstream post-World War II liberalism. He was also a loyal, always passionate, and often-elegant spokesman for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

      Schlesinger served as an advisor to President John Kennedy, whom he revered. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Schlesinger wrote an account of the short Kennedy administration, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Schlesinger stayed on briefly as an advisor to President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s death but came to detest Johnson and his decision to escalate the Vietnam War. He returned to academia at City University of New York after his stint with the Johnson administration, where he remained until his retirement in 1994. He died in 2007 at the age of 89. Over the course of a long lifetime, Schlesinger wrote letters – lots of letters.

        Both the quality and the quantity of Schlesinger’s letter writing habits are on full display in this nearly 600-page collection, The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., edited by Schlesinger’s sons Andrew and Stephen. The sons have culled together selected letters to and from their father and arranged them in chronological order, adding editorial comments by way of footnotes. They estimate that they reviewed approximately 35,000 letters before making their choice of those contained here. Spaced over 71 years of Schlesinger’s adult life, from age 18 to his death at age 89, 35,000 letters amounts to an astounding average of almost 1½ letters per day during Schlesinger’s adult years.  Schlesinger corresponded regularly with presidents and presidential candidates, Congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, writers, journalists, religious leaders, intellectuals and scholars. He also answered questions from members of the public, including school students.

       Formal letter writing is today largely an extinct practice, replaced by email exchanges that occasionally resemble letters of old, although more often are less formal and far more cursory. Throughout most of Schlesinger’s life, however, letters were a frequent and frequently consequential mode of communication. Schlesinger, the editors observe in their introduction, “may indeed be one of the last of the old-fashioned breed of American figures for whom letters were the paramount means of communication – a phenomena that seems oddly arcane in a digital age” (p.xii).

       The “abiding theme” of the letters contained here, the editors indicate, was Schlesinger’s preoccupation with political liberalism and its prospects. “He was always in some way promoting and advancing the liberal agenda; it was his mission, purpose, and justification.” (p.xi), they write. Through their selection of letters, the editors seek to show their father’s “intellectual and political development as one of the nation’s leading liberal voices” (p.xiii). The collection they have assembled easily meets this objective.  It allows the reader to piece together the constituent elements of what might be termed classical, post-World War II mainstream American liberalism.

     Schlesinger’s brand of liberalism was staunchly anti-communist in post World War II America, yet supported civil liberties even for communists and therefore vigorously opposed the “mad, brutal and unrestrained fanaticism” (p.76) of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaigns.  Schlesinger’s liberalism supported civil rights in the United States, a strong stand against the Soviet Union — a “monstrous police despotism” (p.27) — across the globe, and independence for colonized countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  Above all, Schlesinger’s liberalism was predicated upon what he termed “affirmative government,” the use of federal authority to regulate capitalism, assist the men and women working within the capitalist economy, and advance the national interest.  As McCarthy’s intemperate brand of anti-communism gradually faded in the late 1950s, Schlesinger’s anti-communist fervor also subsided. By the end of the 1960s, the plight of newly independent states no longer seemed to be a preoccupation, and Schlesinger had by then recognized that communism bore many faces in addition to that of the Soviet Union.  By contrast, support for affirmative government, civil rights and civil liberties remained at the core of Schlesinger’s credo until his death in 2007.

* * *

       In numerous letters, Schlesinger warned against the Democratic Party becoming too pro-business.  We already have one pro-business party in the United States, Schlesinger argued with correspondents, we don’t need another.  In a 1957 letter to then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, whose support Schlesinger recognized as essential to driving a liberal legislative agenda through Congress, Schlesinger sought to dissuade Johnson from prioritizing budget cutting.  Schlesinger described the “great tradition of the Democratic party” as the “tradition of affirmative government – the tradition of Jackson, Bryan, Wilson and FDR – not the tradition which hates the national government, but the one which regards it as an indispensable means of promoting the national welfare. If Democrats reject this tradition, they reject any chance of national political success. And a frenzy for budget cutting as an end in itself amounts certainly to a rejection of this tradition” (p.144).

      Schlesinger remained an advocate for affirmative government throughout his adult life. After Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Schlesinger criticized Carter for his “systematic attack on the great creative contribution of the modern Democratic party – the idea of affirmative government,” an attack which he considered “demagoguery” and pandering to the “most vulgar American prejudices” (p.470). He advised 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale to avoid deficit spending as a political issue: “The Republicans have used the deficit as an issue for fifty years . . . The only people who worry about the deficit are businessmen most of whom have always voted Republican and will doubtless do so again” (p.485).  After Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in November 1994, Schlesinger sent a long, and apparently unsolicited, set of suggestions to President Bill Clinton on themes for his forthcoming January 1995 State of Union address. Arguing that the Clinton administration “cannot succeed by trying to out-Republican the Republicans” (p.549), Schlesinger urged Clinton to reject the view that the election was a “repudiation of activist government” (p.548) and to “outgrow the illusion” that “power taken away from government falls to the people; much of it goes rather to corporations not accountable (as government is) to the people.” The United States cannot solve its  problems by “turning them over the marketplace and thinking they will solve themselves” (p.550), Schlesinger contended.

       Schlesinger’s numerous letters to presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson are among the richest in this collection. Schlesinger supported and advised Stevenson in his two bids for the presidency, in 1952 and 1956. Although an admirer of Stevenson’s cerebral qualities, Schlesinger perceived an infuriating “Calvinism” in Stevenson. He “cannot bear to have things come easy or to say things which please everybody” (p.60), Schlesinger wrote in 1953.  Schlesinger was incensed in 1956 that Stevenson appeared to back “gradualism” in desegregating public schools after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional. He compared Stevenson’s queasiness on desegregation to that of Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy, then campaigning openly for the Vice-Presidential nomination, who called on Democrats to take a forthright stand in support of the Supreme Court’s decision despite the possibility of alienating southern voters. I know Kennedy is “damn anxious to get southern support for the Vice-Presidency,” Schlesinger wrote to Stevenson speechwriter Willard Wirtz.   Yet Kennedy gives an “altogether different impression of his feelings on the subject [of civil rights]” (p.130),

       When President Dwight Eisenhower’s health became an issue prior to the 1956 presidential elections, Schlesinger talked himself into the view that Stevenson had a shot at being elected.  On several occasions, Schlesinger felt forced to remind Stevenson that the “one important doubt” the American people had about him was “whether you want to be President” (p.103), as he stated in a 1955 letter to Stevenson. A few months prior to the 1956 election, Schlesinger sent Stevenson a lengthy letter coaching the presidential aspirant on how to respond to questions at a forthcoming political event:

Don’t say that problems are intricate and complicated. Everyone knows that they are. . . Don’t profess ignorance on questions, or say that you don’t know enough to give a definite answer. If you are running for the Presidency, people expect not necessarily a detailed technical answer, but a clear and definite expression of the way you would propose to tackle the problem. Don’t hesitate to give a short answer. . . Do not think that all this is in any sense a counsel of dishonesty. Politics, as its best, is an educational process” (p.134-45, italics in original).

       After Stevenson went on to suffer his second lopsided loss to Eisenhower in the 1956 elections, Schlesinger turned his attention to Senator Kennedy.  When he first met Kennedy at a dinner party in 1946, Schlesinger described the young man from Massachusetts (born in 1917, the same year as Schlesinger) as “very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side” (p.17). In supporting Kennedy’s run for the presidency in 1960, Schlesinger sought to coax the Senator to move toward more liberal positions.  Perceiving lethargy in the campaign after Kennedy received the Democratic Party nomination in August 1960, for example, Schlesinger urged Kennedy to “exploit one of your strongest assets – i.e., that you are far more liberal than Nixon. There is no point, it seems to me, in playing this down and hope to catch some votes in Virginia at the price of losing New York . . . I think you should take a strong liberal line from now on” (p.215).

         Schlesinger was among the many “brightest and the best” whom Kennedy assembled to be part of his administration, and Schlesinger frequently remarked that his opportunity to serve in the Kennedy administration was the high point of his career. However, there are not many letters here from Schlesinger’s time at the White House, perhaps because he did not feel free to comment to outsiders on administration business, perhaps because he did not have the time in that position to write letters with the frequency he had had as an academic.  Schlesinger stayed with the Johnson administration only through January 1964, and quickly became a caustic critic of Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.

       Schlesinger refused to endorse Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, his long-time friend and former ADA ally, for the Democratic Party nomination in 1968 (Schlesinger was a strong supporter of Robert Kennedy for the nomination until his assassination in June 1968, after which he supported George McGovern). In July 1968, Schlesinger responded to ADA lawyer David Ginsburg’s statement that Humphrey’s approach to Vietnam and that of the Republican candidate, former Vice-President Richard Nixon, would not be “too far apart.” If this is so, Schlesinger replied, “then give me Nixon – on the simple ground that, with the Democratic party in the opposition, we could stop his [Nixon’s] idiocy quicker.” If we are to have a “stupid and reactionary foreign policy, it should be carried out by a Republican administration, not by a Democratic administration” (p.358).

       Although Schlesinger never embraced Jimmy Carter and his presidency, he saw the Reagan years as a disaster for the United States. He therefore eagerly backed the candidacy of Bill Clinton, even though Clinton seemed to be like Carter, running against affirmative government.  After the Clinton presidency, Schlesinger offered advice and support for 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, Jr.  When Gore lost that election despite winning the national popular vote by a wide margin, Schlesinger withdrew from active counseling of presidential aspirants.

      The collection’s most amusing correspondence involves Schlesinger’s quibble with conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr., over a “blurb” on a Buckley book, Rumbles Right and Left, which quoted Schlesinger in 1963 as asserting that Buckley had a “facility for rhetoric which I envy, as well as a wit which I seek clumsily and vainly to emulate” (p.262). Schlesinger vehemently denied he ever said anything like this about Buckley and threatened to sue Buckley’s publisher to retract the attribution. Their feud reveals that Buckley did indeed have a first class wit, and that Schlesinger was humor-challenged.  Buckley signed one letter “Wm. F. ‘Envy His Rhetoric’ Buckley, Jr.” (p.263).  When Schlesinger refused to go on Buckley’s television show Firing Line — Buckley said that he was informed that Schlesinger did not wish to “help” Buckley’s program – Buckley taunted Schlesinger by asking him, “shouldn’t you search out opportunities to expose yourself to my rhetoric and my wit? How else will you fulfill your lifelong dream of emulating them?” (p.389). To this, the dour Schlesinger could only reply, “[c]an it be that you are getting a little tetchy in your declining years?” (p.389).

        Readers are likely to find curious Schlesinger’s frequent correspondence with Mrs. Marietta Tree, a socialite and Democratic party activist, the granddaughter of Reverend Endicott Peabody, founder and first headmaster of the Groton School, and the wife of a British Member of Parliament, Ronald Tree, himself the grandson of famed Chicago businessman Marshall Field.  Schlesinger wrote to Tree in exceptionally endearing terms over the course of nearly two decades. In one particularly impassioned flourish, Schlesinger told his “Darling M” that he could not “resist writing to you from the heart of the Middle West [Topeka, Kansas]. Why won’t you come with me on one of these trips? You gently bred eastern girls ought to get to know America. . . It is long since we have had a good, old-fashioned evening together and I need one desperately.  All dearest love, A” (p.167-68, italics in original). Schlesinger’s sons point out in a footnote that their father and Tree “were never lovers, despite the words of endearment in their correspondence. Her passion was reserved for Adlai Stevenson” (p.57*).  Judging by the language of his letters, however, their father was plainly smitten by the enticing Tree.

       Then, suddenly, the letters to Mrs. Tree stop.  This comes at a time when we learn via another editorial footnote that Schlesinger and his first wife Marion, whom he married in 1940, divorced in 1970, and that he remarried Alexandra Emmet Allen in 1971. But there are no letters here containing references to a deteriorating marriage relationship or a developing interest in another woman. This may be the result of an editorial decision on the part of his sons to eschew the personal side of Schlesinger and emphasize the political.

* * *

       The lack of references to key moments in Schlesinger’s personal life is also a reminder that a collection of letters should not be confused with biography or autobiography. This smartly compiled collection nonetheless provides a keen sense of how the galvanizing political and public issues of Schlesinger’s adult life looked not only for Schlesinger himself but also for the robust and unapologetic liberalism that he articulated from the early post-World War II years into the first decade of the 2st century.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 8, 2015

6 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, History, Intellectual History, Politics, United States History

Never Rely on Experts

Dallek

Robert Dallek, Camelot’s Court:
Inside the Kennedy White House

     During his short presidency, John Kennedy surrounded himself with some of the country’s sharpest minds and most credentialed individuals, yet was exasperated much of the time by the inadequacy of the advice they provided him. In Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, Robert Dallek elaborates upon this theme in a work that is above all a portrait of President Kennedy and a study of how he received and handled information and advice. Dallek is a prolific writer, the author of major works on Lyndon Johnson and on Richard Nixon’s relationship with Henry Kissinger, along with a full biography of Kennedy, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-63.

    International crises in Cuba and Vietnam dominate Dallek’s book, far more than the Cold War confrontation over Berlin, which looms in the background but is surprisingly not a major topic (Berlin was the subject of a book reviewed here in February 2013, Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth). Behind Cuba and Vietnam in a distant third place among the book’s substantive topics is the Civil Rights movement within the United States. Kennedy believed that the cause was just and important but looked at the issues raised primarily as a distraction from more pressing international ones. The main mission of the Kennedy White House, Dallek writes, was to “inhibit communist advance and avert a nuclear war” (p.xi).

     Kennedy is often described as a hardline, anti-Communist Cold Warrior and, given the times, it is difficult to see how he could have been anything else. Throughout his short presidency, Kennedy was obsessed with not appearing weak and inexperienced, especially in standing up to the Soviet Union. But the Kennedy in these pages is also exceptionally wary of the use and misuse of American military power to advance national interests in a dangerous nuclear age, way more than a surprising number of his closest advisors. As President, Kennedy consistently and often heroically resisted the urgings of these hard liners.

     Among Kennedy’s advisors, his brother Robert Kennedy, who formally served as Attorney General in his brother’s administration, occupied a special position as the president’s “leading advisor on every major question” (p.65). Robert Kennedy was his brother’s alter ego, an “enforcer” whom “everyone had to answer to if they fell short of the president’s expectations” (p.175). When the president needed to stay above the debate, brother Robert “could freely state his brother’s views” and, as needed outside the presence of his brother, “openly announce that he was declaring what the president wanted done” (p.334). John Kennedy came to believe that “only Bobby could be entirely trusted to act on his instructions” (p.328).

    By contrast, President Kennedy’s relationship with the career military officers in his entourage was fraught with tension and mistrust from the outset of his administration. Most Americans considered Kennedy a naval war hero, based on his widely publicized rescue of the crew of PT-109, a torpedo boat cut in half by the Japanese. The military, however, accustomed to serving former World War II Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower during the previous eight years, “questioned the new president’s qualifications to manage the country’s national defense” (p.69). General Lyman Lemnitzer, Kennedy’s first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the administration’s highest ranked career military official, looked derisively at the young president as a man with “no military experience at all, sort of a patrol boat skipper in World War II” (p.70). But the real issue between Kennedy and the military, Dallek emphasizes, was “not Kennedy’s inexperience and limited understanding of how to ensure the country’s safety,” but rather “Kennedy’s doubts about the wisdom of using nuclear arms and the military’s excessive reliance on them as a deterrent against communist aggression” (p.70).

     Dallek begins with a long biographical sketch of John Kennedy that culminates in his narrow victory in 1960 over Vice-President Richard Nixon, familiar ground for most readers. He follows with a similar sketch of brother Robert, in a chapter entitled “Adviser-in-Chief;” and with still another chapter describing the background of some of the “extraordinary group of academics, businessmen, lawyers, foreign policy and military experts” (p.x) whom Kennedy tapped to work in his administration. This chapter, entitled a “Ministry of Talent” — a term borrowed from Theodore Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s leading advisors – includes short portraits of many individuals likely to be familiar to most readers: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; Secretary of State Dean Rusk; Vice President Lyndon Johnson; US Ambassador to the UN and two time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson; and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, among others.

     Dallek’s substantive account begins only after this lengthy introductory material, about a third of the way into the book, where he focuses on how President Kennedy received and handled the advice provided him, especially during the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba in April 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962; and Vietnam throughout his presidency. In Dallek’s account, Kennedy was ill-advised and misled by his advisors during the Bay of Pigs operation; admirably led his advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and defaulted to them on Vietnam.

* * *

      Dallek’ addresses the ill-fated CIA Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, which took place less than 90 days into the Kennedy presidency, in a chapter entitled “Never Rely on Experts.” The far-fetched operation was hatched during the Eisenhower administration and was presented to the president as a way to rid the hemisphere of nemesis Fidel Castro and what the United States feared was his very contagious form of communism. The plot consisted of utilizing approximately 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade the island, on the assumption that this small force would incite the local population to rise up and throw out Castro (the plot figures prominently in Steven Kinzer’s The Brothers, reviewed here in October 2014).

       Although Kennedy shared a sense of urgency in removing this communist threat just 150 kilometers from the United States’ southern coast, he worried about the perception in the rest of Latin America of any operation in Cuba tied to the United States. The question was not whether to strike against Castro, but rather how to bring him down “without provoking accusations that the new government in Washington was no more than a traditional defender of selfish U.S. interests at the expense of Latin [American] autonomy”(p.133). Kennedy was willing to accept the project’s dubious assumption that the operation could be executed without revealing U.S. government involvement, but opposed from the outset the commitment of U.S. military forces to supplement the exiles’ operation. Dallek suggests that Kennedy gave the green light to the operation primarily for political reasons, fearing the conservative reaction if he refused to go forward. As the world now knows, the operation was a colossal failure, badly wounding the inexperienced president early in his tenure.

      Dallek documents several key instances where advice to the president was, at best, incomplete, as well as some key facts that were withheld in their entirety. Deputy CIA Director Richard Bissell failed to tell the president that the CIA had concluded that the mission could not be successful without the engagement of direct U.S. military support, an option that Kennedy had all but ruled out. Bissell further told the president that if the initial invasion action were to falter, the exiles could escape into nearby mountains to regroup and lead the anti-Castro rebellion. However, he neglected to tell the president that they would have to cross about 80 miles of swampland to reach those mountains.

     Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles shared Kennedy’s doubts about the flawed scheme but failed to stand up to the CIA in internal deliberations, discrediting both in the eyes of the president. Then, after the operation failed, Bowles leaked a document to the press showing the State Department’s reservations, infuriating Kennedy. As he tried to recover from this devastating early blow to his presidency, Kennedy’s wariness of military advice transformed into a more generalized distrust for the advice of all experts.

* * *

      The Cuba story had a largely successful denouement the following year, with the famous October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the United States knew by August of that year that unusual Soviet activity had been going on in Cuba, it was not until October 15th that intelligence officials definitively concluded that offensive missiles had been installed on the island, with a capacity to reach well over half of the United States. Over the next two weeks, the Cold War’s hottest crisis ensued. Kennedy’s strategy at the outset was to “broaden the group of consultants in order to ensure the widest possible judgments on how to end the Soviet threat peacefully, if possible,” notwithstanding the “poor record of his advisors on Cuba” (p.296). But Kennedy also “needed to guard against a domestic explosion of war fever, which meant hiding the crisis for as long as possible from the press and the public” (p.296).

     Kennedy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff predictably favored an air strike upon Cuba, followed up by a military invasion of the island. Several advisors, including former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, also urged air strikes against the missiles, with the possibility of subsequent military invasion. The aging Acheson, who disdained Kennedy, seems especially casual in Dallek’s account about using American military force. Defense Secretary McNamara was a counterpoint to the hawkish views of Acheson and of the military men under his command.

      McNamara developed early in the discussions the idea of a naval blockade rather than a military strike. The turning point came when Robert Lovett suggested that they call the blockade a “quarantine,” defining the U.S. action as “more of a defensive measure than an act of war” (p.315). Lovett’s “long experience in government and reputation for moderate good sense helped sway Kennedy. By contrast with Acheson, who urged prompt military action . . . Lovett thought the blockade was the best way to resolve the crisis, with force as a last resort” (p.315).

      Secretary of State Dean Rusk, whom Kennedy had considered weak and passive during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, revived his standing with Kennedy as a “cautious but steady presence” throughout the crisis, a “voice of reason that helped Kennedy resist the rash urgings of the military Chiefs” (p.333). Former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson drew on his experience in Moscow to provide Kennedy with his assessment of how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was likely to react and respond. Thompson thought that Khrushchev might be at odds with his own military chiefs and was able to convince Kennedy that “negotiating proposals might pressure [Khrushchev] into conciliatory talks” (p.313). Critical to the approach Kennedy finally adopted, Thompson advised the president to make it as easy as possible for Khrushchev to back down. Throughout the deliberations, Robert Kennedy retained his unique role, “less a thoughtful commentator” and more an “instrument of his brother’s ideas and intentions” (p.334).

      Even after  Khrushchev ordered missile-bearing Soviet ships to turn around and had otherwise signaled to the United States his willingness to defuse the crisis, the Joint Chiefs continued to advocate for the air strike and military invasion option. Kennedy considered this option “mad,” (p.332) and it appears even more so a half-century later. It is impossible to say, Dallek writes, “whether an invasion would have provoked a nuclear exchange with the Soviets.” But it is clear that the Soviets had “tactical nuclear weapons ready to fire if U.S. forces had invaded the island. Whether they would have fired them is unknowable, but the risk was there and certainly great enough for firings to occur in response to an invasion” (p.332).

      Having successfully defused the missile crisis, Kennedy “found it impossible to shelve plans for a change of regimes in Cuba” (p.373) during the remaining thirteen months of his administration prior to his assassination in Dallas in November 1963. But the nationalist uprising in Vietnam and the inability of the South Vietnamese government to resist that uprising was another cause of concern throughout the Kennedy administration.

* * *

     Kennedy appeared to accept the “domino theory,” that the fall of one developing country to international communism would lead to the fall of many if not most of its neighbors. He did not want to be the president who “lost” Vietnam, as Truman’s opponents labeled him the president who “lost” China. Equally important, he did not want to give the Republicans an issue they could use against him in the upcoming 1964 presidential elections. Yet, Kennedy was extremely reluctant to commit the United States to another land war in a distant location, all too reminiscent of the Korean War that had undermined Truman’s presidency. “For all Kennedy’s skepticism about involvement in a jungle war that could provoke cries of U.S. imperialism, he also saw Vietnam as a testing ground the United States could not ignore” (p.166-67). Kennedy never reconciled “his eagerness to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam” with his “reluctance, indeed refusal, to turn the conflict into America’s war, which risked [South Vietnam’s] collapse” (p.429).

     Dallek documents a series of tense and sharply divided internal meetings with the president on Vietnam. Not surprisingly, Kennedy’s career military advisors saw Vietnam primarily as a military problem, with a military solution. But, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy seems to have concluded that they had little to offer in terms of substantive advice. Kennedy’s Deputy National Security Advisor Walt Rostow, a brilliant MIT professor with an “unlimited faith in social engineering” (p.165), also consistently offered hawkish views. Rostow was “apocalyptic about the consequences of inaction: ‘The whole world is asking. . . what will the U.S. do. . .?’ The outcome of indecisive U.S. action would be nothing less than the fall of Southeast Asia and a larger war” (p.243). McNamara, the putative boss of the military chiefs, initially favored the Rostow approach, as did Secretary of State Dean Rusk, although both ultimately came to advocate a political rather than military solution in Vietnam.

      John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard professor whom Kennedy had appointed as Ambassador to India, regularly sent letters directly to Kennedy, rather than through his boss, Secretary of State Rusk. Galbraith argued that there were no direct or obvious U.S. interests involved in Vietnam, and that it would be a mistake to commit American military resources to the defense of South Vietnam, its weak and wavering ally. Galbraith saw direct military involvement in Vietnam as leading the United States down the same path the French had traveled a decade earlier. Instinctively, Kennedy wanted to go with Galbraith’s position, but he never adopted that position, either. Rather, he mostly dithered.

     Kennedy repeatedly sent high-level advisors on short fact-finding trips to Vietnam. They typically returned to provide the president with upbeat reports on South Vietnam’s capabilities of defending itself, but with few if any realistic recommendations on how the United States should proceed. In September 1963, after the last such fact-finding trip to Vietnam during the Kennedy administration, General Victor Krulak, Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Joseph Mendenhall, a State Department Asian expert, reported back to the president. Krulak “described a war that was moving in the absolutely right direction and was going to be won” (p.406), whereas Mendenhall saw an “entirely different universe: ‘a virtual breakdown of the civil government in Saigon’” (p.406-07). The astonished and plainly frustrated Kennedy retorted, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?”(p.407).

      The specific Vietnam item on Kennedy’s agenda by that time was whether to support a coup aimed at ridding South Vietnam of its leader Ngo Dinh Diem. By early 1963, the United States had concluded that Diem, a “staunch anticommunist Catholic” (p.230) with an “authoritarian and perhaps paranoid personality” (p.163), was unable to lead his country in resisting the North Vietnamese. What to do about Diem was the predominate issue over the final months of the Kennedy presidency, a “war within the war” (p.350). The pressure on Kennedy to give the go-ahead for a coup was “unrelenting” (p.403).

      But with no explicit orders from the president forthcoming, Undersecretary of State George Ball, acting in the absence of Secretary of State Rusk, finally told Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., in Saigon to tell anti-Diem generals that Washington approved a coup. Kennedy had “neither approved nor opposed a coup, but simply said he didn’t want it blamed on the United States. Kennedy’s uncertainty about what to do about Vietnam allowed advisers to fill the policy vacuum” (p.415). The coup took place on November 1, 1963, without Kennedy’s authorization and apparently with at best only minimal U.S. involvement. It ended up assassinating Diem and his brother Nhu, not sending them into exile, as Kennedy had desired.

     Kennedy allowed his administration’s Vietnam problem to “fester rather than confront a hard decision to expand U.S, involvement or shut it down,” Dallek writes. Kennedy’s hope was eventually to withdraw from Vietnam with “at least the appearance, if not the actuality, of victory. It was something of a pipe dream, but simply walking away from Vietnam did not strike him as a viable option – for both domestic political and national security reasons” (p.342).

     Dallek’s account of Kennedy’s Hamlet-like deliberations over Vietnam sets the stage for the question that Americans have been asking ever since: had Kennedy lived, would he have resisted the urgings to which successor Lyndon Johnson succumbed to escalate the war in Vietnam through large-scale US military participation. There is plenty of evidence to support either a yes or a no answer, Dallek indicates, and it is “impossible to say just what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam in a second term, if he had had one.” But, “given the hesitation he showed about Vietnam during his thousand-day administration, it is entirely plausible that he would have found a way out of the conflict or at least not to expand the war to the extent Lyndon Johnson did” (p.419), Dallek concludes.

* * *

     Kennedy scholars may find that Dallek’s work contains little that is new or fresh about the already extensively studied Kennedy administration. Yet, any reader who has worked in a bureaucracy, public or private, and has ever left a key meeting unsure whether the boss fully understood his or her brilliant arguments, is likely to appreciate Dallek’s close up depictions of how the ever skeptical and often distrustful Kennedy interacted with his advisors.  In Dallek’s telling, the boss fully understood his advisors’ arguments.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 24, 2015

8 Comments

Filed under American Politics, History, Politics, United States History