Tag Archives: Civil Rights movement

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

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

Moralizing Credibly to the World

Keys

Barbara Keys, Reclaiming American Virtue:
The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s 

     During the 1970s, political liberalism in the United States embraced the notion of international human rights as a priority consideration in shaping American foreign policy. The liberal argument that gained traction during the latter portion of the decade was that the United States should not support or provide assistance to governments that engaged in practices violating international human rights norms, particularly torture and repression of dissent. But this liberal argument could gain its traction only after the end in early 1973 of America’s role as a belligerent in the Vietnam War.  Such is the premise which Barbara Keys, a Harvard-educated Senior Lecturer in American and International History at the University of Melbourne, Australia, expounds in her thoroughly researched and solidly written work, Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s.

    Human rights as a “liberal foreign policy paradigm” was an “intellectual impossibility” while America was mired in Vietnam, Keys contends, and therefore “unthinkable in the circumstances of the war” (p.53).  As long as the war continued, a “profound fatigue with and abhorrence of the very idea of intervention precluded the development of any new, systematic effort to inject American power or values abroad . . . Only once the war was over would American liberals feel they could credibly moralize to the world” (p. 53-54).  What Keys describes as the “human rights revolution” of the 1970s in the United States was for American liberals an “emotional response to the trauma of the Vietnam War” (p.8) – or, as Keys’ title indicates, a means to reclaim American virtue.

* * *

     The term “human rights” came into vogue only after World War II, with the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, which established norms defining the basic rights that all humans were entitled to demand from their governments. Arising out of the destruction and devastation of World War II, the UDHR was one of the first international instruments to refer to human rights in general, rather than to the rights of specific groups. But the UDHR was mostly aspirational, a document “intended to be a beacon, not a guide to actual behavior” (p.22). It contained no enforcement mechanisms and numerous clauses indicated that it did not seek to infringe upon state sovereignty.

     Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the term “human rights” was largely dormant in the United States, except as associated with the ineffectual UDHR, and played little discernible role in American foreign policy. These were also the decades when the term “civil rights” became part of the national vocabulary. Although civil rights might be thought of as the specific name for the movement for human rights for African-Americans, the two terms have different lineages. The notion of human rights Keys emphasizes, seeks “legitimacy and solutions in international law resting above the authority of the nation-state,” whereas the civil rights movement in the United States above all sought “American remedies to American injustice” (p.33-34).

      When American involvement in the war in Vietnam ended in 1973, “emotions spilled into new areas, casting old questions in fresh light and creating novel possibilities for action. Slowly, as a process of accumulation rather than epiphany, human rights became one of those possibilities” (p.127-28). The end of combat activities in Vietnam “opened the way for members of Congress to vent long-brewing anger at the conduct and content of U.S. foreign policy” (p.133-34). A loose group of Congressmen dubbed the “new internationalists” pursued support for human rights abroad as part of an American foreign policy orientation that also prioritized economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and support for democracy, with less emphasis upon military assistance.

     Among the new internationalists, a now-obscure Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, Donald Fraser, more than any other national official, was “responsible for creating a framework that linked disparate global problems under the heading of human rights” (p.76). In the House of Representatives, Fraser led hearings in late 1973 that are “often regarded as the moment when a movement for international human rights in the United States began to take off,” generating a “blueprint for much of the congressional human rights efforts of the next few years” (p.141). The blueprint included several changes to the administration of American foreign aid that made it more difficult for the United States to provide assistance to foreign governments that engaged in human rights abuses, especially torture and detention of political prisoners. Section 32 of the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act, which came to be known as the “Fraser Amendment,” provided for “reductions (or, more often, the threat of reductions) in security aid for gross violations such as torture, coupled with the requirement that the State Department issue reports critiquing foreign countries’ human rights records” (p.165).

     In the aftermath of the Fraser Amendment, Congress used country-specific public hearings to “shape public opinion and signal concern about human rights abuses”(p.176). It focused on “sensational abuses, torture above all,” and made cuts in aid to “friendly but strategically expendable governments” (p.176). The results were “inevitably ad hoc and inconsistent, with some countries and some abuses drawing attention and sanctions while others were largely ignored” (p.176). Liberals hoped that cutting aid would stimulate reforms and reduce repression but, as Fraser and others admitted, they had “little evidence that targeting aid would work as planned” (p.160). Tangible effects were not, however, the measure of success. The crucial task was to “restore a commitment to American values by dissociating from regimes that tortured and murdered political opponents” (p.160) – and thereby reclaim American virtue.

     In Paraguay, for example, a country with “little significance to the United States,” human rights abuses were met with a “solid front: diplomatic isolation, total cutoffs in aid, and blocked loans in international forums” (p.257). Between 1974 and 1976, liberals also pushed through aid measures that reduced or cut off aid to South Korea, Chile, and Uruguay. Allies in these years included conservatives who supported dissidents in the Soviet Union, mostly Jewish, who wished to emigrate, most frequently to Israel.

     The spokesman for this group was another Democrat, albeit one considered highly conservative, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson from the State of Washington. Joining his cause were several intellectuals who were later labeled “neo-conservatives,” including Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol and Daniel Moynihan. With Senator Jackson leading the charge in Congress, “unrepentant Cold Warriors took the rhetoric of human rights newly popularized internationally by Soviet dissidents and fashioned a straightforwardly anticommunist policy around the universalist language [of the UDHR]. It was a stunning shift in the rhetoric of conservative anticommunism, which in the 1950s and 1960s had been overtly hostile to the UN and . . . had seen UN human rights instruments as a dangerous threat to American values” (p.104).

      But this neo-conservative embrace of human rights was driven by a fervent rejection of the shame and guilt that had characterized the anti-Vietnam War movement and the campaign rhetoric of 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. For the conservative proponents of Soviet Jewry, the Vietnam War “required no apology;” it had been not immoral but rather an “admirable expression of the nation’s moral principles, as well as a strategic necessity, and consonant with America’s consistently beneficent role in the world” (p.116).  Jackson and his cohorts believed that the “self-doubt provoked by the Vietnam War threatened to weaken America’s resolve in what remained a life-or-death struggle against communism” (p.104).

     The cause of human rights in the Soviet Union pulled liberals in two directions. While sympathetic to Jews who wished to emigrate, they also “strongly supported improved U.S.-Soviet ties, reduced tensions, and the broad aims of détente” which the Nixon and Ford administrations were pursuing. Their aims therefore “diverged from those of hardliners like Jackson who sought to derail détente” (p.125). The foil to this odd liberal-conservative alliance was Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford.

      Kissinger expounded a realpolitik approach to foreign policy, which gave priority to America’s geo-political interests and allowed little room for judgments about a country’s internal human rights record. Kissinger argued that it was dangerous to “make the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of American foreign policy” (p.133) at a time when the administration was seeking to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union and thereby reduce the risk of nuclear war. Although Kissinger believed that human rights initiatives would hurt relations with America’s allies, what most spurred his opposition was resentment at what he considered congressional intrusions into executive branch prerogatives to shape the nation’s foreign policy.

     For 1970s liberals, Kissinger was the personification of all that was wrong with the way American foreign policy was conducted. But neither did he have many fans among the neo-conservatives pushing the Soviet Union on Jewish emigration. They regarded détente with the Soviet Union, pursued by both the Nixon and Ford administrations, as wrong headed and dangerous. Kissinger’s adamant defense of realpolitik and executive prerogatives backfired, playing a “pivotal role in moving human rights from the sidelines to the center of American diplomacy,” Keys argues.  Ironically, Kissinger would be a serious contender for designation as the person “most responsible for advancing the cause of international human rights in the mid-1970s” (p.153), she writes.

      Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency in the 1976 election, is often thought of as the catalyst for bringing human rights into the mainstream of American foreign policy. As a presidential candidate, however, Carter had been skeptical about elevating human rights to a foreign policy priority position. He did not share the deep emotional concern of Jackson and his cohorts for Soviet Jews, “nor was it his instinct to identify with political prisoners around the world” (p.236). His embrace of human rights was “both late and serendipitous” (p.215). But Carter “eventually came around to the issue because it resonated with his theme of restoring morality and, more pragmatically, because it would enhance his standing among Jewish voters” (p.236).

     Discovering what human rights promotion meant in practice was for the Carter administration “far more complicated than anyone had anticipated. The difficulties the administration encountered in formulating a human rights agenda attest both to a lack of specific planning and the sheer novelty of a human rights based foreign policy. There were no precedents to draw on, no prior models from which to borrow,” leaving the impression of “incoherence and muddle” (p.250). Given inflation, gas lines and above all the 444-day hostage crisis in Iran, which the Carter administration was unable to resolve, Carter’s four-year term was frequently viewed as a failure.

     Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, explicitly disavowed human rights as a priority consideration in the foreign policy of his administration. But, thanks especially to a credible human rights lobby that had taken shape during the Carter administration, Reagan could not ignore human rights entirely. In particular, Keys emphasizes how the American branch of Amnesty International, AI USA, evolved during the Carter administration into an organization with serious clout on Capitol Hill and with the State Department.

      AI USA focused initially on political prisoners, lobbying for aid cuts to regimes that tortured and jailed opponents in large numbers, a narrow focus “ideally suited to the Zeitgeist of the seventies” (p.181), Keys argues. Rather than seeking to effectuate wholesale structural changes within selected governments, AI USA aimed more modestly at making specific and targeted changes to practices and individual behavior within those governments. Amnesty “resolutely portrayed itself as nonpartisan – indeed as beyond politics” (p.192). But despite its apolitical mantra, its “most prominent activities and the majority of its leaders and grassroots members were on the left of the political spectrum” (p.192). Charitable tax law enjoined the organization from directly lobbying the government and AI rules prohibited it from taking a position on foreign aid. The office nonetheless worked closely with State Department officials and sympathetic members of Congress, providing information, requesting action, and prodding them to ask questions.

      Keys concludes that in light of the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, and the United States’ protracted military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Americans seem to be losing interest in the idea [of human rights] as a guide to U.S. foreign policy” (p.277). While American public sentiment could well be turning inward, repudiation of human rights in the formulation of American foreign policy would be far more difficult today than in the Reagan administration. Several other human rights organizations have cropped up beside AI USA, such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, to convey human rights concerns to Washington policy makers and the public. The clout of these organizations alone would make a repudiation of human rights unlikely. Moreover, the State Department is required to address human rights in a multitude of contexts.

      The Department’s annual country-by-country human rights report, coordinated by a vast bureaucracy within the State Department, the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor, details individual countries’ human rights records in a strikingly broad array of areas. The report is read closely and taken seriously around the world.  Further, the United States’ anti-human trafficking legislation requires the State Department to produce another report, coordinated by another bureaucracy within the Department, which sets forth individual countries’ progress in curtailing human trafficking. The legislation provides for sanctions for those countries deemed to be making insufficient progress. During my career working in U.S. Embassies, I was frequently involved in the preparation of these reports.

       I was even more involved in what is termed “Leahy Vetting,” a process established by an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 sponsored by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy Vetting mandates a formal State Department determination that any specific instance of U.S. assistance to overseas law enforcement and security units will  not include officers or units that had engaged in serious human rights abuses. Although realpolitik of the Kissinger variety has hardly disappeared from the United States’ foreign policy formulation process, today it competes with human rights and a wide range of other institutionalized considerations in determining that policy.

* * *

     As a means of “coming to terms with the Vietnam War” and a “way to heal the country” (p.3), the human rights revolution of the 1970s which Keys depicts represents still another legacy of the traumatic Vietnam conflict.  But Keys also demonstrates that human rights rose to its prominent position as a result of diverse pressures and motivations, which she methodically ties together.  Writing  in straightforward if not quite riveting prose, Keys  casts incisive light on an often overlooked aspect of modern American liberalism, now thoroughly mainstream; and on how and why the human rights records of other governments came to play a prominent role in defining America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 3, 2015

3 Comments

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

Year of Liberal Unraveling

1965

James T. Patterson, The Eve of Destruction:
How 1965 Transformed America

       James Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America addresses a distinction between the 1960s and the Sixties, the former being the decade that ended in 1969, whereas the latter refers to the divisive times we associate in the United States with anti-war protests, student radicalism, urban riots, racial conflict, changing mores and, for many, cultural degeneration. Patterson, professor emeritus at Brown University and a prolific writer on 20th century American history (not to be confused with the best-selling thriller author of the same name), finds the early 1960s to have been socially and culturally similar to the 1950s in the United States. He locates the start of the Sixties in the second half of 1965, past the halfway point of the 1960s. 1965 was a year of remarkable legislative accomplishment in the United States, under the banner of the Great Society. But 1965 also marked the point when a post-war liberal consensus began to unravel, and a half-decade or so of tumult and fractious disorder ensued.

       Patterson sees the unraveling as due above all to the significant, incremental and largely secretive escalation in the United States’ participation in the war in Vietnam in 1965, along with discord within the Civil Rights movement, as it moved beyond its original focus on desegregation and injustice in the American South to focus on full rights for all African-Americans throughout the country, North and South, and consequently began to lose widespread white support. In Patterson’s account, the major event setting off this counter-reaction – “white backlash” was the term often used at the time — was the disturbance in August of 1965 in the heavily African-American Watts neighborhood of south central Los Angeles. The outsized if flawed personality of President Lyndon B. Johnson dominates the book, as he dominated political life in the United States in 1965. But lurking in the background is Ronald Reagan and a conservative movement that was down at the time, but definitely not out. In addition to covering the main political events of 1965, Patterson strives to capture the social and cultural zeitgeist of the year in the United States, discussing films, television and, especially, popular music.

       Books abound about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the Johnson presidency. Patterson’s sources are almost exclusively derived from authors who have written in greater detail on these subjects, and his book is almost entirely about the United States. Even his discussions of Vietnam are mostly from a United States perspective. If there is an original contribution here, it may be his chronological approach within the year 1965 and his precision in dating the start of the Sixties to a two-week period in late July and early August 1965.

       On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced a large and practically irrevocable escalation in the U.S. military commitment to Vietnam. Two days later, on the thirtieth, he signed the landmark Medicare/Medicaid act, one of the Great Society’s most significant social welfare measures, extending medical care to millions. On August 6, 1965, the equally significant Voting Rights Act became law, providing authority to the federal government to end voting rights discrimination against African Americans. Then, on the eleventh, the five-day rebellion erupted in Watts. “These were the most consequential days of 1965, the inaugural year of the Sixties” (p.191), Patterson writes. They represented the “high-water mark for postwar liberalism . . . never to rise again during Johnson’s presidency. It was not long before a considerably more divided and disputatious politics – a hallmark of the Sixties – would surge into view” (p.201).

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       Patterson begins with President Johnson’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in December 1964. Coming of a landslide victory over conservative Barry Goldwater in the previous month’s presidential elections, Johnson proclaimed that Americans then lived in the “most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem . . . Today—as never before – man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth” (xiii-xiv). Johnson’s rhetoric now seems almost comically inflated, but Patterson notes that most Americans in December 1964 found the United States to be a “remarkably stable and confident place to live” (p.18). Johnson’s tree lighting message the following year would be more subdued, addressing a country noticeably less unified and confident of its future.

      Johnson idolized President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was determined to build a body of legislative achievement comparable to that of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In that, he largely succeeded. The legislative achievements of 1964 had included passage of an historic Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, housing and federally aided programs. Passage of an effective voting rights act, although a natural next step after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, seemed out of reach for 1965. Johnson nonetheless made clear in his 1964 Christmas message that he had extensive liberal legislation in mind for the upcoming year, calling for “passage of a huge bundle of programs he would urge on Congress in the coming months: an education bill that would aid disadvantaged public school students; a government effort (labeled Medicare) that would provide health care for the elderly via Social Security; laws to advance clean air, clean water, and the landscaping of highways; increased funding for the War on Poverty; repeal of . . . Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act – a goal of union leaders—and creation of a National Foundation on the Arts” (p.37).

       But Johnson was also a Cold War warrior, every bit as much as his post-World War II predecessors in the Oval Office, and saw the defense of South Vietnam’s independence as a test of American will to stand firm against international communism. Further, Johnson believed that each of his predecessors had committed the United States to preserving an independent South Vietnam. Driven by his conviction that the international credibility of the United States was at issue in Vietnam, Johnson worried that conservative Republicans such as Goldwater and Reagan would “savage him if he did not stand up to communism” (p.93). Further, Johnson thought he needed to remain steadfast in Vietnam to maintain Republican support for his ambitious Great Society agenda (yes, in those days, some Republicans supported a Democratic president’s legislative proposals).

      Patterson joins many others in demonstrating that Johnson made incremental decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam largely in secret, without informing the public. Johnson seemed to sense that the public would not support an enlarged war as a measure to confront international communist foes. He never accepted the recommendation of his advisors that he provide more information to the American public on what he intended to do in Vietnam. Throughout 1965, Johnson remained “secretive about his decisions and about the course of the war. But it was impossible to conceal everything that the United States was doing” (p.95).

      In late March 1965, Johnson authorized sending 3500 combat Marines to Vietnam and secretly granted a request to allow American soldiers to mount offensive operations. Three weeks later, Johnson — again secretly — ordered additional combat troops to be deployed to Vietnam, this time 40,000 — a “staggering escalation of American military might” (p.131). But the turning point came on June 7, when the head military officer on the ground in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, beseeched the President to send 93, 000 additional troops to prevent a collapse of South Vietnam, America’s ally. Westmoreland informed the President that the United States was “in for the long pull” and that he saw “no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war” (p.159). Johnson agonized over the request for some seven weeks until, on July 28, the day after the House of Representatives had passed the landmark Medicare/Medicaid bill, he officially authorized an additional 50,000 troops be deployed to Vietnam, hiking the overall U.S. commitment to 125,000 military personnel.

      Patterson characterizes the July 28th decision to send additional troops as the “most significant in terms of manpower of any that . . . [Johnson] had made to that time. And it had huge implications: it committed the United States to take over much of the fighting from the demoralized South Vietnamese” (p.173). Johnson made this “extraordinarily important decision” (p.172) after seriously consulting only a handful of senior officials. Advisor William Bundy said later that Johnson’s July 28th decision was the “end of debate on policy, and the beginning of a new debate on tactics and above all on presentation to the country” (p.170). Because he did not level with the public about the seriousness of the situation, Johnson “did not prepare them for sacrifices that would later be required. Imagining that Americans might tolerate ever-increasing costs and causalities, he overestimated the solidity of his popular support and the reverence of people for the presidency” (p.173). By year’s end, there were 184,000 troops in Vietnam, with 400,000 at the end of 1966.

        The public generally seemed to support Johnson’s war efforts throughout most of the year, although public support was “neither deep nor well-informed” (p.93). As the year progressed, however, protests against the war became ever more commonplace on college campuses. Many were based on the realpolitik principle that it was not in the interests of the United States to preserve the independence of a South Vietnamese regime widely seen as pervasively corrupt and ineffective. But protests also began to reflect what came to be known as the “New Left” viewpoint associated with the Sixties, which linked the Vietnam War explicitly to the “baneful influences of materialism, corruption and corporate liberalism” (p.232). The United States in the New Left view was an imperialist country in which the “insatiable appetites of American capitalism generated warlike policies” (p.97) – policies implemented by leaders who, as one New Left radical put it, “study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead” (p.232). More than any other event of 1965, Patterson concludes, American escalation in Vietnam “spurred the polarization that characterized the Sixties in the United States” (p.89).

       Interwoven with escalation of the Vietnam conflict as a source of polarization was the fracturing of what had been relative unity within the Civil Rights movement. Beginning in early 1965, Martin Luther King led a series of nationally televised marches in Selma, Alabama, seeking support for an effective Voting Rights Act, the complement to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On March 7, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” white law enforcement authorities in Selma assaulted some six hundred nonviolent civil rights marchers crossing a bridge on their way to demonstrate for voting rights at the state capital in Montgomery, battering the marchers with clubs, nightsticks, and electric cattle prods. Many marchers were hospitalized. The day’s violence, much of it televised nationally, provided the impetus for the politically elusive Voting Rights Act.

        Passed one week after the landmark Medicare/Medicaid bill, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was designed to correct what President Johnson described as a “clear and simple wrong.” It established mechanisms for abolishing literary tests as voting requirements. Section V of the Act – its “pre-clearance” provision — required governmental entities with a history of racial discrimination to secure “clearance” from the Department of Justice or special three-judge court in Washington, D.C., before making changes to voting procedures. But passage of the Voting Rights Act also occurred almost simultaneously with President Johnson’s nearly irrevocable decision to escalate the war in Vietnam and five days prior to the devastating riot that broke out in Watts.

       The Watts disorders, an “especially damaging blow to liberal dreams” (p.179), were a forerunner to a series of summer riots in African-American communities across the United States that took place in the immediately following years. For many, urban unrest such as that in Watts, came to be seen as an integral part of the Sixties, transforming the attitudes of many white Americans who had previously been sympathetic to the civil rights cause. The destruction of Watts and its political aftershocks “demoralized Johnson and left the once proud and luminously effective civil rights movement in a state of disarray from which it never recovered” (p.179).

       As 1965 progressed, but particularly in the aftermath of Watts, many African-Americans activists began “openly questioning the virtues of nonviolence and interracial cooperation” (p.225) and highlighting poverty and discriminatory conditions in African-American communities outside the South. The eloquence of Dr. King’s call for non-violent change was yielding to more strident voices, which did not rule out – and, in some instances, seemed to encourage – violence as a tool available in the struggle for social justice. Malcolm X personified this approach until he was assassinated in February 1965. Stokeley Carmichael, the Black Panthers and others picked up the message after Malcolm X’s death, directly challenging older, more traditional civil rights leaders such as King. The “fracturing and enfeebling of the nonviolent, interracial civil rights movement” (p.225) by the end of 1965 was the second far-reaching development marking the onset of the Sixties, Patterson contends.

     Critically, Patterson emphasizes, the new militancy within the Civil Rights movement and the specter of unrest in African-American communities not only undermined white support for civil rights but also engendered a conservative reaction, personified by a former actor, Ronald Reagan, who seemed to be angling to run for governor of California and perhaps seek national office. The 1966 mid-term elections, in which Republicans gained solid majorities in both houses of Congress, demonstrated that the once powerful clout of liberalism “was no more. Fallout from the pivotal events that had started to weaken it in mid and late 1965—above all, escalation in Vietnam and the disturbances at Watts – had seriously afflicted it, ushering in the more contentious political world that followed. The earliest of these more polarized years, extending from late 1965 into the early 1970s, are what should be remembered as the Sixties” (p.244).

        “The Eve of Destruction” makes an appropriate title to Patterson’s book, capturing well how progressives might now look back at 1965, a high water mark of post-war liberalism. Devastating urban riots would take place in numerous other American cities during the following years, including Detroit, my hometown, in 1967. United States military involvement in Vietnam would not end until 1973. No social legislation even approximating the significance of Medicare and Medicaid would pass into law until 2010, 45 years later, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Better known as Obamacare, the ACA seeks to guarantee heath care to working age persons and families. But conservatives opposed and attacked the ACA with a rancor and vehemence politically unthinkable at the time Medicare and Medicaid became law. Further, in 2013, the Supreme Court drastically undermined the Department of Justice’s “pre-clearance” authority under Section V of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had been one of the federal government’s most effective tools in guaranteeing voting rights to African-Americans in the American South. And Democrats, representing, however imperfectly, mainstream American liberalism, would go on to lose five of the next six presidential elections.

       But Patterson’s title comes from what he terms a “breakthrough rock song” (p.153) of that name, sung by Barry McGuire, formerly lead singer for the New Christy Minstrels. “The Eve of Destruction” was briefly the country’s number one popular song and ranked 29th on Billboard’s Top 100 for the year. With the sounds of bombs going off in the background, the song’s lyrics were “bitter, blunt and devastatingly bleak about contemporary events, predicting that all manner of terrible developments – war in Vietnam, racial tensions, nuclear weapons – were propelling the United States (and ‘the whole crazy world’) toward the apocalypse” (p.193-94). Like many songs that address political and social issues, “The Eve of Destruction” seemed to me at the time, and still seems, mostly like an opportunistic attempt to make money off important issues of the time. Perhaps because of his use of “Eve of Destruction” for his title, Patterson’s effort to capture the zeitgeist of 1965 concentrates on the year’s popular music, although he also covers the most popular television shows and movies of 1965.

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       Patterson makes a convincing case that 1965 may be considered the beginning point for what we have come to know as the Sixties – perhaps even that they started in that fateful two week period between President Johnson’s no-turning-back decision to escalate United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam on July 28 and the eruption in Watts on August 11.  Those readers who, like myself, lived through 1965 and the Sixties as young adults will find an instructive summation of the momentous year — in my case, with the exception of popular music, mostly a reminder of what I missed. Those too young to remember the period should also benefit from Patterson’s analysis of a year whose repercussions are still very much with us today, a full half-century later.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 29, 2015

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