Tag Archives: John F. Kennedy

Never At Home

LHO

Peter Savodnik, The Interloper:
Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union

            More than fifty years after Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, writers are still trying to make sense out of an assassination which has proven also to be something of a national obsession. In The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, Peter Savodnik seeks to deepen our understanding of Oswald himself through an exploration of his time in the Soviet Union, where he lived from 1959 to 1962, primarily in the provincial Belarusian city of Minsk at the height of the Cold War. Savodnik’s book is unlikely to have much appeal to conspiracy theorists. Savodnik posits early in the book that Oswald acted alone in killing the president, and that the “lone gun” theory is the only plausible account of the assassination. The question we should be asking, Savodnik contends, is not who killed President Kennedy, but why did Oswald kill him.

            In many senses, Oswald fit the all-too-familiar pattern of the American assassin, a lonely, disturbed, undistinguished young man whose notorious act – at least for those who accept the lone gunman theory – seems nearly senseless. But Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union during the Cold War sets him apart from other American assassins. Exploration of Oswald’s experiences in a country that was the “arch enemy of his own” (p.27) thus adds a dimension to Oswald’s life which, Savodnik indicates, has not previously been examined in depth.

           As the word “interloper” in his title indicates, Savodnik’s overriding theme is that Oswald was never at home anywhere. He was always an outsider, an interloper. His failure to settle anywhere made him more aware of his status as an outsider or interloper. “And with this awareness came anger building to a fury” (p.xv). Oswald actually spent more time in Minsk than any other location in his short life and, Savodnik stresses, he came closest in Minsk to shedding his interloper status and achieving a “sense of place” (p.xiv). Savodnik finds a very American quality to Oswald’s rootlessness. Oswald’s “fury, naïveté, narcissism, and even indifference to whatever place he had parachuted into” for Savodnik reflects an “uncontainable rage that felt and sounded American,” expressing a “classically American individuality, a desire to be free of external forces and to achieve a wholly separate self that had not been shaped by other people, clans, or institutions” (p.210).

         Savodnik’s book is arranged in three general sections, “Before Minsk,” “Minsk,” and “After Minsk” addressing, respectively the first twenty years of Oswald’s life; the 32 months in Minsk, from October 1959 to June 1962; and Oswald’s final 17 months back in the United States after leaving Minsk and the Soviet Union, from June 1962 to November 1963. Oswald’s tortured relationship to the United States is a constant theme throughout the three sections. A final section, “Epilogue: A Conjecture,” seeks to use Oswald and Kennedy’s intertwined lives to explain the United States in the early 1960s.

* * *

          Born in 1939 in New Orleans, Oswald had a tumultuous youth and was adrift from his earliest days. His father, a descendant of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee (the reason for Oswald’s first name) was an insurance premium collector who died of a heart attack in August 1939, two months before his son was born. His father’s death and absence from Oswald’s life “might be regarded as the defining trauma of Oswald’s entire life, setting in motion a youth of chaos and frenzy” (p.3), Savodnik argues. He describes Oswald’s mother Marguerite as “perennially unstable” (p.xiv), “unreliable, frantic, harried, hectoring, needy, and prone to irrational outbursts” (p.4), hardly capable of playing the role of one parent, let alone two. Marguerite and her two sons, Lee and older brother Robert, moved from New Orleans to Dallas to Fort Worth to New York City, then back to New Orleans. In a previous marriage, Marguerite had another son, John Pic, Oswald’s half brother, with whom he had intermittent contact. Marguerite’s “inability to provide any semblance of stability and normalcy for her youngest son” is “clearly reflected in Lee’s constant moving” (p.4). Oswald attended 12 different schools and by one count had resided in 17 different locations before dropping out of high school at age 16. Oswald’s peripatetic and essentially homeless youth “cannot be stressed enough,” Savodnik contends, in understanding the “unstable man Lee Harvey Oswald was to become” (p.4).

       Savodnik asks his readers to view Oswald’s embrace of Marxism through the lens of Oswald’s childhood and adolescence. There was “little, if anything, in Lee’s childhood that suggested he might one day embrace radical politics” (p.9), Savodnik notes. But by the time Oswald reached early adolescence, there was an “obvious emptiness in his life, a desire for something real and deeply felt to compensate for the home that was sorely missing” (p.9). At age 15, Oswald began to teach himself about Marxist theory. By then, the “gulf separating Oswald from his mother was probably unbridgeable, he had very little extended family to speak of, and he had no friends or place that he thought of as home” (p.9). Marxism offered the young Oswald “discipline and purpose” and was “shot through with a vocabulary and mood that comported with Lee’s mounting rage” (p.9). But here, and throughout his life, what Oswald believed to be strongly-held ideological convictions were nothing more than what Savodnik characterizes as “very personal feelings – about his home, his family, his sense of rootlessness – that had hardened into political viewpoints but, at root, had nothing to do with anything explicitly political” (p.171).

       After dropping out of high school, Oswald joined the Marines at age 17 in October 1956. He spent nearly three years in the Marines, but left on a hardship discharge at age 20, claiming that his mother needed care. In October 1959, almost immediately after leaving the Marines, Oswald traveled to Moscow on an overnight train from Finland, where he arrived with a one week visa. In his short time in Moscow, he applied for Soviet citizenship. The request was denied and Oswald was told that he had to leave the Soviet Union immediately. There then followed an ostensible suicide attempt. Oswald stayed in Moscow under psychiatric care, until the end of October 1959, when he went to the United States Embassy in Moscow in a failed attempt to renounce his citizenship.

       Hinting to Soviet authorities that he might have valuable information to pass along based upon his time in the Marines, the Soviets allowed Oswald to stay in the country. The KGB, suspicious that he might be an American “sleeper agent” (p.83), found Oswald “difficult and irascible and, at times, histrionic, self-pitying, and reckless. He could hardly have been counted on to do or finish anything” (p.33). He was sent to Minsk, a city that was “proudly Soviet and conservative” (p.119) and an unusual destination for defecting Americans – most at that time were sent to Ukraine.

* * *

        Although the city of Minsk had existed since the 11th century, Old Minsk had been largely flattened by the Nazis. Even prior to the Nazi invasion, the population of Minsk had been depleted by Stalinist collectivism, mass deportations and the purges of the 1930s, destroying “most everyone who might have helped cultivate a national identity separate from the Soviet super state” (p.72). Consequently, New Minsk was a “model communist city . . . broad, orderly and boring . . . an unequivocal statement of the totalitarian impulse” (p.70). It lacked “its own commercial practices, its own mores and rituals” as well as any deep traditions of “artistic and intellectual inheritance” (p.73). Nothing in Minsk connected its citizens, termed Menchani, with previous generations. Rather, the Menchani were “above all Soviet. They may also have been Belorussian, Polish, or Russian, but their primary identity was their ideology” (p.72). They were thus quite unlike residents of the Baltic states or Ukraine, who had “retained a national heritage and were in a permanent state of semi-war with the Soviet regime” (p.72).

        In Minsk in the early 1960s, World War II continued to be the overriding force that shaped the mindset of all adults. The experience of the war had been “so intense, so acrid, bitter, and all-consuming, that it had changed everyone permanently. It was hard to understand people who had not been changed in the same way” (p.81). Not having lived through that war experience, “Oswald could never really grasp the shape and scope of the lives of everyone he spent most of his time with – and it meant that they had a very difficult time making sense of Oswald” (p.76).

        Under Stalin, who had died six years earlier, in 1953, “any right-thinking Soviet citizen would have avoided Oswald, an American, for fear of being branded a traitor or counterrevolutionary” (p.54). But by the time Oswald arrived in Minsk in 1959, Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had not only denounced Stalinist crimes but was also seeking to loosen controls over artistic endeavors and lessen tensions with the West. Average Menchani in 1959 “weren’t sure whether they should stay away or give in to their curiosity” and talk to Oswald (p.54). Those whom Oswald met were “mostly courteous and temperate. They listened to whatever he had to say. They were pleasant, if at times a little brusque” (p.55).

        Thanks to considerable assistance from the KGB, Oswald had a relatively easy life in Minsk, with a comparatively spacious apartment and a prestigious job for the time, as a lathe operator in a factory that manufactured radios and televisions. He found a few friends in Minsk, but most of his co-workers resented his relative privilege. Oswald was too clean, had no real grime under his fingernails, and didn’t like to drink Vodka. Moreover, notwithstanding the loosening of norms in the Khrushchev era, his follow workers were driven by the unspoken fear that “being too close, or perceived as too close to the American would make other people, and especially the security organs, question one’s loyalty” (p.91). Yet, for a fleeting moment in Minsk, Oswald “looked as if he was ready, at long last, to leave behind his adolescence and his many angers and frustrations” (p.106).

        Oswald developed a deep crush on a woman who turned down his marriage proposal, Ella German, whom he described as a “silky, black haired Jewish beauty” (p.101). Savodnik suggests that Oswald’s decision to leave the Soviet Union and the start of his precipitous final descent that ended in Dallas in November 1963 may be linked to German’s rejection of his marriage offer. A few months thereafter, Oswald married Marina Prusakova after a strikingly short courtship. Oswald’s marriage to Mariana may have been intended to spite German, Savodnik surmises. Marina’s background bore some similarity to that of Oswald: she had never known her father and had moved around constantly as a youth. Marina bore Oswald a child in the Soviet Union, June, born in February 1962; and another, Rachel, born in October 1963 when the couple returned to the United States.

       Despite good living and working conditions in Minsk by the standards of the era, Oswald gradually discovered, with “unhappiness, dejection and fear” that he was “not a Menchan and never would be” (p.80). Oswald’s experience in Minsk was one of “gradually coming to the conclusion that he was all alone. . . [and] that the Soviet Union was not the home he had hoped it would be” (p.74). Nearly three years after his arrival in Russia, Oswald was “not only angry but also self-pitying, lost, spent, humiliated. In Russia . . . he’d been told, obliquely, that he was not really a worker, a Menchan, that he would never be admitted to the proletarian family that he had disparately craved. His ideology had been sapped . . . and, finally, he’d come to the awful conclusion that there was nothing else to do, so he left” (p.186).

* * *

       In late June 1962, Oswald found himself back in the United States with Marina and their baby daughter. Oswald’s 17 months in the United States after Minsk were “more chaotic, frenzied, hapless, and desperate than any other time he had known,” a period of “continuous unraveling” (p.194). “Unhappiness, fury, a permanent and deepening sense of alienation” were Oswald’s’ “new default position” as he confronted a life of “inescapable rootlessness” (p.189). He and Marina relocated to the Dallas area, but separated shortly after arrival there, with Marina moving in with an acquaintance she had met. During his 17 months back in the United States, Oswald lived at nine different addresses for an average of two months each, plus some shorter stays and trips. He was “unable, as always, to build a life anywhere—to hold onto a job, pay his rent or bills, make friends, or tend to the chores and duties of daily life” (p.190).

        During this time, Oswald began to cobble together a small arsenal. In April 1963, Oswald attempted to assassinate Major General Edwin Walker, a leading right-wing figure. This attempt had plain ideological overtones: Oswald compared it to killing Hitler. The Walker assassination attempt, Savodnik notes, marked the first time since his suicide attempt in Moscow that Oswald had “sought to resolve his mounting furies with a powerful and culminating violence” (p.196). Oswald took up the issue of Cuba, becoming active in an organization known as Fair Play for Cuba. Oswald then landed a job at the Dallas School Book Depository, from which the fatal shots were fired on November 22, 1963. Ironically, Savodnik notes that Oswald’s position at the School Book Depository provided a modicum of stability to his tormented life. Savodnik considers the assassination a form of suicide, “anticipated many years before by an awful childhood that could not be corrected for by school or social workers and could not be overcome in the Marines or the Soviet Union” (p.217).

* * *

       In  “Epilogue: A Conjecture,” Savodnik tries to provide his readers with a sense of what the entwined lives of Oswald and President Kennedy tell us about the United States in the early 1960s. Although he acknowledges at one point that there was an “intense hatred” directed at the President from different directions (p.218), for the most part Savodnik’s description of Kennedy and his administration is so rosy as to be almost unrecognizable. For most Americans in the early 1960s, Savodnik argues, Kennedy “seemed to hover between man and god—to be half man, half deity, and a conduit connecting [Americans] with something eternal and deep. Americans had rarely, if ever, experienced this feeling with their presidents” (p.213). During the short Kennedy administration, a “Rubicon of sorts seemed to have been crossed. Suddenly the affection or sympathy that many Americans had at one time or another felt for a president morphed into a kind of love. . . it was Kennedy, more than any of the thirty four who preceded him, who crossed into the magical realm” (p.213). Kennedy had “captured – he was – the national zeitgeist. The country was confident, bold, unwavering; it knew exactly what it was, and that certainty was central not only to America but to Kennedy’s persona (p.201). In killing Kennedy, Oswald “elevated him—he mythologized a president who was already a myth, and not just him but his title, the presidency” (p.218). This strikes me as over-the-top hyperbole, taking too seriously the Camelot myth that arose after Kennedy’s death and adding little to Savodnik’s narrative.

* * *

         Savodnik admits that Oswald’s “psychology and the interior forces that preyed on him remain a secret” (p.219). But through his treatment of Oswald’s Soviet years and his emphasis on Oswald’s continuous moving and searching, Savodnik succeeds at least partially in explaining what made Oswald tick. Savodnik’s portrait of Minsk during the Khrushchev years, moreover, makes his book worthwhile even for those readers not particularly interested in peering into Lee Harvey Oswald’s tormented mind.

Thomas H. Peebles
Herndon, Virginia
June 15, 2015

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized, United States History

Sophomore Reading List

Pictures.fromm

Lawrence Friedman, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet 

            If your undergraduate years coincided with the tumultuous 1960s or early 1970s, as you exercised your newly-found freedom you could not have escaped Erich Fromm. His books seemed to be everywhere, and he seemed to have answers for a generation more than a bit despondent about where the world appeared to be heading. His first major work, Escape from Freedom, published during World War II, was a penetrating study of why people may prefer authoritarianism to democratic government. His later works, notably The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, expressed the ideals and growing pains of those angst-ridden 20 somethings who saw all too well the imperfections of the world they were poised to inherit from their parents.

              If Fromm was everywhere then, he seems to be nowhere now. Escape from Freedom remains a cogent statement of what Fromm’s native Germany had become, and transformed itself after the war into a critique of post-war consumerism and materialism. The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, although published in the 1950s, seem like relics of the tumult of the 1960s, psycho-babble speaking to readers who were also lapping up Charles Reich’s fatuous The Greening of America, a work that now reads almost as a caricature of that era. Fromm’s works can’t be ridiculed in quite the same way, although from a perspective of 40 years later, they strike me as sophomoric. But, let’s face it, many of us reading them back then were more than a little sophomoric ourselves, even if we had evolved into juniors, seniors or young graduates.

           Now, for those of us who haven’t thought much about Fromm in recent decades, Lawrence Friedman has produced The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, a penetrating biography of the man behind those books for a generation of sophomores. Digging deeply into his many books, Friedman accents Fromm’s “remarkable capacity to convey complex thoughts in psychoanalysis, ethics, theology, political theory, social philosophy, cultural creations and much more in simple, direct prose that appealed to the latent ideals and fears of his time” (p.xxi-ii).

                Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900, into a middle-class German-Jewish family. He was an only child and never felt particularly close to his parents. His mother in particular was distant. Looking back on his childhood, Fromm found her uncaring — she had not mastered the art of loving was probably a thought that passed through Fromm’s adult mind, perhaps at the moment when the title of his future book crystallized for him. Although his immediate family was not religious, from his earliest years prophetic Jewish teaching had much influence on his writings and thinking, an influence that never vanished as Fromm drifted away from formal Judaism. Throughout his adult life, Jewish law and ethics proved to be an anchor for Fromm, an illustration of universal human needs and experiences.

              Fromm became a psychoanalyst and began to make a name for himself at the Frankfurt Institute in the 1930s. But the 1930s were not among Germany’s better years and, with Hitler in power, most of the Frankfurt Institute moved to Columbia University in New York. Fromm migrated to the United States in 1934, and made what seems to have been a seamless transition to becoming an American in all senses of the term. Unlike most of his German colleagues at Columbia, Fromm was very comfortable in America and in using the English language, which he mastered in an amazingly short time.

          Fromm’s field, psychoanalysis, was one which Sigmund Freud had essentially invented during Fromm’s early years. As a young psychoanalyst, Fromm developed views that set him apart from Freud. Fromm regarded Freud’s view of human beings as too dark, too focused on libidinal impulses. Fromm “modified but did not eliminate [Freud’s] centrality of instinctive life” (p.225). In some senses, Fromm’s life-long mission was to replace libido theory, the “underpinning of Freudian orthodoxy” (p.60), with a view of humans as “social beings whose lives are shaped by social structure and culture” (p. xii), and in this sense Fromm never seriously wavered from his counter-views of Freud.

            The other central figure in defining Fromm’s professional career and shaping his views was Karl Marx. Early in his career, having deviated from Freudian orthodoxy, Fromm became convinced that the correct psychoanalytic view of man could be found through a synthesis between Marx’s rigidly materialistic emphasis on social-economic conditions and Freud’s focus on the inner psyche. While at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany, Fromm stumbled upon an early, unpublished manuscript Marx had written in 1844, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (also called the Paris Manuscripts), in which Marx had emphasized the estrangement that capitalism inflicted upon the human psyche. Blending this younger and “more psychologically compelling Marx” (p.188) with the insights of Freud, Fromm developed his notion of “social character structure,” a notion based on the interplay between individuals’ “impulsive energy, religion [and] political ideologies” and the “economic organization of society” (p.60).

        Fromm’s first major work, Escape from Freedom, which Friedman terms “one of the most profound and captivating books ever written on the conflict between freedom and authoritarianism” (p.62), came out in 1941, with war raging in Europe. Escape was one of the first works to merge psychology and history although, Friedman notes, most critics found that Fromm’s psychology “outshone his history” (p.107). The central thesis which Fromm articulated in Escape was in many senses the central thesis of his writings for the remainder of his career:

[M]odern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man (p.99).

              Although the future for liberal democracy appeared exceedingly bleak at the time of publication, Escape ended on an upbeat note. Fromm predicted the eventual spread of humanistic values, “almost as historical inevitability” (p.115). Friedman attributes Fromm’s optimism in part to his Jewish heritage and learning, noting that the Jewish prophetic tradition burst forth at the end of Escape from Freedom and helped make it a classic. As Fromm wrote the book, he was preoccupied with the rescue of family members and others from a “Holocaust in the making,” indicating that “much of his daily life was deeply embedded in the fabric of the book” (p.97). “The force and clarity of the work,” Friedman concludes, was “surely influenced by his almost daily interventions for émigré assistance” (p.76).

              With the defeat of the Nazis and the onset of the Cold War, Escape from Freedom demonstrated its versatility by evolving into a book speaking to the conformist tendencies of the 1950s in the United States. Friedman argues that Escape can be fitted into the same niche as David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, works which also addressed the comfortable middle class materialism that seemed to characterize 1950s America. Escape from Freedom had a wider focus than The Lonely Crowd, which was centered on the United States. In Friedman’s interpretation, one can see a 20th century version of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Escape from Freedom, a statement of the perils of democracy in which people “dread their own free agency [and] fear themselves” (p.66-67).

              In 1950, Fromm relocated to Mexico and a post at the National Autonomous University, where he taught until 1965, although he retained substantial ties with the United States throughout his time in Mexico. During the 1950s, Friedman contends, Fromm ceased to write as a scholar and “evolved into a best-selling author” and “icon of popular culture,” particularly in the United States (p.155). In an unremitting series of books — rarely supported, Friedman wryly notes, with “much logic or evidence” (p.155) — Fromm advanced emotionally powerful ideas about the importance of love, the dangers of nuclear war, and the insipidness of consumerism and materialism.

             The Sane Society, published in 1955, focused on the Cold War culture of consumerism. Here, Fromm argued that love was the only force capable of counterbalancing narcissism and social conformity. A society achieved sanity where its citizens were “self-directed,” depending upon “their own capacities to love and to create, to think and to reason, to feel connected to themselves and to others” (p.188). Fromm relied heavily upon Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which he had discovered while at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany. “We consume, as we produce,” Fromm wrote in The Sane Society, echoing Marx, “without any concrete relatedness to the objects with which we deal; we live in a world of things, and our only connection with them is that we know how to manipulate or to consume them” (p.189).

             The following year, 1956, saw the publication of The Art of Loving, Fromm’s best selling book. With few footnotes or quotations and no index, the slim, 120 page volume was “quite short on scholarly paraphernalia,” as Friedman puts it (p.173). Here, Fromm posited that loving others starts with loving one-self. Self love opens an “entry way to the love of another and human kind” (p.175). Much to his chagrin, The Art of Loving was often paired with 1950s “self-help” best-sellers such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, works which “valued material acquisition and enhanced popularity as the avenues to happiness” (p.174). Quite unlike these works, The Art of Loving contained a scathing indictment of market capitalism and consumerism that emphasized the “severe limitations on love inherent in modern capitalist society and its focus on materialist acquisitiveness” (p.181), helping to explain the book’s appeal in the 1960s, when Carnegie and Peale seemed conspicuously out of step with the times.

               In these and his other books written in the 1950s and 1960s, Fromm became what we might term today a “public intellectual,” speaking out on the issues of the day and engaging actively in politics. Fromm’s signature issue centered on the threat that nuclear weapons posed, a threat he considered more serious than the dictatorships of the 1930s. Fromm was a co-founder of the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (usually referred to as “SANE,” a reference to The Sane Society). Fromm advised a wide range of American public officials during this time on the dangers of nuclear weapons, including John F. Kennedy, William Fulbright, Adlai Stevenson, and Eugene McCarthy.

                 Throughout his time of activism and engagement, Fromm continued to write prolifically, with his search for the ideal synthesis between Freud and Marx continuing. His 1959 work Sigmund Freud’s Mission: An Analysis of His Personality and Influence invoked Marx as a “remedy” to Freud, but From still asserted that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious had struck a blow to conventional rationalists. More an “extended philippic than a closely reasoned or well-researched manuscript,” Sigmund Freud’s Mission nonetheless represented Fromm’s “most explicit reckoning with Freud” (p.221). Marx’s Concept of Man, published in 1961, relied again on Marx’s 1844 Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts to portray Marx as “deeply sensitive to inner, often unconsciousness psychological motivation” (p.223). Beyond the Chains of Illusions, published in 1962, represented Fromm’s “fullest effort to present his thoughts on Freud and Marx between two covers” (p.224). Unlike Freud, Fromm found that Marx had “delineated the psychologically crippling effect of class exploitation inherent in capitalism” (p.225). Marx thus helped Fromm establish an essentially social-democratic position as an alternative to a “repressive, class-based society” (p.226).

             Fromm termed his social-democratic position “socialist humanism,” a creed that sought to elevate individual self-fulfillment as the centerpiece for structuring human institutions. Fromm utilized his socialist humanism project to connect like-minded humanists in the United States and Western Europe with Eastern European dissidents in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In 1965, Fromm edited a volume of essays entitled Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, which became “perhaps the most cited and celebratory global expression of 1960s third world socialism, providing an international context to the increasing number of works by members of Fromm’s expanding circle of colleagues” (p.245-46).

            In the 1960s, Fromm also began to explore what he termed “necrophilia,” a predilection for death, force, and destruction. Fromm posited “biophilia” as the counterpoint to necrophilia, a “heightened sense of aliveness” through which man “confirmed his powers and his sense of self” (p.215). This binary theme underscored Fromm’s 1973 work, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Here, Fromm argued that the authoritarian character type he had been describing since Escape From Freedom and the necrophilic character type “operated in tandem, forming a partnership between the two most evil potentialities of the human condition” (p.308). To illustrate this lethal partnership, Fromm delved briefly into the character of Adolph Hitler and more fully into that of his notorious lieutenant, Heinrich Himmler, a sadist who “sought total control over others and enjoyed inflicting misery” (p.309). Fromm’s analysis of Himmler provided concrete details for “some of the generalizations about the authoritarian personality that he had simply outlined in Escape from Freedom. It was Fromm at his peak as an intellectual and scholar in his last decade,” (p.310), Friedman concludes.

            To Have or To Be, published in 1976, Fromm’s last major work, synthesized Fromm’s “most important ethical and psychological observations over the decade” on authoritarianism, necrophilia, consumerism and a depleted sense of self (p.318). The book presented another binary contrast, between “having” and “being” modes, across a wide range of human experience. Fromm suggested that the world would transition from having to being when such qualities as relatedness, love, and solidarity “permeated society’s current bureaucratic, greedy, materialistic, and unhappy existence’” (p.327). To Have or To Be enjoyed only modest success in the United States but was exceedingly popular in Europe, particularly with young Germans and Italians who were speaking out for “less materialist and consumer driven lifestyles” (p.327). Some Europeans characterized the book as a “counterpoint to problematic American values” (p.327).

              While probing Fromm’s many writings, Friedman does not neglect the emotional and romantic side of the man. Friedman lets the reader decide whether Fromm the man adhered in his personal relationships to the principles which Fromm the writer had articulated. Fromm’s generally cold and distant relationship with his mother prompted him to seek emotional closeness in a wide variety of women. Fromm’s first wife, Frieda Reichman, whom Fromm married at age 26, was nearly 11 years older, and already a prominent psychoanalyst. After Fromm’s divorce from Reichman and shortly after his arrival in New York, Fromm had a long affair with prominent American psychoanalyst Karen Horney, also considerably older than Fromm; and another with an African-American dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. Fromm’s second wife, Henny Gurland, committed suicide in 1952. The next year Fromm married Annis Freeman, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life.

             Fromm retired with Annis to Locarno, Switzerland in 1976. He continued to write up to his death in 1980. While his works after Escape from Freedom may have lacked the rigor that would endear him to academics, Fromm nonetheless struck a responsive chord with an anxious reading public in the United States and throughout the world. Benjamin Friedman’s splendid interpretative biography provides those of us who are no longer sophomores with an opportunity to take another look at Fromm’s critiques of consumerism and materialism and reflect upon his formulations for achieving happiness.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 7, 2015

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Filed under American Politics, Biography, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

Ike’s Arms

Dulles

Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers:

John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

          In “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War,” Stephen Kinzer issues a trenchant critique of America foreign policy in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the United States deposed or sought to depose leaders in every corner of the world.   The architects of this policy were the brothers Dulles, John Foster (almost always called “Foster”), President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State from 1953 to his death in 1959; and brother Allen, Eisenhower’s CIA Director, who served the agency from the Truman Administration into the early Kennedy Administration.  Kinzer’s book is about one-third biography of the Dulles brothers, and two-thirds a scathing indictment of the foreign policy they helped fashion.

          Kinzer’s indictment focuses on six covert CIA operations which targeted leaders in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Indonesia, Congo, and Cuba.  The Congo and Cuba interventions took place after Foster died in 1959.  Although President Eisenhower had given strong encouragement to the Cuban Bay of Pigs plot prior to his departure, the infamous intervention occurred after he left office.  The first four, by contrast, were the joint work of Foster and Allen, each with the backing of President Eisenhower.  “With the Dulles brothers as his right and left arms,” Eisenhower “led the United States into a secret global conflict that raged throughout his presidency” (p.114), Kinzer writes.

          The reasons for targeting the six leaders varied and were driven both by local considerations and the United States’ assessment of the extent of Soviet interest and influence in the particular country.  But, Kinzer argues, none of the subjects of the operations was clearly in the Soviet camp.  Looking for a common denominator to the interventions, it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that the targeted leaders’ offense was that they had the temerity to stake out positions that were not sufficiently on the side of the United States.

* * *

              The Dulles brothers were born into an extraordinary family, Foster in 1888, Allen in 1893.  The family also included Allen and Foster’s sister Eleanor, born in 1895, along with two other sisters only briefly mentioned here.  Eleanor, “as formidable a character” as her two brothers (p.14), also had a distinguished career in public service.  She served in a variety of critical State Department positions and overcame gender barriers to her career which her brothers never had to confront or reflect upon.  John Watson Foster, the grandfather of Foster, Allen and Eleanor, served as secretary of state for eight months in 1892-93.  Their uncle – husband of their mother’s sister – was Robert Lansing, who served as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State.

            The father of Foster, Allen and Eleanor was a Presbyterian minister and the children grew up in a household permeated with religiosity and Christian missionary zeal.  The children usually attended three Sunday services, took notes on their father’s sermons, and analyzed them afterwards with their father.  However, only Foster seems to have deeply absorbed the religious fervor of his father.  One of the striking features of the biographical side of this book is the vast difference in personality between Foster and Allen.  Foster was rigid and distant, with little sense of humor.   Further, early in life, Foster showed a “judgmental harshness that never softened,” Kinzer writes.  He was always “sharply self-righteous” (p.13).

          Brother Allen by contrast seemed in the 1920s to be a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, a bon vivant, outgoing and gregarious, a man who enjoyed parties and company, especially the company of women.  Although he stayed married to his wife, “[u]napologetic adultery” became an established part of Allen’s character in his early adult years and “remained so all his life” (p.44), with affairs and liaisons around the world.   Brother Foster’s married life was monogamous in the full sense of the word.  The popular expression “dull, duller, Dulles” was a reference to Foster, not Allen.  Despite the brothers’ differing devotion to their wives, they were “strikingly similar in their relationships with their children.  Both were distant, uncomfortable fathers” (p.45), Kinzer writes.

         Foster and Allen attended Princeton University, where each was inspired by Professor Woodrow Wilson.  The brothers, Kinzer writes, were “products of the same missionary ethos that shaped President Wilson.”  His example “strengthened their conviction that there is nothing intrinsically wrong – and indeed, much that is admirable – in American involvement abroad” (p.32).  It is striking how similar in personality Foster seemed to Wilson.  Kinzer describes Wilson as “sternly moralistic, and certain he was acting as an instrument of divine will” (p.31), and the same could be said of Foster.  With their former professor in the White House and their uncle serving as his Secretary of State, each brother was able to land a role in Wilson’s entourage at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.  At the conference, Allen and Foster spent time together and realized how much their world views were similar, notwithstanding great differences in personality

          Foster went to law school, then started a highly successful career at New York’s fabled law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, where he made a comfortable living representing some of America’s most prominent corporations, particularly in their overseas ventures and misadventures.  Sullivan and Cromwell “thrived at the point where Washington politics intersected with its business.  John Foster Dulles worked at this intersection for nearly forty years” (p.19).  Foster’s legal work at Sullivan and Cromwell was instrumental in forming a lifelong view that equated the United States’ national interest overseas with those of the corporations he represented.  Integral to this view was the unquestioned assumption that his clients, as they operated overseas, were on the right side of justice and righteousness.  Although Foster’s mastery of complex legal and financial codes throughout his tenure at Sullivan and Cromwell “reflected a rigorously organized mind,” Kinzer writes that Foster was “not a deep thinker” (p.209).

            Allen joined the Foreign Service in 1916, where he served in Vienna and Bern and showed he could deal effectively – manipulate if necessary – his foreign counterparts.  Ten years later, Allen left the Foreign Service to join Foster at Sullivan and Cromwell.   His stay there was abbreviated, with most of it spent in the firm’s Paris office.  In Paris, Allen demonstrated a “flair for discreet deal making,” becoming a “potent advocate for America’s richest men, a banks, and corporations” (p.41).  Neither brother served in the military, in either World War, but Allen joined “Wild Bill” Donavon’s information gathering operations that would evolve into the CIA.  This experience brought to the fore Allen’s lifelong interest in the spy world, the world of both information gathering and what is known euphemistically as “operations,” which can encompass “dirty tricks” and more.

          Both brothers’ opposition to the Soviet Union and all it stood for pre-dated World War II.  Foster had supported the Nazi regime as a strategic bulwark against Bolshevism until nearly the point when the United States entered the war against Germany, considering the regime “essentially Western, Christian, and capitalist” (p.84).  Once the war ended, both Foster and Allen saw the Soviet Union as just as implacably menacing, just as bent upon world domination, as the defeated Nazi enemy.  The USSR was pursuing more than traditional Russian strategic goals, Foster and Allen came to believe.  It was bent upon achieving “power over the whole world; it posed to the West not just the sort of threat that assertive powers have always posed to one another, but a ‘challenge to established civilization –the kind of thing that occurs only once in centuries’” (p.83-84).  Even more than Nazism for the two brothers, Communism was an “ultimate evil with which no compromise could ever be possible” (p.84).

          This was the environment in which the newly created Central Intelligence Agency came into being in 1947.  Allen joined the agency as Deputy Director for Operations.  In this capacity, he favored both intelligence gathering and covert operations.  “The collection of secret intelligence is closely related to the conduct of secret operations,” Allen argued in a confidential report.  “The two activities support each other and be disassociated only to the detriment of both” (p.87).  Many in the early CIA opposed Allen’s view, but it ultimately prevailed.

           When Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1953, he nominated Allen as CIA Director and Foster as his Secretary of State.  This put the two brothers at the levers of powers, with the smiling, grandfatherly Ike as their perfect boss.  Eisenhower was as much a Cold War warrior as the Dulles brothers, but he took office with a different perspective and experience.  Combining the “mindset of a warrior with a sober understanding of the devastation that full-scale warfare brings” (p.114), Eisenhower was very reluctant to commit American military forces to combat operations.  By contrast, covert operations were the precise method for meeting the worldwide communist menace head on.

* * *

          Kinzer notes that the brothers were Eurocentric in outlook, with little understanding of or interest in the independence movements that were raging through much of the world in the 1950s.  Yet, the brothers were conspicuously unsuccessful in their attempt to confront Communism in Eastern Europe.  CIA operations in Poland, Ukraine and Albania, which had encouraged anti-communist resistance, “collapsed in defeat” (p.132).   Allen’s CIA also failed to foresee Khrushchev coming to power after Stalin’s death, and did nothing to help Hungary revolt after “having whipped up anti-Soviet feeling in Hungary” (p.213).  Foster gained much attention for his publicly stated view that the objective of the United States was to “roll back” Communism in Eastern Europe.  This was nothing more than rhetoric, “devoid of serious meaning” (p.153), and Dulles knew it, Kinzer argues.  There was little or no policy to back it up and the Soviets likely knew it as well.

          The brothers’ lackluster record in Eastern Europe may have whetted their appetite for success outside Europe.  President Eisenhower authorized each of the six covert operations which Kinzer studies – Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Vietnam, Congo and Cuba, grouped together in a section entitled “Six Monsters” — but it seems that these operations were never the subject of explicit orders coming from the President, not oral and surely not written.  The first target was Muhammed Mossadegh, familiar to tomsbooks readers as the leader of Iran deposed in 1953 by a joint British-American covert operation.  Kinzer has written a separate book on the Iran operation, “All the Shah’s Men.”  Christoper de Bellaigue, in his book reviewed here last month, takes a swipe at Kinzer’s book, noting that Kinzer, unlike himself, does not read Persian and comparing Kinzer’s efforts to describe the coup to an author writing on Pearl Harbor knowing only Japanese (de Bellaigue at 5).

          But on the substance of the CIA’s Iranian intervention, Kinzer’s views largely coincide with those of de Bellagiue, that the coup was animated by a toxic combination of a British need to preserve its waning worldwide prestige and an American eagerness to confront an overstated communist threat in Iran.  Although Mossadegh was no communist, “Foster and Allen saw him as weak and unstable, an Iranian Kerensky who would be unable to resist if the Communists struck against him” (p.130).  The Dulles brothers won Ike’s support for covert action in Iran by framing their antipathy to fit cold war fears.  After failure of the initial coup effort, the agency succeeded in toppling Mossadegh, its first successful exercise in regime change.

          One year later, the CIA scored a similar victory in successfully deposing another democratically selected leader, Jakob Arbenz of Guatemala.  Guatemala for the Dulles brothers was the place where “Moscow’s global conspiracy reached closest to American shores, led by a puppet masquerading as a nationalist” (p.147).  The United Fruit Company, a Sullivan and Cromwell client, dominated the country, running it more or less as its private fiefdom.  In most countries, governments control and regulate corporations.  “The opposite was true in Guatemala: United Fruit was the power, Guatemala was the subsidiary,” Kinzer wryly notes (p.148).

           Arbenz was initially uninterested in nationalization of United Fruit’s extensive investments in his country, but he wanted to impose land reform and labor regulations which would benefit workers throughout the country, including those working for United Fruit.  “Foreign capital will always be welcome as long as it adjusts to local conditions, remains always subordinate to Guatemalan laws, cooperates with the economic development of the country, and strictly abstains from intervening in the nation’s social and political life” (p.149), Arbenz had said in his inaugural address.  These and similar statements convinced the brothers that Arbenz had to be removed.  In a covert operation that involved enlistment of the Catholic Church, the brothers scored their second straight success, barely a year after their first in Iran.  Colonial Castillo Armas, the CIA’s chosen “liberator,” decreed repeal of the land reform acts that had so enraged United Fruit, suspended the constitution, and banned illiterates from voting, thereby disenfranchising three-quarters of the population.  “Ten years of democratic government, the first that Guatemalans  had ever known, were over” (p.173), Kinzer writes.

           However, these two victories would not be repeated when the brothers turned their focus to Asia, first to Vietnam, then to Indonesia, with two resilient rulers, Ho Chi Minh and Sukarno. Although Ho Chi Minh was undoubtedly the most avowedly communist among the leaders the CIA had targeted to date, Foster and Allen “mistakenly saw China a pawn of the Soviet Union and Ho, also mistakenly, as a puppet of both” (p.176).  Crushing Ho, they believed, would strike a decisive blow against international world communism.  Kinzer’s view is that Ho Chi Minh was not only more nationalist than communist in ideology, but also more neutralist than communist in geopolitics.  CIA covert actions in the 1950s failed to dislodge Ho, but also failed to attract significant attention at that time.  Kinzer’s narrative is laced with speculation that a more supple United States approach might have averted the disaster that followed for the United States in Vietnam the following decade.

          Indonesia’s Sukarno professed a love for the United States, quoting profusely Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and others.  In quoting Sukarno quoting great Americans with important views on democracy and freedom, Kinzer subtly suggests without saying so explicitly that Sukarno was a closer adherent to American ideals than either Dulles brother.  Sukarno’s tradition emphasized conciliation and harmony and abhorred confrontation, finding good and evil mixed everywhere.  “What Foster and Allen took as Sukarno’s abandonment of the West was actually his attempt to make foreign policy according to principles that shape life in Indonesia” (p.227).

              All this made Sukarno a fervent neutralist who wanted to keep his country out of Cold War alignments, and this was simply unacceptable to the brothers.   For the Dulles brothers and their boss, neutralism was almost worse than communism.  When he told Foster that neutralism doesn’t favor communism, Sukarno claimed that Foster had retorted, “America’s policy is global.  You must be on one side or the other.  Neutralism is immoral” (p.218).  Despite an extensive CIA covert operation in Indonesia that involved training and equipping more than 10,000 rebel soldiers, termed Operation Archipelago, the agency was unable to dislodge Sukarno as the leader of Indonesia.  Indonesia was the CIA’s most notorious defeat to date, and strengthened Sukarno in numerous ways.

           Foster died in 1959, but brother Allen continued to lead the CIA’s campaign to unseat threatening foreign leaders, the next being the “dangerously defiant” (p.264) former postal clerk Patrice Lumumba, who rose to be head of state in what had been known as the Belgian Congo.  Belgium left a dubious colonial legacy in the resource-rich Congo, which became an independent state in 1960, failing to educate the populace or build institutions which could function independently.  Lumumba was brutally killed by Western-backed supporters of Joseph Mobutu in a secessionist civil war raging within his country, with the United States playing a secondary role to the “more decisive and resourceful” Belgians (p.282).  In death, Lumumba became of a symbol of third world liberation, while Congo plummeted into a hell of repression, poverty, corruption and violence.  Allen admitted less than two years after Lumumba’s death that the CIA may have overrated the communist threat in the Congo.

           The final covert operation which Kinzer reviews was the disastrous Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba in 1961.  After the 1960 election, while still in office as a lame duck President, Eisenhower expanded the anti-Castro operation, approaching it with “determination and focused enthusiasm” (p.288).  But several factors precluded launching the operation prior to the Presidential transition.  Against his better judgment, a young and untested President Kennedy authorized the operation, which failed spectacularly.  When the furious Kennedy called Dulles into the Oval Office to give him the news that it was time to move on from the position he had held since 1951, Kinzer quotes Kennedy as telling Dulles, “Under a parliamentary system, it is I who would be leaving office.  But under our system it is you who have to go” (p.303).  The Bay of Pigs was the “first time that the CIA was fully unmasked seeking to depose the leader of a small country whose only crime was defying the United States.” The Bay of Pigs thus became a “reviled symbol of imperialist intervention” (p.303).

            Kinzer notes that while the operation to depose Castro was underway, Allen “seemed asleep at the wheel” (p.285).  In general, Allen was a poor administrator, with an “undisciplined mind,” seeming to some “almost scatterbrained” (p.188).  He was easily distracted, with an “inability to focus, lack of attention to detail, and aversion to vigorous debate” (p.289).   By the time Kennedy asked for his resignation, Allen’s lackadaisical leadership had led the CIA to “endlessly tolerate misfits.  Even in high positions, it was not unusual to find men who were evidently lazy, alcoholic or simply incompetent” (p.318).  In Kinzer’s estimation, Allen had the “cold-bloodedness that an intelligence director needs, but not enough intellectual rigor or curiosity.”  Carried away by his “love of the cloak and dagger game” Allen “lost sight of the limits to what covert action can achieve” (p.318-19).    Kinzer speculates that in his final years at the CIA, Allen was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  He died in 1969.

* * *

            Having garnered the facts of the brazen CIA agency operations under Allen’s leadership, Foster’s encouragement until his death, and Eisenhower’s tacit authorization, Kinzer ends with what seems like a prosecutor’s closing argument against the Dulles brothers and the policies they pursued.  He contends that empathy was beyond their emotional range.  “Sympathizing with the enormous complexities facing leaders of emerging nations would have required them to consider those leaders independent agents, rather than instruments of Soviet power.  Their compulsive oversimplifications of the world prevented them from seeing its rich diversity” (p.327).  Neither was adept at “synthesizing, compromising, listening, adopting, or evolving.  Political nuance rarely clouded their world view.  Neither did moral ambiguity” (p.320).  Most damningly, the brothers’ “lack of foresight led them to pursue reckless adventures that, over the course of decades, palpably weakened  American security interests” (p.314).  Like many prosecutorial closing arguments, Kinzer’s may be slightly hyperbolic and overstated.  But the evidence he cites is sufficient to convince this reader that the Dulles brothers’ Cold War exploits did little to advance the long term interests of the country they served.

Thomas H. Peebles

Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)

October 25, 2014

2 Comments

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

Bad Start

Kempe

Frederick Kempe, Berlin 1961:
Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

          If you think there is already a sufficient body of hagiographic work on John F. Kennedy’s brief presidency, this may be the book for you. In “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” Frederick Kempe delivers a withering critique of Kennedy’s first year as President — “one of the worst inaugural-year performances of any modern U.S. president” (p.483), Kempe concludes. As his title indicates, Kempe focuses upon Kennedy’s handling of the crisis in Berlin in 1961 and his dealings with his primary adversary, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Relying upon recently declassified documents from the United States, Germany, and Russia, Kempe has produced a highly readable account of a time when the Cold War was very hot. Kempe divides his book into short “time-and-place” narratives (e.g., “The Kremlin, Moscow, 10:00 am, Saturday, January 21, 1961,” p.73; “Berlin, Sunday Afternoon, June 4, 1961,” p.253; “The White House, Washington D.C., October 18, 1961,” p.430). He intersperses these narratives with human-interest stories, showing the effects which the super powers’ wrangling over Berlin had upon ordinary people, helping to make his book entertaining as well as informative.

          Two central events shape Kempe’s chronicle: Kennedy and Khrushchev’s meeting in Vienna in June 1961, and the construction of the Berlin Wall in August of that year. After Kennedy’s razor-thin victory in the 1960 presidential elections, the consensus in the Kremlin was that the newly-elected president was a “lightweight, a product of American privilege who lacked the experience required for leadership” (p.39).  Kempe details how the young and inexperienced Kennedy, in an effort to appear tough, rebuffed numerous olive branches thrown his way by his older adversary after his election. Had Kennedy accepted these branches, Kempe suggests, much of the tension relating to Berlin could have been defused.

          Preceding the Vienna meeting by about 60 days was the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, a CIA-led invasion of Cuba that had been planned during the Eisenhower administration, which Kennedy neither cancelled nor supported fully, and which failed miserably. To Khrushchev, Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs operation indicated that the young President was not resolute. “[N]ever in his fondest dreams had he anticipated such incompetence. In this first major test, the new U.S. president had lived down to Khrushchev’s lowest expectations,” demonstrating “weakness under fire” (p.177).

          The meeting in Vienna – what was termed a “summit” — was the first between the two Cold War leaders. Coming off the Bay of Pigs debacle, the young American President entered the “most important week of his presidency as a weary wounded commander in chief who was inadequately prepared and insufficiently fit for what would face him in Vienna. Khrushchev would be scanning for Kennedy’s vulnerabilities after the Bay of Pigs, and there were plenty for the picking” (p.211). The German weekly Die Zeit unkindly compared Kennedy on his way to Vienna to a traveling salesman “whose business had fallen on bad times and who was hoping to improve his prospects by negotiating directly with the competition” (p.197).

          There was no pre-set agenda for the Vienna meeting, but the future of Berlin dominated the discussions. Although Berlin was deep inside Soviet-controlled East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR), the Allies’ agreement at Yalta in February 1945 had guaranteed Western access into and out of the Western sectors of the city. Khrushchev came to Vienna under great pressure from GDR leader Walter Ulbricht — perhaps the most Stalinist of the Eastern bloc leaders — to stem the tide of skilled workers fleeing East Germany through West Berlin. Too many East Germans were voting against Communism with their feet, exiting the socialist enclave for the decadent West. Khrushchev was very much aware that East Germany and the Soviet Union’s other Eastern European satellites had not reached a “level of moral and material development where competition with the West [was] possible” (p.329).

          In Vienna, Khrushchev reiterated an earlier threat he had made to conclude a separate treaty with East Germany and leave the West to negotiate directly with Ulbricht’s government on issues involving access roads and air routes to Berlin. Khrushchev let Kennedy know that he preferred to reach an agreement personally with the American President that would alter Berlin’s status. If that were not possible, however, Khrushchev said he would “act alone and end all postwar commitments made by the Soviets” (p.242). No force in the world, the Communist leader indicated, was capable of stopping Moscow from “moving forward on its peace treaty” (p.245). As Kempe notes dryly, Khrushchev was plainly threatening war.

          Kennedy looked upon Berlin primarily as an inherited inconvenience. During his first year in office, according to Kempe, Kennedy was “not focused on rolling back communism in Europe, but instead was trying to stop its spread to the developing world” (p.486). Although he publicly took a hard line on Western commitments to Berlin, Kennedy’s primary interest was in “preserving West Berlin’s status and access to the city (p.381)” and “avoiding instability and miscalculations that would lead to nuclear war” (p.486). According to recently declassified notes, Kennedy told Khrushchev in the Vienna meeting that “West Europe is vital to our national security and we have supported it in two wars. If we were to leave West Berlin, Europe would be abandoned as well. So when we are talking about West Berlin, we are also talking about West Europe” (p.243).

          With that pronouncement, Kempe contends, Kennedy went further than any previous American president in differentiating “so clearly between his commitment to all of Berlin and to West Berlin” (p.243, Kempe’s emphasis). In Vienna, Kennedy tacitly let the Soviet leader know that he could do “whatever he wished on the territory he controlled as long as he didn’t touch West Berlin or Allied access to the city” (p.488). Vienna thus produced a de facto deal which Kennedy was prepared to strike with Khrushchev: “He would give Khrushchev a free hand to seal Berlin’s border in exchange for a guarantee that the Soviets would not disrupt West Berlin’s continued freedom or Allied access to the city” (p.489).

          During his time with the avuncular Khrushchev, Kempe concludes, the young President:

failed to challenge the Soviet leader where he was most vulnerable. He had not condemned the Soviet use of force in East Germany and Hungary in 1953 and 1956. Worse, he had not posed the most important question of all: Why were there hundreds of thousands of East German refugees fleeing to a better life in the West (p.233).

Kennedy’s Vienna performance confirmed Khrushchev’s growing impression that Kennedy “could be easily outmaneuvered, and from that point forward Khrushchev would act more aggressively in the conviction that there would be little price to pay” (p.259).

          Kennedy returned to the United States badly weakened after his lackluster performance in Vienna. An aide compared the return trip on Air Force One to “riding with the losing baseball team in the World Series. Nobody said much” (p.258). In what Kempe terms “one of the most candid sessions ever between a reporter and a commander in chief,” Kennedy told the journalist James Reston that Khrushchev had “savaged” him (p.257).

          Two months later, early in the morning of August 13 of that year, East Germany commenced construction of a barbed wire wall between the Soviet and Western sectors of Berlin, implementing a plan Ulbricht had devised which Kempe compares to Nazi blueprints for building and operating concentration camps. Though Ulbricht’s project was less murderous, “its execution would be no less cynically exacting” (p.325). Under the 1945 four-power agreements, the American, Soviet, British and French military governments of Germany had agreed that they would ensure unrestricted access throughout Berlin, a point reconfirmed in 1948 by another four-power agreement that ended the Berlin blockade. Thus, when the wall went up, Kennedy would have had “every right to order his military to knock down the barriers put up that morning by East German units that had no right to operate in Berlin” (p.359).

          But Kennedy had already signaled in Vienna and made clear through several other channels that he would “not respond if Khrushchev and the East Germans restricted their actions to their own territory” (p.359). Just a few days prior to construction of the wall, Kennedy had told Walt Rostow, his Deputy National Security Advisor:

Khruschev is losing East Germany. He cannot let that happen. If East Germany goes, so will Poland and all of Eastern Europe. He will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees. Perhaps a wall. And we won’t be able to prevent it. I can hold the Alliance together to defend West Berlin, but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open (p.293).

Then, when the wall went up, Kennedy “could not publicly express his genuine relief that the communists had closed the border, but at the same time he didn’t want to express false outrage too loudly” (p.383-84).

          Kempe pinpoints two “aftershocks” to Kennedy’s mishandling of Berlin in 1961: the long-term “freezing in place of the Cold War division of Europe for more than three decades;” and the more immediate Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962, with its threat of nuclear war. “The Wall’s construction not only stopped East Germany’s unraveling at a time when the country’s viability was in doubt,” Kempe writes. It also “condemned another generation of tens of millions of East Europeans to authoritarian, Soviet-style rule with its limits on individual and national freedom” (p.485). For 28 additional years, the Berlin Wall “would remain the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist” (p.502). As to the Cuban missile crisis the following year, although history would celebrate Kennedy’s management of that crisis, “Khrushchev would not have risked putting nuclear weapons in Cuba at all if he had not concluded from Berlin in 1961 that Kennedy was weak and indecisive” (p.485).

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
January 27, 2013

3 Comments

Filed under German History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized, United States History