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Blithe Optimist

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Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge:

The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 2, 2016

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography

Never Rely on Experts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

8 Comments

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

Nobel Crime

Dr

BorisP

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair:

The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book  

       Boris Pasternak, although one of Russia’s greatest 20th century poets, is best known for his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, initially published in Italian in 1957. One year later, after becoming an international best seller which was banned in the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Under pressure from Soviet authorities, Pasternak renounced the prize, “triggering one of the great cultural storms of the Cold War” (p.13), Peter Finn and Petra Couvée write in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. Finn is national security editor for the Washington Post. Couvée is an affiliated researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who also teaches at Saint Petersburg University in Russia.

        In a work that reads at times like a novel itself, Finn and Couvée address the Cold War machinations surrounding the publication of Doctor Zhivago.  The authors notably lay out for the first time the role which the CIA played in the novel’s publication. Rumors implicating the CIA existed almost from the time Doctor Zhivago first appeared, although many surmised that the agency had been only marginally involved. To the contrary, the authors demonstrate, the CIA was “in fact deeply involved” (p.17) in the publication of Pasternak’s novel. But its involvement is less central to the authors’ story than its prominent place in their sub-tittle indicates.

       Finn and Couvée create a vivid if bleak picture of the literary environment in post-World War II Soviet Union and they delve deeply into Pasternak, his enigmatic character and his tumultuous personal life. During the period in which he was writing Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak split his time between his wife Zinaida and his mistress Olga Ivinskya. Ivinskya became Pasternak’s literary alter ego and was imprisoned twice by Soviet authorities as a result of her association with Pasternak, the second time after Pasternak’s death in 1960.

       The other lead character in the drama is Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian Communist yet a man of means from a leading Milan industrial family. Feltrinelli arranged for the final manuscript of Pasternak’s novel to be smuggled out of the USSR in a suitcase in 1956 and published in Milan in 1957. Although Feltrinelli and Pasternak never met, they forged what the authors term “one of the greatest partnerships in the history of publishing.” Their secret correspondence, carried in and out of the Soviet Union by appointed messengers, serves today as a “manifesto on artistic freedom” (p.13).

* * *

       The authors describe Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago as “[b]oth epic and autobiographical” (p.10), recounting the life, loves and losses of a fictional  Russian physician Yuri Zhivago during the turmoil and chaos which the 1917 Russian Revolution wrought (“zhivago” means “the living” in Russian). Serving in a field hospital during World War I, the married Zhivago met and fell in love with nurse Lara Antipova. The two witnessed first hand the atrocities of the Russian Civil War that followed the revolution, committed both by the Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the White Russians. With the consolidation of Bolshevik power, Yuri and Lara parted, never to see one another again. When Zhivago returned to Moscow after the revolution, he found a city “wracked by chaos,” with his familiar world of art, leisure and intellectual contemplation “erased” (p.11).

        The power of Pasternak’s novel, the authors contend, lies in in its “individual spirit, Pasternak’s wish to find some communion with the earth, some truth in life, some love. Like Dostoevsky, he wanted to settle with the past and express this period of Russia’s history through ‘fidelity to poetic truth’” (p.16). Zhivago, they write, was like Pasternak himself, “from a lost past” of the Moscow intelligentsia, a “world to be disdained” (p.10) in the new Soviet order. Millions who never read the novel became familiar with the story from the 1965 David Lean film, in which Omar Sharif played Zhivago and Julie Christie was Lara.

        Pasternak disavowed any anti-Bolshevik agenda in his book but, with pages of disdain for the “deadening and merciless” Bolshevik ideology (p. 16), it is difficult to read Doctor Zhivago as anything but a harsh indictment of the revolutionary changes that the Bolsheviks sought to effectuate throughout Russian society. Doctor Zhivago appeared after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953, a time when the Soviet Union sought to distance itself from the harshest manifestations of Stalinist rule and defuse tensions with the West, while staying loyal to core Bolshevik principles. Yet Stalin’s ghost most assuredly haunted Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and the Kremlin authorities under him as they tried to figure out how to handle the potentially subversive novel.

 

* * *

       Pasternak was born in 1895, and was thus 22 years old when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, 62 when Doctor Zhivago was first published in 1957. His father was a renowned artist and illustrator whose father, Pasternak’s grandfather, was a Jewish innkeeper in the Black Sea town of Odessa. Pasternak’s mother was an accomplished musician. The authors describe the Pasternaks at the time of the Revolution as a “prominent family within Moscow’s intelligentsia, who looked to the West, and were disposed to support the political reform of an autocratic, sclerotic system” (p.22).

       In the land of Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy, writers in pre-revolutionary Russia enjoyed revered status. The post-World War II Soviet Union was still a society where novels, poems and plays were not only “hugely significant forms of communication and entertainment” but also the “subjects of fierce ideological disputes” (p.14). Because of his accomplishments as a poet, Pasternak was entitled to live in Peredelkino, an exclusive “writer’s colony” outside Moscow, with perks unimaginable for average Soviet citizens.  Within the Soviet literary establishment, however, recognition of Pasternak’s talent was tempered by “doubts about his political commitment, and for long periods original work by the poet was not published” (p.5). In 1946, Pasternak was removed from the Board of Union of Soviet Writers, which considered Pasternak “lacking in ideology and remote from Soviet reality” (p.56). By 1949, when at work at Dr. Zhivago, Pasternak had been “banished to the edges of literary life in Moscow” (p.66). Throughout the post-war period, he earned a living as a translator of foreign literature, becoming one of the premier Russian interpreters of Shakespeare’s’ plays and Goethe’s Faust.

       Pasternak wrote Dr. Zhivago in fits and starts after the termination of World War II hostilities. As was customary in Russia, Pasternak shared early drafts of Dr. Zhivago with fellow writers. While working on these drafts, Pasternak met Olga Ivinskaya, 20 years his junior, twice married – her first husband committed suicide, her second died during the war — and an editor of the literary magazine Novy Mir, then the official organ of the powerful Union of Soviet Writers. “Pretty, voluptuous and sexually self-confident despite the prudish mores of Soviet society” (p.62), Ivinskya was commonly thought to be the model for Lara Antipova in Pasternak’s novel. Although Pasternak never left his wife Zinaida, his extramarital relationship with Ivinskaya lasted up to his death in 1960.

       Within the Russian literary world, Ivinskya’s affair with Pasternak set off “chattering about the deliciously scandalous liaison” (p.65). But the affair also attracted the attention of Soviet authorities who, on Stalin’s orders, had begun to crackdown on ideologically suspect writers. As a means of building a case against Pasternak, authorities interrogated Ivinskaya. Suspected of spying for Western powers and planning to escape the USSR, Ivinskaya was charged with having “close contact with persons suspected of espionage” (p.73) and, in July 1950, sentenced to five months imprisonment. She was released shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953.

       Although Pasternak had submitted his work to local publishers, he realized that Dr. Zhivago could not be published in the Soviet Union because it failed to conform to what he termed the Soviet Union’s “official cultural guidelines” (p.7). Pasternak knew also that he assumed a huge risk if he sought to have his novel published outside the Soviet Union. Hovering over all Soviet writers was the fate of Boris Polnyak, who was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1937 after being accused of seeking foreign publication for a novel. But Pasternak was willing to assume this risk. He was determined that his “final happiness and madness” (p.10), as he termed Dr. Zhivago, see the light of day.

       In 1956, Feltrinelli, the “unlikely Communist” (p.85), arranged through an emissary for the manuscript to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union. This was the period of Khrushchev’s not-so-secret February 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union, in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes as a perversion of Bolshevik ideals. The thaw that followed the speech was “short lived; it would die with the Soviet invasion of Hungary” in October 1956 (p.89). But during this brief clearing when Feltrinelli received Doctor Zhivago, “[c]ooperation with Soviet writers and publishers seemed particularly opportune now that reform was gusting through the Kremlin” (p.89). Feltrenelli, who did not read Russian, sent the work to an Italian specialist in Russian literature.   Having read the manuscript in Russian, the specialist concluded that failure to publish the novel would constitute a “crime against culture” (p.89).

       Ivinskaya, already imprisoned because of her association with Pasternak, feared for her own safety if Dr. Zhivago was published abroad. Pasternak’s wife also firmly opposed Pasternak’s foreign publication plans and numerous Western friends urged him not to have the novel published abroad. But Pasternak held firm, signing a secret contract with Feltrinelli’s firm, sent to him by courier. Despite desperate efforts by the Soviet Union to prevent publication, the first edition of Doctor Zhivago, translated into Italian, was printed in Milan on November 15, 1957. A second run of three thousand copies followed five days later. The book was an immediate international best seller, but was officially banned within the Soviet Union.

        The editorial board of the official Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir scolded Pasternak for his “non-acceptance of the socialist revolution. The general tenor of your novel is that the October Revolution, the Civil War and the social transformation involved did not give the people anything but suffering, and destroyed the Russian intelligentsia, either physically or morally” (p.99) — a conclusion which many historians today would characterize as accurate. But one of Pasternak’s biographers noted that the Novy Mir board missed the novel’s “most heretical insinuation: by artistically conflating the Stalinist period with early revolutionary history,” Pasternak implied that the “tyranny of the last twenty-five year was a direct outcome of Bolshevism” (p.100). For Pasternak, Stalinism and the purges were not, as Khrushchev was then contending, a terrible aberration but rather a “natural outgrowth of the system created by Lenin” (p.100).

 

* * *

        Frustrated by its inability to “roll back” communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the CIA realized that Doctor Zhivago presented an opportunity to embarrass the Soviet government by placing the spotlight on Soviet suppression of a work of great literature in the tradition of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. CIA involvement in the publication of Doctor Zhivago was one of the agency’s first efforts to leverage books as “instruments of political warfare” (p. 264), part of a broader agency effort to fund cultural activities and publications across Europe which would “manifest diversity and difference of view” between Soviet and American approaches (p.118), and thereby slowly undermine Soviet authority.

       President Eisenhower thus authorized a secret operation to publish Doctor Zhivago in Russian, with exclusive CIA control over the novel’s exploitation. Instead of having the State Department or the United States Information Agency trumpet the novel publicly, secrecy was employed, the agency contended, to prevent the “possibility of personal reprisal against Pasternak or his family” (p.116-117). The agency’s director, Allen Dulles, whose role in many far more nefarious plots is the subject of Stephen Kinzer’s book, The Brothers, reviewed here in October 2014, oversaw the operation. In some senses, the authors contend, the CIA was perfect for the Doctor Zhivago operation. Its budget was itself a secret and the agency “believed with genuine fervor that the Cold War was also cultural” (p.118).

       The 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, an event which a large number of Soviet citizens and Eastern European nationals were slated to attend, was the CIA’s target for distribution of the Russian version. The agency decided to use a New York publisher to prepare a Russian-language edition in the United States, but take the proofs to Europe for printing so no American paper stock would be used. If the Europeans printers obtained the copyrights from Feltrinelli “all the better.” If not the CIA decided, “we’ll do it black’’ (p.130). In the first week of September 1958, the Russian language edition of Doctor Zhivago rolled off the printing presses, bound in a blue-linen cover. The title page acknowledged the copyright of Feltrinelli, but botched the translation of his name in the Cyrillic alphabet. The copyright acknowledgment was a last minute addition “after a small number off early copies were printed without any acknowledgement of the Italian publisher”   (p.138). The book was handed out to Soviet and Eastern European visitors to the Brussels World’s Fair at the Vatican Pavilion.

 

* * *

            The Soviet Union’s widely reported hostility to Doctor Zhivago “ensured that a novel that might otherwise have had a small elite readership became an international best seller” and made Pasternak an “almost inevitable choice” for the Swedish Academy’s 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature (p.13-14). Pasternak had previously been under consideration for a Nobel Prize and yearned for the recognition that such an honor would bring.  In the aftermath of the decision to award Pasternak the Nobel prize, however, the Soviet Union “orchestrated a relentless internal campaign to vilify the writer as a traitor” (p.14).  Pasternak was frequently described as a “Judas” who had betrayed his homeland for “thirty pieces of silver” (p.166).   At Khrushchev’s urging, a speech to the Komosol, the youth wing of the Soviet Communist Party, referred to Pasternak as the “mangy sheep” of Soviet society who as a writer had “fouled the spot where he ate and cast filth on those by whose labor he lives and breathes” (p.180).

     Most ominously for Pasternak, Soviet authorities threatened him with expulsion from the Soviet Union. Ivinskya drafted a letter to Khrushchev, which Pasternak signed, pleading not to expel him from the Soviet Union. “I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and by work,” the letter read. “I cannot conceive of my destiny separate from Russia, or outside it” (p.182). In a telegram to Nobel authorities in Sweden, Pasternak renounced the prize, to the great disappointment of his fellow artists, both in the Soviet Union and worldwide, many of whom regarded his renunciation as an act of betrayal. A then- obscure schoolteacher named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “writhed with shame” that Pasternak would “demean himself by pleading with the government” (p.201).

       Editorialists around the world weighed in on the “startling virulence of the assault on a solitary writer” (p.186). A French newspaper described the Pasternak affair and its effect upon Soviet global standing as Khrushchev’s “intellectual Budapest” (p.186). American political cartoonist Bill Maudlin won a 1958 Pulitzer prize for his depiction of a scruffy Pasternak in a Soviet prison camp wearing a ball and chain and chopping wood in the snow with a fellow prisoner. The caption read: “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?” (p.186).

Maudlin

* * *

       Amidst the worldwide controversy, the ever-enigmatic Pasternak died of lung cancer in May 1960. The Soviet Union did not report Pasternak’s death, although it was front-page news around the world. But the Pasternak controversy continued after his death, with Ivinskaya again paying a heavy price for her association with Pasternak. She was arrested for the second time, accused of being Pasternak’s link with Western publishers in dealing in hard currency for Doctor Zhivago. In the West, prosecution of Ivinskaya was seen as a “continuation of the Nobel campaign against Pasternak” (p.251). Ivinskaya was not released until 1964.  Feltrinelli drifted out of publishing and into the Italian anarchist left of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was killed in 1972, when a bomb he and co-conspirators planned to use to cut off electrical power in a Milan suburb went off prematurely.

       Khrushchev, for his part, was driven from office in 1964. In forced retirement, he had time, finally, to read Doctor Zhivago. The former Communist Party General Secretary concluded that he should not have banned the novel. “I should have read it myself. There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it” (p.256), he reportedly told his son.   Khrushchev made the point explicitly in his own secret memoirs, dictated when he was a “virtual prisoner in his own home” (p.265). In an “irony that would surely have brought a small smile to Pasternak’s face,” Khrushchev allowed the tapes containing his memoirs to be “spirited out of the Soviet Union and published in the West’ (p.265).

 

 * * *

 

        The idea that a novel could change people’s minds and make a difference in the Cold War confrontations between the Soviet Union and their Western adversaries seems today quixotic, “almost quaint” (p.263), as the authors put it. Yet that was the idea that motivated the CIA to put its resources, human and financial, behind its efforts to shine a spotlight on Doctor Zhivago.  Uncovering the full extent of the agency’s disguised role in the dissemination of Pasternak’s novel constitutes a scoop for Finn and Couvée.  But that role is a secondary theme in their book,  overshadowed by  the authors’ detailed and engrossing depictions of Pasternak himself and the post-Stalin 1950s Soviet literary world in which he operated, and by their always-timely account of the world-wide debate over intellectual and artistic freedom which the publication of Dr. Zhivago precipitated.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 12, 2015

4 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, Intellectual History, Literature, Politics, Soviet Union, United States History

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

Lenin’s Century

Pictures.tismaneanu

Vladmir Tismaneanu, The Devil in History:
Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century 

             The sub-title of this book should be a tip off that Valdimir Tismaneanu is wrestling with arguably the most critical question in 20th century European history: how did so much of the continent, where the Enlightenment two centuries previously had provided the blueprint for democratic governance based on religious tolerance and respect for individual rights, stray so far from the Enlightenment’s ideals? In The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, Tismaneanu locates the answer in 20th century communism, from its inception quite simply a “criminal system” (p.69), he writes. Tismaneanu’s searing critique hones in on the impact of Bolshevik and Leninist thinking throughout the 20th century, and describes the rethinking that went on in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when most of the countries of the former Communist bloc committed themselves to democratic governance.

            A professor of political theory at the University of Maryland and Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, Tismaneanu is a native of Romania brought up under the odious regime of Nicolae Ceaușecu, and thus knows more than a thing or two about how totalitarian governments operate. Tismaneanu indicates in his Forward that he was born after World War II to “revolutionary parents who had embraced anti-Fascist Communist values” (p.ix). His father fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, losing an arm, while his mother served as a nurse in that conflict. At age 14, Tismaneanu started to think about the implications of communism after a chance reading of a clandestine copy of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

            The book’s cover contains an ingenious photo of Stalin and Hitler staring at one another. If you’re talking about the devil in history, you’ve got to start with these two guys, right? Actually, an argument could be made that neither should be on the cover. Despite its sub-title, the book is only secondarily about Fascism and Nazism, emphasizing primarily how, despite ideological differences, they were influenced by the communist model. Moreover, it would have made way more sense to put Vladimir Lenin on the cover rather than Stalin. Stalin in Tismaneanu’s analysis was a ruthless implementer who “carried to an extreme Lenin’s intolerant logic” (p.230). But Lenin was the devil in 20th century European history – “the twentieth century was Lenin’s century” (p.90).

* * *

            Tismaneanu describes Leninism (or Bolshevism; Tismaneanu uses these terms inter-changeably) as a “self-styled synthesis between Marxian revolutionary doctrine and Russian tradition of nihilistic repudiation of the status quo” (p.90). If there had been no Lenin, he goes on to contend, “there would have been no totalitarianism – at least not in its Stalinist version. The October 1917 Bolshevik putsch . . . was “the event that irreversibly changed the course of Western civilization and world history” (p.92). Thanks to Lenin, a “new type of politics emerged in the twentieth century, one based on elitism, fanaticism, [and] unflinching commitment to the sacred cause” (p.90). Leninism was “inherently inimical to political liberties. It is not an accidental deviation from the democratic project but its logical, direct and unequivocal antithesis” (p.120).

            Leninism was rooted in Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and progress. Leninists “knew how to pose as the heir to the Enlightenment, and many were duped by this rationalistic and humanistic pretense” (p.46). But Leninism was equally rooted in Marx’s theories of transformation and the Russian anarchistic revolutionary tradition, with its “utilitarian nihilism and a quasi-religious socialist vision of the transformation of mankind” (p.112), a tradition which Steven Marks described in How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December. Lenin took Marx’s broad theories and emphasized the “organizational element as fundamental to the success of revolutionary action” (p.97). Leninism was precisely the type of utopianism which Isaiah Berlin abhorred, sanctifying “ultimate ends, and thus the creation of an amoral universe in which the most terrible crimes could be justified in the name of a radiant future” (p.70). More than a revolutionary response to the inequities of the Tsarist state and the injustices of capitalism, Leninism was an “experiment in ideologically driven, unbounded social engineering” (p.30). Never was a political doctrine “so ambitious, never a revolutionary project so much imbued with a sense of prophetic mission and charismatically heroic predestination” than Leninism (p.90), Tismaneanu concludes.

            Lenin’s diabolical influence extended to both Hitler and Mussolini. In times of moral and cultural disarray, Tismaneanu argues, Communism and Fascism can “merge into a baroque synthesis. Communism is not Fascism, and Fascism is not Communism. Each totalitarian experiment had had its own irreducible attributes, but they shared a number of phobias, obsessions, and resentments that could generate toxic alliances, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939” (p.x). The party played a different role under the two regimes. Under Communism the party leader incarnated the wisdom of the party, whereas under Fascism and Nazism the party was entirely secondary to the leader as the charismatic center of power. Fascism and Nazism also lacked the recurring party purges and show trials of the ruling elite as a “mechanism of mobilization, integration, and scapegoating” that characterized Communist regimes (p.53). Nonetheless, the ideologies of Communism and Fascism held in common a “belief in the plasticity of human nature and the possibility of transforming it in accordance with a utopian blueprint” (p.162). Both “identified with the revolution as an irreversible moment breaking with the past and creating a totally new world” (p.118). The two movements were alike in being “essentially and unflinchingly opposed to democratic values, institutions and practices” (p.21) – the “antithesis of the Western humanist legacy” (p.62).

            By the end of Khrushchev’s rule in the fall of 1964, both in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it was clear that reform within party-defined boundaries had “ceased to be a viable option”( p.136). Tismaneanu sees 1968 as a pivotal year, during which Eastern Europe saw an “explosion of post-revolutionary skepticism,” setting in motion forces that led to the “gradual decomposition of the Communist regimes” (p.142). Futile attempts to find ways of reforming Communism from within were replaced by an emphasis upon human dignity and the inviolability of human rights. The soul of Communism died in Prague in August 1968, Tismaneanu concludes. From that year onward, Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a spent force, with stagnation and immobility becoming its main characteristics.

          If the Communist soul died in 1968, its emaciated body survived until 1989. The changes which Europe underwent that year start with Mikhail Gorbachev. Tismaneanu regards Gorbachev as a “genuine Marxist revisionist, who, while paying lip service to Lenin’s iconic figure, moved away from Bolshevism as a political culture based on fanaticism, sectarianism, and volunteerism toward a self-styled version of Marxist revisionism” (p.145-46). Gorbachev tried to offer “antidotes to the rampant pathologies of cynicism, corruption and cronyism,” but was “utterly confused as to how to bring about political pluralism while sustaining state socialism” (p.153). Gorbachev’s version of Marxist revisionism was directly inspired by Eduard Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism, but he was “unable to fully abandon the outworked Leninist model, desperately searching for ‘socialism with a human face,’ torn between nostalgia for old ideals and the tragic awareness of their hollowness” (p.153). Neither a neo-Menshevik nor a Western-style Social Democrat, Gorbachev remains the “last and most influential of those East European Leninist leaders who tried to humanize an inherently inhuman system” (p.153).

            Twenty-five years after the changes of 1989-91, pluralism seems to have settled solidly throughout the former Eastern European Communist bloc, Tismaneanu argues, with democratic practices widely recognized, accepted and practiced. The revolutions of 1989-91 dealt a mortal blow to the “ideological pretense according to which human life can be structured in accordance with scientific designs proposed by a general staff of revolutionary doctrinaires” (p.171). Tismaneanu emphasizes the centrality of civil society to the success of the 1989 transformation, replacing the existing political, social, and economic system with one “founded on the ideals of democratic citizenship and human rights” (p.223). The core value restored, cherished and promoted by the revolutions of 1989 was “common sense. The revolutionaries believed in civility, decency, and humanity, and they succeeded in rehabilitating these values” (p.223). In so doing, they also managed to bring about the “rebirth of citizenship, a category abolished by both Communism and Fascism,” which also involved “re-empowering the truth” (p.221). What we have learned from 1989, Tismaneanu concludes, represents an “unquestionable argument in favor of the values that we consider essential and exemplary for democracy today” (p.221).

             Still, Tismaneanu cautions, a “residual Bolshevism” (p.114) lingers in the formerly Communist world, certainly in Russia and many of the states of the former Soviet Union. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has instituted a regime euphemistically termed “managed democracy,” an “increasingly aggressive version of neo-Stalinist and neo-imperialist restoration” (p.218). But even in Eastern Europe, the “utopian reservoir of humanity has not been completely exhausted: refurbished ideologies have resurfaced, among them populism, chauvinism, and fundamentalism of different shades” (p.164-65). Communism’s demise has given rise to “disenchantment, dispirited political cultures, the rise of new collectivisms, marginalization of former heroes, and the return of former Communists” (p.194). In brief, the “battle for the soul of man after Communism has not ended” (p.205).

* * *

            As perceptive as Tismaneanu’s insights are, as critical as his subject matter is, a few caveats are in order before you rush out and plunk down something like $20 for the paperback edition of his book. Tismaneanu’s prose is often dense, bordering on turgid. It is riddled with sentences such as: “The disintegration of the Stalinist gnosis as a key self-sufficient system of authoritarian norms and quasi-mystical precepts impelled revisionist intellectuals toward the construction of what Kolakowski called an agnostic Marxism, actually a quixotic attempt to salvage the humanistic kernel of the doctrine lest the whole Marxist utopia fall apart” (p.177); and “The theoretical manifestations of these undercurrents provided a new semantic horizon, the coalescence of a new emotional and intellectual infrastructure that was translated into a resurgence of repressed philosophical topics, above all humanism as a privileged metaphysical concern” (p.134).

           To be sure, the nuances of Marxist thinking and applications of Communist theories do not always lend themselves to crackling prose. Further, English is not Tismaneanu’s native language, and he has my full admiration for establishing a distinguished career and earning numerous academic distinctions in an acquired rather than native language. This is by itself a remarkable achievement. But some writers achieve genuine fluency and elegance writing in an acquired language. Valdimir Zubok, whose book Zhivago’s Children I reviewed here in November 2012, is one example. Tismaneanu is not there yet (incidentally, Tismaneanu frequently cites Zubok’s work).

            Further, Tismaneanu over-relies on quotations from other works. For example, the following string of quotations is contained entirely on a single page, page 103:

. . .as A.E. Rees showed. . .To paraphrase Eugen Weber. . .as the Catholic intellectual Adolf Keller wrote. . . as sociologist Michael Mann underlines. . . As Lesek Kolakowski puts it. . .. Paul Berman explains . . .

           There is of course nothing wrong with one author occasionally quoting another’s work – it is way better than using another’s words without quoting the other writer. The over-reliance on quotations is a common characteristic of too many college term papers and university dissertations. An author writing for general readers should be providing primarily his or her own thoughts, not those of other writers.

* * *

            Born and raised in a particularly virulent form of Communism in Romania, Vladimir Tismaneanu has a wealth of insight to offer readers on the implications of that and other repressive systems of government. But this book, while treating an enticing and still-critical subject, is unlikely to gain the affection of most general readers.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 21, 2015

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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

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