“I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first…The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”
Donald J. Trump
There is a remarkable story on the front page of today’s New York Times. For anyone even remotely conversant with American political history, perhaps particularly Americans who identify with the Republican Party, the story is beyond stunning.
The soon-to-be Republican candidate for president of the United States is openly embracing the campaign themes of the only president forced from office while facing the ultimate political judgment – impeachment.
Richard Nixon would surely have been convicted of “high crimes and misdemeanors” by the United States Senate in 1974, and might well have been indicted and convicted in criminal proceedings – many of his henchmen were – had Gerald Ford not pardoned him. Now Donald Trump is publicly embracing the most disgraced president in American history.
In reporting on the strangest political bear hug since, well, since ever. The Times notes: “It was a remarkable embrace — open and unhesitating — of Nixon’s polarizing campaign tactics, and of his overt appeals to Americans frightened by a chaotic stew of war, mass protests and racial unrest.
“And it demonstrated that, wisely or mistakenly, Mr. Trump sees the path to victory this fall as the exploitation of the country’s anxieties about race, its fears of terrorism and its mood of disaffection, especially among white, working-class Americans.”
Trump’s chief political operative Paul Manafort – think of him as an even more sinister and devilish version of Nixon’s chief henchman H.R. Haldeman, one of the Nixon men who went to jail – said Trump’s convention speech this week will channel Nixon in 1968. “If you go back and read,” that speech Manafort said, “that speech is pretty much on line with a lot of the issues that are going on today.”
Meanwhile, Nixon’s dirty trickster Roger Stone – he has a tattoo of Nixon on his back, really – continues to be a key Trump surrogate. Stone made headlines yesterday for attacking Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich, who has refused to endorse Trump.
Nixon’s 1968 campaign exploited division, class and race hate, while promising “law and order.” His presidency then produced the most lawless administration in modern times.
At a fragile moment in the long American experiment, the GOP candidate offers only fear. No plans, nothing even remotely connected to real public policy. No looking forward to a better, more inclusive, fairer America, but a call to retreat to an America that has never existed. “Make America Great Again,” is as much a myth as Trump’s business success. His promise of “law and order” would almost certainly lead to the kinds of abuses that brought down the man his campaign now embraces.
Richard Nixon was a tragically flawed, but profoundly driven man. Seeking the presidency for the second time in 1968, and after losing election as governor of California in 1962, Nixon’s team – Haldeman was P.R. executive – knew they needed to present “the New Nixon;” a more human, genuine Nixon. The repackaging, along with the “law and order” theme, worked, but just barely. Then the old Nixon re-emerged in the Oval Office.
The long awaited “pivot” by Trump that might finally put lipstick on the pig of his personality and temperament may or may not come this week. I would bet not, since while Nixon was a deeply effective conman he was also much more politically sophisticated than Trump. Re-packaging Trump will be tough, but perhaps amid the bluster and showmanship the Republican convention will produce an image of a “new Trump,” but like so much about the man it will be an illusion.
That Trump has openly and proudly adopted Richard Nixon as a model says all we need to know about the man’s sense of history and the trials and tribulations of the American experiment and the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Republicans who have supported Reagan, the Bushes, Bob Dole and John McCain must confront in their candidate a remarkable political throwback. We can now confidently say their new candidate really is the “new” Nixon.
Director Steven Spielberg’s latest offering – Bridge of Spies – works on several levels as his best films tend to. In fact, it may be one of his very best films.
The movie is a classic big screen thriller with adequate action and suspense. It’s a finely tuned period piece (mid-century modern) complete with old cars, vintage billboards, and “duck and cover” filmstrips.
Bridge of Spies is also an actor’s movie with superb performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, perhaps the world’s most acclaimed stage actor, and a talent that will be new to many movie goers.
And since this is Spielberg, the film is also an American history lesson.
When the Cold War Was Really Cold…
Hanks, who seems to hit his stride when working with Spielberg, plays New York attorney, James B. Donovan, who improbably becomes the key player in arranging a celebrated Cold War prisoner swap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action is set at the end of the Eisenhower Administration and continues on into the Kennedy years – days of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and spy versus spy.
The key figures in the prisoner swap – again all true – were the young American Air Force lieutenant Francis Gary Powers, who is appropriated to fly spy planes for the CIA, and the notorious Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel.
Powers became a Soviet prisoner in May 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down in the Ural Mountain region of the Soviet Union during a photography run. Powers survived the crash – great scene in the movie – and was captured by the KGB.
The Eisenhower Administration originally tried to pass off the incident as a wayward weather aircraft, but the Soviets produced wreckage of the super-secret U-2 and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reaped an international propaganda windfall. A summit meeting in Berlin was cancelled and efforts to improve U.S.-Soviet relations were temporarily derailed. It was a major international incident that also had the human dimension of a young American with a head full of secrets about U.S. spy activities sitting in a Russian jail.
Earlier, in 1957, after a long string of events that read, appropriately enough, like something out of John Le Carre, the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service identified Colonel Abel as a Soviet spy who had been operating in the United States for some time. Abel was arrested in Brooklyn, tried, and convicted of espionage. The New York lawyer, Donovan, was appointed by the federal court in New York to defend him.
The film mangles some of the timeline and a few things are invented out of whole cloth – this is Hollywood after all – but the real power of the story and its great relevance today is in the courtroom scenes where Abel is first convicted and then loses an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.
After seeing and completely enjoying the film, I got to wondering what really happened in the U.S. justice system during the height of the Cold War when the government tried a man thought to be a Soviet spy.
Does a Soviet Spy Deserve Due Process…
The film understandably compresses a good deal of the story, which played out over several years, but makes some powerful and important points in the telling.
A basic question is raised early on when attorney Donovan (played by Hanks) has to confront the dilemma of an upstanding attorney, a pillar of the New York Bar, signing on to do his best to defend a Russian spy. What are the implications for his career, his law firm, his family? I immediately thought about the private attorneys who continue to represent Guantanamo detained terror suspects.
The film makes us confront whether it is merely enough to give Abel a defense that goes through the motions of due process or whether he deserves a no-holds-barred defense, including appeals on grounds that his hotel room and apartment were improperly searched.
At one point a CIA operative shadows Donovan in order to question him about what his client has been saying. Donovan, in one of the film’s best moments, tells the CIA fellow that he won’t – indeed can’t – talk about what his client is telling him since it is protected by attorney-client privilege. There are rules, Donovan says, most importantly the Constitution that make our system different than the system that is detaining Gary Powers.
Abel’s case, both in the film and real life, eventually reaches the Supreme Court over the question of the lack of a proper warrant that specifically authorizes a search the defendant’s rooms. Give Spielberg credit, he even gets the Supreme Court courtroom correct. Abel’s case was argued, actually twice, in 1959 and the courtroom has since been remodeled.
The case turned on a complex question about whether a warrant for an “administrative arrest” – Abel was actually arrested by the immigration service after being detained and questioned by the FBI – allowed the subsequent FBI search of his rooms. The celebrated Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the rather technical 5-4-majority opinion upholding the legality of the search and Abel’s conviction stood.
This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant…
“Cases of notorious criminals—like cases of small, miserable ones—are apt to make bad law,” Douglas wrote in his dissent, which was joined by Justice Hugo Black.
“When guilt permeates a record, even judges sometimes relax and let the police take shortcuts not sanctioned by constitutional procedures. That practice, in certain periods of our history and in certain courts, has lowered our standards of law administration. The harm in the given case may seem excusable. But the practices generated by the precedent have far-reaching consequences that are harmful and injurious beyond measurement. The present decision is an excellent example.”
Douglas was saying sure this Abel is a Soviet spy – a notorious criminal – but the rules apply to him just as they apply to “small, miserable” law breakers.
“If the F.B.I. agents had gone to a magistrate, any search warrant issued would by terms of the Fourth Amendment have to ‘particularly’ describe ‘the place to be searched’ and the ‘things to be seized,’” Douglas wrote. “How much more convenient it is for the police to find a way around those specific requirements of the Fourth Amendment! What a hindrance it is to work laboriously through constitutional procedures! How much easier to go to another official in the same department! The administrative officer can give a warrant good for unlimited search. No more showing of probable cause to a magistrate! No more limitations on what may be searched and when!”
Brennan was just as pointed: “This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant. Yet we must take care to enforce the Constitution without regard to the nature of the crime or the nature of the criminal. The Fourth Amendment protects ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ This right is a basic one of all the people, without exception…”
Real American Exceptionalism…
The court case and the film also make the fundamental point that Abel, not a U.S. citizen, still enjoyed the full protections of the country’s justice system, a point worth pondering as the terror suspects sit year after year in Cuba.
The negotiations over the swap are some of the best moments of the film and, intentionally or not, Spielberg shows that the New York insurance lawyer who became an Cold War negotiator turned out to be a lot better high stakes deal maker than his CIA minders.
The film is already getting some Oscar buzz – it is certainly worthy – if only for its deft storytelling and the great performances. Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Rudolf Abel is nothing short of brilliant. And the script by the Cohen Brothers is first rate. A typical Cohen touch is the reoccurrence of Abel’s response when his lawyer asks him if he’s worried or afraid: “Would it help?” That has become my new mantra.
As good as the movie is as entertainment here’s hoping a few enterprising high school (or college) teachers use the film in class to make the more important points about our justice system and our history.
The hero in the film is, of course, attorney Donovan, a man mostly lost to history whose role in Abel’s trial and in the spy swap may now finally enjoy some long overdue recognition. Donovan, who died in 1970, spent years working on the Russian spy’s defense and appeals and donated half his $10,000 fee to Fordham University and split the rest between Harvard and Columbia. Setting aside the Abel case and the spy swap, the rest of Donovan’s career – naval officer, Nuremberg prosecutor, New York board of education member, U.S. Senate candidate – was truly incredible. A great American story.
Even though he lost at every level Donovan said after the Supreme Court ruling, “The very fact that Abel has been receiving due process of law in the United States is far more significant, both here and behind the Iron Curtain, than the particular outcome of the case.”
That one sentence says a lot about why we won the Cold War.
By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.
Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.
Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…
Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan attempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.
And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.
Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.
Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s negotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.
Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.
Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…
Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”
By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.
That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?
Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on foreign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.
A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.
A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to disastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.
Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.
When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.
Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”
Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.
Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.
Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…
Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.
No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
I am convinced that Americans have the attention span of a two year old. So, just for the record, this guy is Richard Nixon about whom more in a moment.
Our short attention span is illustrated by how easily and quickly we jump from crisis to crisis, news story to scandal on a daily, hourly, Twitter-influenced schedule. It can be enough to make your head pivot. Today it’s the sad story of Robin Williams or the glamorous life of Lauren Bacall. Day before we armed the Kurds. The day before that it was Ebola, or maybe another rocket attack or, wait, didn’t that Malaysian airliner go down in Ukraine, or was that the Indian Ocean? Let’s impeach Obama for doing too much and then criticize him for not doing enough. An unarmed young black man is shot and killed. Hasn’t that happened before? Did the president speak or is he playing golf? Or did I misremember?
Everything happens at once and everything is portrayed as being just as important as the next thing. CNN has taken to issuing email alerts announcing that it will soon be sending out an email announcing something really big.
Combine this NADD (news attention deficit disorder) with the unbelievable American capacity for historical amnesia and you have a society that lacks perspective and increasingly exhibits little sense of who we are, where we have been or, heaven help us, where we might be headed.
Amid all this noisy clutter anniversaries of two of the most significant events in the second half of the 20th Century slipped by recently with mostly just passing notice. Both events, a 50th anniversary – Congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and Nixon’s resignation 40 years ago in 1974 – hold profound lessons for two current and persistent American dilemmas: our role in the Middle East and political dissatisfaction at home with a wounded president in his sixth year in the White House.
Rather than a defining moment in American history that caused presidents and members of Congress to forever say: Wait, this might not be what it seems, the incident in the summer of 1964 in the Tonkin Gulf off North Vietnam is mostly forgotten 50 years later. Forgotten by almost everyone, perhaps, but the hundreds of thousands of Americans forever changed by the war that followed.
There is still debate about exactly what happened when U.S. warships on patrol in the Tonkin Gulf allegedly came under attack from North Vietnamese patrol boats. There is no doubt that President Lyndon Johnson, convinced that a domino effect would tumble one Southeast Asian country after another to Communism, seized on the incident and twisted it as necessary to gain Congressional approval – the Tonkin Gulf Resolution – allowing him to ramp up American military involvement in a way that still amounts to one of the most fateful – and wrong-headed – decisions in our history.
In a thoughtful recent Politico piece on the lessons of the 50 year old incident, Zachery Shore argued that one of the great failures of the Tonkin Gulf was U.S. unwillingness to assess and attempt to understand the motives of the Vietnamese. We barged in without knowledge and fled a decade later leaving behind vast amounts of blood and treasure. “Did Americans learn from Tonkin?” Shore asks.
“The lead-up to the most recent war in Iraq had a depressingly reminiscent feel,” he says in answering his own question. “A president seemed intent on invading, presuming to liberate a foreign people that perhaps were not as eager for American liberation as Washington thought. The president failed to fully consider their point of view, just as the public failed to ask how long we would need to stay or how welcome we would be. And in 2002, when George Bush requested a congressional blank check, only 23 Senators and 133 Congressmen voted against the Iraq War Resolution. The great majority in both houses of Congress went along uncritically, only later regretting their insouciance. How many Americans today feel that the war in Iraq warranted the cost in lives and treasure? The question was never whether Saddam was a bad man; it was whether the Iraqi people truly wanted what America hoped to give them. The answer required thinking hard and learning much about the other side.”
Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse with Lyndon Johnson
Of course, only two members of the United States Senate – Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska – voted NO on LBJ’s resolution, a Congressional sanction for war, in 1964. Their wisdom stands as a stark reminder that it has become easy ever after for us to go to war and to think that our awesome military might holds a solution to every problem from refugees tragically stranded on an Iraqi mountain top to a raging civil war in Syria. The Gulf of Tonkin also reminds us that an advanced case of American hubris caused another American president to tragically think we could invade a country in the middle of the Middle East, depose a dictator who had ruled with savagery for decades, knit together the tribal and religious factions left behind, and see Jeffersonian democracy flourish amid the death and destruction. Did Americans learn anything from Vietnam’s Tonkin Gulf moment? Sadly, not much, which bring us to Nixon.
Forty years ago this month Richard Nixon flew off to political and personal exile in California barely days before he almost certainly would have faced a broadly bipartisan effort to impeach and convict him for an actual crime, obstruction of justice, related to the Watergate break-in.
Most Americans have forgotten, or never knew, that Nixon gave up the presidency only after a delegation of Republican wise men, including Barry Goldwater, went to the White House and told their president that the jig was up. The point is obvious. You don’t remove a president, as the tin hat wearing Tea Party crowd wants to do today, without a serious, bipartisan debate and agreement over the alleged “crimes” of the chief executive. Impeaching Obama is a sixth year sideshow ginned up by cable news “analysts” equipped with more hot air than brains and aided and abetted by a political class that doesn’t know its history. (Arizona Republic photo)
The spate of new Nixon books marking the 40th anniversary of his demise should be occasion to reflect on the man, his deeds and misdeeds and once again wonder, as historian David Kennedy has written, how he “was ever allowed to ascend to the presidency in the first place.” Rather we get a new CNN poll showing that, as in all things, Americans are sharply divided about Tricky Dick’s Watergate crimes.
“Fifty-one percent of those questioned” in the CNN survey, “say Watergate was a very serious matter because it revealed corruption in the Nixon administration, with 46% saying it was just politics – the kind of thing both parties engage in. The 51% is unchanged from 14 years ago, when CNN last asked the question.” In other words, our sense of what constitutes acceptable political behavior, and the level of unacceptable behavior that could lead to impeachment, has sunk so low that the real crimes and unbelievable abuses of power that drove Richard Nixon from the White House are, to 46% of Americans 40 years later, just politics as usual.
The same CNN poll shows a substantial generational divide over Nixon and Watergate. Older Americans generally think it was serious stuff, younger people not so much. Both young and old agree that their current government can’t be trusted to do the right thing most of the time. I’d like to know under what rock those 13% who think otherwise have been living.
This has been a summer of big anniversaries, including 70 years since the Allied invasion of Normandy, a monumental event that less than a year later helped precipitate the end of World War II in Europe. While visiting the invasion beaches in June I overhead an American father sketching in the details of the war in Europe for his daughter who appeared to be in her early 20’s. Dad described the significance of the invasion of France in 1944, but also correctly pointed out, as many historians now contend, that it was the fearsome, bloody fighting on the eastern front that ultimately hastened the end of that awful war.
It would be wrong to read too much into that little overheard story this summer in Normandy, but it doesn’t leave me particularly optimistic when I think about what happens when our short national attention span collides with our historical amnesia. If we don’t understand our history and aren’t able to put our present challenges in some historical context we can’t possibly apply all the valuable lessons of our checked past to help us make our way in today’s very messy world.
The lessons of Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, Richard Nixon with Watergate, George W. Bush with Iraq apply anew to this our latest summer of discontent. Failing to appreciate the lessons of our own history, or at least debating what those lessons are, ensures that we will have the opportunity to make the same mistakes over and over again.
What do you do with the body of a man who undoubtedly changed the world, but now has – we can hope – been consigned to the dust bin of history?
Upon hearing of his death in 1924, the true believers reportedly said: “Lenin is dead. Long live Lenin.” So, they embalmed the mastermind of the Bolshevik Revolution and laid him out for all eternity in his own red granite mausoleum in Red Square just outside the Kremlin Wall in Moscow.
Seeing Buckley’s story reminded me of my own fleeting, but memorable encounter with Lenin. It was 1984, a time of some of the greatest tension between the Soviets and the United States. We didn’t know then that the Soviet Union was on its last legs. After all, Ronald Reagan had referred to the Communist state as “the evil empire” and tensions ran very high.
I was fortunate enough to tag along with a group of Idahoans who went to the Soviet Union for about two weeks as part of a people-to-people exchange. We were there to make a television documentary and one of the genuine highlights of the trip was time spent gathering film footage in the vast expanse of Red Square where then, as now, Russian soldiers stand guard over Lenin’s Tomb.
Not everyone gets inside the mausoleum, but somehow we did, but no photos were permitted. Apparently our Soviet minders wanted the visitors from the capitalist west to see the man from which the revolution had sprung.
I remember that a long line of gawkers snaked by Lenin’s body in single file and, in my case, both fascinated and a little creeped out at seeing the extraordinarily well dressed (and preserved) dictator bathed in soft and flattering light. His dress shirt was an immaculate white. The French cuffs adored by gold cuff links and his necktie perfectly knotted. Lenin looked like he’d stretched out for a long afternoon nap without bothering to remove his suit jacket.
The whole visit lasted maybe 30 seconds and the well-armed Russian guards did not encourage any loitering, but obviously I still remember the cuff links and being in the presence of the body, at least, of one of the century’s most consequential figures.
Lenin’s body, indeed his tomb in Red Square where so many generations of Soviet leaders stood and watched the high stepping Red Army march by, are today symbols of a failed and discredited system, but are still symbols of our – and Russian – history. So, do Russians bury Lenin and with him hope that a distant, but still telling part of world history is pushed underground, too?
Robert E. Lee, arguably guilty of treason for leading a war of rebellion against the United States, is buried inside the chapel at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the state that still celebrates his birthday as an official holiday.
What do we do with the elements of our past that no longer seem relevant or appropriate? Do we, as the Stalin regularly did, airbrush those elements from history? (Stalin, by the way, was embalmed after his death and for a while laid out next to Lenin, but that pairing didn’t last.)
Lenin has been sleeping the sleep of the old, dead Bolshevik for nearly 90 years. What Lenin did must be remembered. Perhaps Russians can remember his role in 20th Century world events without keeping his corpse on morbid display in the very heart of their capitol city.
As Buckley calls him, “Sleeping Beauty from Hell,” deserves a final resting spot, not out of mind for sure, but finally out of sight.
If you’re under 50, didn’t fixate, as many of us did, on the daily threat of nuclear holocaust from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and have always seen Russia (aka the Soviet Union) as “the evil empire,” then George Kennan might simply be a footnote in a dusty old college international relations textbook. In one way or another Kennan touched all those issues and lived a full, complicated, fascinating and fruitful life as well.
Kennan was, at the same time, an absolutely fascinating and frustrating man; contradictions that make for the great story that Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis details – warts and all – in his superb new biography. It is a testament to Kennan, the self-taught historian, that he gave Gaddis complete access to his papers, diaries, friends and thoughts and the result is biography on a grand scale.
And it is not too grand a statement to say that Kennan was the man more than any other to define Cold War foreign policy on both sides of the great capitalist/communist divide from the 1930’s to the end of the 20th Century.
Gaddis, like Kennan in his time, is a probing and distinguished scholar of foreign policy who has produced a book that surely appeals to anyone who cares about how the world we inhabit came to be this way. But Gaddis has also written a story of the life and struggles of a man who worked his way from junior diplomat in Moscow in 1933 to become the foremost scholar of American foreign policy, a position he continued to occupy until his death in 2005 at age 101.
The Guardian newspaper wrote upon his death that few people can “claim to have changed the shape of the age they lived in,” but Kennan certainly had. “Virtually singlehandedly, he established the policy which controlled both sides of the cold war for more than 40 years.”
As Henry Kissinger noted in his New York Times review of George F. Kennan – An American Life: “The debate in America between idealism and realism, which continues to this day, played itself out inside Kennan’s soul. Though he often expressed doubt about the ability of his fellow Americans to grasp the complexity of his perceptions, he also reflected in his own person a very American ambivalence about the nature and purpose of foreign policy.”
Kennan’s personal story is every bit as interesting as his public life. Born in Milwaukee, graduate of Princeton, Kennan joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1925. He was sent to Moscow 1933 to set up the U.S. embassy when Franklin Roosevelt established diplomatic relations with the Communist regime then headed by Josef Stalin. Kennan traveled extensively, wrote brilliantly and voluminously, mastered several languages, including Russian, and by the late 1930’s was in Berlin watching the world explode.
Back in Moscow in 1946, Kennan authored his famous “long telegram” that brilliantly dissected Russian post-war aims and served as the foundation for the development of his policy of containment.
Kennan came to deeply regret that his notion of containment, basically a willingness to confront the Soviets economically, culturally and with ideas, was perverted into becoming a purely military response. The conclusion of his long telegram stressed his essential belief that U.S. democratic values would eventually win the day against Soviet communist values.
“Finally,” Kennan wrote in 1946 in words that he would repeat time and again over the next half century, “we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”
Kennan’s approach to diplomacy – we could have used some of his clear thinking before stumbling into Vietnam and blundering into Iraq, two military misadventures that Kennan opposed – was to understand the motivations, the history, the culture, the literature, the fears and hopes of your adversaries and then to apply that knowledge to prevent confrontation. While he admittedly became more of a cynic about politics later in his life, he came back time and again to the belief that western democracies, if they were smart and true to their ideals, could win the battle of ideas with anyone.
Gaddis has written a brilliant biography; a history of the Cold War; a book about one man’s life that illuminates the path along which we came to the world in which we live. I cannot praise this book enough.
It is often said in politics that “what goes around comes around.” This is such a story.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s Arthur Dean was a pillar of the old East Coast Republican establishment, a leading corporate lawyer, chairman of the white shoe New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell and law partner and friend of John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower.
Dulles pressed his friend into service in the early 1950’s to negotiate an end to the Korean War. Ambassador Dean, unfortunately for him, agreed to take on that assignment where he ran headlong into the McCarthy era, and particularly Joe McCarthy’s Senate acolyte, Republican Herman Welker of Idaho.
Welker was a small-town Payette, Idaho lawyer and Idaho State Senator when he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1950. Welker arrived in the Senate at the dawn of McCarthy’s national political power and he devoted his one, six-year term to carrying McCarthy’s water, including suggesting that Arthur Dean, the very respectable and very Republican Wall Street lawyer, was “a pro-Red China” apologist.
Dean’s transgression, in the view of Herman Welker, was to suggest that the United States just might consider a more enlightened policy toward Communist China at a time when right wing, virulent anti-Communists in Congress were making almost daily headlines by demanding to know why the United States “had lost” China to Mao Zedong.
During an interview with a Providence, Rhode Island newspaper reporter, Dean said this: “I think there is a possibility the Chinese Communists are more interested in developing themselves in China than they are in international Communism. If we could use that as a decisive method of putting a wedge between the Chinese Communists and the Soviet Union, I think we might try…”
In essence, Ambassador Dean, a Republican serving under a Republican president, was suggesting what Richard Nixon began to accomplish nearly 20 years later – a more nuanced, mature relationship with Communist China. But such talk in 1954, with Joe McCarthy identifying a Commie under ever bed and in every office at the State Department, was not only un-American, but dangerously close to displaying Communist sympathies. Welker pounced on Arthur Dean.
Dean was channeling, in Welker’s view, the views of pro-Communist elements in the U.S. State Department. As to the contention that the Chinese might be more focused on their own internal development than imposing Communism on the rest of the world, Welker dismissed the thought out of hand. “I can’t believe anything can be farther from the truth,” the Idaho Senator said.
Welker’s assault on Dean caused some weeks of discomfort for the Ambassador. He had to repeatedly deny any Communist leanings and justify what many at the time, and most today, would simply consider smart diplomacy. In short, Dean’s loyalty was questioned at a time when your blindly anti-Communist bonafides were the only litmus test for service to the American government.
The myths about “losing China” are deeply embedded in the DNA of American politics. The tangled belief that un-American activities at the highest levels of the United States government had conspired to abandon China to the Communists was the sort of political hot air that powered much of McCarthy’s demagoguery. Idaho’s Welker sang from the same song book.
But it has been Ambassador Dean’s view that has stood the test of time. With the Chinese now threatening U.S. economic leadership worldwide, China owning a huge chunk of our debt and manufacturing ship loads of the consumer goods exported to America, its very clear that the diplomat had a much better crystal ball than the Red Baiting Senator from Idaho.
It turns out the Chinese really were “more interested in developing themselves” in order to compete with us than in advancing world-wide Communism. The proof is all around. The numbers crunchers in Beijing must be sharpening their pencils in anticipation of the failure of our dysfunctional political system to find a solution to debt, spending and revenue so that they can take another great leap forward in cornering a bigger share of the world economy.
Herman Welker, McCarthy’s Senate friend and fellow Commie hunter, is mostly forgotten now; his one Senate term distinctive for nothing more than being on the wrong side of history. Welker’s attacks in the early 1950’s on Idaho Democrats like Frank Church and Glen Taylor for their alleged “radical” and “pink” politics read now like ancient, misguided history, yet some of the old myths and fears about the Communist Chinese continue even as the descendants of Mao eat our economic lunch.
Were Senators Church and Taylor still with us – both died in 1984 – they would no doubt appreciate the irony of the Idaho Republican Central Committee recently demanding an accounting of the state’s political and economic ties with China from Idaho’s Republican Gov. Butch Otter.
The Lewiston Tribune reports that the Idaho GOP resolution reads: “the stability of our form of government is being undermined by strategies used by the Chinese state-government-controlled entities through investments, corporate takeovers, intelligence operations and rare-Earth monopolization.”
Most members of the state central committee weren’t born when Herman Welker represented the state in the Senate, put they are channeling Joe McCarthy’s buddy all the same. What goes around.
The United States has rarely had a sane and sober policy when it comes to China. For years we maintained the fiction that Chiang Kai-shek and the government he established in Taiwan after losing a civil war constituted the real government of China. We squandered years on the fiction that State Department bureaucrats had “lost” China. We fought a senseless war in Southeast Asia, in part, to head off Chinese domination of Vietnam, countries that maintain an historic rivalry and have rarely made common cause.
So, perhaps the Red Chinese Scare of Joe McCarthy’s and Herman Welker’s day really is alive and well in Idaho. The only thing different now is that Republicans are questioning other Republicans about providing aid and comfort to the Communists.
By the way, Arthur Dean’s reputation has survived in substantially better shape than those of the men who blindly questioned his motives and loyalty in the 1950’s. Dean went on to served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, helped persuade Lyndon Johnson to end the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, and donated a ton of money to Cornell University where he and his wife financed the acquisition of a remarkable collection of papers related to Lafayette and the American Revolution.
Senator Welker’s papers consist of a few large scrapbooks housed at the Idaho Historical Society and the University of Idaho. Most of the pages are covered with newspaper clippings of Welker’s 1950’s assault on Americans who had the audacity to think differently than he did about the world and its future. Some things never change.
Edward R. Murrow famously said of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy that he had not created the fear of Communism that swept the nation after World War II but that McCarthy “had merely exploited it, and rather successfully.” Joe McCarthy had lots of help in Idaho.
Next week the Idaho Humanities Council hosts its annual summer institute for teachers at the College of Idaho in Caldwell and Joe McCarthy is on the agenda. Nearly 40 Idaho teachers will spend the week in an intensive, multi-disciplinary look at the age that still carries the name of the junior senator from Wisconsin – McCarthyism. The Institute’s title: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…Fear, Suspicion and Incivility in Cold War America.”
On Tuesday evening, July 26th, I’ll have the pleasure of presenting a talk on Idaho’s politics in the early 1950’s that will focus on McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate, Idaho Sen. Herman Welker, and the Idaho politician who most suffered the guilt by association and out-and-out smears that defined much of the age, Idaho Sen. Glen Taylor.
My talk – drawing upon the nicknames of both Idaho Senators – is entitled “The Singing Senator and Little Joe from Idaho.” The event is scheduled for 7:00 pm at the College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall. My talk is one of several during the week. You can check the full schedule at the IHC website.
I’m going to make the case that Welker and Taylor, a very conservative Republican and a very liberal Democrat, were the two most controversial political figures in the state’s history. They both came of age in the dawn of the Cold War and each flamed out as McCarthyism began to diminish as a political force. Between these two flamboyant men, one a rough, tough former University of Idaho athlete, the other a homespun, charismatic country music performer, the space was created that was necessary to allow the 32-year-old Frank Church to win a seat in the United States Senate and stay there for 24 years.
If you’re interested in Idaho political history and particularly how the McCarthy period in the early 1950’s influenced the political development of Idaho, you should plan to attend some of the events next week in Caldwell.
Other speakers include Nicholas Thompson, Senior editor of The New Yorker, who has written a fine book on his grandfather, Cold Warrior Paul Nitze a great foreign policy hawk, and George Kennan, one of the great figures in 20th Century American diplomacy. Thompson speaks Sunday night, July 24th.
Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History at Yeshiva University, speaks on Wednesday, July 27th. Professor Schrecker is one of the foremost historians of the Cold War period and has written extensively on McCarthy.
And Idaho native F. Ross Peterson speaks on Thursday, July 28th on McCarthy’s influence on politics across the Mountain West. Dr. Peterson is the author of a great book on Sen. Taylor.
One of the enduring lessons of the McCarthy period, a lesson we continue to struggle with as a nation, is the confusion, as Murrow so eloquently said in 1954, of dissent with disloyalty. Idaho was fertile ground for Red Baiting in the 1950’s. The charge of being “soft on Communism” or entertaining thoughts even slightly out of the mainstream could be enough to torpedo a political career. Making the charge against an opponent, on the other hand, was a proven strategy to advance a career.
The years when Joe McCarthy was a dominate figure in American politics are not among prettiest chapters of our history, but the period is one worth revisiting, understanding and evaluating in the never ending quest to create “a more perfect Union.”