Saturday, August 27, 2011

How We Stumble Into -- And Out Of -- Wars


This week I hope to provide a few sidelights on what exactly triggers our decisions to make war and make peace and how we deal with the consequences.  This approach was suggested by a piece by Robert Dallek in the current Newsweek, The Untold Story of the Bay of Pigs. The demons at The National Security Archive recently managed to tug loose part of the Agency's own treatment of this grotesque debacle.  When I was interviewing preparatory to writing The Old Boys I talked at length to Lyman Kirkpatrick, ex-CIA Inspector General, whose private and extremely scathing analysis of this historic debacle had started to leak.  I was already putting in dozens of hours overall with Richard Bissell, ex-CIA Chief of Operations and the primary planner of this historic setback, and he was unstinting when it came to blaming himself. See Chapter Twenty-One, The Last True Blowoff, in The Old Boys.

What I did not know, and would not pick up on until I was deep into the research and interviewing behind  my controversial treatment of the back-door Kennedy administration, Bobby and J. Edgar, was the extent to which the interests and prejudices of the Kennedy family itself contributed to its obsession with Cuba.  Once, queried as to his hesitation to support Jack Kennedy as a presidential candidate -- was it his Catholicism? -- , Harry Truman cracked: "It ain't the Pope, it's the Pop!" 

He meant, of course, Joseph P. Kennedy, whose gangland affiliations and propensity to put his pocketbook first --  as Ambassador to Great Britain Joe had speculated against the wavering Czech currency while England was trembling and Hitler's armies were marching into Prague -- were notorious in political circles.  Before Castro came into power Joe Kennedy reportedly maintained serious holdings in Cuba, from the Casino at the Hotel Nacional to the Coca Cola franchise for Havana.  During the runup to The Bay of Pigs, Joe had gotten involved personally in helping secure bases around the Caribbean at which the ill-fated 2506 Brigade could train, at one point hosting General Anastasia Somoza, the brother of the dictator in Nicaragua, in his Manhattan offices.

Even after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs the administration's determination, at any cost, that Communism would not survive "ninety miles from our shore" inspired one foolish gamble after the next.  Mafia bigwigs were paid off to murder Castro. A fruitless campaign of sabotage and propaganda against the island directed personally by Robert Kennedy, Operation Mongoose, ultimately came to nothing, although at great expense. The Soviets moved their missiles in as our threats turned defeaning.  The Kennedys were apparently preparing another assault by disenchanted Cubans, "C-Day," when JFK was gunned down, two developments not unconnected.  Perhaps when the Agency finally releases the last volume of its institutional workup of the Bay of Pigs we'll know our own history better.  It's only been fifty years.

Many years later, at a series of dinners in Moscow with several of the top generals in the KGB, I would discover how dangerous that game had become.  These officers were on the planning staff that was gaming the Soviet response if -- as our Joint Chiefs urged Kennedy -- we had simply obliterated the Soviet missile launching pads in Cuba.  The Russians all assured me that their military was under orders to take out all the cities of our East Coast with their Bison Bombers and atomic weaponry should we attack Cuba. Perhaps Jack Kennedy -- and Robert Kennedy -- performed their most enduring service in office by standing up to Curtis LeMay and the Strategic Air Command.

A lot of the pressure on the Kennedy brothers came out of the anti-Communist hysteria of the time.  The Republican Right, whipped up by treacherous blowhards like Senator Joseph McCarthy -- a protege of Joe Kennedy and a suitor for a time of his daughter Eunice -- had continued to castigate the Truman Administration for "Losing China."  Nobody wanted to "lose Cuba" or, shortly, Viet Nam. Yet what seems most remarkable about these costly and pointless adventures is how fast our ruling circles -- and almost all our citizens --  forget.  Fifty years have passed, and Castro's delapidated regime is still in place, largely ignored here.  Viet Nam -- Communist Viet Nam -- is one of our most valued trading partners.

Again:  Why are we in Afghanistan?  

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