Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Vapors of Camelot


Today's subject is delicate.  We will be dealing here with friends, intimate history, how reality is lighted, or obscured.  You'll get the picture.

Last week excerpts from the tapes of a fairly extended interview Jacqueline Onassis gave Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1964 made it onto network television.  The drumbeat of publicity leading up to this feature on ABC indicated that this premature release of many of the tapes was the price Caroline Kennedy was willing to pay if the network would refrain from airing the miniseries on the Kennedys it had already scheduled.  The miniseries ultimately made it onto a secondary cable channel.  While tiptoeing around most of the more contested issues -- Vietnam, Cuba, the unconstitutional tactics of Bob Kennedy's Get-Hoffa Squad -- the miniseries did touch on a surprising amount of heretofore protected information -- how sick Jack Kennedy really was, his tendency to clutch in a crisis, his heedless and politically suicidal womanizing.  Like Joe Kennedy and Jackie Onassis before her, Caroline Kennedy seems to understand instinctively how important it remains to calcify the abiding mythology, to blow the right publicity trumpets.

Well before the Schlesinger/Onassis interview aired there were leaks in the media suggesting potential bombshells.  The Texas oil wildcatters were behind the assassination of JFK.  Lyndon Johnson had a hand.  Having investigated and projected in my controversial book Bobby and J. Edgar my own very detailed treatment of who actually gunned down President Kennedy, and why, I hoped for something new.  But when the hour came these rumors appeared to be unfounded.  Such potentially loaded observations by Mrs. Onassis had obviously been censored out.

I felt for Arthur Schlesinger.  I knew Arthur well; he had been a teacher of mine while I was an undergraduate at Harvard.  For perhaps thirty years, once I began to research the CIA for The Old Boys, I never visited Manhattan -- and I was there often -- without having lunch with Schlesinger, who had served in the OSS and knew the intelligence pioneers well.  Arthur had been recruited as an adviser in the Kennedy White House-- his advice was almost always good but very rarely listened to -- and afterwards he became an important source and a close friend of Robert Kennedy, whose biography he wrote.  Robert Kennedy and His Times was an inspired performance.  But in it Good Bobby was everywhere, and Bad Bobby -- on whom I later lavished a lot of attention -- was nowhere in sight.  Arthur's devotion to the Kennedy crowd ultimately cost him a lot of reputation among historians. At our last lunch he asked me, rather timorously, what I thought of Evan Thomas' biography of Bob.  Thomas' book was capable if quite restrained in its attention to Robert Kennedy's faults -- certainly compared with Bobby and J. Edgar later on.  From what he had heard, Arthur said, he could not bring himself to read the Thomas biography.

For all his legendary prickliness, Arthur Schlesinger had fallen in love with a myth. His passion cost him.  As long as we continue to evade and classify the elements of our own unfolding history, it will cost us.

Burton Hersh

Saturday, September 10, 2011

About 9/11


A national calamity is never an easy subject, supercharged as it invariably is with loss, frustration,
and the haunting awareness that somehow the whole thing might have been headed off.  I am old enough to remember Pearl Harbor, an event which gutshot our national self-confidence and rerouted our destiny.

The catastrophes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon ten years ago have developed into another such turning point. The effect was so tremendous that almost the entire society lost sight of the fact that we had been subject to what was essentially a fluke.  A handful of educated Saudis and Egyptians had slipped into the United States, taken flying lessons, and highjacked several airliners by threatening their crews with box-cutters -- box-cutters! --  unless they agreed to fly these commandeered passenger planes into designated targets.  Like the limpet bomb stuck onto the side of a U.S. Navy destroyer from a fishing boat or the Third-World embassy bombings, all this was very low-tech, dependent on a lot of luck and an absent-minded adversary.

Worse, we had the intelligence capability to anticipate 9/11. An Al Qaeda planning session in Malaysia had been penetrated by the CIA.  The FBI had picked up on several of the highjackers and one of its senior agents was convinced that he knew the target.  But interagency cooperation was sloppy or nonexistent, and the attackers brought it off.

Attempts by Al Qaeda since -- the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber -- would suggest how bush league Bin Laden and his operatives have remained all along.  Certainly our National Security apparatus has tightened up -- and bulked out to an amazing and perhaps self-defeating extent.  No doubt the worst consequence of 9/11 has been the justification it has seemed to offer our opportunity-seeking industrialists and politicians to pursue our involvement in the Middle East, the projections of power which attracted the attention of the Al Qaeda fanatics in the first place.  Ever contemptuous of reality, Richard Cheney and his following of right-wing fanaticists kept insisting, incorrectly, that Saddam Hussein was behind the attack, and before long would be turning over weapons of mass destruction to his charges.  An aroused if poorly informed Congress went along, and we plunged into the orgy of pointless conquest and senseless nation-building that has been sapping us ever since.

Today we mourn the losses of a decade ago.  This is the moment to consider the lessons we might have learned.


Burton Hersh

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How We Stumble into Wars #2


E-mails have poured in after last week's blog, when I attempted to lift the doormat before all the facts that induced the Kennedy administration to risk its reputation over Cuba could scurry out of sight.  This week I  intend to point up factors that tempted Jack Kennedy to light the fuse on what had been a minor CIA advisory presence in Saigon.  My friend Nick Natsios served as the Agency station chief there during the Eisenhower years, so I had access to many of the details.

The sequence of events that actually led us into the quagmire of Viet Nam is laid out in Chapter 21 of my book Bobby and J. Edgar, and follows the narrative developed by Col. L. Fletcher Prouty, who served as Kennedy's head of special operations -- active spookery -- for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  As Prouty saw it, Kennedy was under heavy pressure to support the million or so Viet Namese Catholics who with U.S. help fled Ho Chi Minh and had been forced into leadership positions in the villages of South Vietnam by the Diem regime.  Diem himself was a family friend of the Kennedys during the years he awaited his moment in a monastery in Maryland and a protege of Cardinal Spellman. Once the indigenous Buddhists began to revolt, President Kennedy ordered the 16,000 helicopter troops into South Viet Nam and our national nightmare was upon us.  Vatican politics, never really acknowledged.

What we had done was to attempt to force our will on one element of what began as a civil war.  We have been attempting a similar form of intervention periodically ever since, playing favorites among the clans and tribes of the Middle East, and we have lost every time.  By that I mean -- we as a nation.  We as interested corporations -- Brown and Root, which built Cam Ranh Bay, to become Halliburton, to morph into KBR, which built billions and billions of dollar's-worth of airfields and dependent-housing-quarters that we are abandoning now in Iraq -- we as corporations made out beautifully.  Our surviving children and grandchildren can deal with the costs. 

My pal and patron of many decades, John Fry, the godfather of the modern ski movement in America, responded to last week's blog with a hard-headed appraisal of what we have taken on in an e-mail that begins:  "..the Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and has another 6000 bases in the United States...."  according to the 2003 Base Status Report.  This itemization omits installations such as Camp Bondsteel on Kosovo, built and maintained by Kellogg, Brown and Root, as well as "bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, and Uzbekistan."

All this while Medicaid benefits are about to be cut back and class sizes in the ghettos are ballooning.

All the best, as always,

Burton Hersh