Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Price of American Exceptionalism


Another week, another diatribe.  Even I think that it is time to leave Joe Kennedy in peace and shift gears.  A few reflections:

The debate rages as to whether we should intervene directly in Syria.  At least supply the rebels with air cover, weaponry, perhaps a no-fly zone.  It seems we continue to be afflicted with historical amnesia.  The panic after 9/11, followed by our misbegotten invasion of Iraq, compounded with the fallout after the Arab Spring, seems to have shaken us up too profoundly to think straight.  The notion that whatever happens anywhere, any crisis, any collapse of government or famine or outbreak of AIDS is somehow not merely within our power to ameliorate but our ultimate responsibility, whatever the costs--  this presumption appears to have entrenched itself among leaders of both our poitical parties.  Like the Old-Testament God, we stand above history, above accountability, above any serious concern about exhausting our resources. We are extraordinary, the spear carriers of American Exceptionalism.

George Washington, leaving office, advised us above all to abhor foreign entanglements.  We were a provincial country then, without either the corrupting pressures or the colossal commercial opportunities that present themselves every day as our international corporations infiltrate society after society.  Increasingly, not only our State Department but also our swollen military and intelligence bureaucracies have turned into sinister presences, mechanisms of enforcement, throughout much of the Second and Third World.  The Islamic suicide bomber is convinced that merely to abide the American occupiers is to doom his own culture.  Better for the individual to blow himself up if that means the tribe or clan might make it through.

We've seen this play itself out in Viet Nam, in Iraq, this winter in the aimless, depleting collapse of authority in Afghanistan.  We intend to leave soon; after perhaps a season or two of civil war -- like the mayhem portending in Iraq -- Afghanistan will revert to the underlying tribal barbarism indigenous to its culture; a generation of American contractors and arms merchants will load up their bank accounts.  Our compounding national debt will continue to threaten to bankrupt our future.

How all this hubris feels on the ground as it is playing itself out comes through on every page of Dexter Filkins' inspired sequence of vignettes in his 2008 memoir The Forever War.   I have met Filkins a few times.  Softspoken and approachable in person, this ex-reporter for The New York Times -- now on staff with The New Yorker -- conveys better than anybody I have read virtually every aspect of these feckless twin wars of ours.  From fighting through the alleys of Falluja, while around him Marine youngsters were getting their faces filleted by grenades, to a diplomatic trip to Tehran with the suave, double-dealing Ahmad Chalabi as he engineers his private accommodation with President Ahmadinejad -- so much is caught on Filkins' pages, the horror and the destroyed hopes and ultimately the cynicism of our suicidal adventures in oil politics.

We are a great nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition.  But we are finite, vulnerable, not exceptions in the long run and currently losing ground.  We are as subject any other people to our human limitations. Our founding fathers understood this.  Will we catch on in time?

For what it's worth.  Enjoy this winter weekend.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy V


February opens.  Leaves have started dropping around the live oaks.  The earth creaks on its axis.

I am especially appreciative of the responses I keep gettting, even the occasional challenges.  One friend wrote back recently:  "Your quest for truth and attention to myth-busting detail are very refreshing.  Being something of a contrarian myself, your point of view is very refreshing to read."

Obviously, I liked that.  My one hesitation centered on the word "contrarian."  The truth is, it has never been my intention to pound away on the conventional interpretation of any public event except where a constant barrage of new evidence makes such a reading more and more incomprehensible. In time the accumulation of detail and fresh information erodes the established version.  For example, by now even such a spokesman for the Kennedy family as Robert Kennedy, Jr. has come forward to the press and conceded that he -- and, more surprising, his father before him -- had come to believe that there were several gunmen in Dealey Plazy -- i.e., there was a conspiracy, as I projected in detail in Bobby and J. Edgar. Increasingly, the ragged defenders of the Warren Commission Report are coming through in the media as the badly confused "contrarians," and the much-maligned "conspiracy theorists" are increasingly regarded as the repositories of well-substantiated facts.  Our day is coming, shortly.  See the new Preface to Bobby and J. Edgar in the edition to be published by Basic Books in the fall.

Even more interesting are the current attempts to revise history, to clean it up.  I have dealt in some detail with the effort by David Nasaw in his new biography of Joe Kennedy, The Patriarch, to discredit earlier biographers like myself when we insist that both reliable testimony and official documents repeatedly establish the facts that Kennedy was not only a bootlegger early in his career but maintained an umbilical relationship with top Mob figures throughout his working life.

A number of hard-core liberals can't deal with that, while others, reviewing Bobby and J. Edgar, seem to have a hard time accepting my presentation of Hoover as much more than a cross-dressing monster preoccupied with hounding progressives.  When I pointed out that Hoover probably saved FDR's regime from a hard-right putsch and -- as Morris Dees makes clear in his autobiography -- broke up the Ku Klux Klan, one half-baked reviewer accused me of going "soft on Hoover."  Another contrarian exhibition, a violation of the standard left-wing cliches.  Can't I get anything right?

I found myself skeptical as I was reading Nasaw's biography of Kennedy of the one fault of character Nasaw has been ready to admit:  Joe's alleged anti-Semitism.  The truth is, it would be hard to find a major public figure, especially in Joe Kennedy's generation, whose life was more tangled up with Jewish colleagues, patrons, and, especially toward the end, very close friends.  The financier was heard to boil over regularly with anti-Semitic bromides.  But from his early days dodging the draft as a ship-builder, when he prevailed on Honey Fitz to set him up with Bernard Baruch, the head of Woodrow Wilson's War Production Board, to his sponsorship of the Yiddish-speaking studio heads at Harvard, to his key business collaboration with David Sarnoff, to his deep, autumnal friendship with Carroll Rosenbloom -- many of Kennedy's closest and most durable associations were with Jews.  Arthur Krock, the doyen of The New York Times, was Kennedy's intimate literary collaborator.  They wrote an unpublished book together about Joe's ambassadorship to Great Britain, which I have read.

Simultaneously -- when he became vociferous about the way the Jews had supposedly driven America into war against the Nazis, or out-foxed him in a business deal, or weren't lining up fast enough behind JFK -- Joe gave a lot of offense.  Rose later confided to one of her secretaries that she regarded her husband's tirades against World Jewry as indicative of an oncoming instability.  The next day he would be ranting about joining a synagogue because the Cardinals were also holding back when it came to supporting Jack, or playing golf at his Palm Beach country club -- he was the only non-Jew -- or helping organize an interfaith meeting between prominent Catholic and Jewish leaders to improve fellowship.  Nasaw seems to have missed almost all of that.

So, am I a contrarian because I got into the complex and ambivalent way Joe Kennedy seemed to deal with Jews?  Confused by too many facts, was I insensitive to the prevailing cliche?  Read Bobby and J. Edgar and find out.

Meanwhile, persevere.  The light will continue breaking in the East.