Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Re-Writing History

Revising history has long been a cottage industry for politicians, academics and anyone else interested in putting their particular "spin" on historical events.

The distinguished senior Senator from Massachustetts, Ted Kennedy (or, as El Rushbo calls him "The Swimmer") is the latest to join the fray. According to this morning's Boston Globe, Kennedy has written a book that assails the Bush Administration (surprise, surprise), for (among other things) the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and his doctrine of preemptive attacks to defeat possible threats. According to Kennedy, these policies are dangerous, and run counter to American values:

''The premeditated nature of preventive attacks and preventive wars makes them anathema to well-established international principles against aggression. I'll have a Chivas. Make it a double.

Obviously, I tacked on those comments about Teddy's favorite, life-sustaining beverage. But the other observations can be found in his new book, "America Back on Track," scheduled for publication on 18 April. In a typically fawning article, the Globe reports that Kennedy cites his brothers' actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis as an example of sterling leadership during times of peril. As we've been told time and time again, Kennedy resisted the Pentagon's advice to launch airstrikes against Russian missile sites in Cuba, opting instead for a naval blockade and negotiations that eventually led to removal of the missiles, and the possible avoidance of nuclear war.

The missile crisis is often cited as Exhibit A of JFK's brillant, inspired leadership in the Golden Days of Camelot. Kennedy apologist Arthur Schlesinger, Jr liked it to " the ripening of American leadership unsurpassed in the responsible management of power." Four decades later, Teddy clearly hopes to burnish that "legacy" in his book, contrasting the events of 1962 with the "failures" of the current White House.

Unfortunately for the Massachusetts Driving Instructor, the real record of the missile crisis is less charitable to his deceased brothers. True, the Kennedys did manage to avoid a nuclear showdown with the USSR, but their "leadership"--particularly JFK's--was fraught with critical errors that actually helped precipitate--and even exacerbated--the crisis.

Reagan scholar Peter Schweizer's aptly titled 2002 essay, "Cuban Missile Crisis: Kennedy's Mistakes," does an excellent job de-bunking JFK's "brillant" handling of those eventful days in October. Drawing upon material from the Soviet archives, Schweizer notes that the Kremlin correctly sized up Kennedy as a "pragmatist" who would change positions or accomodate adversaries if it served his interests. Kennedy's response to communist aggression in Laos (1961), his withdrawal of air support at the Bay of Pigs (1961) and limited reaction to the building of the Berlin Wall (1962) tended to confirm that assessment. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pegged the American President as a lightweight, someone he could have his way with:

In the Kremlin, the combination of Kennedy's tough words and lack of action was seen as weakness and fear. After JFK's speech on the Berlin crisis, Khrushchev hosted a secret meeting of the Central Committees of Communist Parties of the Soviet Union. "Kennedy spoke [to frighten us] and then got scared himself," snickered Khrushchev, according to a transcript. The president was "too much of a lightweight both for the Republicans as well as for the Democrats."

Once the missiles were discovered in Cuba--the usual starting point for most books about the crisis--the Kennedys conveyed the U.S. position (as Schweizer notes) in unambiguous terms. Unable to match U.S. nuclear and naval superiority--and facing a potential battlefield half a world away from the USSR--Khrushchev eventually backed down. But even in "defeat," the Soviets were able to extract key concessions from JFK, including a pledge "not" to invade Cuba (ensuring a permanent communist presence 90 miles from the U.S. mainland), and the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey--missiles aimed at the USSR.

Some analysts argue that the Jupiters were already obsolete by 1962 and would have been eventually removed, even if the crisis had never occurred. But that element of the "deal" was considered particularly sensitive by the Kennedys, who worried that it would be viewed as a sign of weakness. In his "secret" negotiations with the Soviet Ambassador during the crisis, RFK made it clear that the U.S. would never mention its missile withdrawal publicly. References to the missile deal were later excised--at RFK's request--from his diary of the crisis, published as the book "13 Days."

I don't plan to read The Swimmer's book, which promises to be nothing more than an exercise in Bush Bashing and reinforcement of Camelot. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not the shining example of Presidential leadership that has become a carefully-perpetuated legend. JFK and his brother found a way through the crisis, but it's a situation that JFK helped to create, by refusing to calibrate his tough rhetoric with more decisive action during the early stages of his Presidency. That's the real "legend" of the Cuban Missile Crisis, despite his younger brother's effort to sustain the myth.

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