Friday, August 08, 2014

Diplomacy, then and now

Today I want to compare American diplomacy in two different eras, using three texts.  The first was recently brought to my attention by another JFK assassination researcher, who found it in the Robert F. Kennedy papers at the JFK library.   It was written in November 1962 by my own father, Philip Kaiser then Ambassador to Senegal. Some background is in order to understand it.

In 1960, my father, then 47 years old, had worked in the executive branch of the federal government from 1941 until 1954, including seven years as assistant secretary of Labor for international affairs.  He had spent the next four years working for Governor Averell Harriman of New York, and eagerly awaiting a Democratic return to power. When Harriman's own hopes for the White House were dashed by his defeat by Nelson Rockefeller in 1958, my father returned to Washington and arranged a position at the School of Foreign Service in at American University.  After Kennedy's nomination in 1960, an old friend of his, future Supreme Court Justice Byron White, brought him into the campaign. 

It was on an early campaign plane trip that White introduced my father to Robert Kennedy.  My father had told White that JFK had a problem with Jewish voters, who regarded his father Joe, correctly as it happened, as an appeaser of Hitler and an anti-Semite.  White suggested that he tell Bobby, and brought him to the front of the plane to do so.  As my father later explained in his oral history for the JFK Library, Bobby took the news calmly (this was not, I later discovered, a new problem in JFK's political career), and assured him that old Joe had made substantial contributions to Jewish charities. "I hope it wasn't last month," my father said. "No," Bobby replied, "it was a respectable time ago."  My father passed this news along to Jewish movers and shakers, and RFK now recognized him as a man who wasn't afraid to give him unpleasant but important news.  They worked well together throughout the campaign.

     After JFK's election, he wanted to appoint a number Ambassadors of an unusual type--neither Foreign Service officers nor wealthy contributors, but capable Americans from other fields with foreign experience,  all of JFK's own generation, who would do a good job of representing the US abroad.  These appointments included economist John Kenneth Galbraith as Ambassador to India, retired General James Gavin as Ambassador to France, journalist William Attwood to leftist Guinea, political scientist Edmund Reischauer to Japan (his academic specialty), and my father as Ambassador to Senegal, whose President, Leopold Sedar Senghor, was a distinguished poet and a socialist.  The choice proved fortuitous. Senghor and my father (who knew French) got along famously, and at the height of the missile crisis in October 1962 my father persuaded him to deny landing rights to Soviet planes that might try to resupply Cuba by air, which they could not do without stopping in West Africa.

I had accomopanied my parents to Senegal.  By the fall of 1962 I knew he was more impressed with both John and Robert Kennedy than ever.  Early in that year he handed me a Time magazine featuring RFK, who had just made a world tour, on the cover, and had remarked, "He'll be President some day."  It turns out that in early November, he decided to share his thoughts on the world situation with the man whom he regarded as his principal mentor in the Administration.  Here is the text of that letter.

Dear Bob:

On  the  basis of   a number of  talks with President Senghor, as well  as  with many other Africans,  concerning the     Cuba crisis and its aftermath, and after considerable  personal reflection, I have become impressed by the unique opportunity the present world situation seems to hold for us.  In  this part·  of  the world,:_ events of recent weeks have      combined to  raise even higher the stature of the President. First,  Africans saw in the University of Mississippi affair ,a demonstration of his humanitarianism and  determination.  The Cuba crisis impressed them with our strength, ·:our moderation, and    our deftness in handling a very difficult situation .   Finally, the election convinced them of the strong popular support which the Administration and its policies command inside the United States. The  President appears to be in a stronger position as the Free World leader than ever before.

         This may  provide one  of  those   rare history when the  course of events could be         significantly altered.  For   forty- five years a large segment of world opinion has been persuaded that the Soviet Union represented the true express.sion of social progress in the world. The USSR   has been able to mask its  use of power for  expansionist purposes under this·  guise. The  Cuba affair dramatically exposed its true purpose and shook the confidence of many of those previously responsive to its social pretensions.  Now these people have the evidence before them to  compare the different purposes for which we  and  the Soviets use our power.  They can better appreciate that their newly gained independence depends mainly on the fact that our power provides a  necessary protection against the real Soviet objectives.  Their  mood of reappraisal provides us with the opportunity to demonstrate, perhaps more effectively than ever before, that  it is we who have  at  heart the  real interest in the social and economic welfare of the people of the world  as well as the      effective independence of  the  uncommitted  (and committed) nations.   It would be presumptuous of      me to  suggest the      specific measures we might   take     to  make the  most   of   this favorable turn             of events.  The  President's statement in his   original Cuba   message indicating a willingness to deal with   outstanding problems after the Soviet bases in Cuba         have     been effectively dismantled, evoked a positive response here.  We can  maintain our momentum by following through in this spirit, particularly since our  case  for controlled disarmament  has been dramatically demonstrated.    At the  same  time  a  restatement of our  aims   and   commitment to social progress and economic aid       for  genuinely independent countries could, I  believe, make an impression on many people all over the world                   who were previously unresponsive to our policies.
I have   noticed one disturbintendency beginning to emerge in the thinking of some people in   this part of the world.  They are so anxious to avoid  facing  up to the  Cold  War and  to  avoid any  new crisis  which might  force them to take sides,  that  they are suggesting    that     the   Russian response to the   Cuba   affair offers new hope that the   Soviet  Union  is   perhaps not so dangerous and that  the  only country which  really  presents  a world              threat is Communist China.  I understand there is some talk                 of       issuing a White Paper concerning the Cuba    crisis.   This strikes me as a good idea.  I believe it could help meet the above-mentioned problem by reminding those who still  need   convincing that   the  gap  between Russian words and deeds is typical of their behavior, and  in reviewing events of  the  past few  years,  by demonstrating that the present attitude is just another    reversal in constantly shifting Soviet   tactics.

     I know you are in the process of discussing these ideas and others like  them  at this point  in Washington.  They have been brought home to me so sharply in  recent discussions here that I wanted           to   pass   them  on to you  on the            chance they  might  be of interest.

Best            regards.

        Many things strike me about this letter.  Undoubtedly my father wanted to remind RFK of his existence, and he was already hoping for a more significant post after his tour in Senegal was over. (He got his wish during the Johnson Administration.)  But the letter also shows the extent to which the Cold War, then at its peak, focused American diplomatic thinking.  Like the President he represented, my father knew much of the world would now be choosing between the American and Soviet models, and he deeply believed in our own.  He was sensitive, as any good diplomat must be, to how events in the US looked from overseas.  The reference to the University of Mississippi crisis, which of course refers to the recent admission of its first black student, James Meredith, with the help of federal troops, illustrates another point:  the Kennedy Administration was keenly aware that the resolution of our civil rights problems was critical to our standing in the Third World.  And indeed, President Kennedy was thinking along lines similar to his ambassador's.  He decided to push forward early in 1963 on a Test Ban treaty, and its signature and ratification later that year raised his prestige still further. 

It is safe to say that Eric Holder, our current Attorney General, who does not play the broad role in this Administration that RFK played in that one, has not received any similar letters from any current Ambassadors.  What I wonder is whether Hillary Clinton or John Kerry have.  Frankly, I am inclined to doubt it.

My second text for the day was also brought to my attention by an assassination researcher, and a different one.  It is an account of a remarkable conversation between Robert Komer, then one of McGeorge Bundy's leading assistants at the National Security Council, and the Israeli Ambassador to the US.  Komer's job, as I learned while researching American Tragedy, involved riding herd on several very dangerous Third World disputes, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, and an emerging fight between Britain on the one hand and Singapore on the other over the future of what became Malaysia.  About six months after Kennedy's death, Komer warned Bundy that a new, almost exclusive focus on Vietnam was putting these issues on the back burner, and he warned prophetically that any of them, if allowed to fester, could lead to a war.  As it turned out, by 1967, all three of them did.

 I am not going to reproduce this document in full because it is available on line and you can read it here.  I hope that you will.  Komer on November 21, 1963, the last day of the Kennedy Administration, had a typically frank talk with Israeli Minister Gazit.  Readers will immediately see that many of the fundamental issues in US-Israeli relations have not changed.  Much of the conversation, as a footnote explains, related to paragraph 11 of UN Resolution 194, passed after the 1949 cease-fire between the Arab states and Israel.  That paragraph specifically gave refugees in the conflict--clearly including Palestinian refugees from Israel proper--to return to their homes if they wished to do so, or to receive monetary compensation for the loss of their property.  The conversation makes clear that the Kennedy Administration wanted a settlement of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, including the refugee problem, and that it had angered the Israeli government by reaffirming its commitment to paragraph 11.  My main reaction to the conversation was that while the manner in which Israeli diplomats address American ones does not seem to have changed very much, the reverse is not the case.  Komer, later known as "blowtorch Bob," was known for calling a spade a spade, and he did not hesitate to do so in this case, since he wanted good relations with Israel and better relations with the Arab world.  Today, half a century later, the refugee problem remains unsolved.

 For counterpoint, I recommend this article from the New Yorker on Michael McFaul, who recently had a brief and stormy tenure as President Obama's Ambassador to Russia.  McFaul, like Edmund Reischauer, is a political scientist, but while Reischauer (from whom I took a course) wanted to understand Japan, McFaul seems to have been concerned most of all about changing Russia.  A long-time friend and fellow grad student of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, McFaul apparently shares the Hegelian word view that has prevailed in American foreign policy circles since 1989, which believes that it is the destiny of the entire world to become capitalist and democratic.  He got to know some Russian democracy activists as a grad student in the late 1980s, and the Soviet authorities concluded that he was connected to the CIA, which he denies.  When he arrived in Moscow early in Obama's second term, shortly after Vladimir Putin had resumed the Russian Presidency, he immediately met with some democracy activists, and was henceforth subjected to a Stalinist kind of treatment, repeatedly attacked in Russian media and followed by members of the security services.  David Remnick, the author of the article, interviewed a number of pro-government Russian propagandists and journalists for it, and it is clear that Putin has made the idea that the United States is a threat to Russia's government and its values a keynote of his political strategy.  The article left me with some sympathy for McFall, but I also felt that he typified what is wrong with the the thinking of the Boomer-Xer foreign policy elite, which feels the US has a divine right to see the world develop along the lines we believe that it should.

Yes, the Kennedy Administration also wanted to change the world, but its diplomats, for the most part, very carefully assessed how much change was possible. Meanwhile, as the Komer conversation indicates, they tried to stand for impartial principles and work for the settlement of international disputes along equitable lines.  For the last 13 years, sadly, the US government has done a great deal to promote spreading anarchy, and neither Obama nor the government as a whole has been able to project the image of a well-functioning democracy that the Kennedy Administration did.  This has contributed to world disorder, which got a lot worse last week in Iraq, and which will undoubtedly remain a major theme of these posts for a long time to come.  As a friend of mine remarked to me in Texas last week, "It was not always this way."



Energyflow said...

The general view of countries in the world is to leave other countries alone to lead their own affairs. This is a practical matter. Most government affairs were earlier matters of diplomats from upper classes and the lower classes were relegated to their work based on class. Since the French revolution much has changed. The British Empire of course played a large role in subjugating the world but was little interested in democracy. Divide and conquer various ethnic groups in a region then take the raw materials for manufacture and resell finished goods to colonies. Competition between colonial areas of France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Russia was the game.

Since democracy was introduced the game changed. Germany and Japan tried to break the party and got thrown out by the USA, who took over the European colonies using their own rules. These rules say that there are no colonies, just "equal" democratic partners. USD is trade currency and USA foreign policy is preeminent. This is a Global Monroe Doctrine. Since late 80s Russia and China are trying to break the party and are now getting thrown out by USA, worried about its monopoly of currency and foreign policy. The pretence of democratic rule is used to foment revolution where, when a dictator is not on side of USA or where democratic governments could be seen as disadvantageous to economic interests (Iran, Chile, NZ).

Since Bush II this pretence has been mostly eliminated. Patriot act allows arrest, torture. UN is not needed to start wars and flimsiest invented evidence is all that is needed for war. The press all belongs to a few large companies which all repeat the same lies supporting war(This is all pure Orwell). The partners in Europe, Japan are marionettes of US government foreign policy. This is not just about Russia/Ukraine situation, but generally. Russia is no longer what the USSR was, a serious threat to US hegemony. Schroeder in Germany refused an attack on Iraq. The British parliament did not want to attack Syria. If only more brave souls were around. One reads of "hit lists" of all politicians who will be killed if they recommend leaving NATO.

I think the democratic fig-leaf is much thinner and more hypocritical for America than for Russia. At least Russia minds its own business and does not pretend to be promoting human rights and democracy, while in reality spreading death abroad with private militaries for oil companies and the like.

Energyflow said...

(a bit more)

I feel completely disgusted and abused as if I had attended a church for years where I later learned that I had been part of a sick dishonest sect where the leaders were in the backroom having big parties and taking our donations for orgies and yachts and debaucheries and laughing over the "rubes" who believed. After 2008 banking crisis this should have dawned on me but the Ukraine crisis was really the last straw. I rarely watch the news broadcast now of normal TV but when I see it the statements are completely false or worse the journalists are full of hatred and venom due to ethnicity of the Russian people in Eastern Ukraine. This is racism. The war drums are being beaten. Only good Russian is a dead Russian. Bombing their cities is ok, everywhere else we cry and protest (see Gaza). War is coming ever closer to EU and then inevitably USA. Destabilize and conquer the continent Eurasia for the Anglo-American empire is the method. USD will grow and EU economy will fall leading to dependency on USA as post WWII. The West Europeans and Japanese must go along with the lies or be mowed down so the press and governments remain silent and repeat the lies out of fear. I suspect a military coup or a lost election in Germany or UK is not so hard to arrange and any journalist is expendable. The CIA has the scoop on all the dirty laundry of all the powerful and the NSA hears every discussion. Stalin had nowhere near as much power ever. At home now we worry about when the nukes will fall here in Germany or if our kids will be, as Russian speakers, massively discriminated against. Perhaps ,like the Jews in Europe in the 30s, we should seriously consider fleeing before it is too late. Property and force of habit holds us back.

This is all an ever worsening nightmare as the spiral of sanctions and violence increases. It is a repeat of Cuba crisis and height of cold War(but now USA is being deceptive on Russian border, not other way around as under Khruschev). We Euro-Americans could care less about Iraq, or North Africa, even Gaza but Eastern Europe? If you had civil war in Texas or California or Mexico fomented by CIA agents pitting sick racists and super rich corrupt businessmen against the people to promote ethnic cleansing to get at oil and gas fields and the honest working class refugees were portrayed in Orwellian manner as terrorists, although all facts, readily available by mere perusal of alternate sources reveal this, it would disturb you as well. I read a dozen sources in German and English, US bloggers, Russian and German websites and my wife reads threads in Russian. Psaki is not very intelligent and social media and You-Tube are not convincing sources for US government policy. Ignoring mass murder in several cases(Kiev Maidan, Odessa, MH17), Supporting revolution by open fascists abroad, while in one's own country such opinions would lead to long jail terms(in Germany Holocaust denial) makes any decent person sick to the stomach. I read as a youth about the holocaust with horror and dreamt of how the world would have been better if Hitler had been assassinated. Now I see that Edmund Burke was right:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Bozon said...


Thanks for wonderful glimpses into the diplomatic past and not so past.

"... Boomer-Xer foreign policy elite, which feels the US has a divine right to see the world develop along the lines we believe that it should."

I wish, now, that this view were limited, in that way, just to those generations.

I think it went back to the beginning, for us, over here.

That is why, as I believe, that it was a sort of mistake, call it a bad divorce, to leave Britain in the first place.

One usually can't have it both ways, in the very long run, after all.

all the best

tructor man said...

Ed Boyle's comments are truly sobering. One shares his despair, but, Putin is playing a deadly game of proxy wars, and God help us all if ISIS and Russia join forces...
Gaza, Ebola, MH17, Syria etc make one feel the world is falling apart and the US is helpless.

Larry said...

As usual an very informative piece David. So-called American exceptionalism has apparently displaced the diplomacy that elevated the U.S. stature we worked so hard to achieve years earlier

Anonymous said...

In this discussion there is a giant missing "detail": that the Turkish Missile Crisis of 1962 was caused by the decision of the USA government to install nuclear armed first-strike "decapitation" missiles in several sites in Turkey near to to the USSR border, missiles with a very short flight time to Moscow.

The only option according to nuclear doctrine other than total surrender left to the USSR government was to find a way to do the same, and they chose to start slowly to install an equivalent capability in Cuba, hoping that the USA would then negotiate. It was admirable restraint by the USSR despite a fatally aggressive act of war by the USA.

That these missiles were there along with operational warheads and ready to launch has been described in an uncontested personal memory of the USA officer in charge:

The masterful propaganda coup of the USA to blame solely the USSR for replying in kind to what they had just done themselves as an act of war seems to still persist.

There is an event darker "detail"...

Some versions report that President Kennedy was entirely surprised when his USSR counterpart told him that they just had to put some missiles in Cuba because the USA had installed many first-strike "decapitation" missiles in Turkey, and had refused to negotiate.

These histories report that Kennedy double checked this and discovered that this was entirely true, and a large budget had been spent to build the launch sites and nuclear armed first-strike missiles had been moved to the borders of the USSR not just without the President's orders, but without the President being informed.

Some other histories say that President Kennedy had just discovered the launch sites in Turkey and had ordered their dismantling.

If the launch sites has been built and the nuclear warheads had been moved without the President knowing it was obviously treason of the worst sort, treason that had to involve some people at the highest levels of the military and civilian authority, because the amount of money involved and the moving of nuclear weapons, and concealing this from the President, required no less.

Apparently President Kennedy and his brother the Attorney General were determined to purge the traitors, but entirely coincidentally they were both assassinated in murky circumstances.

jack from Williamstown said...

I just finished reading "None save Victory..." and thoroughly enjoyed it. The insights that you wrote about, such as the Japanese "mind-sinc" and what FDR thought about the war preparation changed my viewpoint about him an his importance in US history. He is a much more important President than i had thought before reading your most valuable book. Thank you.
Update your Wikipedia page to include this valuable book. I was confused about which David Kaiser wrote "None Save Victory..."

neroden@gmail said...

MissileCrisis: unfortunately the "conspiracy theory" which you present is the one which makes sense in retrospect. We've now seen so many treasonous, criminal, and *counterproductive* operations by the CIA, the NSA, et al, that I'd believe they'd do anything at this point.

Our major problem here is breaking the military-industrial complex. Our great advantage is that they are incredibly stupid and self-destructive. The trick is to break them with minimal collateral damage -- without triggering their instinct to blow things up. The nuclear decommissioning process is probably most important in this regard.