Diplomacy, then and now
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.
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."