Friday, December 19, 2014

Endings and Beginnings

My books (see the list at right) have always tackled big topics, but their conclusions almost always put the events they describe in an even broader perspective.  I did this well before Strauss and Howe's books appeared in the 1990s, but they gave me a new framework. Some of these conclusions have included an element of prophecy, and this week, another one of those prophecies came true.

I will begin with American Tragedy: Kenndy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, which appeared in 2000.  The last five pages of that book were the most intense that I have ever written, and although no reviewer saw fit even to mention them, I have been very gratified by the reaction they got from many readers.  They were written from the perspective of the top of Angels Landing in Zion Canyon, which I had climbed literally on the day in July 1965 that Lyndon Johnson effectively announced that we were going to war, and then again in 1998.  The last sentences read as follows.

"The massive rock mountains that surrounded him now inspired more humility than pride.  Carved by the Virgin River over many millions of years, they had loomed over the whole of human history, and would undoubtedly remain as they were for thousands of generations to come.  And meanwhile, in just three decades, the Vietnam War, horrible and tragic though it was, had definitely retreated into the background of American life. Having brought one era of American history suddenly and dramatically to an end, it had begun another that was probably less than halfway through even as the century drew to a close. The disintegration of the civic order that the war had begun continued, and seemed to be leading inexorably to some new and unforeseeable crisis.  In that crisis his own questioning, idealistic generation would finally discover its true destiny, while their children faced it wherever the front lines turned out to be.   The outcome of that crisis would probably create some new civic consensus, a new set of certainties, and new social roles.  And these new institutions and beliefs would prevail for perhaps two decades more, only to be rejected by still younger Americans in a seasonal cycle destined to persist through the whole of American and human history."

I did now know then, of course, that the crisis was less than two years away when the book appeared. The course of that crisis has been the main subject of these posts (which all told would fill two large books now, including the collection I self-published in 2009.)  It has been, needless to say, a huge disappointment--but great historians do not argue with history.

American Tragedy showed that John Kennedy had single-handedly kept the nation out of war in Southeast Asia in 1961, and very strongly suggested that he would never have gone to war there had he lived.  I did not realize it at the time, but it was therefore quite natural for me to spend the next six years investigating exactly why he had died.  The result was The Road to Dallas, which appeared in 2007.  Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, but Oswald acted as part of a conspiracy led by major organized crime figures.  They were the same men who the CIA had enlisted in 1960 to assassinate Fidel Castro, and they acted to destroy the power of Robert Kennedy, who was in an all-out war to put them out of business.  These men--particularly Santo Trafficante from Florida, and Carlos Marcello from New Orleans--were part of a huge network of mobsters, anti-Castro Cubans, right-wing Americans, and, at times, some CIA operatives.  (Most of the network was not involved in the assassination, and I do not think anyone from the CIA was.)  But the book drew me into the tragic story of the Cuban revolution and the United States' numerous attempts to overturn it, in which President Kennedy, I was sorry to discover, was deeply involved.  I knew when I finished The Road to Dallas that any chance of legal action against the conspirators was long past, and I think it unlikely that anyone involved in the assassination is still alive.  But I was haunted by the tragedy of Cuban-American relations, and they became the subject of the last two pages of that book, which I quote now.

"Fidel Castro Ruz, whose revolution did so much to set in motion the events that have been the subject of this book, has now held power for 49 years, longer than any other political leader of the twentieth century.  He has survived a 47-year American embargo, numerous assassination attempts, nine American Presidents, the fall of his Soviet Communist patrons, and, most recently, a serious intestinal ailment that required surgery in the summer of 2006 and forced him into an at least temporary retirement.  Largely because of American sanctions, Cuba remains a poor country, although its health care and educational achievements are much closer to first than to third world standards.  The people enjoy relatively little freedom of expression and the Communist party continues to rule, but Cuba’s hemispheric isolation is easing. In recent years Latin American politics have swung to the left, and Venezuela has become a new and important Cuban ally.. 
"During the twentieth century few countries had more closely intertwined destinies than Cuba and the United States.  In 1898 the United States helped win Cuba’s independence in a brief war with Spain, but promptly made that independence conditional.   For sixty years no Cuban government was fully independent, and American business interests controlled much of the island’s human and material resources.  Castro’s revolution reclaimed those assets and turned opposition to the influence of the United States into the organizing principle of Cuban political life.  It is not only the fault of the United States that relations have never been re-established since 1960.  On more than one occasion, Castro himself has spoiled a chance for improvement with some new initiative that was bound to anger his northern neighbor.
"Like members of the same family, Cuba and the United States have left their imprint too deeply upon one another to ever live in complete isolation.  To Americans Cuba means not only the war that made the United States a world power, but  also Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Guys and Dolls and Desi Arnaz , Al Lopez, Camilo Pascual ,Tony Perez and Orlando Hernandez, and an ethnic minority that changed the face of a the Southeast and wields considerable political clout.  For Cubans the United States means not only independence—first with North American help, and then in opposition to the region’s strongest power—but also the source of Cuba’s own national game, and a huge expatriate community. Yet the chasm that has cost the two nations so dearly still divides them.  The author looks forward to the day when Cubans and Americans will vacation freely in each other’s lands, when Cuban families shall be re-united, and when a major league baseball team shall make Havana its home.  But all this still seems far off as 2007 draws to a close, and unlikely to come to pass at once, even after Fidel Castro, too, has finally left the scene."

Regarding Cuba, as in so many other cases, Barack Obama has been maddeningly tentative until now, but I am delighted that I have now seen the day I wished for come to pass.  I also believe, as I shall argue in a subsequent post, that the decision will turn out to be good policy (like FDR's recognition of the USSR in 1933) and good politics (like Nixon's visit to China in 1972.)  Obama, fittingly, had not yet been born when Castro took power, or even at the time of the Bay of Pigs.  He came into office determined to put the quarrels of recent decades behind us.  Instead many of them have gotten worse, but in this case, I predict, he will succeed. And since Jeb Bush, who has suddenly become the most likely Republican candidate, has already attacked the decision, it may help the Democratic candidate hold Florida in 2016 with the help of voters much younger even than Obama, who have even less reason to cling to their parents' prejudices.  More importantly, this is really the first step Obama has taken in seven years to vindicate his Nobel Prize.  Our endless conflict with Cuba has done nothing but harm.  In this case, to quote Clausewitz, he did not lose sight of "the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace."
No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War was written squarely within the framework of Strauss and Howe's analysis, which dominated both the opening and the closing of the book.  Here is its last paragraph.

"Like the Transcendentals and the Missionaries before them, the Boomers thanks to their immense self-confidence did much to create a new crisis in American life, especially in the economic realm, but neither they nor any other living generation has produced another Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt to lead the nation out of it. In our current political climate, so reminiscent of the post-Civil War period, it is hard to see how anyone could do so. The battle now being waged in Washington relates mainly to the provision of income and health care for the elderly and the poor, while the broader economic role of the government has essentially been given up. No reversal of the trend toward economic inequality is on the horizon. Globalization has effectively destroyed the idea of an economy combining private enterprise with a measure of government planning. We have no new legions of social workers and macroeconomists determined to spread the benefits of American life more broadly. Millions of Americans are once again, as Roosevelt would have said, forgotten men and women.

"The world scene today is certainly less threatening than in the 1930s, but there, too, the Boom Generation has fall short of its predecessors. In the wake of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush quite obviously saw himself as a crisis President and dreamed of having an impact on the world comparable to Franklin Roosevelt’s. He frequently spoke of a great new struggle to define the coming century. Yet his administration lacked the capacity for clear thinking, planning, standing up resources, and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the international situation that Roosevelt and his colleagues showed again and again in 1940–1941. The outcome of Bush’s quest was correspondingly disappointing: two wars, each of which has lasted much longer than American participation in the Second World War, and both of which now seem to have helped trigger the spread of anarchy throughout the Middle East. Most frighteningly of all, the Bush administration abandoned the earlier ideal of a world ruled by law. It went into Iraq in defiance of the United Nations, refused to treat prisoners according to long-established treaties, and flouted the opinion of the world. This was hubris worthy of the Boomers’ GI parents in Vietnam, and it suffered a similar fate. Boomers of both parties have defined the spread of democracy as the key to world progress, but this is not likely to increase peace and justice in the world if existing democracies, led by the United States, cannot provide a better example.
"Authority has eroded over much of the world. The most organized state of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union, suffered the greatest collapse in 1990–1991. Conscription still exists in only a few small states, and the size of militaries relative to population has fallen to an all-time low. This is in many ways a blessing, and the world does not need more conflicts comparable to the world wars of the twentieth century. Yet we may find our capacity for clear thinking, genuine devotion to principle, organization, integrity in action, and sacrifice for the common good has fallen so far as to threaten the foundations of our civilization as we have known it. At some future date, new generations may well face a crisis like those of 1933 or 1940–1941. If they do, the achievements of Franklin Roosevelt and the rest of his generation will provide a much needed inspiration."

Stay tuned.


ed boyle said...

I shoud get your main books of course. I probably agree with you mainly but change opinions as events unfold.

I read sorensen and would agree jfk would have avoided war as the neurotic johnson was fixated like Nixon or Bush 2 on winning, on ego.

I fear democratic legalistic dictatorshipp from harvard law prof obama or a clinton presidency might be. Jeb seems more reasonable as republican but must please base.

ed boyle said...

My first response to the cuba opening, in light of recent events, was rather akin to the Latin American joke, "why are there no coups in the USA? Because there is no US embassy there". This is unfortunately all too true and bitterly painful to be seen as cynical. I recallHarry Truman's bio sketch, a true nobody, a creature of political bosses, who in any real sensible world would have been an unemployed loser as opposed to Henry Wallace, incredibly popular liberal who should have been president and never got the chance. Carter was also a creature of power brokers and of course Obama.

A great man cannot become president unless, like Roosevelt or Kennedy, he is already rich and powerful. Unfortunately such scions of wealth, decadent in Paris Hilton manner, are too likely to be of lower moral and intellectual stature like laterRoman emperors. Bush jr was so. Jeb could be a surprise. Imagine someone who could rule without neocon advisors or banking cabal. Hard to believe. Presidents are creatures of power cliques. This is like being in Hollywood circles.

You look at America positively like Roman authors of establishment in augustus age. Meanwhile the world was churning towards a new age, immigrants imported from wars as slaves displaced localfarmers on land in plantation system and spread mystical religions, barbarians were recruited to army and learned how to overthrow their Roman masters, the upper class became decadent and detached from reality.

Churchill was unwilling to see British Empire as outmoded. American elites are ensconced in a bubble. Occasionally light breaks through to wake them up to the reality of a changing world. A giant with clay feet wading through swamp to take book of Daniel metaphor loosely could show us postwar order, usa with allies. Add climate change and we have perfect storm. The upper .1% is incestuously small and controls themedia, banking, politicians in USA and nato countries. This is like ancien regime, unable to see beyond their little circle, like Obama shut in White House, advised by advisors, who only see the world through own prism. We have a storm phase now in markets. Long term planning is a no show. Banks should have been reorganized in 2008 for example and military reduced in 1990s. China and Russia could have been real partners, US middle class expanded. Instead industry detroyed, taxes for rich reduced, military and banking multiplied. So blindly we stumble to destruction on our clay feet in our swamp of own creation.

Mike R said...

I just finished no end.. I enjoyed it and confirmed my belief that FDR was the right man during that time. The disasters of the new deal aside. But at the end, george Bush entered the Iraq war without the consent of the UN is flat out wrong. He took 14 months to obtain it at which time hussain likely moved the marterial to syria.