The American Century — too high a price for too big a burden
One of the books I read on holidays was JFK by Fredrick Logevall. Published last year, this was the first of what will be a two-volume biography. This volume covers the period from President Kennedy’s birth in 1917 until 1956 by when he was established in the US Senate and beginning to contemplate a run at the presidency in 1960.
The book left little time for reading anything else, even over three weeks, because it is a door stopper running to 650 pages. It is not coloured by personal recollection. Born in 1963, Logevall’s life overlapped with Kennedy’s for less than a year. Without using the term pejoratively, the biography is more of an “industrial”, process-driven production. A professor at Harvard University and the John F Kennedy School within the university, Logevall was supported by a large cast including his own team of research assistants and legions of staff from the nearby JFK Library, whose assistance he fully acknowledges.
But the depth of research and rigour does not prevent it from being an easy read. It is not a page turner but it does flow along nicely and I heartily recommend it. The author is sympathetic towards his subject but not sycophantic.
I am not going to dwell much on what the book tells us about JFK. At times, he was indeed the archetypal rich kid with a silver spoon in his mouth. But, in the round, he was a great deal more than that. He was the architect and proprietor of his own life, not the product or puppet of his domineering father, nor constrained by the somewhat stifling family regime enforced by both parents. He combined prudent caution and abundant courage, personal ambition and idealistic purpose, self indulgence and a strong work ethic.
Instead, I want to focus on aspects of the historical backdrop for JFK’s early days in the House of Representatives to which he was first elected in the mid-term election of 1946 — as it is presented in the book.
In those elections, the Republicans handsomely overturned the previous Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate, generating optimism that they would take the Presidency from incumbent, Harry Truman in 1948 after four successive defeats to Franklin Roosevelt. In the event, 1948 saw Truman eke out a surprise victory over the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, and the Democrats regain their previous majorities and more in both the House and Senate, leaving Republicans in a crisis of depression that they might never again be in charge of things, and desperate for policy sticks with which to beat the Democrats.
From 1949, foreign affairs offered them a hefty one. In September, the White House announced that radioactivity had been detected in airspace over the Soviet Union of a level high enough to indicate the detonation of an atomic bomb. This event ended the US monopoly on nuclear weapons. The speed with which the Soviet Union had developed the bomb suggested also that the betrayal of US military secrets had presented the Russians with a short cut.
Then, in October, Communist forces led by Mao Zedong wrested final control of China from the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek.
In February 1950, in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joe McCarthy lit the touch paper that ignited smouldering Republican criticisms of the Truman administration as soft on communism into a full-blown blaze.
I have here in my hand a list of 205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.
Four months later, North Korean troops invaded South Korea triggering a war which endured for three years costing 37,000 American lives. The red scare became a fever.
Kennedy labelled the outcome in China a “failure of our foreign policy”, responsibility for which rested “squarely with the White House and the Department of State”. He didn’t row in behind McCarthy, but he never criticised him either.
To the White House, the charge that the US had allowed, might even have been pleased about the “loss of China”, was absurd. As Logevall summarises:
At the end of World War II, they pointed out, Chiang had overwhelming military superiority vis-a-vis his Communist foes, who were ill-equipped and undertrained. By early 1949, however, his army had withered after defeats and desertions, and he had been compelled to take refuge on the island of Taiwan… “[The Chinese people] had not overthrown the government,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared. “There was nothing to overthrow. They had simply ignored it.”
If that sounds like an echo of more familiar and recent events, it is because it is one.
A representative snapshot of a widely-held contemporary perspective is contained in this account from The Jerusalem Post of 19 August this year by former US soldier, Graham Platner, who led a rifle company in northeast Afghanistan.
“The Afghan army wasn’t real. The Afghan Civil Authority was never real. They never collected taxes. There were no courts outside of police robbing people. None of it ever existed… it was just a big jobs program funded by American money, and the moment it looked like the money would go away, everyone went home.”
With the exception of Kabul, Charikar and a few other places, he paints a picture of an Afghan state that never controlled much beyond a few highways and cities. That’s why it fell apart so quickly once the US pulled funding.
Logevall does not record Kennedy’s reaction to two other episodes, both occurring during the first term of President Dwight Eisenhower who succeeded Truman in 1953, where the US seemed to be more successful in ensuring compliant regimes in faraway places.
One was the 1953 coup in Iran. There the CIA acted in conjunction with the UK’s MI6 to orchestrate the removal of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, after he had nationalised the country’s oil industry, previously under British ownership, setting up the Shah as executive leader as well as titular ruler of the country. The other was a similar coup in Guatemala in 1954 in which the elected President was replaced by a military dictatorship.
Preventing both of these countries being “lost” might arguably have served US interests in the short run, but not obviously in the longer run in either case. In Iran, the Shah ruled for 26 years until he was overthrown by revolution in 1979, ushering in a regime, still in power today, implacably hostile to the US.
Guatemala remains one of a cluster of backward as well as backyard Central American countries where the legacy of US meddling is a cocktail of corrupt leadership, poor people and stuttering statehood with ripple migration effects extending to and beyond the US southern border.
After the period covered by this book, as President, Kennedy got his own political fingers badly burnt when he authorised a failed attempt at covert regime change in his own neighbourhood, the “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba in 1961, which reinforced rather than undermined the regime of Fidel Castro.
In 1952, Kennedy graduated from the House to the Senate. By Spring 1954, signs were increasingly ominous that France would be unable to defend its continuing presence as colonial overlords in Vietnam against a “rebel” Viet Minh guerrilla army strongly supported by China. As Vietnamese forces closed in for the decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, President Eisenhower contemplated US action in support of the French by way of air strikes against the Viet Minh. But, congressional “cover” which he considered essential to proceed was not forthcoming.
Kennedy was openly sceptical, indicating what Logevall describes as “grudging and qualified” support for action only if it was multilateral rather than unilateral. Logevall quotes a telling intervention by senior Senator Richard Russell.
“Once you commit the flag, you’ve committed the country. There’s no turning back. If you involve the American air force, why, you’ve involved the nation.” And if you involved the nation, ground forces would soon follow. Russell said he was “weary” of “seeing American soldiers being used as gladiators to be thrown into every arena around the world.”
Eisenhower stayed on the sidelines, the French were defeated and Vietnam divided at the seventeenth parallel. According to Logevall:
Eisenhower committed the United States to building up and sustaining a non-Communist regime in the South, under Ngo Dinh Diem. It was, time would reveal a hugely fateful decision, not merely for his presidency but for the three that came after.
You could sing that last sentence if you could put an air to it!
Fast forward to early 2003.
I was on the management team of an Irish aircraft leasing company which was a subsidiary of an international financial institution. We were keen to proceed with a sizeable order of new aircraft from the major manufacturers for which we would require the approval of our parent. It represented a significant step for the business for which approval could not be taken for granted even in normal conditions. But the approval was placed in more doubt by the growing prospect of a US-led invasion of Iraq.
As a former diplomat albeit a junior one, I was commissioned to write for the approval submission an assessment of the likelihood of the invasion proceeding and of the consequences. I suggested that the invasion would proceed (I got that right!) but that it would be surgical, with focused, limited objectives, as quick a “get in and get out” process as the US could make it. I reached that conclusion despite the continuing US presence in Afghanistan which had led the overthrow of the Taliban more than a year earlier.
The pretext for the invasion was the alleged presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. If the US genuinely knew of the presence of such weapons, it revealed very little evidence of it. Consistent reports by the independent UN investigator, Dr. Hans Blix, of his inability to find any trace of them, didn’t help the US case. I didn’t say so in my note, but I expected that the US would contrive somehow to find “evidence” of the weapons or, as a diversion, remove Saddam Hussein and leave town fast thereafter.
It goes without too much saying that I was completely wrong. The US dug in and, in time, everything went sour. It is not obvious that Iraq would be worse off today if the US (and its “allies”) had stayed at home in 2003.
Yes, it is true that post-war support by the US helped establish Japan, South Korea and Germany as strong democracies and economic powerhouses — and that the continuing presence of US troops in those countries generates few local murmurs of dissent. But there is a difference between the timing, circumstances and prospects for US involvement in those countries and its involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Joe Biden certainly didn’t cover himself in glory in the execution of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and was on the wrong side of many US foreign policy decisions in the past, but the thrust of his world view today is correct.
Almost everywhere in the world, it is true that “the people” want to live in the kind of general material prosperity, freedom and order that obtains in the US — and it is entirely legitimate for the US to encourage those aspirations.
But promotion is one thing. Imposition is another. If the US is to maintain good relations with other countries, let alone aspire that they mould themselves in its image or, grander still, that it be recognised as the world’s primary policeman, it can only do so if it treats the people of other places as autonomous actors in a drama of their own origination and design, not objects or extras in one authored, produced and directed by the US alone.