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Empire in Decline
A few nights ago, I sank onto the couch next to the dog, and popped “The Missiles of October,” a 1974 made-for-TV docu-drama about the Cuban missile crisis, into the DVD player. This is a behind the scenes teleplay, based upon Robert F Kennedy’s book about the two week period in October 1962, when his brother, President John F. Kennedy, wrestled with the moral dilemmas presented by the shocking news that Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev was installing surface to surface ballistic missiles in Cuba.
This fascinating portrayal of historical events is not relaxing family fare. It was first produced as a TV film in 1974 and it is not to be confused with the much prettier Kevin Costner Hollywood production of 2000 titled “Thirteen Days,” which is more loosely based upon the same book.
Like the 2000 Hollywood movie, the 1974 TV dramatization conveniently leaves out the context of the crisis. There is no acknowledgement of any U.S. provocation for the Soviet duplicity, no mention of prior U.S. support for Fidel Castro the friendly free market dictator who was subsequently banished to the status of an evil totalitarian after he seized American corporate property. (Sound familiar?) Similarly, there is no mention of Operation Mongoose (a well documented U.S. plan to assassinate Castro with poison cigars, pills, pens and even a tainted wetsuit), and only passing reference is made to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of the previous year, or of the trade and travel embargo initiated by former President Eisenhower, a nonsensical affectation which survives to this day.
One virtue of an anemic made-for-TV visual presentation is that there are no scenic panoramas, no languid love scenes to distract the viewer from the political debates and the philosophical dialogue. The ideas being thrown about, in this story, are adult themes, presented without any sugary overlay of star crossed lovers, and cute kiddies in peril.
In so far as the dialogue of this movie and the text of Robert Kennedy’s book are presumed to represent an accurate rendering of the dialogue that actually took place among the members of Ex Comm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), then one must conclude that we are very lucky to have survived that fiasco. The actual audio recordings of some of these conversations are available from the national archives, and they are just as shocking as the televised recreations.
Our own Donald Rumsfeld, and his company of cluster bombers, have been content so far to merely generate a few thousand corpses in their mission to eradicate Evil from a scorched Earth. Their 1962 predecessors, by contrast, put forth plans that called for tens of millions of collateral deaths as a reasonable price to pay for punishing the uppity and evil Mr. Khrushchev. Starting with the entire population of Cuba and spreading immediately up the Eastern Seaboard, where receiving retaliatory strikes was anticipated as a foregone conclusion, the civilian losses on all sides from a nuclear exchange would have been horrendous.
Almost incidental to these civilian casualties, Cuba was equipped with tactical nuclear weapons, which could have turned the invading armada of American troop ships into a giant waterspout on a boiling sea.
This human toll was acceptable to the Cold War warriors of 1962, but apparently it was not acceptable to the Kennedys. In spite of their personal ambitions, these two politicians were apparently held back by pangs of conscience – what we sometimes call principles.
In his book, “Thirteen Days,” Robert Kennedy recalls how General LeMay and the Joint Chiefs wanted to launch swift, decisive, and deadly military action, capitalizing upon the element of surprise that was certain to evaporate in a matter of days if they didn’t act swiftly.
More mature minds called for a blockade to stop the construction of missile sites, backed up with verbal demands for their removal. This plan would, at least, provide an opportunity for the Russian Premier to back out of his tactical blunder. One of the more mature minds was the civilian Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who “became the blockade’s strongest advocate,” according to Robert Kennedy, even as he supervised the military preparations for Armageddon.
Kennedy wrote, “I supported McNamara’s position in favor of a blockade. This was not from a deep conviction that it would be a successful course of action, but a feeling that it had more flexibility and fewer liabilities than a military attack. Most importantly, like others, I could not accept the idea that the United States would rain bombs on Cuba, killing thousands and thousands of civilians in a surprise attack. Maybe the alternatives were not very palatable, but I simply did not see how we could accept that course of action for our country.”
At that time, the American arsenal of nuclear weapons dwarfed Khrushchev’s operational inventory by a factor of ten to one. The result of a nuclear exchange might reasonably have been expected to leave the Americans slightly less dead than their Cuban, European and Soviet counterparts. Nonetheless President Kennedy and his young brother clearly had second thoughts about being the Goliath who attacked David, without warning.
Robert Kennedy argued that “whatever validity the military and political arguments were for an attack in preference to a blockade, America’s traditions and history would not permit such a course of action. Whatever military reasons he (hawkish Secretary of State, Dean Acheson) and others could marshal, they were nevertheless, in the last analysis, advocating a surprise attack by a very large nation against a very small one. This, I said, could not be undertaken by the U.S. if we were to maintain our moral position at home and around the globe. Our struggle against Communism throughout the world was far more than physical survival – it had as its essence our heritage and our ideals, and these we must not destroy.
“We spent more time on this moral question during the first five days than on any other single matter … We struggled and fought with one another and with our consciences, for it was a question that deeply troubled us all.”
With this historical perspective in mind, one has to wonder about the emotional maturity of our nation today, and particularly of the current occupants of the White House. If we were presented with such an excuse today, a perfect pretext for another lop-sided and glorious military victory over a weaker nation, such as China for instance, who among our current cast of prayer breakfast politicians possesses the emotional intelligence, and the courageous energy necessary to engage a room full of warriors in a mature and principled discussion of national morality?
The Kennedys, in spite of all their faults and their allegiance to American empire building, were still able to muster enough courage to support principles that cast them in the role of peaceniks among the generals, a role that cost them some serious political capital when they eventually revealed the crisis and their action plan to a hostile Congress.
Kennedy once remarked that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. He understood the kind of political forces that created our own September 11th crisis, even though his own regime suppressed peaceful revolutions when it should not have. Vietnam was, after all, part of the Kennedy legacy, but the peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crises, with a critical helping hand from Premier Khrushchev, was one of John Kennedy’s proudest moments. The world might be a far different place today, had cooler heads not prevailed in October 1962.
This is the role of principled adults. Courageous grownups have some moral boundary beyond which they know they should not go, no matter what the political payback, no matter how fearsome the face of the “enemy.”
Today, an adoring press tells us that our country’s Commander in Chief has posted a scoreboard on his wall, where he scrawls large black Xs across the glowering faces of his vanquished enemies. Presumably, some CIA flunky stationed a half world away, sifts the ashes of a primitive civilization that has been burned beyond recognition. He searches through teeth and bones for forensic evidence of trophy kills to lift the spirits our warrior chief. Speculative reports of such victories also help an adoring press fill those empty column inches around their Lexus ads.
Each time one of Bush’s “daisy cutters” annihilates a valley, in hopes of incinerating a few more of the “Evil Ones” amongst the expendable peasants, one can visualize the President reaching for his magic marker in anticipation of recording a fresh kill. This first phase of the endless war is just another sporting event for the fraternity boy who was privileged to sit out the Vietnam War, safely installed by family connections in a Texas National Guard unit. Meanwhile, the sons of less rich and powerful families were getting their legs blown off, protecting American interests overseas.
Don’t look for principles or moral courage in this White House. It doesn’t live there anymore. The concept of moral boundaries, within the world’s most powerful empire, has deteriorated into a preoccupation with draping modesty curtains over the bosoms of aluminum statues in the Hall of Justice. This peek-a-boo childishness reflects the maturity of American leadership. In this respect, we have become the new Taliban. Will the Army Corps of Engineers demolition team soon fan out across the country, with a list of other public works of art that offend the high priests on the Potomac? Can such an empire be long for this world?
If the President’s popularity polls are to be believed, only ten percent of Americans are able to recognize an adult conversation about principles anymore. The other ninety percent would have been appalled by the Kennedys’ lack of “character.” The Kennedys, after all, failed to cover those offensive bosoms.
Apparently, ninety percent of Americans are too busy with playground peek-a-boo games to notice any logical disconnect between a crime carried out by nineteen criminals who were mostly Saudi Arabian, and the resulting hellfire of retribution that was unleashed upon thousands of Afghan peasants living under the brutal Taliban government. Americans seem to be unconcerned that this same Taliban government was the one which American money had imposed upon the Afghans in a previous, equally unprincipled crusade.
Ninety percent of America’s citizens cannot see any logical disconnect between labeling foreign trained killers as “terrorists” and calling American trained and financed death squads “a stabilizing force.” Even when the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, and dozens of other thugs whom the U.S. has supported over the years, got re-labeled and recycled as “terrorists,” ninety percent of us still lacked the guts to question the obvious fickleness of this unprincipled labeling process. This script formula has proven so successful that the writers are busy converting even more of our “allies” into “terrorists.” This will provide fresh venues for TV’s newest soap opera, “The War on Terrorism.”
Ninety percent of us were apparently impressed by our leader’s public demonstration of moral agonizing over the “right to life” question as it relates to a few stem cells in a petri dish. His photo-op hand wringing scenes starred the same ham actor who remains totally unruffled by the arguments of people with real principles, people who plead for him to recognize the right to life as it applies to the already born children of the world, including Afghan and Palestinian children. The “right to life” now applies exclusively to microscopic organisms in petri dishes, tiny new theoretical citizens who lack the mental capacity to challenge the absurdities spewing forth from the capital.
Ninety percent of us apparently think that a multi-million dollar peek through a While House keyhole, to catch a Democratic president with his pants down, was essential to returning moral integrity to the White House.
Curiously, that same ninety percent feels that secret meetings between our Republican administration and Enron gift bearers, meetings at which the corporate mouthpieces dictated our latest national energy policy into the vice president’s Dictaphone, were a private affair between consenting adults. These meetings will impact the entire air breathing, oil importing, and oil producing populations of the planet for decades to come, but ninety percent of us think that it’s none of our business who serviced whom during those pay-to-play White House huddles. We do not question the moral right of our rulers to sell public policy in private transactions. After all, the lobbyists and their congressional bedmates have carefully written the laws to permit this form of prostitution.
That is why our foreign policies, the same policies that produce and provoke terrorists around the world, support no consistent set of principles. U.S. foreign relations represent the composite result of public policy purchases by competing bidders. Unfortunately, the public pays the price, in skyrocketing national defense costs, while the profits are pocketed in private transactions.
Ninety percent of us will accept the label of “war” whenever it is conveniently applied to justify an unchecked application of force, or whenever it is politically necessary to excuse outrageous behavior. An “America at War” is an America that is exempt from all the inconvenient restrictions of civilized behavior. On the other hand, the resulting war’s prisoners are not “prisoners of war” because this use of the war label would subject our government to the same expectations of civility that it demands from its opponents during real “wartime.” The principles behind the Geneva Conventions are beyond the mental grasp of ninety percent of us.
Ninety percent of us think that “stabilization” is a noble goal for our foreign policy. The Nazis had a grand scheme for stabilizing Europe. Some Americans of my father’s generation, many of whom were motivated by principles, destabilized the Nazi concentration camps. Death, oppression, imprisonment, torture, and the endless repetition of Big Lies are the tools most commonly used by “stabilizing forces.” Such forces seek to contain the status quo within blocks of concrete and rolls of razor wire.
The most stable citizenry is one which no longer has any rights. It never complains. Today’s Americans don’t like complainers. Our rulers are now in the process of stabilizing America. More prisons will soon be needed to contain the stabilized populations of America. We are becoming what we have embraced all over the world.
Why should “stability” be an acceptable substitute for the pursuit of such principles as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and shared access to our common natural heritage of clean water, clear air and life sustaining habitat? Why should “terrorists” be condemned for attempts to poison us, while General Electric and Enron receive public subsidies for producing the same results? Those who oppose this greedy poisoning of America are called “radicals and environmental extremists.” Only the poisons injected by “Islamic extremists” are “evil.” The PCBs dumped into our rivers, and the nuclear toxins dumped onto my own state’s pristine deserts, are not “evil.” They are proof of our “stable economy.” Parts of the Hanford Reach, our newest national monument, will be stable and sterile for uncountable generations to come.
Why should American taxpayers provide foreign thugs with the weapons necessary to secure the perimeters of the world’s newest concentration camps, in the name of maintaining stability? Were the Afghans really better off when American tax money “stabilized” them under the Taliban regime? Now they are being “stabilized” again, under a new regime. If any principles are applied to this war, they won’t come from the American camp. We are already racing off to stage the next grand performance. The sights of our robot weapons are already trained on some other primitive society that needs to be “stabilized” for an appreciative press corps.
What principle was served by “stabilizing” Iraq under the thumb of the Shah, and then later stabilizing it under the fist of Saddam Hussein? What good will be accomplished if Saddam is exiled and Iraq is stabilized under some new murderous regime, again imposed by American military might acting without any guiding principles?
If no principles are ever applied to such work, what is the point of it? What good comes from stabilizing three million desperate Palestinian prisoners behind barbed wire barriers and American artillery?
Where are the people who will inspire the tomorrow’s world with their moral courage and their mental command of principles? Where is tomorrow’s world leadership going to come from? They probably won’t come from the most powerful empire the world has ever known. We can’t muster enough moral muscle to shut down our own terrorist training camp, the School of the Americas.
The United States of America is acting more and more like a has-been, an empire that has peaked and which now has developed round heels on its Reeboks. The fervor for reform, so brazen, bold and brash in the early seventies, has now slumped into a media induced stupor. Ninety percent of us are plugged into intravenous TV news. We are content to go along in order to get along. If the only measure of our greatness is our accumulation of hot tubs and luxury cars, then we are on top of the world. Why rock the corporate yacht? Why ask any questions?
Fortunately, for the rest of the world, there are courageous new voices rising up in unexpected places. Even though America is no longer governed by men with the conscience of the dead Kennedys, no longer restrained by men and women with the maturity to think twice about incinerating whole nations for political expedience, there are still hopeful signs of a moral rebirth elsewhere in the world. It is deep winter in America, but there are signs of a spiritual spring elsewhere on the planet.
In Israel, for instance, two hundred thirty two military reservists have risked their careers, their reputations, and even their personal liberty to take a moral stand against the amoral deeds of their own war mongering government. They have signed a petition refusing to take part in war crimes against Palestinian civilians. While these young patriots pledge their continuing support to the defense of Israel, they also publicly pledge that they “shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.”
These men of uncommon courage are combat veterans. They are not the Bush-Cheney brand of flag wavers who wear their patriotism proudly on their sleeves while hiding their cowardice behind Ivy League family privilege. The Israeli Army Reserve is not the Texas National Guard. It’s not a babysitting service for sons of the rich and famous. It is a real army, one that sees real combat, and takes real casualties. These Israeli soldiers have put their names on the line and put themselves in harm’s way, to stand up for principle.
There are even faint signs of a spiritual awakening in Afghanistan, where other nations, acting through the U.N. have shown an interest in nurturing the growth of a more modern civilization on this ancient battlefield. Of course, ninety percent of Americans have little patience for such “women’s work.” Our push button gladiators are already heading over the hill to cross swords with the Axis of Evil.
Around the world, from Geneva to Davos, there is a new stirring of young idealists, men and women willing to pick up the torch that has been cast aside by the ninety percent of Americans who “have better things to do.” The new movers and shakers are not content to slap flag decals on their SUVs. They are dogging the heels of the world’s power brokers as they crisscross the globe. These are the youngsters whom America dismisses as “activists,” “extremists,” “radicals,” and “protestors.” Without any help from us, they are demanding to be treated like real citizens of the world. Many of these troublemakers are pushing against great odds to promote those very same citizenship rights that ninety percent of Americans have discarded as being too messy, to much trouble.
These troublemakers are not welcome in America. We are a one party democracy, composed of cowering Democrats and Republican wannabes. We politely confine our civic impulses to the comfort zone of Rotary lunches and Chamber of Commerce dinners.
Nonetheless, out beyond the limited visual range of America’s well coiffed Eyewitness News Team, the real world is stirring from its slumber. Radical, unauthorized thinking is already spreading under the heavy blanket of winter snow.
The carefully contrived “stability” of prisons built with bricks of moral complacency and the mortar of propaganda will slowly but inexorably yield to the constant assault of principles. If water drips long enough on stone, the stone eventually yields. The principles of liberty and justice are simple, basic, and universally desired. They wear down the hardest of hearts.
It was the relentless onslaught of these ideals, not the empty rhetoric of some cold war warrior, which undermined the foundation of the Berlin Wall and brought it crashing down. East Germany was destabilized by principles stirring in the hearts of men and women of courage. It can happen elsewhere. The laws of physics and political maturation don’t change.
While America retreats into its second childhood, other cultures are growing up and learning to think for themselves. Those people who are more morally vigorous will take our place. Ninety percent of us will be content to merely watch history unfold on our big screen TVs. Real citizenship is hard work, better left to the young, the healthy, and the politically conscious.
Ninety percent of us are like our leaders. We are content with our Bud Light and our pretzels.