Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Book That Changed History

This past week I’ve been listening to an audio biography of Robert Kennedy by Evan Thomas and just yesterday reached the chapter dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis. RFK later published a book based on his memoirs during this crisis called 13 Days, which led to a pretty good film by the same name.

13 Days is about a critical moment in the Cold War. Robert Kennedy was Attorney General at the time, with his older brother John serving as President. The adversary during this critical juncture in history was Nikita Kruschev. When it was discovered that the Soviets had begun setting up nuclear missiles in Cuba, the president and his team of advisers had to determine what course of action to take.

It was decided that the president would go about “business as usual” so as to not alarm the press or the public, while his brother RFK led the brain trust that would work out scenarios and a path of action. Amongst this inner circle were Adlai Stevenson, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, and trusted friend/aide Kenny O’Donnell.

Several important events preceded the crisis: the Bay of Pigs debacle; the building of the Berlin Wall the previous year, which revealed the nature of their adversary; the riots in Oxford Town several weeks previous when James Meredith was to be enrolled at Ole Miss, which showed Bobby how inept and unprepared the military was for a crisis; and the January publication of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, which spent 42 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and which both JFK and RFK had read. This is a book that changed history.

The insights from Tuchman’s tome had a riveting effect on RFK when the brainstorming began and he perceived how hawkish men like Dean Rusk and the others were. In evaluating courses of action, Berlin was not a city with free people inhabiting it, but rather a bargaining chip. What’s worse, the Pentagon agreed that it was highly unlikely a pre-emptive strike would take out every missile silo in Cuba, so we would most likely lose at least one and maybe more major U.S. cities.

Tuchman’s book, primarily a description of the first weeks of World War I, was the wakeup call. Tuchman showed how the drums of war create their own momentum. Because of this book Bobby was probably the first to understand that military action very likely could lead to World War III, something no one in a nuclear age could ever hope for. And as a result, the brothers dug in their heels against being drawn down that slippery slope by overly-confident military exuberance.

As an aside I thought the following anecdote from the RFK biography was amusing. The magnitude of the resistance to the integration of the University of Mississippi had an unsettling effect on RFK. The violent clash at Ole Miss left two dead including a French journalist covering the story for a London paper. 48 soldiers and 28 U.S. Marshalls were wounded by gunfire. When a few weeks later he learned that there were nuclear warheads in Cuba aimed at the United States, the younger Kennedy quipped, “Think they could hit Oxford?”

This morning I want to thank God for Barbara Tuchman and her efforts to put down in lines the insights she’d gained from her dedicated research. This incident is living proof of the power of the written word. It is not a stretch to imagine that her book saved many lives, if not the world.

5 comments:

Christella said...

This was a very scary time. We were all afraid of WWIII.

Christella said...

What happened to my earlier comment? Did it erase?

Yes, those were scary times. We thought WWIII was a heartbeat away.

ENNYMAN said...

Yes, I remember being in school and they developed all these "plans" for us to follow if there was a war. I had a hard time taking it seriously, but I had a relative in Cleveland who built a bomb shleter in their basement. When we visited they showed us all this food they had stockpiled. It seemed so unreal, or rather surreal.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful caricature my son. On the other side, the above piece, why, oh why are you tryin to cover up that beautiful painting underneath for? Please tell me what is your thought in doing this?

ENNYMAN said...

The painting which you lament that I covered is one of the numerous backgrounds I create while waiting for inspiration to strike. A number of the blog posts here have pictures taken against or upon these backgrounds. I think for example of the post on Chocolate, and maybe a few of the books photos or my paint brushes. It's a more interesting brackdrop to me than a white tablecloth or garage floor, though the garage floor has interesting patterns as well at time.
Hope that answers the question...
thanks for enjoying the art.
e.