Tag Archives: Vietnam War

The Vietnam War – Part One: How did the USA end up fighting one of the poorest countries in the world?

Buddhist Monk Committing Ritual Suicide

A Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in Vietnam in protest at the anti-Buddhist policies of the Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem.

 

The Vietnam War – Part One: How did the USA end up fighting one of the poorest countries in the world?

The memorial below is in the US capital, Washington, D.C., and honours the 36 000 American soldiers who died in the Korean War (1950-53). It is a monument paid for by the US Government. It was only commissioned in the 1990s, though, a late remembrance of a war which saw the USA lead the forces of the United Nations to a stalemate with the North Korean army which was backed by the USSR and China. The USA just about achieved its aims in that conflict by stopping the fall of South Korea to Communism.

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The Memorial to the Korean War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Not that far from the Korean War Memorial, stands another one. This one is also from the Twentieth Century and remembers more than 58 000 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1973. But this one received no money from the US Government and had to be paid for by the ‘Vietnam Veterans’ themselves. The decision to set up this memorial was inspired by a film, ‘The Deer Hunter’, just one of many famous Vietnam War films. There was widespread opposition in the USA to the memorial as it was simply a wall with a list of all those who died in the conflict. For many people, the problem was that it was not considered ‘heroic’ enough when it was first unveiled. But there was also a real issue about how to remember the victims of the most controversial war in the history of the USA, especially as it can be considered one which ended in defeat, despite many comments to the contrary which claim it was a victory for ‘Uncle Sam’. The memorial has become a major shrine to honour those who died, as well as a focus for those who survived but suffered either physically or mentally through the experience. There is no memorial for those ‘Vietnam Veterans’ who have died since the war, mainly through suicide and the effect of their injuries.

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The Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Not surprisingly, controversy surrounds the number of veterans who have committed suicide in the years since the conflict ended for the USA in 1973 as supporters of the war claim a figure of about 9 000 while veterans associations put the figure at well over 100 000. Statistics are dangerous things, of course, and the figures are highly disputed, but what is not in doubt is that many ‘Vietnam Veterans’ have suffered physically, psychologically and emotionally since the war finished. Some figures indicate that these men were nearly twice as likely as non-veterans to die of suicide, and over 50% more likely to die in road accidents. (University of California at San Francisco article, New England Journal of Medicine, March 1986, “Delayed Effects of the Military Draft on Mortality,”) The impact in terms of employment, substance abuse, relationship breakdown, violence, crime and the like have not been accurately measured but evidence suggests that Vietnam is a war many Veterans have not got over and the country itself has failed to come to terms with.

So, why is there such a difference in the memorials to the dead of these two wars? Why were the dead from Korea, the ‘Forgotten War’, eventually honoured with public money while those from Vietnam have not been ‘officially’ honoured?

The essential word is clear but rarely spoken: ‘lost’. The USA struggled in Korea but was clearly able to claim victory in a way but it effectively lost the Vietnam War and, in a pretty blatant act of denial, most Americans still seem to want to deny or ignore it. This is one of the factors which make the Vietnam War such a fascinating conflict on so many different levels and the number of books, documentaries, films and photos from the war bear ample testimony to this. The casualties, causes, outcomes and memories are all seen and interpreted under the shadow of that one word: lost. As ‘Top Nation’ of the Twentieth Century, the USA just doesn’t do ‘we lost’ to any real degree. The national psyche is geared to optimism, power, control and success; America loves winners not losers, even if they be ‘brave losers’, be it in business, sport, politics or war. This is one of the great strengths and most annoying traits of US culture, especially for British people; the Americans really don’t get that ‘plucky loser’ thing at all.

Anyway, a short study of Vietnam and the war which has defined it in public awareness for the last half-century. But before getting into the ‘When, Where, Who, How and Why’ questions, it is always sensible to start with a map or two so we know where we are.

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Map showing Vietnam as a united country. Its neighbours are: China, Laos and Cambodia. (Author: Welt Reis; Source: here)

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This map shows the main railway lines in Vietnam. They connect the two main cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Hanoi is the capital while Ho Chi Minh City is the former capital of South Vietnam under its old name, Saigon. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Vietnam a long, thin country in South-east Asia, about 1650 kms (900 miles) long but only 50 kms (32 miles) wide at its narrowest point. It is a long way from the USA, on the opposite side of the world to Washington, DC, and 12 twelve time zones apart. It is a tropical country, with lots of rainforest but also mountains down the spine of the country. It is a hot, humid country for much of the year, getting most of its rain in the monsoons. Its population today is about 89 million (making it the 13th largest in the world) but in 1950 it was only about 28 million so there has been quite an increase. Most people live near the coast, and in the two main cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south. Many people also live on the great delta of the Mekong River. By the way, if you’ve ever seen the musical called ‘Miss Saigon’, it is based on a famous old story called ‘Madame Butterfly’ with the story transferred to Saigon in the 1970s. The love story is changed to focus on a Vietnamese girl and an American GI at the very end of the Vietnam War, which we’ll get to soon. An ordinary American soldier, the equivalent of a ‘private’ in Britain, was called a ‘GI’, which stands for ‘Government Issue’, reflecting the equipment used, and it does not mean ‘General Infantry’, as I was always told when I was young.

Historically, Vietnam has been defined by its relationship with its neighbours, Laos, Cambodia and, most of all, China. In saying that, it is really no different to most other countries: neighbours impact on our lives and, when they are big and powerful, they fundamentally shape us. China’s repeated attempts to take control of Vietnam helped define it over many centuries. The Vietnamese have long held simple, clear goals as a community: independence and control of their own destiny. They fought off the Chinese by the late 10th century and then the Mongols in the 13th century, mismatches on the scale of David and Goliath (or Colchester 3 Leeds 2, FA Cup Fifth Round, 1971 – a delight for anyone outside Elland Road – ask your granddad about it). If you are interested in strong female role models, by the way, check out the extraordinary Vietnamese Trung Sisters (Trung Nac and Trung Nhi), warriors from the 1st century AD. They are still celebrated today, and a holiday is celebrated in their honour each February.

Following these events, after 1285 or so, the Vietnamese settled down to a simple, independent life based on a powerful sense of community: the village and the family was all. The country was poor (it remains one of the poorest countries in the world to this day), mainly being a subsistence economy, which means it only really produced enough food and goods for its own needs, having little or nothing left for trade or development. The long era of peace was finally shattered with the arrival of the French in South-east Asia in the mid-19th century. At the time, France was trying to build a larger Empire, partly in response to the power of the British Empire, and expanded is control into this region of Asia. The region became known as ‘French Indo-China’ and included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It was a useful area for the French, offering important resources in an area which also provided good communication and trade links with China, Australia and India. The main role of the region, though, was to support France at home, as is the case with any Empire.

French control brought significant changes in Vietnamese society. The wealthier members of society tended to collaborate with the French, learning to speak French and many became Catholic. Most of the Vietnamese remained poor, though, kept their Buddhist faith as well as speaking their own local languages. This division in Vietnamese society, based on language, politics, culture and religion, would become increasingly significant in the following century. Wealth came to some people but at the cost of control over their own lives, politically, socially and economically. This did not impact so much on the many people who lived out in the villages and mountains but it did affect life in the growing cities and towns. Many people just got on with life but some wanted Vietnam to be left alone, to be independent again, free to control its own affairs in its own way. One of these men was born in Vietnam in 1890. He was called Nguyen Sinh Cung and he became famous for his struggle to defend Vietnam; he was known to the world as ‘Ho Chi Minh’ (pronounced ‘Hoe-Chee-Min’).

At the time of the Vietnam War, and in the decades since, the USA has been keen to portray Ho Chi Minh as an evil dictator, a part of the Communist coalition controlled by Moscow and set on the destruction of the West and its way of life. This is an unfair and narrow assessment. Ho Chi Minh is a classic example of ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ His name was a nickname, meaning ‘Bringer of Light’, although it was probably one that he gave himself, which is never that satisfactory, rather like Joe McCarthy calling himself ‘Tail Gunner Joe’. Whatever the Americans and the West might have thought, though, Ho was extremely popular in North Vietnam, being Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1945-55 and President from 1945-69. However, he was no ‘saint’ and was responsible for many deaths, especially amongst Government officials, and, of course, during the war. But was he justified from the point of view of self-defence on behalf of his country? It’s always an interesting question. Ask Harry Truman if the atom bombs which killed so many Japanese civilians were justified. Or ask Churchill if he approved of so many Russian deaths under Stalin, if ‘Bomber’ Harris had sleepless nights over the dead of Dresden or General Franco if he felt guilty over the destruction of Guernica. When words don’t work, in legitimate or illegitimate causes, violence often follows; it’s never easy and it’s never straight-forward.

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Ho Chi Minh just after World War II. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

So, let’s look at Nguyen Sinh Cung, the boy who grew up to become ‘Ho Chi Minh’. As a child, Cung studied Confucianism and also had a formal, French education, learning Chinese as well as French. He combined Eastern and Western influences, applying an understanding of these ‘foreign’ values over a framework of traditional Vietnamese teachings. His family were strong supporters of independence and expressed anti-French views; his father, in particular, got into a lot of trouble with the authorities. In his early 20s, Cung chose to travel and visited the USA, Britain, France, China and the USSR. He paid for his travel by working his way in the kitchens on ships and then worked as a chef and a waiter in numerous hotels wherever he stayed. In the 1920s he was in Paris, where he first encountered Communism, a system which made sense to him as its values echoed those of his Vietnamese roots. He had also met Korean nationalists in England who fired up his belief in resistance and the need to oppose colonial control. The 1920s and 1930s saw him living in Moscow, China, Thailand and Italy among other countries, seeing many different types of government, from Communist through to Fascist, democracies, monarchies and dictatorships. He married a Chinese girl, contracted a killer-disease called tuberculosis and, in 1940, finally took that name, ‘Ho Chi Minh’ or ‘Bringer of Light’. His education through travel had brought enlightenment and a sense of what was the best way forward for his home country.

In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam, to lead the Viet Minh, a resistance organisation. He was determined to liberate his country, firstly by fighting the French and, when they were overthrown, the Japanese, who had took control of the country during World War II. The odd thing is that, a bit like support for the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Viet Minh were secretly helped by the USA in their struggle with Japan during the war. The weapons they had been given to fight the Japanese would later be used to attack the French and the Americans themselves. History is a strange place to visit at times.

At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh was convinced that freedom had come to Vietnam with the removal of the Japanese. He declared the independence of the ‘Democratic Republic of Vietnam’, convinced that a new era would dawn with Vietnam being able to take control of its own destiny. Ironically, he based a lot of his vision on the revolutionary actions which had formed two countries that he knew well and admired: France and the USA. He was convinced that they would both understand and agree with what he had done, as they were historically such believers in independence, liberty and the right to control your own destiny. Ho Chi Minh actually wrote to President Truman on seven occasions after WWII, explaining what he was doing and asking for his support; Truman did not reply to any of the letters. And then, much against his own beliefs and the historic values of the USA, Truman approved the return of Indo-China to French control, a direct rejection of all that Ho Chi Minh had asked for. So it was that, with US approval, the French went back to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, re-establishing the old ways and systems against which the Viet Minh and others had struggled for so long. And so the fighting started once again.

Why did the USA support France’s return to Indo-China? Well, it’s a bit complicated but, in simple terms, it was probably just too much like hard-work to say ‘no’. One does not want to compare a whole nation with a stroppy, anxious teenager but that image is not a bad one to have as you read the next bit. The French had suffered badly in World War II, morally and psychologically as much as militarily and financially. Defeat at the hands of the Nazis saw France under German control between May 1940 and June 1944. This had led to the establishment of the ‘Vichy Government’ in the south of France while the Germans controlled the north. Vichy France was basically an organised form of collaboration with the Nazis. In their defence, they did not have much choice as, if they had not collaborated, the politicians would have been ‘removed’ and the Nazis would have just taken over anyway. There was a French Government in exile under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, but it relied on other countries, such as the US, Britain and Canada, for it to function. France, for so long a great power with a proud history, had lost control of its own country and its Empire, and relied on others to maintain some sense of its own independence. When liberation and ‘victory’ came in 1945, the humiliation and the legacy of collaboration found France a divided country. In the post—war period, the politicians wanted to re-establish the confidence and unity through the restoration of its glorious past. As a once proud nation, the people rallied behind its key political figures, men like de Gaulle, but the memories were painful and, the route to the future was a short-sighted interpretation of its past.

The world in 1945 was an anxious place, but France was under more pressure than most countries. No country was keener to re-establish its former glory but the balance of power had shifted and clearly lay with the ‘Big Three’: the USA, the USSR and, to a lesser extent, Britain. This was seen at Yalta and Potsdam, where the post-war future was shaped. The photos of those Conferences show just three leaders: at Yalta in February 1945 this meant Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) for the USA, Winston Churchill for Britain and Stalin for the Soviet Union; at Potsdam in July 1945, it meant Harry Truman for the USA, Clement Attlee for Britain and Stalin for the Soviet Union. France was not represented at the ‘top table’ and was, to a large extent, at the mercy of these agreements.

France was actually treated pretty well by the agreements made by the war time allies. Even though the French had played a minor role in the victory over Hitler and the Nazis, they were granted a role in running the post-war world. Although Stalin in particular saw no great reason to include France in these matters, Churchill was adamant that this should happen and his arguments won the day. Churchill believed that the French were needed to help ‘control’ a defeated Germany but he was also worried at the effect their not being involved might have on the country as a whole and on de Gaulle in particular. Put simply, he worried that in the face of such humiliation, they might sulk, stay on the sidelines and so weaken the pro-capitalism, pro-democracy alliance in Europe at a time when as much help as possible would be needed to rebuild the continent and resist potential Communist expansion. As a key member of the newly formed United Nations, a country with such a great heritage, an important economy and a significant Empire, Churchill saw the need to keep the French ‘on-side’.

Another important issue is that the USA had its own particular vision for the post-war world as it was keen to see an end to the old Empires, primarily those of Britain and France. However, the USA was also certain that it did not want to see Communist expansion around the world, especially in Europe, so keeping the French as ‘allies’ was vital. Washington did not want to see the French go back in to Indo-China but they felt that they had little real choice in the matter. French pride and the French economy had to be restored and if that involved massaging the ‘ego’ and restoring old trade links then so be it; there would be time to deal with the issue of ‘Empires’ in the years to come, but in the short-term, there were more pressing matters.

So it was that the French went back in to Vietnam and even received American aid. Over the years, that ‘assistance’ would grow, so that by the early 1950s, the USA was funding over 70% of French operations in the region. The funding was actually focused on struggles in Laos and Cambodia as much as Vietnam, with Communist-motivated forces being the perceived enemy. In reality, Laos rather than Vietnam was of far greater concern to the USA until the early 1960s, a fact which is one of those snippets of history which has been forgotten in the light of what happened later. The French really had the USA over a barrel, playing on their concerns in Europe about Communist expansion and using the frenzy over ‘the loss of China’ in late 1949 as a means to extract greater support (meaning money, weapons and approval) from the Truman administration.

Ho Chi Minh’s forces, the Viet Minh, were no match for the French in direct military terms. Naturally, they fought by using guerrilla warfare, tactics based on ambush and hit-and-run so as to avoid direct fighting with a more powerful enemy, tactics developed in the struggles of WWII. In these operations, Ho Chi Minh had the help and guidance of one of the great military commanders of the century: General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013). Giap (pronounced ‘Zi-ap’) retired from the army after the Vietnam War and had an unsuccessful time as a politician before becoming heavily involved in ecology and the defence of the Vietnamese environment. He was still active in this after his 100th birthday, a far cry from his time as the scourge of the mighty armies of France and the USA; he was a seriously interesting man.

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General Vo Nguyen Giap, military leader of the Viet Minh (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

During the immediate post-war years, the French had tried to re-establish their control of Vietnam, despite the resistance and opposition. One of their strategies had been maintain their ‘Puppet Emperor’, Bao Dai, in power for nearly a decade after WWII. The Viet Minh maintained their struggle over these years until the key battle of Dien Bien Phu in March-May 1954. After a 57 day siege of this huge fort and defence system in the north-west of the country, the French were defeated by the Viet Minh – and they promptly left and walked out of Vietnam, leaving a potential disaster for the West as a power vacuum appeared in this corner of South-east Asia. The USA faced a major dilemma as to what to do and they decided to take over from the French, supporting the unpopular pro-western regime of Bao Dai which had its main power base in the cities and the south. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had come to the Presidency as a Republican after victory in November, 1952, and found that he had little room for manoeuvre. He was elected because of his great military record and was seen to be someone who would take the fight to the Soviet Union, standing up to Communism and maintaining the most robust defence of the USA. In these years, the Chinese Revolution of 1949 was a fresh and powerful memory and an event which had blighted Harry Truman’s final years in office. No President could confidently face a similar accusation to that thrown at Truman, namely, the‘loss of China’. With belief in ‘domino theory’ at its height and with the country still in thrall to Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, even though he himself had just fallen from power, Eisenhower had little choice but to step in.

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Supplies for the French forces at Dien Bien Phu being dropped in 1954. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Americans now found themselves thrown into a leading role in a foreign environment and in a situation where they had little experience or expertise. One of the big problems was that in the previous years, they had got rid of nearly all of their experts on China and Vietnam because of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts; anyone interested in the region or who had visited it, studied it or spoke the language, had been removed because of fears over ‘Communist sympathies’. This was unfortunate, stupid or somewhere in between, depending on how you want to view it. Anyway, US policy became confused and chaotic as they misread information, misunderstood actions and made numerous mistakes based on political values at home rather than an accurate reading of events in Vietnam itself. Those responsible found themselves in a world they did not comprehend, doing things that made sense to themselves but which increasingly alienated the Vietnamese and failed to achieve any significant gains. Both politically and militarily, the Americans had a particular problem in that they were unwilling to do anything that hinted at weakness or compromise with Communism, as they believed strongly in ‘containment’ and the need to be strong in the face of the challenge they faced. It was an approach which would draw the USA irresistibly towards war.

The moment when US involvement in Indo-China became inevitable was the Geneva Conference, which was held in 1954-55 as a way of negotiating an acceptable way forward in Vietnam. The meeting was held in the aftermath of Dien Bien Phu and brought politicians from both sides in Vietnam together alongside the major powers. The Chinese, naturally, supported the Communists while the USA sided with Bao Dai and the pro-western groups. Discussions went on for some time before it was agreed that the country would be temporarily divided (just like Germany and Korea had been) into North Vietnam, under the control of Ho Chi Minh and the Communists, and South Vietnam, which would be a pro-Western Government under a man called Ngo Dinh Diem, (pronounced ‘Ho Zin Zee-em’) as Prime Minister and, later, President.

Washington’s short-sighted thinking in this would become very significant and the echoes of their appointment of Syngman Rhee, leader of South Korea, were clear in their choice of Ngo Ding Diem. Diem spoke French and English and had lived in both France and the USA, as well as being a Catholic, a religion which made more sense to the Americans than did Buddhism, the religion of the majority of Vietnamese. As Prime Minister, Diem was someone Washington understood as he made sense to them but he was also deeply unpopular with the ordinary people of Vietnam. The longer he stayed in power, the more unpopular he became, thanks most of all to a culture of bribery that surrounded him and fed the legend of his sister-in-law, ‘Madame Nhu’, Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu, the power behind the throne. Diem himself lived very simply and never married but his family became very rich through their links with him and the West. None of this had any impact on the Americans, of course, as they failed to consider the negative consequences of their actions on other people. Support for Diem would become increasingly important when Jack Kennedy, a Catholic himself, was elected President in 1960. JFK felt some extra sort of ‘obligation’ to support Diem because of their shared faith in the struggle against the Communist threat even when the evidence made it clear that the Vietnamese Prime Minister was a walking disaster.

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President Eisenhower (left) greeting President Ngo Dinh Diem in May, 1957. (Author: US Air Force; Source: here)

Going back to the Geneva Conference for a minute, it should be noted that it was decided to divide Vietnam at the 17th Parallel (which means the 17th line of latitude i.e. 17˚ north of the equator). It was marked as the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (or DMZ) on maps, creating a border that split the country roughly in half. Originally it was supposed to last for one year or so until national elections were held which would choose a new democratic Government to re-unite the country. Both sides agreed to accept the result of this ‘free and fair’ contest. The election was never held, though, because the USA refused to allow them, claiming that the Communists would ensure that they were not ‘free and fair’. However, the reality was probably better expressed by Andrew Goodpaster, a general in the US Army and Eisenhower’s Staff Secretary, who in a rather uncomfortable interview in the 1990s, admitted that the real reason the elections could not be allowed was that Ho Chi Minh had the support of about 80% of the people and that his victory, and the West’s defeat, would have seen Communism win. This would then open Eisenhower up to the accusation of the ‘loss of Vietnam’. Logical though this might have been, it still puts a big question mark over the USA’s real commitment to ‘democracy’ at the time and reflects the deep anxiety at the power of ‘domino theory’ in the 1950s.

In the absence of the elections which would have seen him take power, Ho Chi Minh felt betrayed by the USA and authorised increased attacks on South Vietnam and the Government in particular during the late 1950s. Thousands of Government officials were killed, injured and intimidated by the Viet Minh and their collaborators in the south, who would come to be known as the ‘Viet Cong’, an insulting nickname given them by Ngo Dinh Diem. (‘The full name of the group was ‘Viet Nam Cong San’ which translates as ‘Vietnamese Communists’.) These two groups would later fight together against the USA in the Vietnam War, but the main military force was the Viet Minh rather than the Viet Cong.

The Communist attacks on South Vietnam caused serious disruption and concern, leading Diem to beg for help from the USA. At first this meant sending money but soon weapons and ‘advisers’ of one kind and another had to go to help the South Vietnamese; they needed guidance on how to fight, use the weapons, plan strategies and so on. But this was not enough to stop the attacks which escalated and in the early 1960s more weapons and even helicopters were needed – as were pilots to fly them and engineers to maintain them. When these came under attack, small numbers of soldiers had to go in to protect them – and they also started to teach the South Vietnamese soldiers how to go on patrol and how to get captured prisoners to ‘talk’, the polite way of saying guidance on interrogation and torture. This all meant the US was being sucked into an increasingly demanding situation, one which demanded more money, more people, more soldiers and more technology to protect the advisers, transport and so on and so on. Soon the Americans themselves became a target for Viet Minh attack and containment was becoming increasingly messy for the USA.

One particularly controversial policy introduced by the US advisers was called ‘Strategic hamlets’. This was an attempt to control pro-Communist activities by bringing all the people outside the cities together in large, fortified and heavily controlled villages. The people gathered in these larger communities were to be listed, monitored and tracked as necessary. A plan which made sense to the US strategists, at least on paper, turned out to be a disaster. Fundamental to its failure was the total misunderstanding of Vietnamese culture and the role of the village, something which would be central to problems which would blight the war itself from Washington’s point of view. The Americans simply did not understand that, to the Vietnamese, the village was not just a place to live but was something far more important; it was central to each person’s identity, the expression of their belonging, their family, the society itself. People did not just get up and leave their home to move, say, to a bigger or newer place. Families lived in the same house and village for centuries, burying their ancestors in the area, remaining close to their spirits. Each generation cared for the home and village as the expression of their family at that time. To remove people from their village was to separate a family from its roots, to destroy identity and break the bonds of connections that were like life itself.

‘Strategic hamlets’ created huge resentment and drove many Vietnamese towards the Communists, not because of strong ideological commitment but as they offered a way to restore people to their roots. Anyway, on a more practical level, the US had no easy way of monitoring all the people in the ‘strategic hamlets’, checking who was coming and going, or where they were going and what they were doing. Many American soldiers developed a very dismissive attitude towards local people, seeing them all as stupid and weak because they were poor by their standards, spoke a language they did not understand and ‘they all looked the same’. These issues would only get worse in the years that followed.

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The defences of a ‘strategic hamlet’ in 1964. (Author: Brotherreuse; Source: here)

Despite the many tensions in Vietnam, war was not inevitable at this time. However, such events rarely take place in isolation from other events and the early 1960s were, of course, a time of extraordinary tension in the Cold War and this must be considered as the back-drop to Vietnam. There had been increased division with the ‘Communist ‘family’ since the late 1950s as Chairman Mao was breaking with Khrushchev to follow more overtly aggressive and Stalinist policies seen in the threats against Taiwan and the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which brought widespread famine. The U-2 spy plane incident had heightened tension between the East and West in 1960, a situation which only worsened with the Bay of Pigs Fiasco in April 1961, the building of the Berlin Wall in August of the same year and then the Cuban Missile Crisis itself in October 1962. The USSRs successes in the Space Race had been enhanced by Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of the earth in 1961 and served to highlight Soviet technological advances as did the further development of nuclear missiles. Vietnam was set to become a place of great significance for the USA, the place where a stand would be taken against the rising tide of Communist threats and expansion but there would have to be a clear and specific threat identified before such a conflict could be started.

In the early 1960s, as we have seen, there was very significant unrest and attacks in South Vietnam. The most visible sign of those protests came in the actions of numerous Buddhist monks, as the picture at the start of this chapter indicated. In opposition to Ngo Dinh Diem’s unwillingness to recognise various Buddhist festivals, some monks set themselves on fire on the streets, often making contact with Western journalists and film crews beforehand so that they would turn up and witness what happened. the images went around the world and shocked many people so that they demanded answers about what was happening in the country. In the Cold War struggle for ‘hearts and minds, in Vietnam and around the world, such images hardly reflected well on the USA as the supposed leader of freedom and tolerance.

The actual trigger for the war itself came in August, 1964, with what became known as ‘The Gulf of Tonkin’ incident. The Gulf of Tonkin itself is the area of the sea just off the north east coast of Vietnam. US warships were patrolling there during the summer of 1964, partly because the US Navy had earlier been involved in covert missions to help fast patrol boats manned by South Vietnamese commandos to attack North Vietnam. Although the US forces had blocked radar systems in North Vietnam, those attacks had failed due to poor intelligence about the targeted sites. In an attempt to weaken the effectiveness of the North Vietnamese defences, an intelligence gathering operation called the ‘Desoto Patrol’ had been set up using US destroyers in international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Hanoi knew about this and the USs involvement in the earlier attacks on North Vietnam bridges and other military sites. They decided to use Soviet built P-4 motor torpedo boats which were not fast enough to hit the Norwegian made patrol boats but could work against the slower destroyers. One of these was the USS Maddox under the command of Captain John J. Herrick. On 2nd August, the Maddox was attacked although not damaged, except for one round of ammunition which hit the ship; the torpedoes missed. The P-4s were destroyed.

In Washington, there was surprise that Ho Chi Minh had not backed down under pressure and had responded in such a strong and attacking manner. It was decided that there had to be a show of strength by the USA as it could not be seen to back down in the face of Communist threats. The ‘Maddox’ continued its operations and was supported by another warship presence. With everything in a state of heightened tension, it was reported that two days later, on 4th August, the ‘Maddox’ had again come under attack. However, there was great confusion at the time as to whether or not that was actually true. An American pilot who was sent out to see what was happening reported nothing at all even though it was a clear night. Subsequent investigations and evidence show that there was, in fact, no attack that night. However, on 5th August, 1964, an American attack was launched which destroyed an oil storage unit at Vinh and sank about thirty ships along the coast. Of far more importance, though, was that on 7th August, Congress passed the ‘Tonkin Gulf Resolution’. Although no attack had taken place, President Johnson was given absolute power to conduct the war using military force as he alone saw fit. The door had been left wide open for the escalation of hostilities against Communist forces in Vietnam and LBJ would go through that door a few months later.

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The ‘USS Maddox’, the ship at the heart of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

One other thing worth noting at this time is a report presented a year earlier to President Kennedy, a report completed at the request of Robert MacNamara, the Defense Secretary. The report was the result of the ‘Krulak Mendenhall Mission’ which aimed to investigate how the South Vietnamese and their US advisers as they sort to gain control of the country and withstand Viet Cong insurgents. General Victor Krulak represented the  military while Joseph Mendenhall was more of a civil servant who had experience of Vietnam and was part of the Foreign Service. What is fascinating about the report they presented is how confused it was and how the two men gave such differing opinions. On one hand, there was Krulak looked only at the military operation itself where he saw only the positive and was extremely complimentary about what had been achieved, leading to him being very optimistic about the future. On the other hand, Mendenhall looked at the bigger picture, especially the attitudes and actions of the ordinary people and here he saw only causes for concern; the people were so anti-Diem that they believed that life would be better under the Viet Cong. Mendenhall’s informed pessimism contrasted so much with Krulak’s military focused optimism that it led Kennedy to ask, ‘The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?’ In showing the problems between the military and the civilian approaches, between the Pentagon and the politicians, as well as the difficulty in gathering accurate assessments of the situation, the ‘Krulak Mendenhall Mission’ is a great insight into the future problems that would so undermine the whole US policy towards Vietnam; they were stumbling towards the edge.

The Vietnam War officially started in February-March 1965 when President Johnson launched air strikes and then sent in the first US ground troops to support the South Vietnamese Army. Johnson had delayed intervention until after the presidential election of November 1964, an election he won comfortably in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination the previous year. And Johnson was in many ways a hostage to fortune because of events which Kennedy, Eisenhower and even Truman had set in train. The Vietnam War would come to be known as ‘Johnson’s War’ but it was really the natural expression of containment, the policy of the previous two decades. Containment of Communism would find a very real expression at some place and that turned out to be Vietnam.

One particular stage on the way to war was the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem as leader of South Vietnam in November 1963. As mentioned before, Diem was deeply unpopular with many ordinary people. In the early 1960s, leading figures in the South Vietnamese Army wanted him to be replaced but President Kennedy would not allow it. Rather like the attack on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, Diem was a ‘situation’ he had inherited from Eisenhower and he was determined to stand by him. Diem was seen as loyal and tough so choosing an alternative ran the risk of Kennedy being seen as ‘weak’ in the struggle against Communism. Kennedy was especially keen to support Diem as a fellow Catholic and this may have coloured his approach more than was healthy.

Kennedy may have heard but resisted the calls for Diem’s removal but he had likewise resisted many requests from President Diem to send in combat troops before 1963 as he was scared of escalating the conflict in Vietnam. As the conflict intensified, JFK received more and more requests for the removal of Diem and by late 1963, things were deteriorating so much that Kennedy finally gave the go-ahead and Diem was assassinated by his own troops on 2nd November, 1963. This brought in a period of chaos in South Vietnam as eight military coups took place in quick succession. This caused great anxiety in Washington but it all paled next to the key event of that period: the assassination of President Kennedy on 22nd November, 1963, just three weeks after Diem’s killing. The new president was the former vice –president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), a Texan with great political experience. LBJ was wary of escalating American involvement in Vietnam before the 1964 election even though the military were calling for direct involvement. Johnson was determined to win the Presidency and then the military could have their war. He wanted to concentrate on Civil Rights and building the ‘Great Society’, both of which would were based on the highest of ideals but would both be seriously compromised by the war.

Johnson eventually launched the Vietnam War with ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, after February 1965. The huge B-52 bombers dropped astonishing quantities of bombs both then and during the eight years of US involvement in the war, causing death and destruction on an extraordinary scale. In March 1965, the first 5000 US Marines were sent to fight, their numbers reaching 38 000 by the end of the year. From the first major battle at Ia Drang in November, 1965, until the US troops withdrew in 1973, the fighting would cost 58 000 US lives while hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died or suffered injuries. People from Australia, South Korea, Cambodia, New Zealand and China were amongst the many others who served and died in the war.

The Vietnam War divided US society and saw some of the largest protests in its history. It brought pressure to bear on Washington as many allies and critics questioned its role, aims and values in the conduct of the war. It would be the event which ended President Johnson’s career, bringing Richard Nixon to power and so heralding change in Cold War relations. And it would lead to the creation of some of the most important music, art and literature of the era, although that will have to be left until a later chapter.

Hopefully, though, it is becoming more clear as to why the US had a problem in creating a memorial to the Vietnam War.

 

 

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House”.

Nixon_and_Zhou_toast

Richard Nixon, 37th President of the USA, with Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House.”

“When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” Richard M. Nixon

Watergate. No matter where you start when looking at the life of Richard Nixon (1913-1994), you end up back at ‘Watergate’. If you’ve ever wondered why the media always seem to stick the word ‘gate’ on the end of any scandal, then it’s down to Nixon and events between 1972 and 1974. (Actually, if you’ve ever wondered why there is someone called ‘Milhouse Van Houten’ in ‘The Simpsons’, I suggest that you look no further than Nixon, as that was his middle name – although he spelt it ‘Milhous’.) Nixon was involved in many other important events, like the Vietnam War and détente with the USSR and China, but we’ll leave those out of this section so as to concentrate on this central moment. Be warned here – you will need to be alert and ready to check out a number of other things if you want to understand what went on but it is worth it. Nixon is a fascinating character and his life reads as a modern parable, an insight into how power and obsession can corrupt and destroy the most capable people. First of all, a few pictures of our subject with some key people; Nixon knew everybody.

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Nixon as Vice-President to President Eisenhower (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover (Author: White House; Source: here )

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Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev (Author: NARA; Source: here)

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Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

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Nixon and Mao Zedong (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and Elvis Presley (Author: Oliver F. Atkins ; Source: here)

 

‘Watergate’ was the name of a building or rather a complex of buildings in Washington DC, the US capital, which included the headquarters of the Democratic Party in the USA. It contained a hotel, apartment blocks, shops and offices, parts of which were used by the Democrats. (It’s worth noting that it’s in the ‘Foggy Bottom’ section of the city. Things like that don’t normally bother me, and I know it shouldn’t be funny, but somehow it is.) Anyway, in the summer of 1972, as the campaign for that year’s Presidential Election was getting underway, a group of men broke into Watergate. They were caught, tried and imprisoned but there was a slight problem: it was noticed that nothing had been stolen even though they had been in the building for some time. Although this seemed a little strange, the police did not seem too bothered and things looked set to drift away into a low level story. The story went quiet for a while but two journalists with ‘The Washington Post’, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, set about an investigation that eventually revealed one of the most important cover-ups in history. Their work led to the White House and to the Oval office itself, to the President. In simple terms, Richard Nixon had wanted to know exactly what Senator George McGovern and the Democrats planned to do so that he could match and beat their ideas, so guaranteeing victory. And to do this, he was willing to authorise criminal activity, oversee a major cover up to make sure it never came out and mislead the US Congress and the people in the process. It would eventually bring him down.
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The Watergate Complex, Washington, D.C.. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did Nixon do this in 1972? The answers to this question take us into the heart of one of the most fascinating politicians of the century as, on paper, it just did not make sense. In the summer of 1972, Nixon was miles ahead of McGovern in the polls. Nixon was walking towards a second term in office on the back of his foreign policy which had seen dramatic breakthroughs in relations with the Communist superpowers, both the USSR and China. The Democrats were in disarray after lots of in-fighting over several years, much of it linked with the Vietnam War and the rise of ‘issues’ to do with civil rights, feminism and gay rights. Senator George McGovern was chosen to fight Nixon but he was always trailing in the polls; he led a divided party and lacked support and credibility with the media and on the country. In November 1972, Nixon cruised to the expected and massive victory, winning 49 of the 50 states and receiving over 60% of the vote. The result was never in doubt, a landslide, and Nixon rode back into the White House on a high tide of public approval. Yet, less than two years later, in August 1974, Nixon would be forced to resign as he faced impeachment (being put on trial as President for lies, cover-ups and misleading congress) for spying on the Democrats. Why did he do it when he was so strong? Why had he taken such a risk when he held such a strong hand?

Although the above things are true, life is rarely simple especially when power is involved – and ego – and dreams – and fear – and status. History is usually shaped by people operating at the most basic human levels, and many powerful people are flawed, confused and as mixed up as the majority of people. History is often the equivalent of ‘dogs pissing up trees and blokes measuring their willies’, as it has been put, quite crudely but accurately. In other words, history is often about control and status: the control of territory and the status that comes from being more powerful than others. ‘Mine is bigger than yours, I control a bigger space than you…I am better than you and have more power than you…I am great.’ Basic it may be but Nixon fits these images rather well and the language he used was much stronger than ‘pissing’ and ‘willies’, I can tell you.

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Richard Nixon campaigning for re-election in 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

To understand why President Nixon, the most powerful man in the world, who was at the height of that power in 1972, should choose to take such a huge risk as to bug his rival’s offices requires some background. The truth is that many powerful people do not always feel powerful – or secure or in control. And at times, those in power also come to believe that they are beyond normal restrictions and rules, able to demand and get what they want as their extraordinary influence becomes ‘normal’, just a part of their job. Others in power need to push the boundaries and limits so as to get a ‘buzz’, an adrenalin rush, a sense of danger to fight off boredom or routine. Stars of sport, film and music often live lives of glamour that others envy and desire but it can simply become a routine – while at the same time being something fragile and easily lost. Some turn to drugs, others to sex, others to crime – the patterns are well established. Boredom and a desire to control are an interesting combination, especially when mixed with a desire for greatness, the wish to take what you have and make it a sort of monument to your achievements. Think of this as we look at Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Richard Nixon came from a poor Californian family. Born in 1913, he was a bright child growing up as one of four brothers. Two brothers, Arthur and Harold died young (Arthur aged 7 and Harold at 24). Harold’s death in particular hit Richard hard creating a passion for action, achievement, strength. His actions and behaviour were tinged with vulnerability and the sense that nothing could be taken for granted; death or other shocks could come from anywhere. Alongside this, the key influence in his life was his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, feeding his huge determination and commanding great loyalty as well as fear. Nixon’s upbringing as a Quaker was also significant, rather puritanical and based on strict values, so that the family had a hatred of drinking and swearing, both of which became rather important later on.

The young Nixon was a very bright student, winning a scholarship to the famous Harvard University which he could not take up because the family was so poor. This missed opportunity denied him a natural way forward in life and fed in to a sense of injustice and the idea of the world being against him. It was one of the things that would later feed in to his hatred of the posh, privileged, well-to-do East Coast families who had such influence in Washington. Those privileged classes would come to be epitomised by the Kennedy family from Massachusetts.

Despite the setback of not getting to Harvard, Nixon went to a local college and did very well although he had to carry on working at the family store. In 1934, he won a scholarship to Law School, eventually becoming a lawyer. He served in the Navy (just like the future President Jack Kennedy) during World War II before winning election to the House of Representatives in 1946. He was soon making a name for himself by becoming involved in one of the high-profile spy cases of the post-war era. Nixon joined the investigations of the HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Commission), looking into the accusations against Alger Hiss, whose story is worth knowing as it provides important background for the rise of Joe McCarthy.

Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was an official with the US Federal Government who had been involved in setting up the United Nations, amongst other things. In 1948 he was accused of being part of a Communist group which had infiltrated the government. Hiss denied it but was put on trial. He denied all charges. A document allegedly produced on his typewriter was presented as key evidence, although such a thing could quite easily have been faked. Hiss was eventually found guilty of perjury (lying and misleading the court) but not guilty of the actual charges. Hiss’s conviction came on 25th January, 1950, just two weeks before McCarthy would make his claim of wide scale Communist infiltration into the US Government. Hiss went to prison for nearly four years and his career was ruined, one of the first to suffer as part of the new ‘Red Scare’ of the post-war years.

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Alger Hiss on trial. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon was one of the politicians who was convinced that communists had become powerful within the government. He fought hard against President Truman over his actions in Korea, claiming the President had been too weak and too slow in standing up to Communist expansionism. Likewise, he was one of those who accused Truman of being responsible for the “loss of China” when Jiang Jieshi’s Chinese nationalists, who had been supported by the USA, were defeated by Chairman Mao’s communist forces. The Chinese Revolution saw China, the largest population in the world, become Communist on 1st October, 1949, a clear sign to many in the West that Communism was on the march and the so called ‘domino-effect’ was happening. The facts were that China bordered the USSR, controlled most of the Asian coast of the Pacific and reached south to border French Indo-China and India, and these were all of concern to the US administration. The blame for the fall of China was put on Truman for being too soft on Communism abroad and at home. Richard Nixon was one of the anti-Red politicians and he went on to become a firm supporter of Joe McCarthy and the Communist ‘witch hunts’.

Ambitious for power, Nixon used his higher profile and status within the Republican Party to run for Senator of California in the elections of 1950. In the wake of the Hiss trial and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, another very high profile spying case, many American voters were anxious about anyone with even slightly ‘left of centre’ policies. Nixon made out that his opponent, Helen Douglas was, if not a Red, then certainly a ‘pink’; his actual phrase about the former actress was that she was ‘pink, right down to her underwear’, meaning perhaps that she kept her ‘true’ Communist sympathies hidden away. Nixon won but Douglas’ nickname for him, ‘Tricky Dicky’, would stay with him for the rest of his life. But he had made a huge step in his political career by becoming a Senator at the age of just 33.

In 1952, Richard Nixon took a major step up the political ladder when he was the surprise choice as running mate for the Republican candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was standing for the presidency. Eisenhower had a military background and had no links to either political party. In 1952 it was known he would probably stand for election but it was unclear if he would be a Republican or a Democrat. Whichever he chose, he was certain to be the favourite as he was a national hero after commanding Allied Forces at D-day and being the first leader of NATO. Nixon was chosen to be Vice-President as he was the young rising star of the Republican Party. He was the darling of the right-wing (McCarthy supporters loved him) while Eisenhower was a ‘softer’ Republican. Nixon would go on to play a key role in the Eisenhower administration over the next eight years, taking a major interest in foreign policy. Nixon was intelligent and ambitious but he did have a darker, nasty side. One incident worth noting in all this is that there were accusations made against Nixon in 1952 regarding his expenses and campaign funds. It’s not the fact that he was accused but the way he handled that is so interesting. Nixon went on TV to make a statement and he took his six year-old daughter’s dog, called ‘Checkers’, with him. In these early days of TV, he manipulated the situation by creating the image of a lovely, happy, nice man, playing with a lovely happy, cute dog. ‘Aaaahhhh’, the people sighed, ‘How could a man with such a nice dog be anything but trustworthy?’ And so he got away with it, possibly setting a dangerous precedent and creating a sense of his own cleverness and talent.

Eisenhower and Nixon at Dinner with King Saud

Eisenhower and Nixon with King Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1957.(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Throughout this time, Nixon was striving for power. Nothing was ever quite enough to satisfy his drive to overcome his impoverished background and prove his intelligence. In foreign affairs in particular he developed an expertise beyond that of most members of the Government. He was popular but wanted more; for the greatness he desired, the greatness that would really get back at East Coast liberals and privileged classes, Nixon needed the top job as President. And for true greatness, he knew that he would need to be re-elected so as to serve two terms. In 1960, as Eisenhower stood down after eight years, Nixon was chosen to be the Republican candidate and it seemed to be his job for the taking. In challenging Nixon, the Democrats went to the son of one of the richest men in the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (usually known as JFK or ‘Jack’).

Jack Kennedy was privileged, one of those East Coast clans that Nixon had decided to hate from nearly three decades earlier. The head of the Kennedy dynasty, Joseph Kennedy Snr., was a multi-millionaire and one of the richest men in the USA. He was from an Irish-Catholic family who had made it big in Boston, Massachusetts, building a fortune from finance (gambling on the stock market) and alcohol (he gained rights to distribute Scottish whisky after prohibition). He was also rumoured to have links with the Mafia and other gangsters during the prohibition era and was certainly well connected in official circles too. Such a wealthy and privileged background saw the Kennedy children have a golden life, the best schools and a couple of years living in London when Joe Kennedy became the US Ambassador. But despite the many advantages dealt to JFK by birth, Nixon was a far better politician, more experienced, a better debater and with a stronger grasp of policy, and he was a clear favourite to win the White House in 1960.

The turning point in 1960 is always said to be the first of the televised debates. Fifty years before they appeared in the UK, these debates started in the USA, with Nixon-Kennedy becoming prime time viewing. Little planning was considered at the time but what happened in the first debate set in train a process which has turned such events into a small industry. Arguments about who stands where, the height and angles of the podium, who speaks first, the colour of ties, the amount of make-up and the heat of the studio are just some of the factors considered. And it all goes back to 1960. So, what happened and how does it link with Watergate?

Richard Nixon was not as tall as Jack Kennedy. He was not as handsome as Kennedy. He did not dress as well as Kennedy. But Nixon knew far more than Kennedy and could run rings round him with his arguments and grasp of facts. And Kennedy knew all this. And his advisers did. And his Dad did. So during the campaign and in the build-up to the debates, Joe Kennedy hired a TV crew to go round with his son, filming events and then distributing them to the news shows. They showed them and it became free advertising for Kennedy. Most of these clips showed him smiling, greeting happy crowds and standing alongside his beautiful wife, Jacqueline.

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John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. (Author: Abbie Rowe; Source: here)

The first TV debate was held on 26th September 1960. The view on this debate is that Nixon did not perform well, giving a mediocre performance by his high standards, but he had been ill, coming out of hospital only a few days earlier after a bout of ‘flu’. But most people still believed he out-performed Kennedy in the debate about domestic affairs. Certainly those listening on radio believed that Nixon won the debate. But TV audiences differed. They gave it to Kennedy, not for his arguments but because of looks and image. Kennedy stood straight and tall while Nixon slouched over the podium. Kennedy looked cool and smart while Nixon sweated badly in a creased suit. Kennedy smiled and cracked jokes while Nixon scowled and gave long detailed answers that went over some people’s heads. In its simplest form, many TV viewers said they would rather go for a beer with Kennedy than with Nixon.

What was going on? Well, one reason why Kennedy stood tall was because he had a bad back, a chronic injury from WWII, while Nixon slumped forward as he was recovering from flu. But people judged by such looks. Next, Kennedy was simply taller and better-looking than Nixon, and he had grown up with a different sense of style and the experience of meeting many people. Nixon, in contrast, also had a terrible problem with sweating, something that plagued him throughout his career. Under the hot TV lights, recovering from flu, it was worse than ever at that debate. People did not see or judge based on sweat on the radio, of course, but it affected the opinions of the TV viewers. Kennedy was more charming than Nixon but he had less to say, so he went for short, simple answers that made sense to people rather than dealing with the big, complicated issues which Nixon did. Kennedy’s witty openers won people over while Nixon’s analysis lost them. The reality is that people who don’t understand the issues get one vote each, just as those who do understand the issues get one vote each. Kennedy won that first TV debate through image not content and many people did not bother to watch the other three debates, which Nixon was thought to have won. They made their minds up early: Kennedy would do. It was a classic case of perception being more important than reality.

Nixon lost the 1960 election, ‘his’ election, to Kennedy, the rich boy from the East Coast who had all the help and luck in the world. He lost by 120 000 votes or just 0.2% of the vote. Nixon was devastated. Privilege, looks and luck had beaten him; he felt cheated and betrayed by the system. After considering alternative options, he stepped back from front-line politics. He was not yet 50 and could find a new way forward. He considered standing again in 1964 but sympathy for the Democrats following Kennedy’s assassination meant there was no way the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, could lose, so Nixon stayed in the wilderness. The Kennedy assassination served to remind him of the way unpredictable events could shatter your plans. Nixon stayed away from Washington politics but maintained his interest and involvement in foreign affairs. He was a major critic of Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, for instance, demanding more force against the Viet Minh and the North Vietnamese. With the war not going well and with a lot of support from businessmen and some Republicans, a return to the Presidency looked like a possibility in 1968.

1968 saw the Vietnam War going badly for the USA and when President Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democrat nomination to run in 1968, Nixon got involved. The Democrats were struggling and needed a candidate to unite them otherwise Republican victory looked possible. Things suddenly turned against Nixon and the Republicans when Bobby Kennedy, the popular younger brother of Jack Kennedy, announced that he would stand for the Democrat nomination. History looked as if it might repeat itself at the election and a second presidential defeat for Nixon to a Kennedy would mark the end of his Presidential ambitions and his political career. But the ‘gods’ (or the ‘devils’) smiled on Nixon, as Bobby Kennedy became the fourth high-profile assassination in the USA in the 1960s. Following JFK in November 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965 and Martin Luther King in April 1968, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June 1968 in Los Angeles, having just won the Democrat nomination for California.

In the absence of Kennedy, the Democrats were divided. Hubert Humphrey was the candidate but Senator George Wallace of Alabama stood as an independent Democrat, really as an alternative for the Southern Democrats. The Democrat vote was split, allowing Richard Nixon to become President. He defeated Humphrey by just 500 000 votes. Nixon won comfortably on States (31 – 19 against the combined number for Humphrey and Wallace) but on votes he won only 43% and he was only 0.7% ahead of Humphrey. In total he was over 9 million votes (or 13%) behind when the two Democrats were added together. This would trouble him greatly in the approach to the 1972 election, seeking re-election, with a second term, and the dream of greatness, within his grasp. Insecurity walked with him at his Inauguration in January 1969.

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Nixon’s inauguration, January, 1969. (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

When it came to the next election in 1972, Nixon was frantically busy in the months leading up to it. As well as the ordinary day to day aspects of being President, he was trying to get ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam so that the US could withdraw without appearing to have lost or deserted its ally in South Vietnam. He was trying to address issues in the Cold War by improving relations with both China and the USSR, building tension between them through negotiations and trying to get their help in putting pressure on the Communists of North Vietnam to cut a deal. His visits to Chairman Mao Zedong in China and Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow had captured the world’s imagination. He had been given pandas by Mao, vodka and hugs by Brezhnev and there were deals on nuclear weapons to be signed. In the midst of all this, Nixon felt a mix of elation, power and anxiety. He was so busy he often lost track of what was going on so he took to taping all of his conversations and meetings in the Oval Office (his main office) in the White House. He was also keen to get on with the ‘big’ stuff of government, Vietnam and the Cold War, without having to worry about the election too much. But the memories of 1960, the fateful assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the close-run election of 1968 and his own deep insecurities and desperate dream of being ‘special’ would not let go. And so he approved the bugging of the Watergate Building in the summer of 1972.

A group of ex-CIA agents and Cuban exiles did it. They were called ‘The Plumbers’ and they broke in to the Watergate Building to bug the Democrat offices on 17th June, 1972. They got caught when a piece of tape was found holding a door lock closed. No one thought too much of this burglary except for young journalist with ‘The Washington Post’, called Bob Woodward, who became suspicious because nothing seemed to have been taken during the ‘burglary. The idea of this being a ‘burglary’ did not quite add up. Still no one seemed too bothered and it looked like it would all fall away even after the ‘plumbers’ were convicted. Another journalist, Carl Bernstein, joined Woodward to investigate the story but they made little progress at first. Eventually an FBI Informant, using the codename ‘Deep Throat’, a reference to a porn movie of the time, gave them details that linked the incident to the White House and so developed one of the most famous political tales of all time. Enquiries continued into 1973 and 1974 which led to high-profile arrests and took the story into the ‘Oval Office’ itself. Nixon was implicated and two of his senior aides, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, ended up in prison.

The investigation had not been able to find Nixon’s role in ‘Watergate’ as there was no clear trail to him. However, Nixon’s fate was sealed when a junior official in the White House, Alexander Butterfield, said that the President had tapes of all of his conversations. The Supreme Court demanded these tapes but they were refused. Eventually they got some, then a few more, then others with sections missing. In early August 1974, the ‘smoking gun’ tape was passed to prosecutors, giving clear evidence that Nixon had known about and authorised the break in. In the chaos that followed, the noose tightened around Nixon, especially as many of the tapes could not be played on TV because they contained so much swearing and profanity. Edited versions with the famous ‘expletive deleted’ subtitle horrified and scandalised the USA. Along with revelations about Nixon’s heavy drinking, the swearing would have had his mother turning in her grave. The imagined disappointment that Mrs. Nixon might have felt were as nothing compared with the anger and humiliation her son experienced when Richard Nixon was forced to resign from the Presidency. At 9 pm, East Coast Time, on 8th August, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only US president to be forced to resign. All his dreams and ambitions had ended in the ultimate disgrace.

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Nixon’s resignation speech, 8th August, 1974. (Author: White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library; Source: here)

Nixon was immediately replaced by his vice-president, Gerald Ford, who went on to lose the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia. Ford’s first act as President was to give a full pardon to Nixon. In the Communist world, Brezhnev and Mao were bewildered by what had happened as it seemed as nothing compared to what they considered logical and reasonable. The people of America felt anger, betrayal and horror at what had happened. Woodward and Bernstein were awarded prize after prize for their journalism.

And Nixon went home to California where he had lots of time to think. No doubt he went back over the things that had brought him to Watergate. Jealousy, fear of failure, ambition and the dream of being special were just some of the things that would have gone through his head. And some important faces, too, from his mother and brothers, to Alger Hiss and Joe McCarthy, to Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

Maybe his most nagging thought in those dark times was, ‘If only I didn’t sweat so much…’ It’s strange how life often turns on such small matters.

 

Find out more

Film: ‘Nixon’ by Oliver Stone (Certificate 15, Eiv, 1995). Typically robust approach to film making by Oliver Stone which emphasises many of the deep-seated flaws in Nixon’s personality with much being made of his childhood and his relationship with his mother.

Film: ‘All the President’s Men’ (Certificate 15, Warner Home Video, 1976). Famous Oscar winning film about the investigation into Watergate by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of ‘The Washington Post’.

Film: ‘Frost-Nixon’ (Certificate 15, Universal pictures UK, 2009). Interesting film version of the play about the interviews between a relatively unknown David Frost and Richard Nixon. Nixon ends up being led into far more revealing comments than expected.

Book: ‘The Arrogance of Power’ by Anthony Summers (Phoenix Press, 2000.) An interesting if clearly critical study of Nixon highlighting many of the Presidents failings and the more murky side of his personality and relationships.

Book: ‘The Presidents: The Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama’ by Stephen Graubard (Penguin, 2009). A fascinating study of changes in the Presidency including the impact of Nixon.

 

 

 

 

The Cuban Missile Crisis: As close to the end as it’s ever been

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The Cuban Missile Crisis: as close to the end as it’s ever been.

“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” Dean Rusk, U.S. Secretary of State, 1961-69.

People quite rightly go on about the terrorist attack on New York’s ‘Twin Towers’ as a defining moment in recent history. The world post-9/11 is undoubtedly a different place from what it was before. The loss of around 2900 lives, the economic cost, the military response of the ‘War on Terror’ and the psychological impact of what happened were enormous and the consequences continue to impact around the world today. But it was not the first disaster in history and it won’t be the last. 9/11 was a huge event that changed the world but it pales against what might have been the world-ending events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a story that is well worth reflecting on so only read this section if you’re in the mood to concentrate properly. A little Cuban music might cheer you up afterwards, too, so get the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ ready or maybe dig out the marvellous Kirsty MacColl’s album, ‘Tropical Brainstorm’: the tracks ‘In These Shoes?’ and ‘England 2 Colombia 0’ should do the trick if you’re worried about the end of the world after reading this.

The three key leaders at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October, 1962: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro.

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USA: John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) (Author: White House Press Office; Source: here)

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USSR: Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) (Author: Peter Heinz Junge; Source: here)

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Cuba: Fidel Castro (born 1926) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Cuban Missile Crisis is especially rich in images and here are two cartoons that reflect the Western take on it from 1962. The first one reflects the idea of MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the way Khrushchev and Kennedy held the future of the world in their hands – one mistake and both sides would unleash their missiles. The second one reflects the outcome and Khrushchev’s decision to remove the missiles from Cuba, an act which brought practical problems for Castro, the patient, and political ones for the dentist, Khrushchev.

Cartoon link: ‘Ok, Mr. President. Let’s talk.’

Cartoon link: ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you!’

Other images were very significant in the build up to the crisis itself. Many of these came from the USA’s use of the U-2 spy planes, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft which could take incredible photographs from 70 000 feet (20 km), the edge of space. These photos revealed the location and development of the nuclear missile launch silos on Cuba in October 1962.

Cuban Missile Crisis-MRBM Field Launch Site

(Author: USAF; Source: here)

Cuban_missiles

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

And, as always, a map is useful, in this case to show how almost every city in the USA came within the 2 500 mile (4000 km) range of the nuclear missiles on Cuba. The nuclear balance of power would have seen a major shift if the missiles remained in Cuba.

Cuban_crisis_map_missile_range

(Author:  CIA; Source: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear destruction during the Cold War. For thirteen days between 15th and 28th October, 1962, the world hovered on the brink of war between the Superpowers, the USA and the USSR or Soviet Union. Fingers were almost literally on the buttons and ready to fire. In each camp, both in Moscow and Washington, there were people pressurising their leaders to launch the first nuclear strike but neither did. US President, Jack Kennedy, and the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, eventually concluded a deal that saved the world. At the time, it looked as though Kennedy had won and Khrushchev had backed down, the first one to ‘blink’. Later documents show that was not the case. For now, though, here is the story behind those thirteen days that so nearly saw us, ‘All go together when we go’, in the words of the great satirist, Tom Lehrer.

First of all, here is a bit of geography and late 19th century history to set the context. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, while the main language is Spanish, reflecting its colonial past as part of the Spanish Empire. The Cuban capital is Havana on the north-west coast, while the island itself is some 500 miles long and is just 90 miles south of Florida. Its near neighbours include the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Haiti and Jamaica. You might want to look at these maps of Cuba and the Caribbean just to be clear about the region and its proximity to the USA.

Cuba-CIA_WFB_Map

(Author: Directorate of Intelligence, CIA; Source: here)

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(Author: Unknown; Source: CIA)

While you are checking your map, you might check out where Cienfuegos is on the map. It’s on the south side of the island and just to the west of it (that’s the left as you look at it) is the ‘Bay of Pigs’ or ‘Bahía de Cochinos’. This will become really important later on. You might also notice Guantanamo Bay at the south-eastern end (the bottom right-hand corner) of the island. That’s where the controversial US military base and terrorist prison has been based for several years. You might wonder how there happens to be a US military base on Cuba when there is such tension between them.

A key year in Cuban-American relations was 1898. At the time, Cuba was under Spanish control but the Spanish and the Americans had a bit of a war in that year, centred on control of Cuba – and Spain lost. The USA did not approve of empires in the sense that they operated under the old European model but it increasingly saw the benefits of influence and control over places like Cuba and the Philippines which it also gained after 1898. In 1903, just after the American influence over Cuba was established (as you’ll see in a minute), the US leased the land at Guantanamo for a coal and, later, oil refuelling base for its ships. This agreement was made between the Americans and the old Cuban government but it has been disputed since 1959 when Fidel Castro took control in the Cuban revolution. Castro always wanted to get the US out and Guantanamo back under Cuban control but he was not strong enough and there was, and is, no way the US would give it up as it would appear to be a sign of weakness – and Guantanamo Bay is very useful as a prison outside international law.

But let’s return to 1898. The Cubans had been fighting for independence and many Americans were unhappy at the Spanish repression there. After a US ship, the ‘Maine’, was attacked near Havana, President William McKinley declared war against Spain. This all linked in with a famous US policy called ‘Monroe Doctrine’. Going back to 1823, it said the USA would not tolerate any more European expansion and interference in the Caribbean and other areas that were important to the USA. Not surprisingly, the war was won by ‘Los Yanquis’, as the Cubans called the Americans, who took was to be temporary control of the island, as well as Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The US proceeded to develop its links with the island, using Cuba as a nice little base for business, sugar production (which was the island’s only crop), and tourism. By the mid-1900s, many banks and businesses, like Woolworths and General Electric, were based there, and Shell, Texaco and EXXON (which is better known as Esso) had set up oil refineries. Things worked nicely for the Americans who rather liked to nip down there for a little holiday, gambling and some deep sea fishing.

One of the most famous visitors to Cuba during these years was the writer Ernest Hemingway and you must read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. It’s one of the greatest short stories ever. Written on Cuba in 1951 and published the following year, it led to him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Only 100 pages but quite magnificent. His other stuff might be a bit dated and ‘macho’ for some tastes but read ‘The Old Man’ one cold, wintry day – it’s an absolute delight.

However, Cuba was not as idyllic and democratic as it might have appeared to many of those US visitors. In 1933, the ‘Revolt of the Sergeants’ saw Fulgencio Batista come to power and directly or indirectly he would rule the country for the next twenty five years. In this he had regular support from the Americans and a few elite Cubans prospered under Batista’s dictatorship while numerous US businesses got rich on tax breaks and cheap labour. It was all very comfortable, except for the 85% or so of Cubans who struggled to make a living. The USA had effectively got control of the island, buying up 95% or so of the only Cuban crop, sugar cane, and getting many breaks in return. The sense of injustice felt by the majority boiled over in the 1950s with a young lawyer in the forefront of the struggle. Despite having been imprisoned in the early fifties, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army proved victorious so that, in January 1959, he entered Havana as the new leader of Cuba. Castro was partly aided in this by the famous Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara who was travelling around the region in the fifties and sixties, seeking to foment rebellion.

Two other key figures in Cuba: Fulgencio Batista and Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara

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Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) (Author: unknown: Source: here)

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Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara (1928-1967) (Author:  Alberto Korda; Source: here)

Batista ran away just before Castro entered Cuba and he took a hell of a lot of money with him. He was given political asylum in Portugal and died in Spain in 1973. Castro, on the other hand, is still alive and was, until 2008, the leader of Cuba. For fifty years he was a thorn in America’s side, a focus for hatred and vitriolic attack, especially from the far right. He dared to stand up to the might of the USA, creating a Communist state in their ‘backyard’. The many assassination attempts made on Castro are well worth studying, especially the exploding cigars and the attempt to send him mad on TV by using air-borne LSD. What caused all of this trouble?

When he took over, Castro was really proud of what had happened and what he planned to achieve for Cuba. The revolution always had a left-wing focus, of course, with the removal of Batista and the redistribution of land but there was no Communist element at first. It was a ‘nationalist’ uprising, an attempt to change the country simply for the good of the vast majority of the people, the peasants who had been excluded. Many powerful people were killed and many more left for Florida in particular, going into exile. (Gloria Estefan, the singer, was one of these.) These exiles would play a key role later on at the Bay of Pigs – and some had links to ‘The Plumbers’ who broke in to Watergate, central to the story of Richard Nixon. Castro was rather arrogant, eager for change and keen to act quickly. He wanted the world to know about what had happened in Cuba and so at the first opportunity, he went to the United Nations in New York to make a speech. While he was there, he hoped to meet with President Dwight Eisenhower to discuss relations between the two countries but Eisenhower refused, saying he was too busy. However, also in the UN at the time was one Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, leader of the USSR, and he was only too keen to meet a fellow revolutionary, especially one who seemed to have upset the Americans. It was with some alarm that Americans, politicians and people alike, saw photos like these of Khrushchev embracing Castro, although they look as though they are going to dance. The first one is actually from 1961 but the one on the link is from 1959 and is delightful as it seems to show Khrushchev picking Castro’s wallet out of his inside pocket.

Castro-kruschev

(Author: Superdominicano; Source: here)

Khrushchev and Castro: Photo link

 

Naturally, worried Americans and angry business leaders meant pressure on Eisenhower. The execution of many of Castro’s opponents after the revolution, 70 of them being captured prisoners, also raised many fears. Castro’s main aim was to help the people so he nationalised all land and shared it out among the peasants. This meant it was taken from the rich Cubans and many Americans, private individuals and businesses so Eisenhower responded by cutting purchases of Cuban sugar so that their economy faced ruin. But with disaster looming for Cuba, help came from behind the ‘iron Curtain’ as Khrushchev stepped in to buy the sugar for the USSR. Later developments saw the further nationalisation of American assets and the takeover of their property and businesses. Eventually, the oil companies were kicked out too, and the land and property of the Catholic Church was confiscated with some bishops being exiled. At each point the pressure grew on Eisenhower to act aggressively and on the other hand, Khrushchev increased support for Cuba by sending oil and other aid.

With help from the CIA, which had already been very active in resisting the growth of left-wing forces in Central American states like Guatemala, attacks on Cuba started. These focused on using small planes and local supporters to burn the sugar crop while there was a strong allegation that a Belgian ship delivering weapons to Cuba was blown up by the CIA in Havana harbour with the deaths of seven people. Castro, feeling deeply threatened, declared that the Cuban Revolution was now a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ revolution, effectively aligning Cuba with Communism. One key event in all this took place at Playa Girón, the Bay of Pigs, on 17th April, 1961.

The Bay of Pigs was a hugely significant moment in mid-twentieth century history. It is rightly known as ‘The Bay of Pigs Fiasco’, a disaster of planning and execution, and something that drove Cuba towards the open arms of Communism. The Bay of Pigs is on the southern coast of Cuba about 170 miles south east of Havana. This was a CIA plan to attack Cuba using some of the many disgruntled Cuban exiles in Florida. They received Eisenhower’s permission to develop the plan and prepare the attack and the exiles went to Guatemala where their training took place in late 1960 and early 1961. By this time, of course, John (Jack) Kennedy had become President. He was young (only 43) and inexperienced in foreign affairs. He was replacing Eisenhower, an experienced former general and someone he had accused of not being tough enough against Communist expansion. So it was logical for him to accept the plan for the attack on Cuba without asking too many questions about the logic, purpose and execution. Big mistake.

In his first months in office, Kennedy gave permission for the attack to go ahead although he did make a couple of adjustments to cover things up. He would not allow the full number of aircraft that had been requested to be used and he also insisted that those planes should be disguised as Cuban planes so as to cover up the US’s involvement, which broke international law. Anyway, the attack at the Bay of Pigs began at about midnight on 17th April, 1961, and to cut a long story short, rarely has such an event been more disastrous and deserving of being called a ‘fiasco’. The exiles, who numbered about 1500, were not very well-trained and were relying on an uprising of the ordinary people to help them overthrow Castro. They were victims of their own opinions; they hated Castro and convinced themselves that all other Cubans did as well. Equipment was lost in swamps, the resistance of the Cubans was under-estimated and the attack lacked coordination. According to one report, some of the boats had their bottoms ripped out by coral reefs as CIA specialists had looked at surveillance photos and thought the dark marks in the sea were not reefs but seaweed. In another error, 172 parachutists were dropped in land but most came down in swamps and were lost to the operation. Within three days of the attack starting, nearly all of the exiles were killed or captured. Imprisonments, trials and executions followed before the remaining prisoners were sent back to the USA some 19 months later, ransomed for $53 million of food and medicine. The ‘Bay of Pigs Fiasco’ was an important mistake by the Kennedy administration as it served to convince Castro that the USA was out to get him and he needed help. And the only place which was realistically able to help him was, of course, the USSR.

The invasion force at ‘Bahía de Cochinos’ or the ‘Bay of Pigs’ numbered about 1500. The fiasco ended with 114 deaths and 1189 being taken prisoners with the others either not landing or making their way to safety. The failings of the USA meant, of course, a famous victory for Castro, a victory which brought a massive surge in support for him.

Photo links here and here

Over in Moscow at this time, Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the USSR, also had a problem. There was a ‘missile gap’ between the USA/West and the USSR/East but it was not as people in the West believed it to be. The truth was that the USA did not trail behind the USSR in its nuclear weapons capability and, in fact, the advantage lay with the West. The USSR had as many missiles as the USA but with one big problem: they lacked long-range ICBMs, largely due to problems they had in developing solid fuel. Their liquid-fuelled rockets were unreliable and, frankly, dangerous. It’s believed that in 1961, they may have had as few as four nuclear missiles that could hit the mainland USA, whereas thousands of US missiles could have hit the USSR, especially with medium-range missiles based in Europe. The missile gap was claimed to have been built up under Eisenhower in the 1950s, and many politicians, including Jack Kennedy, had attacked the President for allowing this to happen. Eisenhower knew it did not exist but believed it was in the USA’s interests to allow this belief to grow as it allowed the Government to strengthen military spending, put extra money into the defence budget, create jobs and so strengthen the economy and build support amongst big businesses. Anyway, Khrushchev knew he had enough missiles but few that could hit the US mainland – but then came the Bay of Pigs.

Thanks to the CIA’s mess, Castro was aware that he was threatened by a most powerful neighbour and so he needed better defences, especially with Cuba being just 90 miles from Florida. Actually, from Cuba every major city (except Seattle) and military base in the USA would be within reach of Soviet-built medium-range missiles, and so it was that for their mutual benefit, Khrushchev offered to put Soviet nuclear missiles onto Cuba. All they had to do was build the launch silos and get the missiles to Cuba. By mid-1962, this work was under way and many Russian ships began to arrive in Havana, carrying engineers, building materials and, eventually, some very long ‘missile-shaped things’ hidden under tarpaulins. There were many US spies in the country but it seems that none of them really twigged what was happening. Farmers interviewed later reported that they saw missiles left on trailers on the roads and in their fields but no CIA spies seem to have bothered to tell Washington. This could be described as a ‘mistake’.

One Sunday in October 1962, a U-2 spy plane was sent over Cuba to see if anything of interest to the USA was going on. The CIA’s surveillance department developed the photos and got a bit of a shock. The comment made was along the lines of, “Uh-ooooh! We seem to have some…er…nuclear missile silos here, sir…” (This is pretty much an actual quote from an interview with the man who saw the photos.) To put it mildly, all hell broke loose: “Those sneaky, pesky, Russians. What the hell do they think they’re doing? How dare they put missiles on Cuba?” The fact that the USA had missiles all over Europe (for defensive purposes, of course) thanks to NATO did not seem to matter. When Khrushchev and Castro said the missiles were merely defensive and there would be no problem if the USA did not threaten Cuba, they were not believed. The missiles had to be aggressive, they had to be. No one in the White House, the military or the CIA seemed to stop and think, or to remember the Bay of Pigs, for example; this was simply devious and aggressive ‘Commie’ tactics at work. The missiles would have to go immediately.

The following thirteen days (covered in the half-decent but obviously US-centric film, ‘Thirteen Days’ (2000) which is worth a watch) saw the future of the world hang in the balance. The Americans insisted that the missiles had to go; the USSR said ‘nyet’ or ‘no’. The Americans said they would use force; the USSR said they would retaliate with equal force; there was a stalemate of truly frightening proportions. Communications were slow and awkward as there was no direct line between the White House and the Kremlin at that time. The previous 15 years had been mired in tension so that neither side knew what to say or what to think of the other; the level of distrust was such that, whatever one side said, the other refused to believe it could be honest, helpful or peaceful. Both countries were Superpowers and saw their reputations on the line so that backing down would give out the ‘wrong message’ both at home (such as to voters in the USA and the Red Army in the USSR), and abroad to allies who needed to know that all offers of support were genuine and would deliver tangible results.

In the White House, several options were considered, including a full-scale invasion of Cuba, conventional air-strikes, a nuclear attack and a blockade. The President called together his main advisors from the National Security Council as a group known as EXCOMM. It included Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (John Kennedy’s younger brother) and the main military leaders of the Armed Forces. The majority of people round the table in Washington wanted swift, decisive action such as a nuclear strike or an air attack. They did not seem to have learnt from the British approach at the time of the Berlin Blockade back in 1948, when the US had wanted to go for a direct confrontation but the British persuaded them to try the less aggressive airlift as an option first. President Kennedy was not sure. As the days went on, tensions grew, and the media followed it by the minute. The great Walter Cronkite anchored the footage on CBS at that time and a media legend was born.

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Robert McNamara (1916-2009), the long serving Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. (Author: Oscar Porter, U.S. Army; Source: here)

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Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), the most respected news presenter in the USA, who covered the crisis. (Author: Thomas J. O’Halloran, US News and World Report; Source: here)

The option Kennedy had already chosen to follow, against most of his advisers, was a ‘quarantine’, or blockade of Cuba using US shipping. A barrier was formed in international waters some 40 miles off Cuba, stopping and searching any ship bound for Cuba. This was illegal and broke international law but Kennedy considered it a better option than the others which were more aggressive and potentially deadly for all. Soviet ships carrying missiles were approaching the blockade. Kennedy ordered that the US navy should stop and search one which was transporting oil, knowing that it could not possibly be carrying missiles too. This would indicate that they were serious about the quarantine, giving a clear message to Moscow, but without creating a major incident through the discovery of missiles. A ship was stopped, nothing was found but the message had been given that the blockade would be enforced. The other Soviet ships which were bound for Cuba and approaching the blockade slowed down and then stopped. Things seemed to be coming to a calm and peaceful conclusion.

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Ships and planes in the US blockade of Cuba (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

But then a new crisis developed and things suddenly worsened, moving the situation to its very worst point as a US plane was shot down by Cuban anti-aircraft artillery. The US military demanded retaliation but Kennedy refused. Communications were then received from Khrushchev that seemed to be positive, offering a way out of the whole crisis through the removal of the Cuban Missiles. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as a peaceful outcome seemed within reach. But the following morning, a new letter and a new set of demands came from Moscow; it was as though someone in the Kremlin had had a go at Khrushchev saying he was settling for too little from the US in return for the removal of the missiles. The US was not willing to accept the new demands and there seemed to be no way out of the impasse.

At this point it is worth mentioning two rather important people, one very famous and one little known today. The famous one is Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney-General (main legal man in the US Government) and younger brother of President Jack Kennedy. He was Kennedy’s most trusted advisor. The little-known figure is Anatoly Dobrynin (1919-2010), the Soviet Ambassador to Washington from 1962-1986. Dobrynin became a legendary figure in Washington but most people have not heard of him. He had not been in Washington long when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. President Kennedy sent Bobby Kennedy to speak with Dobrynin on the night of Saturday, 27th October. Dobrynin was a key figure as all communications with Khrushchev and Moscow had to come through him.

Bobby Kennedy’s response to the letters received from Khrushchev was more measured than most. He proposed concentrating on the bits they could agree with and ignoring the rest. This meant building on the basic point that neither side wanted to destroy the world over Cuba. At their late meeting on 27th October, Dobrynin understood the situation well and he approved of the idea to withdraw the missiles on one key condition from Khrushchev. This was the removal of US medium range nuclear missiles from Turkey, which Bobby Kennedy agreed to. The crisis was over, much to everyone’s relief – and to the shock of Fidel Castro, who had not been involved in discussions.

It is important to note that the missiles were not removed from Turkey until sometime later and it was not announced until 1967. This action meant the world and the USA saw the Cuban Missile Crisis as a victory for Kennedy and the West; it certainly raised Kennedy’s standing. It seemed that Khrushchev had backed down, especially in the eyes of the West, who gave him little credit for what was in many ways an unacknowledged compromise in favour of Kennedy who Khrushchev knew faced particular challenges from being in a democracy. In reality, Khrushchev had no real intention of going to war and destroying the world over Cuba, seeing the situation as an opportunity to gain some advantage in the political and military balance of power. In the end, nuclear Armageddon came close but it was avoided. The calmer voices of Kennedy and Khrushchev controlled the more aggressive ‘hawks’ on both sides and the diplomacy of Bobby Kennedy and Anatoly Dobrynin sealed the deal.

For the main players, the effect of the Cuban Missile Crisis was quite different. Fidel Castro felt betrayed by the USSR and ploughed an almost lone furrow against the USA for decades afterwards; Nikita Khrushchev was weakened by the crisis, especially in the USSR itself, as he was perceived as being weak and inconsistent by the Red Army in particular; Jack Kennedy was perceived as being the winner and received a huge boost in popularity and respect for ‘facing down’ the Soviet threat. And the three faced very different futures following the crisis as Kennedy was assassinated just 13 months later, Khrushchev was removed in a coup in October, 1964, while Castro remained in power, a thorn in the USA’s side until he stepped down as leader of Cuba in 2008.

However, before this story is finished, there is a little point to add. Information that emerged after the collapse of Communism shows the very real dangers that stalked the troubled waters of October 1962, evidence that shows how tricky it can be as an historian trying to understand events. In the 1990s, de-classified Soviet documents revealed that the B-59, a new Soviet nuclear powered submarine, with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, had been sent to Cuba, maintaining complete radio silence, in other words having been given its instructions and then told to stay out of contact with Moscow so that it could not be tracked. The submarine was in the area of the blockade and found itself surrounded by up to 11 US warships, one of which, the USS Beale, dropped depth charges to force the submarine to the surface. As other ships joined the attack, the captain of the submarine, Valentin Savitsky, and the second in command of the submarine, agreed that they would fire a ten kilo-ton nuclear torpedo at the USS Randolf, a huge aircraft carrier, in line with the instructions they had received. Only one man refused to approve this action, Vasili Arkhipov, the third officer. An attack would have meant not only the destruction of the ‘Randolf’ but the start of World War III – all-out nuclear war. Agreement by all three men was needed so his actions led to a delay and the torpedo was not fired. If the torpedo had been fired, it would almost certainly have triggered a nuclear war, the almost immediate destruction of Europe and the Eastern Bloc, and untold consequences for the rest of the world. Anatoly Dobrynin and Bobby Kennedy might have been excellent diplomats, while Khrushchev and Kennedy might have had no intention of going to war over Cuba, but if Vasili Arkhipov had not been so brave as to disagree with his commanding officers on B-59, then it’s likely that few of us would be here today.

At some stage in life, stop for a moment and raise a glass to Vasili Arkhipov, a rather important and unknown hero.

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Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador to the USA (Author:  Yoichi R. Okamoto; Source: here)

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Bobby Kennedy addressing a crowd in 1963 (Author: Warren K. Leffler; Source: here)

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Vasili Arkhipov, the third officer on B-59 (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

TV: ‘Cold War’ by Jeremy Isaacs (CNN – series available as DVD 2012, originally shown in the late 1990s) Cuba is covered in episode 10 of this superb series.

Film/DVD: ‘The Fog of War’ by Errol Morris about Robert McNamara (Sony Pictures Home entertainment, 2004). Mainly focuses on Vietnam but includes reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Films: ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb’ (Originally released in 1964; DVD – Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 1999) A rather inspired and satirical look at the effect nuclear weapons had on society in the 1960s, starring Peter Sellers and directed by Stanley Kubrick. ‘Thirteen Days’ (Walt Disney Studios, 2001). Watch with care as it tells things very much from the White House/USA perspective.

Book: ‘Thirteen Days: A memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis’, by Robert Kennedy (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011) ‘One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-64’ by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)  ‘My Life’ by Fidel Castro and Andrew Hurley (Andrew Lane, 2007) ‘Outposts of Empire: Korea, Vietnam and the Origins of the Cold war in Asia, 1949-54’, by Stephen Hugh Lee (Liverpool University Press, 1996) For the seriously committed reader who wants to put things into the bigger context.

For the image of the ‘Museo Girón’ or ‘The Bay of Pigs’ at the start of this section: author and source: here