Friday, May 23, 2008

The Appeasement Chronicles

As President Bush continues to receive criticism about his recent remarks in a speech to the Knesset in Jerusalem, many are taking a fresh look at the personalities and politics of previous generations.

Mr. Bush, speaking on a visit to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel, told the Israeli parliament that, “some seem to believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before.” Then he evoked images of Nazi tanks cascading into Poland in 1939 decrying “the false comfort of appeasement has been increasingly discredited by history.”

Would-be Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, has continually reiterated his views on meeting with the bad guys. He insists that what he wants to do is very much in the spirit of his hero and the man he wants to be when he grows up - John F. Kennedy. In his January 20, 1961 inaugural address JFK said: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

But as Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins pointed out in their recent op-ed piece appearing in the New York Times, when Kennedy tried to put this into practice very early in his administration, it only served to convince his Soviet counterpart, Chairman Nikita Krushchev, that the youthful and “charismatic” U.S. president was a diplomatic light-weight.

There is a great argument to be made that the 1960’s would not have been as tense as they were if the June 1961 summit meeting had never taken place. The Berlin Wall challenge a couple of months later and Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 seemed to flow from how Nikita sized-up Jack in Vienna.

Barack Obama apparently has little understanding of history – particularly the issues that confronted JFK’s generation (“tempered by war”). Or maybe it’s just that he’s not interested in letting the past, with its clear patterns, inform the present – or future.

Eleven minutes after David Ben Gurion announced the birth of the modern State of Israel, President Harry S. Truman signed a document officially recognizing the new nation. The single typewritten page, on display these days at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, shows the President’s cursive corrections - including a wording change from “new Jewish state” to “State of Israel” - and the directive “Approved May 14, 1948.”

This was a bold step for the American president, one opposed by powerful members of his own administration. His Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, was so strongly opposed to this that he told his boss that he might not vote for him that November.

But Harry Truman was a savvy politician with an autodidactic appreciation for history – ancient and recent. As a boy, when his chronic near-sightedness kept him from some strenuous activities, he would lose himself in books. According to historian Michael Beschloss, among his favorites was a “gold-trimmed, four-volume history called Great Men and Famous Women.” One of the men chronicled was Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who “enabled the Jewish people to leave their exile and go back to Palestine.” It’s possible that this ancient story may have been on Truman’s mind as he dealt with the Jewish-Palestine issue. More recent history, particularly the events of the late 1930’s, may have also influenced his presidential decisions.

Appeasement was never really a “bad” word until it became forever identified with the foreign policy failures in Great Britain under the premiership of Neville Chamberlain. The word itself simply means to pacify or soothe. Most of us understand that there is a measure of this required for peaceful and civilized living and discourse.

But when appeasement met Adolf Hitler, it was manipulated, twisted, scorned, and ultimately dismissed. To put it in the words of Sean Connery playing a character in the 1987 movie The Untouchables, Mr. Chamberlain had brought a knife to a gunfight in Munich.

To make matters worse, his knife was crafted out of a very thin sheet of paper.

Harry Truman was a senator from Missouri when all this was going on and he watched in horror as Great Britain seemed to be officially determined to feed Europe to the Nazi alligator one bite at a time. He also knew and noted that the policy of appeasement was not just in play over the fate of Czechoslovakia, but it also had another deadly and dreadful application – one that would impact the Jewish people.

The British government released a White Paper on the issue of Palestine in May of 1939. Since the 1917 Balfour Declaration and during the period British Mandate they had been largely supportive of Jewish migration to Palestine and the idea of a Jewish state there. In essence, the new policy statement changed all of that. It advocated severe limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine; this at a time when European anti-Semitism was reaching critical mass.

By the way, this new policy was a big hit in Berlin.

Winston Churchill saw it differently. He spoke to the House of Commons on May 22, 1939 “as one intimately and responsibly concerned in the earlier states of our Palestine policy,” and insisted that he would not “stand by and see the solemn engagements into which Britain has entered before the world set aside.”

Senator Truman also issued a forthright condemnation that was inserted into the Congressional Record:

“Mr. President, the British Government has used its diplomatic umbrella again,” (this being an unmistakable dig at Chamberlain) “…this time on Palestine. It has made a scrap of paper out of Lord Balfour’s promise to the Jews. It has just added another to the long list of surrenders to the Axis powers.”

When George W. Bush spoke to the Knesset about appeasement, he was speaking to the children and grandchildren of a generation that had gone through unspeakable horror. And the road to holocaust had been paved with appeasement. Yet some supposedly bright people apparently think that a U.S. president sitting down with someone who calls Israel a “stinking corpse” could have some constructive result.

When Harry Truman, in a singular act of political courage, and against the advice of men he admired, recognized the new State of Israel, there is no doubt that he had a sense of the past. The internal world of thought, nurtured as a child through the reading of history, was very present in the man. Shortly after leaving office in 1953, while visiting a Jewish school in New York City, he was introduced as “the man who helped to create the State of Israel” – Truman interrupted and said: “What do you mean ‘helped create?’ I am Cyrus! I am Cyrus!”

Sadly, some in Great Britain were slow to learn. It would take eight months before the Labor government could muster the courage to acknowledge the fledgling nation. Though out of power, Churchill returned to wilderness form as he decried this failure again and again. Speaking to the House of Commons in December of 1948 he mocked the idea that his country had not yet officially recognized Israel:

“The Jews have driven the Arabs out of a larger area that was contemplated in our partition schemes…They have established a government which functions effectively. They have a victorious army at their disposal and they have the support both of Soviet Russia and of the United States. These may be unpleasant facts, but can they be in any way disputed? Not as I have stated them. It seems to me that the government of Israel which has been set up in Tel Aviv cannot be ignored and treated as if it did not exist.”

As in the days of Truman and Churchill, so it is today – some will see appeasement as a panacea. But wiser people know better.

The key is to keep the wiser people in charge. - DRS

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Atheists Need Religion Too

Mitt Romney spoke about the relationship between religion and politics again last week, continuing and clarifying the argument he made in December while still a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. The occasion for his recent remarks was his receipt of the prestigious Canterbury Medal awarded by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The award is given to recognize “Courage in the Defense of Religious Liberty.”

The Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit organization is named after Thomas Becket (1118-1170 A.D.). This great man served as Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II and resisted the king for meddling in church affairs. The organization bearing his name is “dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.”

For being a man of his convictions, Becket was brutally murdered by Henry’s knights.

The Romney speech echoed some of the points he had previously made, but paid special attention to a people-group inadvertently left out in December - NON-believers. Noting that he had received some criticism about this, Mitt told the audience listening to him at the Metropolitan Club in New York City that he “had missed an opportunity…an opportunity to clearly assert that non-believers have just as great a stake as believers in defending religious liberty.” He further argued that: “Religious liberty and liberality of thought flow from the common conviction that it is freedom, not coercion, that exalts the individual just as it raises up the nation.”

It’s not likely that Mr. Romney’s eloquent words will assuage the darker passions of some new-breed atheists (better: anti-theists). Men like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins very much see religion (of whatever sort) as a scourge on society – the very root of all modern evil.

Their kind of thinking was reflected in a story out of the United Kingdom a couple of years ago. BBC History Magazine conducted a poll in its January 2006 issue asking the question: “Who was the worst Briton in the past thousand years?”
Mr. Becket – a man who has been venerated by both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches – came in SECOND. The 5,000 people who participated in the poll ranked only JACK THE RIPPER higher. I guess a killer is just slightly worse than a cleric.

Apparently, the desperate question uttered by King Henry II way back in 1170 A.D. (pardon that religio-centric date citation) – “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – would have plenty of respondents in century number twenty-one.

Freedom of religion is a very good thing. Freedom FROM religion, though promoted by some as the wave of the future, is not.

A simple look back at the eighteenth century gives us a case study. It was the “age of revolution.” Here in America, very much in the spirit of Becket, we rejected tyranny. Over in France they tried to do the same thing.

It worked out very well here. Not so much for France. For all the cries of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” – they instead wound up with a period of violent chaos only somewhat resolved when that despotic secularist Napoleon took over. Hello short man, good-bye freedom.

What made the difference? Well, an often overlooked factor is that it was RELIGION that may have made the difference – particularly something that happened here in the years immediately leading up to 1776 and beyond. It was called THE GREAT AWAKENING. Inspired by men such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, there was a period of deep religious reflection in the land – one that ultimately served to temper human passions – even those inflamed by injustice and revolutionary fervor.

Anti-theists notwithstanding, we need religion as part of the glue that holds civilized society together. When we get to the place where values get turned so upside down that men like Mr. Becket are thought to be as evil as mass murderers, it’s time to pull down the curtains and turn the light off. Life as we have known it is just about over. It’s getting close to that in Western Europe – we are lagging somewhat behind, but we shouldn’t be in that race at all.

Sure – when religion and the state are “one” tyranny can happen. No thinking non-Muslim religionist wants that kind of thing for America. But the other extreme, one that so marginalizes religion as to dismiss it from social discourse, is just as bad. Yes, there are some predominately secular nations in Europe functioning as democracies. But they tend to have that socialist quirk that makes the state itself a religion. Let’s see how it looks over there in twenty-five years.

Religion has always been important in America and that should not change. To the extent that it’s a part of a would-be president’s lifestyle, it should be on the table as people make electoral choices. When Mr. Romney made his first speech on the general subject several months ago, the issue at hand was his Mormon faith. The subject, not to mention the speech itself, reminded many of when John F. Kennedy appeared before The Greater Houston Ministerial Association less than two months before he narrowly defeated Richard M. Nixon for the presidency in 1960. He effectively neutralized the idea that his religion (Catholicism) should somehow disqualify him for the nation’s highest office. The subject had been an undercurrent in the campaign.

Even before he announced his candidacy in 1960, Kennedy was talking about the issue telling one national magazine in 1959: “Whatever one’s religion in private life may be, for the officeholder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts – including the First Amendment.” That was the essence of his argument before the Texas ministers.

Eugene McCarthy was a Senator from Minnesota at the time, though he is best known to most of us for what happened in the 1968 campaign. He was a devout Catholic who actually took issue with Kennedy’s handling of issues of faith. Writing in America, a Catholic weekly, at the time he said:

“Although in a formal sense church and state can and should be kept separate, it is absurd to hold that religion and politics can be kept wholly apart when they meet in the consciousness of one man. If a man is religious – and if he is in politics - one fact will relate to the other if he is indeed a whole man.”

McCarthy, in my opinion, hit the nail right on the head. Yes, the mixing of politics and religion will always be tense. It might even threaten at times to become toxic. But a nation without religious influence will…well…let me let John Adams, our 2nd President (quoted by Mitt Romney in his speech last week) say it for me: “Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.”

Indeed. - DRS

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Tunnel Time Forgot

While attending a recent symposium at Georgetown University in Washington on the life and career of the late Richard Helms (CIA Director - 1966-1973), I observed a panel of Cold Warriors answering audience questions. Panelists included: Dr. Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Albert (Bud) Wheelon, and a man by the name of William Hood.

Bill Hood is an interesting man who served our nation long and well, first in the old OSS and then in the CIA. When asked a question about what they considered the significant intelligence successes during the Cold War, the panel almost instinctively deferred to this elder-spy-statesman. His reply began with, “…well, certainly the Berlin Tunnel.”

Referred to at times as “the capital of the Cold War,” the Berlin of that era is most often remembered for an AIRLIFT and a WALL - the latter becoming the ultimate Cold War icon. But last year the CIA declassified a report, originally written forty years before, reminding us that when it came to Berlin and Cold War history, there was a third image – one that is often forgotten.

In between the AIRLIFT and the WALL there was – a TUNNEL.

The CIA report entitled “CLANDESTINE SERVICES HISTORY: THE BERLIN TUNNEL OPERATION 1952-1956” sheds little new light on this espionage endeavor itself, but it does give us a window into that era and the thinking behind such a daring venture.
Nicknamed “Harvey’s Hole” after legendary Bill Harvey, head of Berlin Operations Base for the CIA during that period, the digging of a tunnel twenty feet longer (1,476 feet) than the Empire State Building was tall, was the biggest wire-tap job in history. The idea was modeled after a successful British effort in Vienna, though the Austrian version was significantly smaller at merely 70 feet long. That effort was known as OPERATION SILVER. The Berlin dig would thus be dubbed OPERATION GOLD (also STOPWATCH) – and it would be a joint U.S.-British intelligence project.

One fact brought out in the declassified CIA report is the secret internal code name for the tunnel operation. Generally known as GOLD for decades, we now know that it was called PBJOINTLY to insiders.

This report, originally produced in August of 1967, is available on the internet at . It details the conception, construction, and completion of the tunnel – as well as analysis of the fallout from its eventual discovery. According to the document, more than 650 people were employed in London and Washington, D.C. to process information gleaned from the taps. On the American side – just to show the dimensions of what they had to analyze - 4,000 feet of teletype messages were handled daily. If printed in book form “these images would have filled a space 10 feet wide, 15 feet long and 8 feet high.”
The basic idea was to tunnel under a quite unappealing part of Southern Berlin and beneath the dividing line between the American and Soviet sectors. The mother lode of OPERATION GOLD was the KGB Headquarters compound located in the Karlshorst district of the city.

The Berlin phone system had been set up before World War II and remained intact with just a few modifications reflecting post-war realities. The city was “second only to Moscow in the Soviets’ communications network” – a fact that made tapping into the lines nearly irresistible from an intelligence standpoint.

Digging began in August 1954 and the tunnel was completed in February 1955. The work involved displacing 3,000 tons of dirt and the installation of the actual physical taps on 3 cables - considered the most sensitive aspect of the project. The key was to “draw off as small and as unnoticeable a signal as possible” – a task requiring skill and a sure hand. This accomplished, the tunnel was ready for information to start flowing on May 11, 1955.

However, this daring venture contained the seeds of failure almost from its very conception. The tunnel lived as an espionage conduit for 11 months and 11 days before being discovered by the East Germans on April 21, 1956. The story was that they had been looking for a problem with one of their cables, when they accidentally came upon evidence of the tunnel.

This was the widely (though not, universally) accepted version of the events at the time as evidenced in the now declassified history. An internal CIA memo prepared 2 months after the tunnel was blown concluded that “the loss of this source was purely the result of unfortunate circumstances” beyond their control.

But Bill Harvey was never satisfied that the Soviets had just happened on the tunnel. A skeptic by nature, it would take a few years before that skepticism was vindicated
The story of The Berlin Tunnel is a classic blend of the technical and human aspects of intelligence work. Though the Americans and British succeeded in creating this delivery mechanism designed to bear so much informational fruit, they were in the end confounded the old fashioned way.

Someone betrayed them.

With painfully fresh memories of moles in the British intelligence community – traitors such as Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess (both defecting to Moscow in May of 1951) - some on the American side were understandably leery of such a massive and highly sensitive joint espionage venture. But whatever the concerns, they were dismissed in favor of the potential benefits.

But there really WAS a mole.

His name was George Blake. He would not be exposed as a KGB spy until 1961, but he had already been working for a few years for the Soviets by the time he was uniquely positioned to betray this project to his handlers. In fact, he attended vital meetings – always taking detailed notes – having ironically been tasked by MI-6 with preparing a written record of the discussions about the tunnel and its progress. He did so faithfully and gave copies to all involved. Of course, he kept a copy for himself – but it wouldn’t stay in his possession for very long.

In January of 1954 Blake met his KGB contact on the top deck of a London bus, handing over a copy of the minutes of the meetings between the CIA and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service - a.k.a. MI-6). The Soviets were in the loop all along.
George Blake was apparently drawn to the Soviet side while working for the SIS in Korea. He was captured by the North Koreans and eventually decided to turn traitor. His is a strange story with eery Manchurian Candidate undertones.

Though The Berlin Tunnel was discovered and rendered inoperative after being on line for less than a year, it was seen at the time as evidence of just what could be accomplished by determined effort and creative resolve. The American media applauded the tunnel once uncovered and saw it as a positive example of the ingenuity of our intelligence community. The material at the CIA site includes some newspaper clippings from 1956 bearing this out.

The ultimate post-script to this story lies in the question: “If the Soviets knew about the tunnel – why did it take so long to expose it?” And, in the same vein: “If they knew about it, were they using it primarily to send disinformation?”
While the recently released CIA document does not answer these questions definitely, the prevalent opinion has been that Soviet desire to protect their mole (Blake) seriously inhibited them from disseminating massive disinformation. It seems likely, though, that they surely must have used it at least a little for that purpose. And of course, why they chose to expose the tunnel when they did remains a mystery.

Author David Stafford, in his book on the tunnel entitled, “Spies Beneath Berlin,” supports this view suggesting “that the KGB had chosen to protect Blake at the expense of letting STOPWATCH/GOLD develop as a successful operation.” He also notes that Allen Dulles, the Director of the CIA at the time, concurred. To them the project was “an outstanding and brilliant intelligence success.”

The internal CIA history of The Berlin Tunnel sheds no new light on this aspect of the story. It remains an intriguing Cold War riddle. – DRS

Friday, May 9, 2008

Jimmy, Bill, and Herbert

Long after nightfall on January 20, 1969, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson arrived at their 330-acre Texas ranch. LBJ had been an ex-President for just a few hours. Throughout the day well-wishers had gathered – first at Andrews Air Force Base, then at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. They showed up to say thank you to the man who had ascended to the presidency in those chaotic Dallas moments more than five years before - and who less than a year before had pulled himself out of the race for a final term in the White House.

One of the first tell-tale signs that life was going to be comparatively perk-free was when they came upon their massive collection of luggage that had been left in the carport that evening, with no one around to carry the bags. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson laughed and she remarked: “The coach has turned back into the pumpkin and all the mice have run away.”

I imagine that President George W. Bush has been thinking a lot about Crawford, Texas and his post-presidency period these days. With polls indicating that he is increasingly unpopular, he will step down just after noon next January 20th.

The U.S. Senate is sometimes referred to as the country’s most exclusive club. But actually, that distinction better describes a group of three - soon to be expanded to four: The fraternity of former Presidents. Reentering the atmosphere of earthly reality minus the privileges and powers inherent in our nation’s highest office has not always been an easy adjustment.

We currently have three former presidents roaming the land. There is the first President Bush, who has clearly managed to conduct himself with the kind of self-effacing dignity that characterized his personal style during his Oval Office tenure. Except for the occasional jump out of an airplane to mark a birthday, he doesn’t make the news much, and it’s probably because he prefers it that way. Will his famous son approach his exile similarly?

Then there are Jimmy and Bill – two men who seem to be determined to magnify the weaknesses of their previous service in ways that make the news on a near-daily basis.

For a long time after Mr. Carter headed back to Plains, Georgia, after a single frustration-laden term, I often thought that he was a better ex-President than he was a President. He was building homes for the poor, teaching his Bible class, and using his influence for the general betterment of mankind. But frankly, I liked Habitat for Humanity Jimmy much better than the Hurray for Hamas cheerleader who has lately been conducting his own misguided and counterproductive shuttle diplomacy without portfolio.

Bill Clinton, who had spent so much time since leaving office rebuilding his reputation in light of the scandal that clouded his final years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, seems determined to throw it all away in the pitch and toss of some of the fiercest politics of this current campaign season. He was doing so well on his road toward a truly post-partisan elder-statesman-like retirement, but the lure of the limelight and sound byte has set him back – maybe permanently. It was said of Theodore Roosevelt that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding he attended and the occupant of the casket at every funeral. Mr. Clinton seems to want to be the candidate in every election.

But, in fairness, being a FORMER President must be an awkward thing. Woodrow Wilson left office a broken man – physically and emotionally - the cheering having stopped long before his White House exit. Lyndon Johnson went back to Texas and spent his final years working at his ranch and on his memoirs.

Some former Presidents found their second wind after leaving office. Richard Nixon made a new career for himself as a writer and thinker – and did much to rehabilitate his image and reputation after his resignation. His funeral in 1994 (attended by all four members of the fraternity at the time) was in many ways a healing event providing a measure of needed closure. His successor Gerald Ford, by all accounts enjoyed the high esteem of his countrymen – as did Ronald Reagan, even as he entered and endured the long and sad good bye of Alzheimers Disease. Harry Truman conducted himself well as a former president – though, sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see his complete recovery from the distinction of leaving office with the lowest ever recorded approval rating.

But I think the gold standard for ex-presidential life and service, one that two of the three current members of that elite club will likely never have a shot at, was set by a man who for most seems to embody the very idea of an ineffective presidency.

I am talking about Mr. 31 - Herbert Clark Hoover.

In a real sense, the presidency was the worst thing that ever happened to him. He had been so successful prior to that, and was known for his unmatched resume and clear sense of duty and compassion. The man pretty much saw to it that Europe didn’t starve after The Great War ended in 1918.

His election in 1928 was the one of the most inevitable political events of those times. It was a no-brainer. The Great Engineer had an unsurpassed resume. He was probably the most qualified man ever to hold the office. But we all know the rest of the story. The economic catastrophe of the age happened on his watch and he seemed to be unable to deal with it and watched his reputation as a great man unravel.

It’s interesting to note, as American’s try to figure out what a Recession is, and whether we’re actually in one or not – that Hoover wrestled with what to call his crisis. Up to that time, massive financial reverses had been referred to as PANICS. But Hoover didn’t want to scare folks, so he made sure the obviously more benign term – DEPRESSION – was used. Of course, he didn’t foresee the adding of the enduring modifier GREAT to it.

Mr. Hoover was swept out of office by a promise of change including the “yes we can” of the day: “Happy Days are Here Again!” Of course, the truth is that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t really change that much, adopting and continuing many of Hoover’s policies and approaches. But his frenetic first hundred days and his savvy use of the media of the times made sure that people “felt” like things were changing. FDR was, in many ways, the father of the post-modern politics of meaning.

Hoover lived for more than thirty-one years as a former President. He wrote sixteen books (including one entitled: “Fishing for Fun – And How to Wash Your Soul”), and eventually was able to serve his country again with great distinction. I say eventually because he was banned from the White House during FDR’s lengthy administration. In fact, the relationship between President’s 31 and 32 was probably the worst ever between two former chief executives. For all of FDR’s purported charm, he also had a capacity for brutal pettiness.

In the early days of Harry Truman’s presidency, he invited Hoover back to the White House – something both men felt was long overdue. And as Europe struggled to recover from the ravages of World War Two, Mr. Hoover was dispatched by the President to tour Germany – using Herman Göering’s old train car - to investigate the food supply there. Hoover told Truman that the situation was dire, and this was the catalyst for an extensive program that provided food for millions of school children.

The 40 tons of food were described by the beneficiaries at the time as Hooverspeisung – Hoover Meals.

Soon another assignment came from Truman – asking Hoover to serve on a commission to reorganize the executive departments of the federal government. He was elected chairman – and it came to be known as the Hoover Commission. When Dwight D. Eisenhower became President in 1953, he asked his most recent Republican predecessor to serve as chairman of another such commission.

And by the time he died at the age of ninety in October of 1964, having lived out his final years in an apartment at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, he had proven himself to be a dedicated and constructive former President of the United States.

It seems to me that former Presidents have two good options if they want to preserve or enhance their legacies. They can go to the ranch like Lyndon. Or they can wait to be called on to serve, like Herbert.

When former Presidents take too much initiative to seize the moment, they are forgetting that they already had their turn. - DRS