wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Derek Leebaert

The Fifty-Year Wound

H.G. Wells died in 1946, not long after publishing Mind at the End of Its Tether, a sketch of an era that had gone beyond the imaginingeven of the father of science fiction. What came next would have seemed still more far-fetched. The world of 1945 to 1960 was being shaped by people who were qualified biplane pilots (such as Robert Lovett) and military academy graduates from the horse-cavalry era (such as Eisenhower). Suddenly, they had to handle fission weapons (which Wells had put into a novel in 1912), delivery systems denying all security of distance and defense, and (in Maoism) a raging mass faith apparently expanding more rapidly than had any great religion.

Fifteen years after Wells, the United States had replaced the oldest president with the youngest elected one. The country was ready for the torch to be passed to a new generation. It also entered a new Cold War, one that offered at least a half dozen striking differences from the struggle as fought under Truman and Eisenhower. Fears that Moscow might indeed fulfill Khrushchev's promise to overtake the West catalyzed defense spending, propaganda, espionage, and covert action. Poignantly, John Kennedy spoke in his inaugural address of America's 'burden.' By the time of his second State of the Union address, he would acclaim the 'burden and the glory' of the hour at which America had arrived.

The first and most apparent difference in this new Cold War was the incaution. The leadership under Kennedy's two predecessors had at least been aware of America's limitations, even to the point of exaggerating them. The youthful and vigorous men who came to power in January 1961 saw few limits and acted accordingly. The excitement of these World War II junior officers could now work on the institutions and practices that had settled in place over the preceding fifteen years. A handsome young president now challenged his fellow citizens to 'pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.' It was a blank check tossed before the world, an immense change from the Cold War of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles. The most impatient of men. Kennedy, told Americans that they would have to be 'patient in tribulation.'

A second difference in this new era was the exaggerated interest in foreign affairs. Martin Luther King, Jr., was marching. Much of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and other forgotten pieces of America were barely more advanced than in 1900. Yet nothing on domestic affairs deserved mention in Kennedy's inaugural address. All the problems at home 'pale when placed beside those which confront us around the world,' the new president declared to a joint session of Congress after a week in office. He then let it be known how he remembered that the Federal Reserve dealt with monetary policy: it was because the surname of Fed chairman William McChesney Martin (who had been in office for ten years and was the world's most powerful economic figure) began with an M.

Third, this preoccupation with foreign affairs was accompanied by an astonishing militancy. Kennedy had spoken in the campaign about 'a struggle for supremacy' against 'ruthless, godless tyranny.' It was a simplifying view in which, he said, Americans yearned 'to be led by their Commander-in-Chief.' To him, the Eisenhower years were 'the days when the tide began to run out for the United States' and a red one began to pour in. The stridency of the new administration surpassed anything proposed by other avowed anti-Communists. The consciously sophisticated, well-schooled people around Kennedy simply substituted the suave language of international conflict for the coarse rhetoric that Joseph McCarthy had made familiar. Kennedy's reputation has become that of a man of peace, but in fact he thrived on 'neither war nor peace.' Misjudgment became inescapable as emergency moved further into a dramatizable. institutionally underwritten way of life.

Fourth, militancy would be backed by the serious-sounding social sciences, which had been growing in influence since World War II. Professors, who had previously been mostly advisers to the departments dealing with national defense, now became practitioners. They helped supply the analytic tools and the many social science certainties that would become the biggest and best casualties of the Vietnam home front.

A fifth difference was that by 1961. the Cold War seemed truly open-ended. What under Truman had been seen as something hopefully short and not too sharp, and what Elsenhower had tried to moderate with alliances and judicious spending, came to look indefinite. Kennedy declared at the start that there would be 'a long twilight struggle year in and year out.' If this was peace, what might the next stage in the struggle be like? Probably not all-out war, but something harder, and correspondingly more thrilling.

Sixth, Kennedy made explicit that the Cold War was a 'global civil war,' one that would be waged in the 'whole southern half of the globe.' That half included some of the world's most morally treacherous terrain. The United States had certainly bribed and threatened before the Cold War—'We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead,' thundered Secretary of State John Hay in 1904—but the years of the Kennedy administration settled such behavior into a system. What followed was a routine cultivation of 'friendly dictators,' a profligate use of covert operations, and an endorsement of assassination at the highest levels unique in the history of the American presidency.

During Eisenhower's last days in office, Walter Lippmann had written of the 'vacancy' in American life, suggesting that the people had been put to sleep. Americans apparently yearned for more political direction rather than, say, more rewarding private activities. Clearly agreeing, Arthur Schlesinger had also written in 1960 of 'heroic leadership.' The country, he believed, was falling behind because of a national lack of purpose. Presumably, its citizens would answer only to 'heroism,' that quality in this politically oriented time to be found among politicians. No need to specify names.

The Cold War brought forward a certain type of politician who presumed to give tone to American lives as the country tried to adapt to its new energies. These were men licensed to become overexcited, the kind of politician who fascinates intellectuals. There was no one better than John Kennedy for exalting the glamour and authority of the state. Kennedy, presented as PT boat hero, was the embodiment of fame won by going in harm's way Conflict and danger might lift everyone into a larger scope of being as the nation faced what its president called at his inauguration the 'hour of maximum danger.'