Review: Mayday

Mayday: Eisenhower, Krushchev, and the U-2 Affair, Michael Beschloss. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1986).

Summary: A detailed accounting of the shoot-down of a U-2 CIA reconnaissance flight over the USSR and the consequences that increased Cold War tensions between Eisenhower and Kruschchev and their respective countries.

After Sputnik, it was one of the first international events I remembered. A high altitude plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down during an overflight of the Soviet Union. Both Powers and enough of the plane survived to make clear that it was clear that it was a spy plane from the US. At first, the U.S. President Eisenhower believed that the plane was destroyed. That’s what he was told would happen. First they responded with silence, then a cover story of a NASA weather observation plane off course. Only when Kruschchev revealed that Powers had survived and they knew enough that it was clear he was doing aerial spying did Eisenhower finally take responsibility. Kruschchev thought he would take the cover Kruschchev offered, blaming it on subordinates and firing them. Eisenhower wasn’t that kind of guy, but the bungling had sown deep distrust in the lead-up to a four nation summit, meant to de-escalate continuing conflict over Berlin and Germany, both divided into East and West. The Summit ended up a disaster. Kruschchev was deeply offended and walked out early. An invitation for Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union was rescinded, a deep disappointment after the warm personal relations they had developed on a visit the previous year at Camp David and the Eisenhower farm. What Eisenhower hoped would be a crowning achievement of his eight year presidency ended in disappointment. All because of a downed plane.

Or was it? That’s one of the questions Michael Beschloss raises and leaves with us. On the face of it, the overflight was a deep offense, a breach of trust, especially since it occurred on Mayday, the Soviet equivalent of the Fourth of July. Behind the scenes, though, militaristic elements in the Kremlin were already coming to think that Kruschchev was too soft on the Americans, and were fearful that he would give away too much in negotiations on Berlin. Kruschchev was walking a tightrope. He wanted to lower military expenditures and invest more in a flagging economy. Beschloss raises the question of whether the downed plane gave Kruschchev cover to take a hard line, which he may have had to do anyway. The overflight and the American admission of spying allowed him to do so from the moral high ground of the moment.

Then there were questions about Power’s story. Was he really shot down or did something else account for him being taken into custody? For one thing, he survived. The plane was relatively intact for being shot down at 70,000 feet. Pilots were supposed to hit a self-destruct switch before ejecting. Powers claimed he was unable to. The fact that Powers apologized at all, even though he refused to denounce the US made him suspect or weak in the eyes of some. Why hadn’t Powers been better prepared for the possibility of surviving a shoot-down?

The book explores a number of questions around the Eisenhower administration. Why did they release a series of cover stories before admitting they were lies? Did the CIA fail the president in the assurances they gave him concerning the impossibility of a U-2 pilot surviving a shoot-down? Why didn’t Eisenhower take advantage of Kruschchev’s early arrival at the Summit to seek out a private meeting to see if he could resolve the tensions between them? And why did Eisenhower authorize a flight so close to the Summit?

Beschloss explores the intelligence dilemma that led to the pressure to approve these flights. The fear of a “missile gap” was driving pressure to increase defense spending. The intelligence gained through these overflights enabled him to fend off these pressures and control spending. There was no “missile gap.” Just a lot of boasting. The intelligence also helped defense planners to plan for the unthinkable, knowing better what assets to target. The Soviet Union was able to acquire this information with ease in the U.S., an open society. There was no comparable way for the U.S. to gather this intelligence, and overflying satellites were a few years away. One has the sense in the end, as regrettable as the U-2 incident was, that most feel the intelligence reaped over the years justified the incursions into Soviet airspace and the concomitant risks.

Finally, this is an interesting study of how easy it is in tense international relationships for parties to misinterpret each other’s acts and not to understand how they are perceived by others. Eisenhower concluded that because Kruschchev didn’t bring up the overflights at Camp David, he had decided to tolerate them. Kruschchev had decided they had repeatedly denounced these flights and that it wouldn’t help his relationship with Eisenhower, who he thought did not know about them. Kruschchev didn’t expect Eisenhower to take responsibility for the spying.

Beschloss offers a well-researched account that helps us understand this period of the Cold War. He helps make sense of the climate President Kennedy inherited. He also offers the intriguing perspective that the U-2 affair was the first in a series of events leading to Kruschchev’s downfall. Beschloss exposes some of the internal dynamics that weren’t clear to most of us at the time. Beschloss combines a well-paced account with careful scholarship that help us understand some of the dynamics of an era that had us hiding under our school desks.

Review: Six Months in 1945

Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War, Michael Dobbs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Summary: An account of the six months from Yalta to Hiroshima and how the decisions and events of those months shaped the post-war world.

Michael Dobbs contends that the six months from February to August of 1945 profoundly shaped the post-war world dashing the hopes for world peace, replacing it with a “cold” war between the two major superpowers to emerge from the world. How did Allies against Germany become adversaries?

The account begins with the conference at Yalta in the Crimea. Planned to accommodate Stalin, it represented an arduous journey via ship, air, rail, and auto for a dying president and a recently ill prime minister. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill arrived at the top of their game. What they found at the conference was a Stalin who was. Given that his country had borne the brunt of the war against Germany (and the casualties), he came with terms on which he would not yield about the borders and government of Poland and his influence in Eastern Europe. Dobbs shows how Roosevelt and Churchill, sometimes with vagueness of wording, tried to reach agreements about the shape of the post-war world that preserved self-autonomy for these countries and preservation of the unity of Germany. Roosevelt described their efforts as “the best I could do.” For Churchill, the handwriting was on the wall for his influence and the British empire. He recognized that he now was junior to the two great powers.

The second part traces the conclusion of the war, the race for Berlin, the death of Roosevelt, the linkup and the zones of occupation. The new president, Harry Truman almost immediately had to stand up to Molotov on the matter of Poland and honoring the agreements of Yalta. But as the old saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and the Russians were in possession of most of what they wanted. Amid all this, Dobbs captures the momentary joy of the meet-up of forces.

Part Three covers the conference in Potsdam, the tenuous balance of standing up to Stalin as an “iron curtain” descends on Eastern Europe and Poland’s government is dominated by pro-Communist leaders., even while Stalin’s help is still sought to deal with Japan. During the conference, Churchill learns that the elections he called turned him out of office. And Truman learned that the test of atomic weapons was devastatingly successful. Japan would be warned, resist, be bombed twice, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and capitulate, even as Russia was turning back forces in Manchuria but was still short of all the prizes sought in the East.

A foreign service officer from the U.S. in Russia sent his famous “long telegram” with his analysis of Russian intent and recommendation of an American policy of containment, which became our foreign policy until 1989 (and may be once more). Reading this made me wonder if the combination of weariness and perhaps naivete of Roosevelt, and the divorce of military strategy and geopolitical assessment led to this outcome. Churchill saw this coming. But he was also the one so cautious about a cross-channel invasion. Great Britain and America’s late engagement, after the Russians’ years of fighting and dying and turning back the German threat left them in a place where all they could do was say “pretty please” to a country who held most of the cards.

For those whose knowledge of this history is a few vaguely remembered paragraphs in a history book, this is a detailed plunge into these six defining months exploring the personalities, the changing power dynamics, the events and the geopolitics that shaped the post-war world. The account balances depth and pace in a way that always fascinates and never plods. It demonstrates that nothing may be so dangerous as a charming vision of world peace between ideological and geopolitical adversaries. Yalta was the wake-up call, and Potsdam the effort to contain the damages. But the amity of a wartime alliance would be no more.

Review: Who’s On First

Who's on First

Who’s On First (A Blackford Oakes Mystery), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1980).

Summary: Oakes becomes involved in a plot to abduct a Soviet scientist couple involved in the research to launch Sputnik.

CIA agent Blackford Oakes leaves Hungary with the memory of the execution of Theophilus Molnar during the quenched Hungarian uprising of 1956. Having provided access to a “safe” house, somehow his safety is betrayed, Molnar is arrested, and executed on the spot.

Vadim and Viktor sustained each other through eight years in the Gulag. Both were scientist arrested for “anti-Soviet” agitation. Viktor believes Vadim saved his life by giving him hope. Later Vadim defects, and becomes involved with the CIA as “Serge.”

The Soviet Union and the United States are in a mad race for space, to put the first satellite in orbit. Each has technical problems, which if solved would clear the way to launch. Each has the answers the other needs.

All these factors come together in Paris when Viktor and his wife Tamara are in Paris for a scientific conference. It is decided to abduct the couple, who are working on the critical research, using the friendship with Vadim to elicit their co-operation. Oakes is enlisted as a taxi driver to abduct them during a staged bus breakdown, with a cover plot of an Algerian radical group seeking an exchange of weapons for hostages.

Unbeknownst to Oakes, KGB agent Bolgin knows Oakes is in Paris. A mole in the French resistance develops a plot to seize and execute Oakes. Oakes, recognized in photos at the abduction scene, unknowingly betrays the kidnapping as a CIA operation. The attempt to obtain Russian secrets jeopardizes the lives of Oakes, and Viktor and Tamara. Along with the death of Theo, all of this raises questions for Oakes, questions that if he survives could end his career. Meanwhile, questions of a different sort at a higher level raise the question of whether winning the space race is worth it, even as a critical operation to sink a Russian freighter carrying a critical piece of technology is counting down to zero hour.

Buckley weaves a compact, fast paced espionage novel around these elements. He recalls the mood that existed in the Cold War era leading up to the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, an event that actuated a military and scientific effort in the United States anticipated in this novel. He exposes the moral dilemmas of what Cold War maneuvering meant for the individuals whose futures and even lives might be sacrificed in covert efforts to attain a benchmark of supremacy. Having missed this series when it first came out, I’m glad for the second chance afforded by the folks at Open Road Media.

 

Review: Destiny and Power

Destiny and PowerDestiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2015.

Summary: Meacham traces the life of our 41st president from his family’s roots and values that shaped a man both deeply committed to service and country, and also highly competitive and ambitious. The biography traces both his skillful leadership in handling the transition from the Cold War era, and the inability of this deeply private man to communicate his deep care for and desire to serve his country that cost him a second term.

Reading this biography suggested to me that George H. W. Bush is perhaps under-rated both as a president and a person. For many, he is regarded as an asterisk between the Reagan and Clinton years. And yet, as President, he skillfully navigated the nation in international relations at the end of the Cold War era that avoided provoking hard-line reactionaries in the former Soviet Union, facilitating the reunification of Germany, the freedom of Soviet satellites from Communist domination, and the establishment of warm relations between the U.S. and Russia. He built an international coalition to decisively defeat Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and bring relief to the atrocities against Kuwaitis, containing Hussein without becoming embroiled in another “Vietnam”.

While growing up in a privileged New England family, he was a genuine war hero, surviving being shot down after a bombing run at Chichi-Jima. Before going off to war, he married Barbara, beginning a lifelong partnership between two very strong individuals. They experienced tragedy that deepened their compassion early in marriage, losing their daughter Robin to leukemia. They built their own fortune in the Texas oil industry of the 1950s. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives, then lost a Senate race in 1964 in the midst of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Subsequently, he served in Republican party leadership, as U.N. ambassador, our ambassador to China and as C.I.A. director.

There was the complicated relationship with Ronald Reagan. Losing to Reagan after a promising beginning in Iowa, criticizing Reagan’s age and “voo-doo economics” he is selected as running mate, despite Nancy Reagan’s opposition. He turns out to be the ideal Vice-President who becomes a trusted friend by never stealing the limelight, and is asked by Nancy to give Reagan’s eulogy, which he did paying tribute not only to Reagan but to Nancy.

The drive for success, for power accounted for the weaknesses and flaws in his story–compromised positions on civil rights in the early years, the Willie Horton ads in the Presidential campaign, the famous “read my lips” promise that he broke when it became clear that only additional tax revenues could address the nation’s fiscal problems in the early 1990’s. Meacham explores the drive in his character that led to these compromises. At the same time, we see a president willing to do what he saw in the best interests of his country even though it contributed to his loss of the presidency, ironically laying the groundwork for budget surpluses in the Clinton years. We also see a very private man torn by the political necessities of glad-handing, wearying of the process in the 1992 election, outshone by the young Democrat from Arkansas.

As impressive as anything else is the life he lived after his one term presidency. He kept a low profile and eventually became good friends even with Bill Clinton, as the two former presidents worked on tsunami relief. Meacham writes about his relationship with his presidential son and there is no evidence of the father second-guessing the son, even on Iraq. He dismissed comparisons on this score with the response that these were different circumstances, different wars. Rather the relationship was one of pride and support, allowing the son to be his own person and only offering counsel when asked. Generally, he was generous with his words even of political foes. The few exceptions: Donald Rumsfeld (always a rival) and Dick Cheney, whose vice-presidency Bush 41 criticized after the fact.

Years earlier, I read Kevin Phillips American Dynasty, which is a much more sinister view of the Bushes as an inter-generational political dynasty. His account and Meacham’s are very different. Perhaps it was the fact that Phillips book was written during the height of criticism of Bush 43’s Iraq policies just before the 2004 elections. This seems a much more measured appraisal and a pleasure to read. It presented a man of both great ambition and generally high principle as well as one far more decent than he was given credit in his 1992 defeat. While acting in his own best political interests at times, what was more striking were the times he acted in service to the country, even at the expense of his own interests, whether as CIA director, vice president, or in the 1990 budget deal raising taxes. I was struck with how fortunate we were to have one with his foreign policy skill at the denouement of the Cold War. While his presidency is still in the recent past and will be subject to continuing discussion, Barack Obama’s assessment on awarding the Medal of Freedom to George H. W. Bush in 2010 may be the most fitting:

“As good a measure of a president as I know is somebody who ultimately put the country first and it strikes me that throughout his life he did that, both before he was president and while he was president, and ever since.”