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9-08-2015, 22:41

THE EISENHOWER AND KENNEDY YEARS, 1954–63

The fragile stability achieved after the Korean War armistice (1953) and the Geneva settlements of the Indo-Chinese question (1954) did not last long. With the rise of Khrushchev, the Soviet Union was pursuing a much more dynamic and aggressive policy in regions from which its influence had previously been almost wholly excluded. The USSR had backed Nasser’s Egypt in the Middle East; it had sought to offset American economic pressure by purchasing Cuba’s principal export, sugar; in civil war in the recently independent Belgian Congo (now Zaire) it supported the left-wing leader Lumumba (and so began meddling in Africa); in Europe relations were uncertain still over the issue of divided Germany and in particular over the future of Berlin. In south-east Asia after the defeat of the French by Ho Chi-minh and General Giap in the summer of 1954, there appeared to be a chance of a negotiated solution. The Geneva Conference of that year had resulted in a number of agreements and compromises. The fighting was ended, and Vietnam was divided close to the 17th parallel, with the North Vietnamese controlling what became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, recognised by the communist states; in the south arose the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam. Vietnam, it was proposed, would be unified again following elections in July 1956. In Laos, which was not divided, the communist Pathet Lao had made far less progress, though they were granted de facto control of the two northern provinces. The French undertook to withdraw their forces from Laos and Vietnam, and no foreign troops were to enter those countries or to establish bases there; excluded from this provision were a specified number of military advisers – thus a small French mission continued for a time in South Vietnam and Laos. The two crucial features of the Geneva Accords were thus that Vietnam and Laos were to remain unitary states whose future would be decided by elections, and that no foreign troops were permitted to assist North or South Vietnam. But, from the start, the prohibition against the introduction of foreign ‘arms and munitions’ (Article 4) was a dead letter. Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles regarded the Geneva Accords as appeasement of communism and a defeat for the free world. They dissociated themselves from the agreements but promised not to overturn them by force provided there was no aggression from the North. They also expressed doubts about the all-Vietnamese elections and insisted that they be held under the auspices of the United Nations. The South Vietnamese government, headed by the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to sign any of the treaties but carried out the military truce conditions. Eisenhower’s conduct in 1954 marked another turning point in the tragic history of Vietnam – and of the US’s involvement in that tragedy, which led to extensive sacrifices in men, material and, a decade later, social cohesion. What Eisenhower and Dulles refused to accept was that no firm line had been drawn against further communist expansion, further erosion of the Western position in south-east Asia, though they had no wish for the US to replace colonial France or to exploit South Vietnam. A halt had been called in Europe and in Korea: now it appeared that the communists were poised to move south. Although eventually tragic in their consequences, the Eisenhower–Dulles reactions should not be judged as inhumane or dominated by simplistic ideology. Indeed, it was the communists who deserved their reputation for cruelty. In 1955 and 1956, thousands of Vietnamese ‘traitors’, French sympathisers and ‘landlords’, including many peasants, were killed by the communists in the North. The entire populations of Catholic villages fled from the North, and altogether nearly a million refugees headed south when the North Vietnamese state was established. Not that Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were paragons of democratic virtue in the South. They imprisoned opposition leaders, rejected any real land reforms to aid the peasantry and allowed corruption to run riot; even so, their authoritarian rule did not compare with North Vietnamese atrocities during the first years after the new states’ foundation. Uncertain of their outcome, Diem refused to participate in the Vietnamese elections scheduled for July 1956 under the Geneva Agreements. He knew that the North would be coerced to vote solidly in favour of the communists and that the opposition parties in the South would join them to form what might prove to be a majority. It was an election that would not be free whoever supervised it. Diem’s control of voting in the South would be far less effective than the communist control in the North. That view was shared by Dulles and Eisenhower. It was Diem who refused to hold the elections, but he knew that the American administration was no keener to see them take place in 1956 and had advised on ‘postponement’ to soften the breach with Geneva. Eisenhower and Dulles were prepared to accept the 17th parallel as marking the new boundary of the communist advance in south-east Asia. They did not encourage Diem to reconquer the North or even envisage such a conquest; equally they were not prepared to tolerate any communist encroachment on the territory of South Vietnam. They were also obliged to accept Diem’s rule – there seemed no one else who could hold the country together. At first Diem appeared to be mastering the situation. The year 1956 passed and, surprisingly, despite North Vietnamese protests, there was no renewal of conflict between the North and the South. There were good reasons for this. Ho Chi-minh was ruthlessly consolidating communist power in the face of ‘traitors’, ‘landlords’ and peasants, while ‘land reform’ was accompanied by thousands of executions. In the south Diem likewise moved mercilessly against remnants of the North Vietnamese Vietminh, who had been left behind as a nucleus around whom a communist insurrection might be constructed. The South Vietnamese communists, the Vietcong, began organising in the countryside in 1957, planning the assassinations of Diem’s village headmen and officials. But Ho Chi-minh was still holding back. Diem’s authoritarian rule, his ruthlessness and his corruption aroused opposition not only among peasants but among all those groups excluded from power and from a share in the loot. The Vietcong assassinations soon made themselves felt, exciting deep unease throughout the country. Murder of government officials increased from 1,200 in 1959 to 4,000 a year by 1961. Diem’s response was to drive the peasants into fortified hamlets, but this proved both ineffective and counter-productive, alienating the peasantry, who objected to being placed under military commanders and were anyway caught between Diem’s reprisals during the day and the Vietcong at night. The US administration failed to appreciate that the Vietcong were not lackeys of the communists in the North but were an expanding and powerfully organised army of southern communists engaged in a guerrilla civil war. Clearly South Vietnamese stability was deteriorating, though Diem was still in control of the cities and much of the countryside of South Vietnam. The position in neighbouring Laos by the close of the Eisenhower administration (January 1961) was more immediately critical. Ostensibly a kingdom whose unity was confirmed by the Geneva Agreements of 1954, Laos was torn by regional, tribal and factional strife. The communist Pathet Lao (Lao National Movement) were growing stronger in the north. Another army faction, which was anti-communist, was backed by the Americans. A third group, the so-called neutralists, tried to maintain at least the semblance of unity by constructing a coalition of all parties and factions, which would each be left in de facto control of the regions they held. That was most unwelcome to the Americans, since the communist regions of the country bordered on North and South Vietnam and so acted as a passage for supplies and men along the maze of jungle trails known as the Ho Chi-minh trail, by which it took two months to reach the South from the North. The Pathet Lao were also threatening to expand their influence into the strategic central Plain of Jars, controlling routes between the capital Vientiane, the royal palace at Luang Prabang and North Vietnam. This sparsely populated country of some 2.5 million bordered not only on North and South Vietnam, but also on China, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, and so was a potential cockpit of struggle between more powerful neighbours. In Washington, Laos appeared to hold the key to the defence of non-communist south-east Asia. The Eisenhower administration was therefore determined to maintain a Laotian government in power untrammelled by communist or neutralist coalition partners. In neighbouring Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk sustained a skilful balancing act between rival factions and no less adroitly maintained a precarious neutrality and unity from 1954 to 1970. That was also the aim of the most durable of the Laotian leaders, Prince Souvanna Phouma, who tried to establish a neutralist coalition with his brother, the red prince Souphanouvong, who represented the Pathet Lao, and with the American-supported General Phoumi Nosavan. He succeeded for a time, but the US backing for Phoumi and for the Royal Laotian Army ruined any chances of a neutralist solution. As American penetration increased, so did North Vietnamese support for the Pathet Lao. But by 1961 the ineffectualness and weakness of General Phoumi had become painfully evident. With Soviet and North Vietnamese support, the communists threatened to take over the whole of Laos. Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s hostility to the neutralist Souvanna Phouma had removed the one Laotian leader who, if only for a time, might have held the Pathet Lao in check. SEATO, the south-east Asian collective defence treaty, organised by Dulles in September 1954, unlike NATO had no standing armies, nor had its signatories promised military support to each other. So, although it was extended to cover the defence of Cambodia and South Vietnam, it provided no guarantees of help and proved of limited value when the US did appeal for military assistance. The Eisenhower administration also sent military advisers to South Vietnam and to Laos, yet the Laotian Royal Army never became an effective fighting force capable of dealing with the guerrilla tactics of the Pathet Lao. The influx of Americans and dollars, moreover, corrupted and undermined the South Vietnamese and the Laotians. American advisers, in any case, suffered from one disability they could not overcome: they were foreigners, white outsiders. The Pathet Lao and the Vietcong, for all the violence and disorder they brought to their fellow countrymen, were their own people. An enormous amount of financial aid was poured into south-east Asia; most of it went to the military or lined the pockets of corrupt officials. What the pattern of military aid reveals are the priorities of the US in south-east Asia from the mid-1950s to the mid- 1960s. By far the largest amount of aid as calculated per head of population was sent to Laos and South Vietnam during the decade from 1955 to 1963. About half that amount per head went to Cambodia and the Philippines. Thailand also received substantial aid whereas in comparison, Indonesia, Burma and Malaysia were granted very little assistance. Eisenhower was committing technical, financial and military aid to enable the anti-communist forces in south-east Asia to defend themselves against the communists. But he was opposed to using US military forces on the Asian mainland (except in South Korea). The mighty US Seventh Fleet with its nuclear weapons was close by. What if the nuclear threat did not deter the Pathet Lao or the Vietminh, while supplies continued to reach them from China and the Soviet Union? What if, despite US aid, the anti-communist groups were too weak to resist effectively? That dilemma Eisenhower bequeathed to his successors. In November 1960 the Democratic senator from Massachusetts won the US presidential election, defeating the Republican contender Vice- President Richard Nixon by the narrowest of margins. Despite fourteen years in Congress, John F. Kennedy had no detailed grasp of the international situation, only general attitudes to world problems: the futility of European colonialism, the need to stand up to communism and to the Soviet Union, the attractions of issuing a call to the American people to inspire them for the noble mission of leading the free world. Kennedy’s electoral theme, that if elected he would get America moving again, was clothed in stirring rhetoric reminiscent of Roosevelt’s early New Deal days. His own theme was the ‘New Frontier’. But detail and concrete undertakings on the serious issues facing the US, especially at home, were lacking. That such vagueness overtook the presidential campaign was hardly surprising if Kennedy was to have any chance of beating Nixon. Issues of civil rights and social reform did not divide Republicans from Democrats, but cut across party lines. Those Republicans who supported civil rights voted in significant numbers for the Democratic ticket; the majority of the white Democrats in the Southern states, on the other hand, would not all support Kennedy. But many Southern Democrats regarded the vice-presidential candidate, the Texan Lyndon Johnson, as a conservative, and this helped Kennedy to retain the Southern Democratic vote in eight crucial states, including Texas. The margins were narrow; indeed, without Texas and Illinois, where the legendary political boss Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago was able to marshal the multi-ethnic vote – black, Polish and German – Kennedy would have lost. The Democrats had to court the votes of minorities: African Americans, Jews and the disadvantaged of all ethnic origins. Kennedy also had to overcome the widespread prejudice against a Catholic president. So there was not one constituency of Democratic voters, but many separate groups. Apart from seeking to awaken in the country an appetite for progress after the mild recession and the Eisenhower years of slow reform, Kennedy turned to the political safety and easy appeal of outdoing Eisenhower and Nixon as guardian of the free world. He attacked their record over Cuba; he would be tougher. And he discovered an issue that threw the Republicans on to the defensive, the supposed ‘missile gap’ between the Russians and the Americans. That the notion of such a gap, greatly boosted by Khrushchev’s boasts, turned out to be a myth, in no way lessened its potency in 1960. In the famous television debates watched by some 70 million Americans, Nixon and Kennedy confronted each other. Kennedy looked fresh and youthful, Nixon sardonic, cynical, even shifty, his dark jowl insufficiently concealed by make-up. Nixon attempted to contrast his own long experience in government with Kennedy’s inexperience, but his defence of the Eisenhower record did not sound very inspiring and Kennedy edged ahead to victory. Kennedy personified in looks and vigour the youthful drive of a new generation, and he and his wife Jacqueline brought a new eloquence and easy-going manners to Washington. The handicaps arising out of the injury to his back sustained when the torpedo boat he commanded was sunk in the Second World War were played down. He needed constant painkilling injections and daily doses of cortisone to restore him to something approaching normal health, although he continued to suffer from the progressive anaemia of Addison’s disease. He pursued pleasure (especially in the form of attractive young women) but also applied himself to the demands of the presidency; with his unquestionable charm and glamour winning the loyalty of his close advisers in the White House. The Washington press was also largely on his side. This was just as well, because Kennedy wanted his infidelities hushed up. Middle America before the permissiveness endemic later in the 1960s, would have been shocked by Kennedy’s insatiable appetite for new sexual partners, in and out of the White House. His marriage was inevitably placed under extreme strain, and his liaisons with beautiful women even brought him into contact with the underworld. After his death, many women claimed to have been his mistress but, as one of his genuine lovers delicately put it, if all who said that Jack Kennedy had made love to them had been telling the truth, he would not have had the strength to lift a cup of tea. In his domestic policies Kennedy was hardly audacious. He appointed Keynesians as his economic aides, but also invited a conservative financier, Douglas Dillon, to be secretary of the treasury. Kennedy was aware that his majority in the country was small and that Congress was in no mood to pass extensive measures involving large public expenditure. Federal aid was provided in selected depressed regions where unemployment was especially high. Increased government expenditure on defence and a liberalisation of social security benefits provided a stimulus to the economy, but it was anyway on a cyclical upswing in the summer of 1961. In 1962 there followed a Trade Expansion Act to reduce tariffs, but Congress – with which he had an unhappy relationship – severely cut Kennedy’s proposed public works programme. Nor were his relations with big business helped when he put pressure on the United States Steel Corporation to rescind a price increase. This provoked a severe collapse of share prices on the Stock Exchange. In 1962 Kennedy pressed forward with more resolution on issues of social reform. He wanted ‘Medicare’ to be granted to retired workers over sixty-five, funded by social security, but the powerful medical lobby, objecting to ‘socialised medicine’, and a Congress worried about the likely cost, defeated the measure. In 1963 with unemployment remaining high (5.5 per cent) by the standards of that period of full employment, Kennedy boldly proposed a substantial cut in income tax, only for Congress to hold the measure up. Before the tragically premature end of his presidency, Kennedy had achieved little in the way of giving assistance to the more deprived sections of American society, but his focus on housing aid, education and medical provision pointed to a future when all these programmes would be enacted. The one glaring omission was civil rights legislation. But on this explosive question Kennedy could not postpone decisive action by instituting modest and well-intentioned changes by presidential executive orders. The battle for black equality was reaching a pitch so intense that all America became involved. Kennedy felt more drawn to global issues, the great questions of war and peace and America’s relations with the rest of the world. In the struggle with communism, the free world seemed to be entering a new and dangerous phase. Berlin, Cuba and Indo-China lay at the heart of the ‘unfinished business’ left over from the Eisenhower administration, and all three issues came to the boil within the first six months of 1961. A speech by Khrushchev on 6 January 1961, declaring that the Soviet Union would support what he called ‘national liberation movements’ in the underdeveloped countries, turned Kennedy’s attention to Third World issues. The ideological subtleties of Khrushchev’s phrase, which aroused bitter debate among communists about what exactly he meant, were not fully grasped in Washington, though the growing rift between the USSR and China was no secret. In the White House, Khrushchev’s statement was interpreted as a challenge: that the communist world would back insurgency in countries that so far had resisted communist takeovers. It was a paradox that, though the West appreciated the significance of nationalism and those other elements that determined international and domestic conflicts, communism was still viewed as a monolithic and undifferentiated threat to the free world. Kennedy surrounded himself at the White House with some of the best brains in the country, charged with helping him to formulate an effective counter to the threat of a continuing advance by communism, especially in the Third World. He decided that the US did not have to balance its budget slavishly, as Eisenhower had tried to do, and that a boost to public expenditure in the spirit of Keynesian orthodoxy would help to get the sluggish economy moving, cut unemployment and expand trade, profits and incomes, so generating more money for the administration to spend. Kennedy, though cautious about creating large budget deficits, believed that the US did not lack the necessary resources to undertake all that was necessary for its security and for its position as the leader of the free world. The military budget was immediately increased. The secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, with his experience of running the giant Ford Motor Company, was to apply the latest business techniques to ensure the most effective application of funds, both in respect of procurement and to identify the right policies to be pursued. Another adviser was Walt Rostow, an economics professor who had studied the stages of economic growth of particular importance to underdeveloped countries. Dean Rusk was secretary of state, and for personal military advice Kennedy turned to General Maxwell Taylor. Returning from a fact-finding mission to South Vietnam, Rusk and Taylor both advocated increasing the American commitment there. For Kennedy, the crucial question was how much. The military situation had not yet deteriorated to the point where a massive infusion of American troops seemed to be essential. Nevertheless, it was already under discussion. April 1961 was a critical month for the White House. Cuba, Vietnam and Laos simultaneously became the focus of crisis management. On 19 April the invasion by American-backed Cuban exiles of their homeland had ignominiously failed in the Bay of Pigs; the following day Kennedy ordered a review of what military, political and economic action – overt and covert – it would be necessary for the US to undertake to prevent the communist domination of South Vietnam. On the 26th the American position in neighbouring Laos seemed on the brink of disaster. There was wild talk by the military of air strikes against North Vietnam and southern China. On 29 April US troop deployments to Thailand and South Vietnam were discussed within the administration. Kennedy kept his nerve. Alerts went out to American bases, a modest 100-man increase in the nearly 700-strong American advisory mission in South Vietnam was approved and, early in May, approval for the despatch of a further 400 special-forces troops was given. Extra military resources were provided, enabling the Vietnamese army to be expanded from 150,000 to 170,000 troops. Finally, US troops were stationed in Thailand. Later that same May the panic in the White House over Laos subsided. America’s threatening posture seemed to have been effective in restraining the Chinese and North Vietnamese. Khrushchev, too, had been alarmed and wanted to quieten things down. The White House’s primary concern was once again Vietnam. Doubts had surfaced about the strongman of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. He and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his formidable sisterin- law Madame Nhu, were heading a government pervaded by corruption, and internal opposition was growing; the lack of morale among the South Vietnamese army was also only too evident. Might not American training, advice and leadership be the best way to stiffen their resolve? But this would entail a considerable increase to the US military presence in South Vietnam. By the autumn of 1961 General Taylor had recommended to the president the despatch of 8,000 US combat soldiers; in a memorandum the joint chiefs of staff had estimated that 40,000 US troops would ‘clean up the Vietcong threat’ and that if the North Vietnamese and Chinese intervened another 128,000 would be sufficient to repel them. The idea of punishing North Vietnamese intervention and discouraging further incursions by bombing North Vietnam had also been raised. All these were proposals to Americanise the conflict in Vietnam. Vice-President Johnson had already provided the justification for this after returning from a fact-finding mission the previous spring: he had advised the president that the battle against communism had to be taken up in south-east Asia or the US would lose the Pacific and have to defend its own shores. But, even faced with such exaggerated catastrophe scenarios, Kennedy resisted sending substantial numbers of US servicemen. He was sceptical whether a few thousand US troops would make the crucial difference to the military situation. Nevertheless, by October 1963, shortly before his assassination, his administration had already sent more than 16,000 men to South Vietnam. The Geneva Agreements were dead, as the US responded militarily to increasing Vietcong activity in the South. More important than the numbers, which were small compared with Johnson’s eventual decision to fight an all-out war employing half a million US combat troops, was the commitment the US made to South Vietnam during the Kennedy presidency and the decisions that were taken about the basic strategy needed to prevent South Vietnam from falling to the communists. Kennedy had expressed doubts at times about the intrinsic importance of Vietnam; on other occasions he subscribed to the notion that its loss would entail the loss of southern Asia. Although Kennedy frequently showed a better sense of proportion than some of his advisers about the dangers of escalation following the despatch of US troops, he never departed from his policy of increasing the US commitment as much as he judged necessary to defeat the Vietcong. His reasoning was political and global: political because after agreeing to the neutralising of Laos and the Cuban Bay of Pigs disaster, he could not afford to seem in retreat again; global because he accepted what he interpreted as the communist challenge to the free world, which had now shifted to a struggle for the Third World. He ignored the advice he received from General de Gaulle in the summer of 1961 not to get bogged down in an interminable war in Indo- China as the French had been and he was undeterred by the refusal of his principal ally, Britain, to join the US military effort, as it had once done to halt communist aggression in Korea. Vietnam became America’s fight, with relatively little help from America’s Pacific allies, Thailand, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines. It was the kind of struggle, moreover, for which the Eisenhower military doctrine of meeting any communist aggression with massive nuclear retaliation against Moscow or Beijing was extraordinarily ill-suited, as Eisenhower had already discovered in Laos. The new military concept suitable for Third World struggles with communism was worked out mainly by Walt Rostow, a professor of economics, General Taylor and McNamara. At the heart of it was the notion of flexible response. Insurgency and guerrilla tactics would be met by counter-insurgency and specially trained units – the Green Berets. The Vietcong would be sought out and destroyed in their hideouts in the countryside and jungles. Combat troops would meet the enemy troops in just sufficient strength to defeat them. This would enable the US to resist force by counter-force in situations and over conflicts that, in themselves, could not possibly be regarded as important enough to risk the destruction of the US in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. Only in defence of Western Europe and over the question of Berlin did the US threaten to use nuclear missiles. But even this determination was doubted by de Gaulle, who developed France’s own nuclear missile capacity, and by the British who, though they later decided to rely on American missiles sold to Britain, also maintained their own national deterrent. In Vietnam, Kennedy’s acceptance of the doctrine of flexible response meant that the US would be drawn into an ever increasing commitment. This was foreseen by intelligence reports reaching Washington which pointed out that neither bombing the North nor increasing the level of American combat troops in Vietnam would dissuade the North from matching every increase. The US would be setting out on a war of attrition without any foreseeable end. Or, rather, it would be ended first by the US, when the American people and Congress came to say no to any further resources, any further loss of American lives. Kennedy, himself, at one time asked what was so important about Vietnam, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, more of a hawk than a dove, wondered how the Americans could win a war in South Vietnam which the South Vietnamese themselves were mishandling and even losing. For Kennedy the struggle was not about Vietnam alone but about American leadership, about the perception of America’s determination to defend the free world, whatever the cost. This was America’s mission in the world. In his election campaign, in his inaugural and subsequent addresses to the American people, Kennedy exhorted America to live up to its ideals. But this exhortation to play a world role had its dangers. In his televised debate with Nixon, Kennedy declaimed, ‘In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half slave or half free. In the election of 1960 . . . the question is whether the world will exist half slave or half free’, rhetoric that raised American expectations to such a pitch and so over-emphasised US power that withdrawal or defeat anywhere in the world ceased to be acceptable. The US presidency thus became the victim of its own projection of America invincible, of America the righter of moral wrongs anywhere in the world (provided they were perpetrated by communists). If Americans could reach the moon, they would surely be able to defeat a second-class, Third World country. The prospective disillusionment of the American people should it turn out that they had been misled, and that defeat in war had to be accepted, haunted successive presidents. Indeed, the gap between expectation and reality was to shatter the next three presidents: Johnson over Vietnam, Nixon over Watergate and Carter over the American hostages in Iran. In October 1963 Kennedy was optimistically planning to begin withdrawing the 16,000 Americans from Vietnam, but he would not have allowed a communist victory either. While brilliant men and their theories pushed him forward, his own steadier judgement held him back. He was inclined to ambivalence, first going along with the advice of experts, but then cautiously scaling their recommendations down. The application of this ambivalence to his dealings with Cuba led to a humiliating defeat, an early personal disaster puncturing his electoral rhetoric. The Eisenhower administration had bequeathed the ‘unfinished business’ of Cuba to the incoming president and his advisers. Not only had Castro nationalised American businesses and taken over the US oil refineries but his country’s links with the Soviet Union were becoming closer. By 1962 he had turned Cuba into a oneparty communist state. But, even as he accepted Soviet help, Castro was at heart a Latin American nationalist, unwilling simply to become a Russian pawn in the Cold War. The problem Kennedy faced was whether to tolerate the continued presence of Castro or to follow through plans initiated by Eisenhower to use Cuban exiles trained in Guatemala for an invasion of the island to overthrow its leader. Kennedy was urged by some advisers to go ahead with the invasion and to provide it with air support. He was told that many Cubans on the island were only waiting to be rallied against Castro. Others, including the sagacious Senator Fulbright, warned the president against foreign adventures. Kennedy struck a hopeless middle course, permitting the invasion of Cuba to proceed while trying to disguise American involvement. He accordingly limited the air support to exiled pilots flying American-procured planes and refused to sanction any direct US participation in the air or on land. The Bay of Pigs landing, launched on 17 April 1961 by the Cuban exiles, became for the administration and for the president personally, a humiliating fiasco. At least Kennedy kept his head when on 18 and 19 April 1961 the exiles were pinned down by Castro’s troops on the beach. By then it was becoming clear that the invasion was failing and that only US intervention could retrieve it. Khrushchev, to rub salt into the wound, declared that the Soviet Union would defend Cuba, but Kennedy did not raise the ante further. The Cuban exiles were left to their fate; more than a thousand survivors were rounded up and imprisoned by Castro. Kennedy did not try to evade personal responsibility. He tried all the harder now to retrieve America’s good name by pushing ahead with the Alliance for Progress, which he had already proclaimed in March 1961. This represented the positive side of US policy, an effort to transform Latin America, to solve its serious social and political problems, eradicating destitution over the next decade and so heading off communist revolutions. Covert action against Cuba meanwhile took dark and bizarre forms, with the Central Intelligence Agency hatching various plots to assassinate Castro by such ingenious devices as a poisoned cigar or dropping pills into his drink. In October 1962 Cuba would be in the news again in the most serious Cold War crisis since the Berlin blockade of 1948–9. The Alliance for Progress was the positive aspect of America’s world mission. It promised $20 billion of US aid for development, which was to be matched by $80 billion from Latin American sources over the next decade. The lever of US partnership and of financial and technical assistance was intended not only to develop Latin American trade and production so that the growth of wealth would outpace the growth of population, but also to bring about basic political and democratic constitutional change and desperately necessary agrarian reform. Latin America would be turned from the path of revolution to one of evolution and human betterment. The threatened advance of authoritarian socialism provided the spur, as it had done in Europe, where it had prompted Marshall Aid, yet the presence of a genuinely humanitarian motivation should not be overlooked. Although the Alliance created some spectacular developments, it failed in its basic purpose of transforming Latin America socially and politically. It worsened rather than narrowed the gap between the rich and poor, as funds were channelled to large enterprises already owned by foreign corporations or by wealthy indigenous elites. Authoritarian rulers further misappropriated large amounts of money. Vested interests naturally resisted any transfer of their wealth and power to the poor and, when faced with a choice of supporting them or allowing them to fall in the face of radical socialist revolutions, the US provided them with military aid. This strengthened military leaders and so weakened further the prospects for democracy. Raised expectations came up against corruption and repression. Latin America was thus heading for further instability and violent revolution, and not for the ‘peaceful revolution’ Kennedy had envisaged (Part XIV). Kennedy’s failure in Cuba did not seem to diminish his appeal at home. A Gallup poll taken soon after the Bay of Pigs showed his popularity soaring to an unprecedented 83 per cent approval rating. The American people rallied to their president, but this support even in the face of a fiasco showed something more significant: that they trusted their administration and were looking for strong leadership, for government to get things done and to solve the nation’s manifold problems. Kennedy was not at ease when he met Khrushchev in Vienna during the summer of 1961. It was to be a low-key meeting, each leader gauging the mettle of the other. Kennedy had Laos on his mind. Khrushchev wanted to restrain the North Vietnamese and Chinese in order not to provoke strong US reactions. For reasons of their own the Chinese were also ready to take a longer-term view and this made possible the convening of a second Geneva Conference in May 1961, which, after fourteen months of tedious negotiations, agreed in July 1962 to ‘neutralise’ Laos, with a coalition of all parties in a royal government presided over by Prince Souvanna Phouma. It was papering over the cracks. None of the parties concerned in Laos or outside had actually abandoned their ambitions to dominate the country. Another crisis loomed over the status of West Berlin. The West’s determination to maintain its position in the city deep in the Soviet orbit had become a powerful symbol of resistance to any attempted Russian encroachments by force or diplomacy. Khrushchev’s threat to sign a peace treaty with the German Democratic Republic the Soviets had created, thus handing over control of access to a communist regime which the West refused to recognise, was an unacceptable solution as far as the NATO powers, including the US, were concerned. But Khrushchev could create such a crisis by ostensibly giving up Soviet responsibility for the air and land routes and handing these to the DDR. At their Vienna meeting on 3 and 4 June 1961, Kennedy made it clear that the West would resist by all means at its disposal any unilateral Soviet moves and warned Khrushchev against ‘miscalculation’. The two leaders also clashed on the issue of the Third World. Unknown to the West, Khrushchev had his own problems with his Kremlin colleagues in the Praesidium. No Soviet leader after Stalin’s death had enjoyed the old dictator’s undisputed power. For the time being Khrushchev was accepted as primus inter pares, but Soviet leadership was ultimately a collective affair. There were hardliners dissatisfied with Khrushchev’s efforts to achieve detente. Others criticised his erratic course and his opportunism. The ideologues wanted to pursue a ‘pure’ Marxism–Leninism believing that the revolutionary cause could be led only by the proletariat. Khrushchev was more of a realist, ready to take advantage of developments that weakened the West and which in the longer term would further the Soviet Union’s global interests. In the Stalin era Third World communist parties had been instructed to take up the revolutionary struggle not only against the colonial imperialists, but also against the ‘national-bourgeois lackeys’. But the anti-colonial struggle in the Third World was fiercely nationalist, led and supported by an indigenous, educated middle class, rather than by peasants or workers. While Third World radicals included active groups who believed in the need for socialist or even communist transformations of society and in centrally planned economies to break existing feudal elites, they were not in favour of exchanging a dependency on the West for a dependency on the East. The nationalists were in any case broad coalitions united only by a wish to get rid of their country’s colonial status. In Egypt, they were led by army officers; elsewhere they were led by civilian revolutionaries. Khrushchev had thrown Russian support behind President Nasser of Egypt in 1955. The Soviet Union began to dispense its own financial and military aid programme to win friends and influence nations. It was on a smaller scale than the American programme, but was carefully applied where it seemed to serve Russian interests best. Egypt and India received most aid; regionally, the Middle East was given priority, relatively little going to Latin America; the sums devoted to military aid were more than twice as large as those earmarked for economic credits. Despite the views of the purists, Khrushchev was prepared to back anti-colonial movements, even if they included bourgeois elements. This is what he meant when he offered to help ‘national liberation movements’. At Vienna, Khrushchev reaffirmed his support for ‘national liberation’ struggles, accusing the US of representing the status quo and of intervening to support it. Kennedy countered with the argument that the balance of power between the communist and non-communist worlds should be preserved. There was thus no meeting of minds. Kennedy returned to the US and in July that year increased the defence budget and the strength of the armed forces. Khrushchev chose another method of breaking the Berlin deadlock, which was also an infraction of treaty agreements, but did not threaten Western rights in West Berlin. Walter Ulbricht, the East German communist leader, had been pressing for effective action to stop the ever increasing flow of East German citizens across the open Berlin frontier to the West. The flow of refugees had reached such proportions that the stability of the East German state was endangered. On 13 August 1961, barbed wire was erected along the frontier right across Berlin, later replaced by the Wall, complete with armed guard towers. East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic were turned into a gigantic prison. The West protested but did not attempt to remove the Wall by force. It was another compromise, but one that was regarded as ending the Berlin crisis. As the eventful year of 1961 drew to its close, the conclusion of a Soviet peace treaty with the DDR was once more postponed; no date was now set for its conclusion. Khrushchev’s world policies had brought the Soviet Union few concrete benefits. The dispute with China was growing; over Berlin, Khrushchev had had to abandon his stand; and even the success of Soviet missile development was clearly being overtaken by the dynamic policies of the Kennedy administration. Khrushchev badly needed a dramatic coup, or at least the appearance of one. That need probably inspired the bold Soviet initiative that was to lead to the Cuban missile crisis.

 

 

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