Friday, 28 October 2011

This day 50 years ago. Mexican stand-off with the Russians. Who blinked first?

On this day in 1961, the Soviets and United States forces endured a stand-off that lasted for at least twelve hours, as a result of the building of the Berlin wall and subsequent restrictions of western diplomats and others  from travelling from one end of the city to the other, according to a blog published in the Washington Post today and available to read here.  I came across this link on Twitter, and read with interest how the newly elected President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was thrown into the deep end of high-stakes European diplomacy with little or no experience, and how ably he acquitted himself, whether it was by good luck or management. Relations between the Soviet Union and the west were practically threadbare, and this picture below  is as good an example as any hyperbole from me as to what the 'relationship', if you could call it that, had been reduced to:

Soviet and western tanks playing a game of cat and mouse along Friedrichstrasse was not a particularly edifying sight, as the rest of the world held its breath in anticipation of which side would give in first to relieve the tension which must have been a pretty unsettling experience for all concerned. I find it difficult to imagine what it must have been like to have lived through this period of history, when nuclear war seemed an ever-present 'given'. That is, that nuclear war was  probably more likely to happen than not, which, when you think about it, is an extremely difficult, not to say, unacceptable state of affairs to have to contemplate.

The blog published in the Washington Post today concerns the de-classification of hundreds of documents concerning this period in European history, when it seemed likely that another world war would break out, given the fractious nature of the cold war, and the bellicosity of Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev, alongside the green and untried John F Kennedy in his first year of office as President of the United States. Reading this blog coincides with a recent purchase I made of a book which I once owned and decided to buy again, called 'A Question of Character: A Life of John F Kennedy, by Thomas C. Reeves. Published in 1992, the book was a bestseller, but it did its best, if not to debunk the Camelot myth completely, then at least to put it into a bit of perspective. I've never had much time for the slavering coffee table book mentality of many books that have been written about the President, and I found Reeves' approach as a respected historian, to be  free of any kind of glossing over of the truth of events, or embellishing behaviour that could not have been acceptable when it occurred, much less acceptable now. Today,  the conduct of politicians is virtually held to ransom by committee, the media and other structural entities which have existed since the Watergate debacle that saw the political system of the United States crash to its lowest point in 1972-74, and that subject is in itself ripe for a separate post, but not right now.

Children play along a section of the wall.

I'm far too young to remember John F Kennedy, and I went on to study history at university having a neutral stance about his legacy out of sheer ignorance, and I admit this. I wrote an essay on the Cuban Missile Crisis and came away with the belief that with a mixture of luck and perceptive decision-making on the part of the Americans, a nuclear war with Cuba and the Soviet Union was probably avoided. I gained a respect for the President from researching this subject, and also came away with a better understanding of why he was so loved and revered as a great leader. When you study history its very easy to do one of two things. Either you can look back and say 'I told you so', or you can conversely, (or should I say contrarily), embellish on something you find embarrassing and try to hide it or twist it around into something that simply is not true. Not having any kind of stake in the Kennedy 'myth' one way or another, I do think that after re-reading Reeves book, there were many areas in Kennedy's personal life in which he behaved irresponsibly and with conduct unbecoming a head of state. That the person concerned indulged in bad behaviour in his personal life does not however, limit his decision-making abilities, or his right of mandate over the people who elected him.

 It's a shame that we don't have  leaders of Kennedy's calibre today, as the world unfortunately, is as unsafe and insecure now, as it was then. We should let our leaders do the leading. We should elect them in good faith and let them do their job. We should not pat nut-jobs on the back for assassinating them, (or even attempting to) but instead elect them out of office if we decide we don't like them anymore or are dissatisfied with their performance. There are many things that change, but also a lot of things that stay the same. Things have in the past been bad. Do we really want to go back to the way they were? Let's hope not.

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