Saturday, June 09, 2012
Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro and the Cuban Missile CrisisFred Kaplan is the author of The Wizards of Armageddon (1983), an important book that tells the story of the people (mostly men) who John Kenneth Galbraith labelled the "nuclear Jesuits", the grand theories of nuclear strategy like Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter and, for a while, Daniel Ellsberg. It's a very helpful book in understanding the preventive war strategy applied by the Cheney-Bush Administration in the Iraq War - and on a smaller but significant scale by President Obama in Yemen. Andrew Bacevich explains that connection in The New American Militarism : How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005).
Kaplan takes issue with Robert Caro's treatment in latest volume of his seemingly endless biography of Lyndon Johnson of the most dangerous nuclear confrontation in history to date, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Caro's latest volume is title The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 4: The Passage to Power (2012). Caro has a strong reputation among our star pundits, who are no doubt gratified by the gossipy tidbits he serves up in abundance.
Kaplan apparently shared this admiration until now. In What Robert Caro Got WrongSlate 05/31/2012, he writes that Caro's multi-volume biography "ranks among the towering achievements in literary biography." Even of the latest volume, he says,"it is a terrific read. Caro paints palpable scenes and draws vivid characters."
However, he writes of volume 4, "Caro’s treatment of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—and of the roles that Johnson and the Kennedy brothers (especially Robert Kennedy) played in the crisis — is, on several levels, simply wrong." A big criticism, about which I'll say more below.
But first, I'm puzzled how Caro's reputation survived vol. 2, Means of Ascent (1990). Kaplan himself notes that it, "while deeply flawed, is a seminal study in corruption." Gary Wills reviewed the book in the New York Review of Books 37/7 (04/26/1990 issue) in a piece called "Monstre Désacré" and noted some of those "deeply flawed" aspects. This part made a big impression on me, from which I took the insight (which may not have been exactly what Wills intended) that biographers of unpleasant characters need to find a way to love their monster:
In 1944 Laurence Olivier began a run as Sergius in Shaw’s Arms and the Man, unsuccessfully. When Tyrone Guthrie came by to see the Shaw play, he asked, “Don’t you love Sergius?” Decidedly not, Olivier answered. “Well, of course, if you can’t love him, you’ll never be any good in him, will you?” Olivier called this the “richest pearl of advice in my life.” Years later he could point to the exact spot outside the theater where he had received this pearl, after which he loved—and played—the hell out of Sergius.That volume covered Johnson's successful 1948 Texas Senate race, in which he defeated former Governor Coke Stevenson. Johnson won a narrow victory with the help of some questionable vote counting, earning him the enduring nickname of Landslide Lyndon.
But while no amount of context can excuse vote fraud, the context was that Texas politics was corrupt as all hell, and Stevenson in at least his gubernatorial campaign seems to have indulged their own share of it. So far as I'm aware, neither of the two campaigns ever had a legal judgment against them on vote fraud, and the Senate accepted Johnson's election as legitimate. Historians, of course, are not restricted to drawing conclusions that have specific legal decisions to support them. Wills concludes, "Indeed, the history of the area suggests that if Johnson had not 'stolen' the vote, Stevenson would have won by just as artificial a majority." This kind of cautionary framing is important for a situation like Texas or Deep South states from roughly 1875-1965. Segregation and white supremacy produced some very deep-seated corruption in politics. Even Caro indicated that his hero Stevenson would have been ready to buy the same votes if he had been able to.
Stevenson was a nasty old fundamentalist and segregationist, but Caro presents him in saintly images. "Though Caro likes to present himself as a simple fact collector on a giant scale, he is actually a mythmaker, and what he gives us in this book is a night-marishly inverted fairy tale, one in which the dragon slays Saint George," Wills wrote. He refers to:
... the idyllic scene of Coke Stevenson’s retirement that ends the book. Married again, adored and adoring, at peace with the land and himself, Stevenson has rescued his humanity from the degrading spectacle Johnson made of Texas politics. One finishes this long volume with the fear, page by page, that Bambi will show up in the final paragraph to lick Coke's cheek.And Caro leaves out much of the actual larger political context. As Wills observed:
Stevenson's conservatism was not only states'-rights on racial matters but on fiscal ones as well. He took a pay-as-you-go approach to the state’s own budget, and wanted to keep the federal government out. He had always opposed the New Deal—a position Caro seems to prefer to Johnson's inconsistent support for Roosevelt’s programs. But the conflict of 1948 was not just one of campaign techniques. Johnson’s reliance on new means of communication and transportation resembled the "intrusive" technologies that Caro praised in the first volume of this biography, where the New Deal’s rural electrification was concerned.As all reviewers seem to note, Caro sorts through a vast amount of material in his work, and that will make his long LBJ biography an important reference for a long time to come, I'm sure. But in Means of Ascent, allows his obviously intense dislike for his subject to run wild to the point of distortion by emphasis and omission. Maybe Kaplan's phrase "literary biography" is getting obliguely at a similar point. "Caro paints palpable scenes and draws vivid characters," but his polemical mission may not make those literary portraits as carefully drawn as one should expect in history writing.
I won't try to relate here the various points on which Kaplan shows that Caro has done sloppy work in his treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kaplan outlines what we know about the crisis this way:
The crisis began when U.S. spy planes detected Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba, as well as the construction of missile-launchers at secured sites on the island. At first, JFK and his advisers figured they’d have to bomb the missile sites—until they calculated the complexities and risks, at which point Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara suggested a naval blockade of the island as a way to buy time and give Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev a chance to reverse course. After 13 days of shrewd diplomacy, a deal was struck, and the missiles were withdrawn.And Kaplan is apprehensive about what this may promise for the projected fifth and final volume:
Volume 5 of Caro’s series will deal mainly with Johnson and Vietnam, and I’m afraid that his treatment of the Cuban missile crisis in Volume 4 sets the stage for more false lessons. My suspicion, inferred from what really happened in those ExComm meetings, is that JFK would have pulled out of Vietnam—or at least would not have escalated so deeply. The lesson isn't that Johnson marked a departure from Kennedy’s men; it’s that, when it came to questions of war and Communism, JFK himself was departing from the views of Kennedy’s men. It would have been good — it might have made a big difference in world history — if Johnson had known that. And, for the life of me, I don’t understand why Robert Caro made the same mistake.I'm glad to see Kaplan's criticism. Since Caro's biography is so highly regarded among the punditocracy, its sloppiness may perpetuate itself in many iterations.
Tags: cuban missile crisis, fred kaplan, john kennedy, lyndon johnson, robert caro
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Defend the bad against the worse."
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