The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington
on the World Today
ON OCTOBER 9, 1961, the presidential plane was on route to Dallas, Texas. John F. Kennedy was flying there to visit Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who was dying. A correspondent aboard the President’s plane was reading a copy of Why England Slept, which Mr. Kennedy had written when he was a senior at Harvard and which had just been republished. The correspondent asked the President if he would autograph the book for his son, then a college freshman.
The President quickly wrote: “For Andy — With the hope that he will not be compelled in his senior year to write ‘Why America Slept.’ With warm regards, John F. Kennedy.”
President Kennedy did not let America sleep. And nothing in the makeup of President Johnson indicates that he will do so either. Yet the great question that was asked as the new President took the oath of office in Dallas on that tragic day in November was whether he could assume the leadership of the free world. All other questions paled by comparison. Even civil rights and economic policy, essential, of course, to the proper support of foreign policy, seemed less important than Lyndon Baines Johnson’s capacity as a world leader.
More than eighteen years ago, on April 12, 1945, the same question was asked about Harry S. Truman as he stood, awed and frightened, in the Cabinet room of the White House and took the historic oath. He looked about him at the chaos left by a terrible war then approaching its end. President Johnson is the inheritor of a brighter tradition. It was established in the tumultuous years of his three predecessors: Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. That tradition is based on the conviction, long held and often challenged, that a united and determined alliance of free nations could divert Moscow from its expansionist course. This conviction has been at the heart of American policy since the launching of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of NATO.
It was the basic reason why the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations attempted to negotiate with Moscow rather than break relations or resort to preventive war. It was the basic reason why the Kennedy Administration, just thirteen months before the young President was assassinated, deliberately provided a peaceful option to the Soviet Union when Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba. From the President’s vast reading of history, from his knowledge of human weaknesses under pressure, he recognized that total victory is a fantasy, and he did not force a more dramatic, and more dangerous, capitulation. President Kennedy had plenty of reason to distrust the men in the Kremlin. But he knew the limits of national power, and history will say that he exercised the power he helped to create with honor and caution.
Our chances for peace
In his last public utterance, spoken off the cuff in Fort Worth a few hours before he was cruelly slain, Mr. Kennedy said: “I’m confident as I look to the future that our chances for security, our chances for peace, are better than they’ve been in the past. And the reason is because we are stronger. And with that strength is a determination not only to maintain the peace but also the vital interests of the United States. To that great cause Texas and the United States are committed.”
Neither President Johnson nor any responsible Washington official believes that a basic change has taken place in the ideology that governs the Kremlin leaders. But the American officials do strongly believe that events are at last bearing in on the Soviet leaders which may transform their outlook if the West does not falter. Even before Mr. Kennedy’s death these events had altered the course of history as the Kremlin sought to shape it.
For a time during the Eisenhower Administration. hopes for some kind of adjustment and easing of the cold war were bright. But the conditions were not ripe. Although recent hopes may again be shattered (Mr. Kennedy warned in his Fort Worth speech that “no one expects that our life will be easy — certainly not in this decade and perhaps not in this century”), Washington does believe that the Cuban crisis of October, 1962, was one of those watersheds in history comparable to the beginning or end of a great war. Russia had been halted decisively.
In assessing President Johnson, it should be remembered that he suffered through the searing experience of both Cuban crises. Like his predecessor, he knows that while much has been accomplished, much remains to be done. But the problems Mr. Johnson faces are of a different magnitude and character because of the historic confrontation of Soviet and American power in Cuba and the events leading to it.
Toward an easing of tension
After his inauguration. President Kennedy’s first objective was to strengthen the American military so that it could be used as a subtle and effective political instrument. When Khrushchev realized toward the end of 1961 that this power was growing rapidly in a sophisticated way, and that the American nerve was equal to his, he withdrew his Berlin ultimatum.
Khrushchev’s bold and exceedingly dangerous plan to place Soviet missiles in Cuba was the most daring exercise of Soviet blackmail in the nuclear age. George F. Kennan has said that he never fully understood why the usually cautious Soviet leaders would expose themselves to such dangers so far from home. It was a desperate gamble to neutralize American power.
When the gamble failed, to the humiliation of the Soviet leaders, the world breathed more easily than it had in fifteen years. President Kennedy was no doubt right when he said that any failure of such magnitude on the part of an elected official in the United States would have resulted in his impeachment. The fact that Khrushchev survived the disaster is a testament to his extraordinary agility as a leader and to his control of the Soviet security apparatus.
Persons who talked privately with President Kennedy in the latter part of 1962 and early 1963 about the possibility of negotiations with the Soviet Union found him extremely pessimistic. Time had to pass after so cataclysmic an event as Cuba, he said, before there could be any meaningful dialogue between Washington and Moscow. Even in the spring he was deeply pessimistic about making progress on a test-ban treaty.
Nevertheless, he persisted, and Harold Macmillan persisted, and events conspired with them to bring a limited but very significant success. After the test-ban treaty there came a series of small steps toward an easing of tension, although the fundamental problems of a German settlement and disarmament remained as stubborn as ever.
The Kremlin’s problems
The most overpowering event after Cuba — and it was hastened by the Cuban crisis — was the ever-widening split between Moscow and Peiping. Few persons had fully appreciated the depths of the divide that separated the two Communist capitals, and few had expected it to become so apparent as it did in 1963. There were other events, too, that forced a pause in Soviet aggressiveness.
As Washington officials look back on 1963, they are convinced that Khrushchev’s problems are increasing rather than diminishing. For several years, Soviet efforts to conquer the underdeveloped areas of the world have been disappointing. The Soviets even suffered reverses in some parts of Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, Moscow’s power in Eastern Europe declined. Almost without exception the satellites in the last year have attempted to reduce their dependence on Moscow and strengthen their ties with the West. The Eastern Europeans particularly want increased trade and cultural relations with the United States.
Unfortunately, the rigidities of American policy have prevented Washington from encouraging these desires to the maximum extent. The 1962 congressional directive to the President to end most-favored-nation trade treatment for Poland and Yugoslavia was an appalling error which President Kennedy sought continually to remedy.
That directive caused the United States untold damage at the time when it had the greatest opportunity in more than fifteen years to influence the course of events in Eastern Europe. At this time of upheaval and uncertainty in the Communist world, we have everything to gain from closer trade and diplomatic ties with the satellites. But trade cannot be substantially increased without new legislation. It is tragic that many members of Congress continue to want to treat all Communist countries alike, thus encouraging rather than discouraging their reliance on Moscow.
In addition to difficulties abroad, the Soviet Union has encountered new difficulties at home, some of which the accelerated American defense and space programs have stimulated. The struggle to compete in these fields has slowed the growth of the Soviet economy, not only in agriculture but in housing and other fields involving consumer goods.
Khrushchev repeatedly has promised an increasing flow of light industrial and agricultural products. In 1963 it was apparent to his own people and to the outside world that he had not kept his promises. The farm failure was partly due to the weather. But it also was the result of the failure of the collective-farm system itself and of an inadequate allocation of capital for farm machinery and chemical fertilizers.
The Soviet farm record stands more clearly than ever as a reminder of Communist weakness. Those countries where the hope of development rests primarily, at this stage, on their ability to improve agricultural output cannot help being impressed by the sudden rush of the Communists to buy foreign wheat and their intimation that they will want to buy Western wheat in the future.
Danger points in the new year
Although Washington may look back on its cold war successes with some satisfaction, it looks forward to 1964 with considerable apprehension. It knows that Berlin is a constant danger point. It knows that new moves, especially in the disarmament field, to ease East-West tension will be exceedingly difficult. It expects the dangers to increase in Latin America. But its primary concern as 1964 begins is with the health of the Western alliance.
Seldom was a Kennedy historical allusion more apt than his quotation from Thucydides in Frankfurt last June: “each [ally] presses his own ends . . . which generally results in no action at all . . . each supposes that no harm will come of his own neglect, that it is the business of another to do this or that — and so, as each separately entertains the same illusion, the common cause imperceptibly decays.”
President de Gaulle’s refusal to see the problems of the West as common problems is the greatest threat to the cooperative endeavor which has characterized the postwar years. Since 1945 it has been accepted in Washington and in Europe that neither was safe without the other, and that the first objective was a common policy on economic and political as well as military questions.
De Gaulle’s veto power
Gaullism rejects at least the spirit of this understanding. It places the interests of a part above those of the whole. The effect is to encourage neutralism in Europe and isolationism in America, the two deadly enemies of a common policy. “This organization [NATO] was built on the basis of integration, which is no longer of any value for us,” De Gaulle said at his famous press conference in July. His discussion of economic problems showed that he favored a new kind of autarky. “It is not worth talking of the European Community,” he said, “if it must be understood that Europe does not obtain its food essentially thanks to its own agricultural products, which can be largely sufficient.”
It is in this atmosphere that President Johnson will proceed on the Administration’s round of trade talks, on the proposal for a multilateral nuclear force, on moves to strengthen NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and on other Atlantic enterprises.
The only hope is that De Gaulle will not be so immune to what he refers to contemptuously as public opinion as to be unmoved by the clear insistence of the other members of the Common Market — Italy and Germany particularly — that he modify, in some degree at least, his policies. Although there have been signs that he has been shaken by the European and American opposition to his policies, his veto is an everpresent threat in all the common efforts that are being undertaken.
It is a threat even in the monetary field, where the International Monetary Fund is at last trying to find a new way to deal with balance of payments problems. Here France has a direct and immediate interest, for if the American imbalance were ended overnight, France and the other major European traders would be the first to suffer. One country’s imbalance is another country’s balance. For more than ten years after the war the United States worked mightily to help correct the French imbalance, and succeeded only too well.
Mood of the Capital
Although Washington’s preoccupation with the executive-legislative struggle is an old story, it was the center of attention throughout 1963. No Congress got off to a slower start than the eighty-eighth, and few Presidents have spent so much time in one year as President Kennedy did in prodding, pushing, begging Congress to move.
His attention was centered on three major issues: tax reduction, civil rights, and foreign aid. At each stage of the legislative process, at the beginning of hearings, in moving from subcommittee to full committee, in moving again from committee to the floor, and finally during floor debate, the President’s attention to the most minute detail was required.
President Kennedy’s patience was monumental in the face of one disappointment after another. Is it true that Congress functions expeditiously only in times of crisis? The question is asked both in Congress and across the nation as despair and frustration take hold of men in both branches of the government who are committed to action, and as President Johnson continues his predecessor’s struggle.