Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bobby Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis

Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Introductions by Robert S. McNamara and Harold Macmillan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1969.

At the beginning of Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy relates something of what it felt like when he and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and several other high officials of the U.S. government first heard the facts. On Tuesday, October 16, 1962, experts from the U.S. Intelligence Community revealed to the group that the Soviet Union was building a missile base on the island of Cuba, and that atomic weapons and large missiles were already there. During the weeks leading up to that meeting, Soviet representatives, including Chairman Nikita Khrushchev himself, had consistently assured American leaders that they had no intention of sending surface-to-surface missiles or offensive weapons to Cuba. Remembering the moment when the truth became clear, Kennedy writes: "Now, as the representatives of the CIA explained the U-2 photographs that morning, . . . we realized that it had all been lies, one gigantic fabric of lies." There at page 27, I was hooked and kept reading to the end. What a riveting story, told so well.

From there, Kennedy describes some of the initial deliberations of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the "Ex Comm"). He tells about the competing recommendations they offered, which invariably led to the excruciating decisions that finally only the President could make. The first major decision took up the question of an appropriate initial response. After President Kennedy rejected the plan of a military strike and adopted the idea of naval blockade of Cuba, there were other questions to answer. Many of these were related to the task of striking a balance. On the one hand, it was imperative that the U.S. forcefully confront Khrushshev over the treachery and provocation of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it was also necessary to leave room so that the Chairman could retain honor and respectability while backing down. As Kennedy describes it, this balancing act was performed by the President as he stood between the implicit threats from the Soviets on one side, and calls from U.S. military leaders and hawkish members of Congress for at least a strike, or even a full invasion of Cuba, on the other side.

Kennedy relates a number of nail-biting episodes as the crisis unfolded. He tells, for example, about the President meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko two days after U.S. officials became aware of the build up, and how Gromyko denied any such activity. He also reports how, at his brother's request, he made a visit to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin who, like Gromyko, held to the same official line: no long-range missiles had been delivered to Cuba, and the Soviet government had no intention of doing any such thing. Kennedy gives the reader a good sense of what it was like for the President to hear from the Ex-Comm about every possible contingency before making day-to-day and sometimes minute-to-minute decisions that brought with them huge consequences. Finally, Kennedy relates the official agreement according to which the Soviet Union would remove their weapons systems from Cuba and the United States would end the quarantine and pledge not to invade the island nation.

In addition to a sense of relief, I had several reactions as I finished this book. First, I was impressed at how well it is written. Throughout, Kennedy exhibits a crisp, easy-to-read style, the eloquence of precise and clear language.

Second, I was struck by the consistent humanity of this unique story. For example, if they go on long enough, even the most grave circumstances get interrupted by humor and the ridiculous. The Cuban Missile Crisis was no exception. Kennedy relates some of this. For example, upon realizing that something would have to be done in response to the aggression and deceit of the Soviets, Robert passed a note to his brother saying, "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor" (31). And I had to smile when reading the story of how, instead of traveling in a long line of limousines which would have tipped off the press, ten men crammed into Kennedy's car for a ride to the White House (43).

Third, I felt suspicious whenever I sensed that Kennedy's own presidential aspirations and his natural desire to preserve his brothers' dignity overwhelmed the narrative. For example, he chalks up the Bay of Pigs debacle to a failure to solicit a variety of competing opinions. That action was precipitated by a unanimity of thought, says Kennedy, which closed off the possibility of a better decision (112). It also seemed more than a coincidence that Kennedy never mentions his official title, U.S. Attorney General. From beginning to end, he casts himself primarily as the President's brother, close advisor and assistant. An uniformed reader might be forgiven for concluding that Robert was the Vice President, instead of Lyndon Johnson to whom the author grants nothing more than a cameo appearance.

Most of all, I was glad I had read this book. In it, Robert Kennedy accomplished exactly what he set out to do: to tell the incredible story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from his own singular perspective.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Restoration Roots, by Lynn McMillon

McMillon, Lynn A. Restoration Roots: The Scottish Origins of the American Restoration Movement. Henderson, TN: Hester Publications, 1983.

Armchair historians of the American Restoration Movement immediately recognize the names Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. In fact, the religious saga in which they play the two leading roles has more recently been named the Stone-Campbell Movement. Students of this story also know the names of other heroes, especially Thomas Campbell, Alexander's father and mentor, and Walter Scott, one of the movement's great evangelists in the early 1800s.

However, if you were to ask, "Who came before them?" most of their spiritual descendants would look all the way back to the sixteenth century and mention Martin Luther and John Calvin. A gap would separate the reformers of the sixteenth century from the restorers of the nineteenth century. Restoration Roots: The Scottish Origins of the American Restoration Movement was written to fill in part of that gap. It traces some of the lines that tie the Reformation in Scotland to the eventual movement that, under the leadership of Stone and Campbell, sought to restore primitive Christianity on American soil.

Like several other fine works of history, this little book is the revision of a doctoral dissertation. McMillon completed it at Baylor University in 1972 under the guidance of Professors Glenn O. Hilburn, John Davidson, and Robert Reid. The original title was Quest for the Apostolic Church: A Study of the Scottish Origins of American Restorationism. In the early 1980s, the author, a long-time educator and leader among the Churches of Christ, made a few minor changes and republished the book as Restoration Roots.

The "Introduction" in the current edition was written by Earl West. Well known among the Churches of Christ for his multi-volume history of the American Restoration Movement called The Search for the Ancient Order, West offers some penetrating insights about McMillon's topic.

Chapter I sets the stage by reviewing the history of the Reformation in Scotland. Beginning with the influence of Oxford scholar John Wyclif, an Englishman who flourished in the late 1300s, McMillon identifies a strong Scottish attraction to the doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture only), a teaching that was later advanced by men like Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, above all John Knox, and Andrew Melville.

Chapter II, one of the more interesting and significant parts of the book, shows how the Anabaptist branch of the Reformation, though sometimes overlooked or minimized, actually made a vital contribution to what would finally emerge as restorationism. For unlike those who sought merely to reform the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century, Anabaptists used the language of the restitution of the true church, an idea that compares much more closely with the later concept called restoration. Too, the Anabaptist tradition was consistent with English and Scottish Congregationalism in its demand for the autonomy of individual churches, also a hallmark of future restorationism.

Chapter III tells the story of John Glas (1695-1773), who began as a minister of the Church of Scotland. In the 1720s, young Glas argued against the arrangement of the national church of which he was a part. Reminding his hearers that Jesus had said His kingdom was not of this earth, Glas advanced the idea of the separation of church from state. He rejected both presbyterian and episcopal forms of church government insisting on the autonomy of every congregation. After he was deposed by the Church of Scotland, Glas served as an independent church leader and encouraged the practice of congregationalism for the rest of his life. Glas espoused the singular authority of the Bible, the restitution of primitive Christianity, the leadership of a plurality of elders in each congregation, and weekly observance of the Lord's Supper not as a sacrament but as a memorial.

Chapter IV describes the early life and ministry of Robert Sandeman (1718-1771), who became John Glas's son-in-law and his most illustrious protege. In fact, it was the fiery Sandeman who extended the "Glasite" movement from its native Scotland into England and Wales. He did this largely through the publication of Letters on Theron and Aspasio. Sandeman's book was a direct response to an earlier one by minister James Hervey called Theron and Aspasio. Hervey's book breathed the warm, revivalisitic Calvinism which was popular in that day. Sandeman held up an alternate view of salvation, one that began with gospel facts in the mind rather than strange stirrings of the Spirit in the heart. His teaching made sense to many people, and established Sandeman as an important religious thinker of the time. As a result, many people in Great Britain became interested in Christianity as it was taught and practiced among the Glasite churches.

Chapter V continues the story of Robert Sandeman who came to America in 1764 preaching and planting churches in the Northeast. The most prominent of these congregations was at Danbury, Connecticut, where Sandeman died in 1771. His results in America were mixed. He was opposed by several prominent ministers. Also, many people who agreed with him on the basic question of salvation did not go along with the holy kiss, footwashing, and the strict discipline, etc., practiced in the Sandemanian churches. Above all, because of their non-participation in politics, the fledgling congregations appeared to be siding with the Tories and were consequently ostracized and persecuted at the dawn of the American Revolution.

Chapter VI advances to the next generation and the work of Robert and James Haldane. As the author explains, though they were also Scotch independents who learned much from their predecessors, compared to Glas and Sandeman, the Haldane brothers were a different sort of restorationist. They placed much more emphasis on openness, evangelism, Christian unity, and the training of preachers. McMillon writes: "The Haldanes were theological descendants of Glas and Sandeman, but the brothers were more broad-minded in their dealings with persons of differing beliefs. They also exhibited a more dynamic evangelistic zeal than did Glas and Sandeman. While the Haldanes might be characterized as aggressive evangelists, Glas and Sandeman were teachers who tended their flocks" (76). Something else at this point in time is different. By now, Alexander Campbell has been born in Northern Ireland (in 1788) and eventually has direct contact with the Haldanes and their associates like Greville Ewing.

Chapter VII, the last section, takes up "Alexander Campbell and the Restoration Roots." Although he sometimes pointed out the differences between himself and his predecessors, Campbell shared much the same outlook as did the Anabaptists, and Glas, Sandeman and the Haldanes. It seems that two ideas that all of them espoused were a commitment to Bible authority and some concept of the restitution or restoration of primitive Christianity. McMillon ends by telling the story of Campbell's visit to Great Britain in 1847, and his meetings with those who had influenced him, and who he had more recently taught through his journals and books.

So what did I think of this book? One of the first things I noticed is that McMillon writes very much like his former teacher, Earl West, mentioned earlier. He focuses on facts and provides simple description. The subject is religious history. Where he absolutely must, the author takes up political and philosophical contours of the story.

I enjoyed reading this book and learned a lot from it. Because I'm interested in the subject, I would have liked it even more if it had been longer. And what else might have been included? I realize that the decisions of an author never end, and that writers have to make choices about what to include and how far to go with a certain sub-topic. That said, I would have liked more by way of political, social, and religious backgrounds and sidebars, and fuller coverage at certain points. For example, the book barely mentions that a significant part of the growth of Sandemanianism in England was due to the conversion of whole congregations that were originally associated with Methodist preacher Benjamin Ingham. Also, the substance of the theological debate between Hervey and Sandeman is fascinating and deserves, I think, more description than McMillon provides.

That aside, Restoration Roots is nonetheless an important book, one of the few that's been written on its subject. It has been and will remain a significant contribution to the study of the antecedents of the Stone-Campbell Movement and will be enjoyed by those who are interested in this part of the history of Christianity.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It's Been at Least This Bad, Usually Worse

Historians: I suppose they develop other maladies in order to compensate. But here's one problem they don't have: they don't live with the illusion that once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, there was this wonderful, easy world, and that if we could just get back to that place and time, all would be right. The other side of this illusion relates to the present. It's baaaaad. Really, really bad. In fact, there's hardly ever been a time that was worse. If you ever doubt any of this, just ask a real expert like Glenn Beck.

Compare. Summarizing they way things were in England during the period from 1307-1471, the late Norman F. Cantor wrote:

For two hundred years there was chronic instability; change was vast, enveloping, and inescapable. Wherever we look are panic, brutality, violence in the streets. This is an upside-down world; a troubled, feverish world. . . . Even the most superficial account of the history of great aristocrats is a record of conflict, treachery, killing, beheading, and murder—even the surface pattern is one of general and extended violence. And underneath this surface lies a general dissatisfaction and unhappiness, and a tremendous yearning. . . . It is a time characterized by a prevailing apocalyptic feeling—the deep and haunting belief that the world is coming to an end. The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), pp. 251-52.

Makes many of our problems seem downright easy, doesn't it? Oh, I know. But they're our problems.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

John Lewis Gaddis on the Nature of History

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

What do historians do? How do they conceive of and go about their work? And what's the value of it? In this series of eight lectures, originally delivered at Oxford during the 2000-01 school year, John Lewis Gaddis responds to these and other basic questions. A native of Texas, Gaddis made his reputation by writing landmark books about the Cold War. He is currently the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University.

To make his discussion of theory easier to follow, he constantly uses illustrations, analogies, and quotations. He borrows these mainly from the worlds of art, literature, and popular culture. Even the book’s cover art, Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, sets up the first of many metaphors that Gaddis puts to work in order to communicate what he wants to say.

Throughout the book, Gaddis also interacts with two illustrious predecessors who raised similar questions: Marc Bloch, who wrote The Historians Craft, and E. H. Carr, author of What Is History? He also brings in the observations of other historians—most notably William H. McNeill, R. G. Collingwood, and Thomas Babington Macaulay—and, significantly, one evolutionary biologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould.

The references to Gould the scientist are significant because they underscore one of Gaddis’s most fundamental conclusions: historians should at least try to attain, like scientists, “a consensus of rational opinion over the widest possible field” (38). Conversely, biology’s acceptance of punctuated equilibrium (as opposed to the old expectation that the fossil record should be uniform), and a general scientific awareness of change and development (as opposed to old notions of timelessness in a static universe), mean that scientists have become increasingly historical. The comparison of the two disciplines comes out most clearly in Chapter Three where the author makes the case that the processes by which historians develop, study and test their theses is comparable to methods used in the “hard” sciences.

But, notes Gaddis, to say that history should in some respects be like science, and that science has become more historical, is not to say that history belongs in the classification of “social science.” For unlike social scientists, Gaddis rejects the assumption that historians should be able to isolate an independent variable, which can then be used both to identify a historical cause and to forecast the future. The complexity of reality, historical or otherwise, simply won’t allow for the identification of independent variables. In fact, reality is full of interdependent variables. In a world like that, also full of processes, “so much depends on so much else” (55).

So, then, what is the proper work of historians? Gaddis answers that they “interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future” (10). But no sooner does he give that straightforward answer than he adds a caveat. The real trick is to do this “without suspending the capacity to assess the particular circumstances in which one might have to act, or the relevance of past actions to them” (11). In other words, to employ the “lessons of history” requires us to do other things, like perceiving how the present is like the past and how it’s different.

Even before that, though, historians have to do the work of making a map, a favorite metaphor of Gaddis’s. That is to say, historians must represent the past in a way that both corresponds to the terrain of historical reality and that proves useful to people who might want to actually use the map. This business of map-making, he notes, leads the historian to feel both masterful (he’s the one, after all, who exercises power by simply describing) and insignificant (the terrain he describes is vast and ancient and will long outlive him, etc.).

In addition to the question of history as a social science, Gaddis also deals with the advent of postmodern thought and the questions that it puts to historical research and presentation. Here we see him both embracing and rejecting postmodernism. On the one hand, he notes that historians have always known that arriving at historical consciousness means you’ve learned “that there is no ‘correct’ interpretation of the past” and that “the act of interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience” (10). On the other hand, he rejects the extreme conclusion that because “we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space” we therefore “can’t know anything about what happened within them” (34).

So what were some of my impressions of the book? I might say that I could have done without so many specific references to Oxford and Great Britain. A lot of them didn't register with me. I also found myself rolling my eyes at some of the wisecracks, often a little sappy or overdone. I sometimes detected slight errors. For example, a light year is not a measurement of time, but of distance (27). A sentence on page 55 should end with “form an ecological view of reality,” not “from . . . .”

But to say things like that would be quibbling. The fact is, Gaddis has produced a short, brilliant introduction to some of the most important questions that historians can ask themselves regarding what they do and what it means. And he’s done it with a good bit of flair and success.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Stealthy Strength of History

Went out for doves yesterday with my hunting mentor, David Jones. The water source that we were counting on to draw them in near sundown had completely sunk into the sandy soil. So we didn't shoot a lot of doves. But we got a few and got to spend a nice evening outdoors.
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In dealing with the past, our guard is down, because we start off thinking it is over and we have nothing to fear by taking it all in. We turn out to be wrong, because its immediacy strikes us, affects us before we know it; when we have recognized this, it is too late--we have been moved.

--Howard Zinn, The Politics of History, p. 39.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Bombs Away

About a month ago, I mentioned some plans for a project in history, something I wanted to complete before the end of this year. I didn't mention it at the time, but my aspirations were related to a graduate course I'm taking this semester at West Texas A & M.

As it turns out, I don't have that much say when it comes to what my paper will be about. The course begins with us students reading some of the prominent secondary literature on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then, during the second half, we do some research and then write up something that deals with a sub-topic related to that event.

So, here's my new idea: I'm thinking about a project at the intersection of the Cuban Missile Crisis and American Dispensational Premillennialism. I don't know much about this yet. But with the coming of the nuclear age, end-of-the-world scenarios began to assume that the Battle of Armaggedon would feature nuclear weapons. So, in what ways did the Cuban Missile Crisis ramify specifically among American premillennialists and their visions of the end time?

I'm interested in what you can tell me about things like must-see sources, for example. I know, the professor, the good folks at the WT library, and my course of study will do a lot of this. But here at the beginning of the race, I can use all the help I can get. So whaddaya think?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Thousand-Mile Walk, 500 Years Later

I was intrigued by a short article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last month. The writer, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, and her husband have decided to take a long walk together. To be specific, exactly 500 years after the father of the Reformation marched from Erfurt, Germany all the way to Rome, they're going to do it too. The piece is titled, "A Thousand Miles in the Footsteps of Martin Luther." As they go, the couple are writing up their experiences and posting some pictures too. Their blog is called hereiwalk.org.