Esa mitología cubana viejo…

October 16, 2012

[NOTE – 10/22:  On the news today, I heard a statement that Kennedy “quietly removed several obsolete missiles from Turkey” in exchange for the USSR turning backs its ships with nukes for Cuba.  More jingoistic spin.  If they were obsolete, why where they placed there (and in Italy) just the year before?

By calling them obsolete, the idea is conveyed that JFK gave up nothing significant, only making a gesture to help Kruschev save face. ]

An Op-Ed piece in the times today (The Price of a 50-Year Myth) examines those old myths of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their destructive effect on subsequent American policy.  I’m not so sure about his teasing out of the policy implications, but the notes on the distortions of what actually happened during the crisis are illuminating.

JFK, for all his ideological bluster and image mongering, was a practical, some would say cynical, guy.  Maybe he was one of the ruling elite who did not believe his own propaganda.  He was willing to cut a deal to avoid a nuclear conflagration, and he did so.  After all, he provoked the crisis by placing nukes in Turkey, right up against the USSR border, something they regarded as threatening – wonder why? – so he took the option of removing the missiles in exchange for Krushchev turning back his ships headed with nukes to Cuba.  The article points out that the boats were thirty hours sailing time away from the US blockade when they turned back – not quite the eyeball to eyeball macho facedown of legend.  The writer thinks that the power-elite believed their own spin, and used it to justify future exercises in destructive brinksmanship. 

Well, brinksmanship was brought to the public eye by John Foster Dulles, and was a well established posture for dealing with the USSR, so the Cuban Missile Crisis was not its source.  And JFK, as William Manchester said, was almost as good at crisis management as crisis creation.  I give him credit for not caving to the militarist lunacy of advisors like General Curtis LeMay (a.ka. Colonel Jack Ripper.)  But the image of an American president who negotiates with a powerful adversary to avoid a crisis, and even backs down from a provocation, is not part of the American self-image of global swagger, so it has been covered over with political pabulum and secrecy.

Höfði House, Long After

August 21, 2012

This is the house where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986, effectively ending the Cold War.  As one who grew up during those days when nuclear annihilation was a daily, and real possibility, I had to visit.  Much as I detest Ronald Reagan, and all he stood for, I must credit him for having the independence to go against his advisers and make this meeting happen (more here).

As I mention in the post linked just above, Reagan, a movie man to his core, was moved to oppose his own advisors by a TV film, The Day After.

This a a photograph inside the house, but it almost looks like wax figures.  Now that would be an interesting installation!

The house is in an isolated spot by the bay in downtown Reykjavic, which probably was a major reason for selecting it.  It would have been easy to provide complete security for the building.  One of the meeting rooms.  The house used to be the French Consulate.

Does it get better than this?

October 24, 2009

Political satire at its funniest!

Who better than MAD to satirize the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, aka MAD?

Thanks so much to Doug and Scott of The Mad Cover site and The MAD Store for digging up this old favorite of mine!

A blast from the past

August 17, 2008

In utrumque paratus…That little bit of Latin means “prepared for either…”  In this case, the either refers to peaceful defense or war.  War, as in World War III, that is.  Nuclear annihilation by intercontinental ballistic missiles, aka ICBM.

We were vacationing up north in the Lake Champlain area of Vermont, riding our bikes through pleasant rural vistas, when we stopped at a visitors’ information site in Alburgh, a very small town.  There was a solid historical marker set on a post that identified the area as the site of the first US ICBM missile silo – set way up north near the border with Canada to minimize the flying time to the USSR.  I left without remembering to take a picture of the marker, but obviously others have had similar thoughts (see here).  I didn’t know there was so much touristical interest in Cold War armageddon.  Just seeing that marker was chilling to me.

Irrational Exuberance

February 21, 2008

The Almighty

Blue money, buyer’s remorse. Did I pay that for this!? What about a Dollar Auction? Yes, a little micro-market, a clever game that was popular at parties frequented by Princeton academics of a certain ilk. (See Poundstone’s biography of von Neumann, Prisoner’s Dilemma). Here’s how it works, according to Wikipedia:

The setup involves an auctioneer who volunteers to auction off a dollar bill with the following rule:

The dollar goes to the highest bidder, who pays the amount he bids. The second-highest bidder also must pay the highest amount that he bids, but gets nothing in return.

Suppose that the game begins with one of the players bidding 1 cent, hoping to make a 99 cent profit. He will quickly be outbid by another player bidding 2 cents, as a 98 cent profit is still desirable. Similarly, another bidder may bid 3 cents, making a 97 cent profit. Alternatively, the first bidder may attempt to convert his loss of 1 cent into a gain of 97 cents by also bidding 3 cents. In this way, a series of bids is maintained. However, a problem becomes evident as soon as the bidding reaches 99 cents.

Supposing that the other player had bid 98 cents, they now have the choice of losing the 98 cents or bidding a dollar even, which would make their profit zero. After that, the original player has a choice of either losing 99 cents or bidding $1.01, and only losing one cent. After this point the two players continue to bid the value up well beyond the dollar, and neither stands to profit.

The similarities to nuclear war escalation are disturbingly clear.

Nuclear Blind Pig

January 18, 2008


Thanks to Blind Pig records for the loan of their logo. Much as I like Blues music, it’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about a different kind of blind pig – intellectuals. People like Richard Perle, quoted in Richard Rhodes’ recent book, Arsenals of Folly, as saying, “Getting rid of all the world’s nuclear weapons is the worst thing that could happen.” This was heard by Secy. of State George Schultz during the Regan-Gorby meeting in Iceland near the end of the cold war.

So what planet was Richard Perle living on? Same one he’s still on, I guess. He is the master of “threat inflation” and was instrumental in selling the snake oil that Saddam Hussein was ready to nuke the USA. Obviously, he found Iraq a useful demon after his favorite evil empire went to the dustbin of history. On the run up to the end of the Cold War, he desperately tried to derail Reagan from his path of disarming. [Rhodes’ book has made me feel a grudging smidgen of admiration for Reagonzo, despite his attachment to urban legends, steal-for-the-rich economics, cold war Contra law breaking, and the biggest arms buildup in US history. He felt Gorby wanted to get rid of the nuclear menace, the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and he took him up on it. His advisers, such as Perle, were mostly against it.]  What sort of twisted thinking motivated Perle’s outrageous statement?

Well, of course, if the nuclear menace went away, so would the need for “experts” on arms control like him.  So would his political club that he had wielded so well with his mentor, Senator Scoop Jackson, liberal shill for the defense industry.  Nevertheless, one must wonder and quail before a mind, supposedly intelligent, that could take nuclear holocaust so in stride. That is, not recoil in absolute horror from the prospect.  The human beings of the world have to be grateful that those political leaders who would actually have had to press the button, did recoil:  Kruschev, JFK, Reagan, Gorby, and others.  There were close calls, but none wanted to get to that point.

Rhodes, no fan of Reagan, relates that he was deeply shaken by the TV movie, The Day AfterMovies, he understood.  Kissinger deplored the effect of the movie, and such popular expressions of anti-nuke horror such as the 1,000,000 strong march in NYC, as introducing irrational fear to the negotiations.  (And he wasn’t nearly as much of a nutcase as Perle.  After all, he was for detente.)  All of them knew, as Perle apparently did not, that it would be a catastrophe, perhaps The End.

This is the state to which some intellectuals bring themselves.

Cold War: Eros and Thanatos

October 29, 2007

Professor Groeteschele holding forth…

Bucky aborting countdown…

The girl who loved death…

Two films that form a strange sort of bookend pair: Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe. Both are excellent, among my favorites, and both were released in 1964 by the same studio, but alas for Fail Safe (Lumet), Strangelove’s Kubrick succeeded in getting his released first, so Fail Safe flopped. Can you believe it – some critics reported that people laughed during the screenings – they thought it was another comedy! That’s how powerful Kubrick’s film was.

There are many odd parallels between the two that any fan will know: Bucky Turgidson and “Blackie.” Strangelove in a wheelchair, the Secy. of Defense on crutches. The pilots who loose sight of the “human factor.” But what I like, is the treatment of sex-death in the two.

Strangelove is, himself, a weird, perverted sex fiend or impotent monster, and Bucky is his masculine opposite. Not too bright, all muscle and action. In the still we have here – must be a studio shot because it’s in color – he’s with the only woman in the entire film, his secretary. He has to break off their tryst to go to the war room, but assures her that he’ll be back before she can say “blast off!” I wonder what Curtis LeMay thought of this role? He is so fixated on his machismo, that he practically roots for the US pilots to get through and destroy Moscow, setting off the Doomsday machine.

Matthau plays Dr.Groeteschele, an amalgam of Herman Kahn and Kissinger, the great minds who were busy thinking the unthinkable. As he holds forth at a party about how nuclear war is winnable, and must be won, Ilsa Wolfe (Nancy Berg), the girl who loves death, looks on adoringly. Her fangs drool for him. She gets him to drive her…not home, just about, giving him directions with a languid, bored tone. She stops his driving, and after he psychoanalyzes her and tells her just how sick she is for getting an erotic thrill out of mass murder by nuclear destruction, she makes her move. Here’s a bit of the dialog:

Ilsa: …you know there won’t be any survivors.

Dr. G: Not many.

-None at all. That’s the beauty of it.

-I’ve heard nuclear war called a lot of things, but never beautiful.

-People are afraid to call it that, but that’s what they feel.

-The beauty of death?

-Don’t patronize me! What else but that are you selling, Professor? We all know we’re going to die…but you make a marvelous game out of it that includes the whole world.You make it seem possible.

– It is possible, even probable.

-You make death an entertainment… something that can be played in a living room…

-I am the joker. I make death into a game for people like you to get excited about. I watched you tonight. You’d love making it possible. You’d love pressing that button. What a thrill that would be. Knowing you have to die…to have the power to take everyone else with you… the mob of them with their plans, their little hopes… born to be murdered and turning away from it…closing their eyes to it. You could be the one to make it true, do it to them. But you’re afraid…so you look for the thrill someplace else. And who better than a man who isn’t afraid?

She wipes her lipstick off with his handkerchief and reaches for him. He slaps her hard, and says, “I’m not your kind!”

Maybe he’s worse. He really is a salesman, a huckster of mass death. The sequence is a marvelous prelude to the film noir, thriller ambience that is the rest of the film, a really taut suspenseful drama about nuclear systems gone haywire. As with Kubrick, Lumet intuits that there is something dark, sick, and intensely human at the core of all this pseudo-intellectual calculation about kill ratios, delivery rates, and fail safe systems. (J. R. Oppenheimer, “Father of the Atomic Bomb” derided it as nonsense, rationalizations for genocide.) This is one of the most perverse and evil scenes I have ever seen in a film, and it is the obverse of Kubrick’s wild, black humor.

Does anyone remember the Cold War these days? Those happy times, wondering if the end of the world was truly around the corner, not just the gleam in a fundamentalist’s eye? Thinking of moving to “non-target countries.” The reassuring logic of MAD, mutually assured destruction? Today, we have terrorism, but I don’t recall people being nearly so scared of nuclear war. Perhaps it was because our leaders and our intellectuals, some of them, told us it was what we had to do.