How Many Minutes to Midnight?

Quite by chance, in the first week of the New Year I’ve been reading two books in parallel which deal with overlapping subjects but whose viewpoints and conclusions are diametrically opposed.  The first book is The Letters of John F. Kennedy, edited by Martin W. Sandler (Bloomsbury, 2013), and the second is Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World? (Hamish Hamilton, 2016).  Sandler’s tone is reverential.  JFK is presented as “one of the greatest and most charismatic presidents of all time”.  In studying American post-war foreign policy, Chomsky chooses a wider remit.  Of the United States of America, he is almost unremittingly critical.  For example, chapter 17 is entitled “The U.S. is a Leading Terrorist State”.  JFK is referenced 13 times in the index, and every single reference is negative, sometimes damningly so.  The first reference is to his implementation in 1962 of new U.S. policy in Latin America, boosting internal security by supporting criminal regimes who used, quoting Charles Maechling Jr., “the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads”.  All of the foreign policy interventions of JFK’s 1000 days, from the Bay of Pigs, to Vietnam, the ongoing Cold War and in particular the Cuban missile crisis, are portrayed as a series of unmitigated disasters.

Chomsky’s account of the Cuban missile crisis is entitled The Week the World Stood Still.  While Sandler says of the President, “He steered the United States away from nuclear war”, Chomsky describes a series of near misses which were survived through a combination of sheer luck and the independent decision-making of front line military personnel.  That we survived is little short of a miracle.

Well, Sandler and Chomsky, they can’t both be right, can they?

The first week of this New Year added a third parallel to run alongside these books.  I was very intrigued to read in the Letters, the communications, especially the personal ones from the Black Sea coast and the Kennedy retreat at Hyannis Port, lengthy and beautifully written on both sides, between JFK and Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, the more so in light of what the CIA have been saying about the recent US presidential election and the apparent certainty that Vladimir Putin conducted cyber-attacks on the U.S. in order to influence the election’s outcome in favour of Mr Trump.  I have to say I felt some sympathy for Mr Trump when he reminded his intelligence people that they fouled up with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.  They didn’t appreciate that; he struck a nerve.  Of course, they were unable to say whether the putative intervention of Mr Putin had any influence on the election result.  Another aspect that was not touched on was the one of Russian motivation.  It is not at all clear why the Russians might prefer the 45th POTUS to be Mr Trump.  I have a suspicion that over the next four, maybe eight, years, the relationship between Mr Putin and Mr Trump might turn out to be as crucial to the world as that between Mr Khrushchev and Mr Kennedy.  We might get a sense of how that relationship will start out when we hear Mr Trump’s inaugural speech on January 20th.  With that in mind, I revisited Mr Kennedy’s inaugural speech, also on January 20th, back in 1961.  It is a very famous piece of oratory.

“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty…  In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.  I do not shrink from this responsibility…”

We have to put that into the context of an ideological struggle between the democratic world and the communist world, and also to remember that on October 30th, 1961, the USSR tested the biggest thermonuclear device ever detonated – equivalent to 50,000,000 tons of TNT (Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” was equivalent to 15,000 tons).  This occurred at the height of the Cuban missile crisis.  The stakes were incredibly high.  Whether it was due to the wisdom of Mr Kennedy and Mr Khrushchev, or a submariner named Second Captain Vasili Arkhipov, who decided not to fire a 15 kiloton torpedo, we got through by the skin of our teeth.

Noam Chomsky thinks that in terms of human self-destruction, the clock sits somewhere between five minutes and one minute to midnight.  The two big threats are climate change, and nuclear war.  Mr Trump doesn’t believe climate change exists, and he wants to increase the US nuclear arsenal.  I like to keep an open mind, but I shall be listening very carefully to what he has to say a week on Friday.  This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a twitter.

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