Monthly Archives: February 2013


Because this fits with my general distaste for all things JFK, I think it’s quite interesting.

We already knew that Kennedy used trumped-up claims of a missile gap to attack Nixon in the 1960 election (claims that must have infuriated Eisenhower, who, in his farewell speech to the nation, had warned of the overweening power of the military industrial complex). We already knew that Kennedy’s addiction to brinksmanship goosed the nuclear arms race. We already knew that the ill-fated Bay of Pigs fiasco left Krushchev even warier of Kennedy’s bizarre obsession with toppling Castro. But I’m not sure I appreciated until now how (willfully?) dense Kennedy was about the specifics of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: “Why does he put these in there, though? … It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous, I would think.” McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: “Well we did it, Mr. President.”

Returning to what we already knew, Kennedy engaged in some world-historical fear-mongering during the crisis, trolling the United States at every opportunity.

Kennedy and his civilian advisers understood that the missiles in Cuba did not alter the strategic nuclear balance. Although Kennedy asserted in his October 22 televised address that the missiles were “an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” he in fact appreciated, as he told the ExComm on the first day of the crisis, that “it doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much.” America’s European allies, Kennedy continued, “will argue that taken at its worst the presence of these missiles really doesn’t change” the nuclear balance.

And yet, Kennedy insisted on creeping to the brink of nuclear war, daring Kruschev to cross a series of irrelevant lines that the president drew in the sand, apparently not because Kennedy believed the missiles in Cuba represented a heightened national security threat but because they were a threat to his political standing and ego. Holy hell, when Robert McNamara is the voice of reason in the room, you’re in real trouble. Take it way, Bob:

On that very first day of the ExComm meetings, McNamara provided a wider perspective on the missiles’ significance: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here … This is a domestic, political problem.” In a 1987 interview, McNamara explained: “You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.” What largely made the missiles politically unacceptable was Kennedy’s conspicuous and fervent hostility toward the Castro regime—a stance, Kennedy admitted at an ExComm meeting, that America’s European allies thought was “a fixation” and “slightly demented.”

As the author of the piece linked at the top of this post notes, “This approach to foreign policy was guided—and remains guided—by an elaborate theorizing rooted in a school-playground view of world politics rather than the cool appraisal of strategic realities. It put—and still puts—America in the curious position of having to go to war to uphold the very credibility that is supposed to obviate war in the first place.” That sounds right.

When all of the principals are liars, it’s very hard to find the truth.

In a newly published memoir, Robert Bork claims that Richard Nixon offered him a seat on the Supreme Court in exchange for Bork, who was then solicitor general, firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. I mean, sure, why not? But at the same time, I find myself thinking that memory is fickle. And posthumously published memoirs are even more fickle than that. What a tangled web we weave.

Great moments in flop sweat.

I’m heading out on a book tour next week. Or maybe it’s a “book tour.” I can’t tell for sure yet. I’ll let you know from the road. Regardless, here’s my schedule.

February 18 — Boulder Books, 7:30 pm

February 19 — History Colorado, 1 pm, 3:30 pm, 7 pm (please note that because the 1 pm and 7 pm lectures sold out, History Colorado has added a 3:30 pm lecture)

February 20 — Tattered Cover, 7:30 pm

February 21 — Colorado State University – Fort Collins, 4:30 pm

February 22 — Colorado State University – Colorado Springs, noon (contact me for details)

February 22 — Colorado State University – Pueblo, 4 pm (contact me for details)

February 24 — Bookworks, 3 pm

February 26 — University of New Mexico, noon and 4 pm (contact me for details)

February 27 — School of American Research, noon

Please let me know if you have any questions.

The slaves freed themselves (sort of).

Jim Oakes, who just won the Lincoln Prize for his Freedom National, above offers his answer to the enduring historiographical question, “Who freed the slaves?”

Given the brevity of his remarks, Oakes provides a relatively sophisticated interpretation of the relationship between high politics (the Republican Party’s policy-making apparatus) and human behavior (the actions of the slaves themselves). In the end, Oakes gives a perfect historian’s answer, suggesting that Republican lawmakers, when they crafted policy, counted on the slaves to free themselves, meaning that there was real synergy between public policy and the individual and group agency of African Americans seeking freedom.

Well, okay then. That settles that.


Owning, or perhaps hijacking, tribal history at Wounded Knee.

It seems that a landowner wants to sell the Oglala Sioux an important part of the Wounded Knee massacre site. Some 150 Native people, all killed by the 7th Cavalry on December 29, 1890, are buried on James Czywczynski’s land, and Czywczynski wants the Oglalas to have that land back. The catch, of course, is money. Land in that part of South Dakota isn’t especially pricey, and in this case it sounds like the 40 acres in question has a fair market value of less than $10,000. Czywczynski, though, wants $3.9 million. History costs.

Czywczynski believes his land is worth so much not only because it provided the setting for one of the bloodiest chapters in the West’s history, but also because of echoes of that violence in the relatively recent past. Czywczynski bought the land in 1968. He planned to start a business there — a museum and trading post — with an eye toward capitalizing on thousands of heritage tourists who visited Wounded Knee every year. But then, during the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, tribal activists burned Czywczynski’s buildings, robbing him of what he describes as “a wonderful opportunity to get into private enterprise.”

Apparently still angry about the incident, and unsatisfied with the insurance settlement he received more than thirty years ago, Czywczynski is seeking what he sees as fair recompense from the Oglalas. And if he doesn’t get his money by May 1, his land goes on the open market. Ever the entrepreneur, Czywczynski “is building a website to market [his property] to national and international bidders.” Czywczynski “adds that he has the utmost respect for the Wounded Knee burial site and the Lakota people. He would prefer the tribe develop his parcel into a tourist attraction rather than leave it at the mercy of an unknown entity”:

Say you buy it, you could do anything with it. You could set up apartments or a condominium or a casino; you could do anything of that nature. But it should be done correctly — the hallowed ground where these people died.

There are telling parallels with the the genesis of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. In that case, a local proprietor named Bill Dawson’s decision to sell part of the Sand Creek killing field led Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell to write his site study legislation (pdf) in 1998. Campbell, along with other Cheyenne and Arapaho people descended from Sand Creek’s victims, didn’t want soil consecrated with their forbears’ blood to fall into the hands of a developer who might not respect it as a site sacred to tribal peoples.

Unlike the case of Wounded Knee, though, Bill Dawson became friendly with the tribal descendants. After initially threatening to put his land up for sale to the highest bidder, Dawson worked closely with Senator Campbell and the Sand Creek descendants for years, using his property rights and their cultural authority to leverage the price he wanted — $1.5 million for land valued on the open market at approximately 1/10th that number — from a casino corporation that then handed the site over to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. The C and A, in turn, offered the casino corporation considerations in ongoing negotiations to manage the tribes’ gaming parlors. It was, all things considered, a good deal for all of the parties concerned. It did, however, complicate future land deals, including, perhaps, the one mentioned above at Wounded Knee. It’s difficult to know if James Czywczynski followed the story of the Sand Creek site, but the similarities are striking.

Next time just slip a $20 in my g-string, okay?

This is an excerpt from an offer I just received via e-mail,

Dear Professor Ari Y. Kelman[1]:

Students want lower cost textbooks and textbooks that are accessible on their smart phones, iPads, and laptops. We faculty at [unethical textbook publishing company][2] have developed a new and exciting Early American History text that will meet your needs and the needs of your students. I want you to review a preview of this text and I want to offer you an honorarium for test marketing this text in your classes. On the average you would receive $500 per class, based on student numbers, and would do a faculty evaluation form and some student surveys, not a lot of work.

Not only will this text benefit your students with the videos and links and accessible e-book and free printed text, but the honorarium will be beneficial to you as the budget cuts and lack of summer school continues[3]. Send me an email with your mailing address and I will send you the complete package. Hope this helps you and your students.

Hear me now, textbook publishers: I’ll sell out, sure, but not that cheap.

[1] Oops. That’s actually the other Ari Kelman.

[2] Probably redundant, right?

[3] Nice subject-verb agreement, jackass.