Saturday, October 8, 2011

October light by the water

"Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future.

And we are all mortal."

~John F. Kennedy
American University, Washington D.C., 1963

The symposium was called "Penetrating The Iron Curtain: Resolving The Missile Gap" —it was another in the series of forums being hosted by the Kennedy Library in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of JFK's presidency. Co-sponsoring the event was the CIA's Historical Collections Division, a subset of their Information Management Services. It was the agency's release of a number of long classified documents that served as the premise for this particular gathering and they had invited a couple of journalist/historians whose work I follow and respect to sit as panelists. That's why I was there: some interesting history to be considered by some thoughtful historians.

When I got there what struck me first though was the audience —the age of it. There was quite a lot of white hair on display (there was the white hair or there was the hair lacking altogether). I remembered that earlier in the week I'd been contacted by a library staffer, seeing I'd signed up to attend they wanted to know if I was a member of the local chapter of The Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) —members were to have special seating reserved. I pictured something like an AARP especially for spies. I had thought I might respond to the email with the old saw about how 'I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you' —then thought better of it. (Nowadays you just can't trust anybody's sense of humor.)

Anyway the room was full of these old soldiers, so it seemed: most everyone there to hear about the history they had been a part of themselves. And I heard more than one of them remark, as they took to their especially reserved seats and chatted with old colleagues, that they were there out of curiosity. These men and women had been a part of that best and brightest and greatest generation. Fifty years back they'd each had some small role to play —never having the full sense of the larger drama, the whole picture. These intelligence officers weren't all of them the cloak and dagger spies I joke about, but maybe they'd analyzed data on Ukranian agricultural yield, or culled Kamchatkan radio signal intercepts searching for telemetric logic, back in the day. This new information and the attempts they would see up on the stage to make some sense of it all, these might shed some larger light at long last.

The image that came to mind was of galley oarsmen from a Greek trireme, having come through some great sea battle years past —below deck and in the darkness, coming to hear the full story of the battle they'd won. I suppose the long views out across the water through the great large windows to either side of the symposium stage conjured that kind of analogy.

The Missile Gap was one key chapter in The Cold War and its ugly sibling, the nuclear arms race. The Kennedy Library was a fitting venue for revisiting the history, as the political notion of it had been crucial to John Kennedy's career. He'd run for re-election to the senate in 1958 and then run for the presidency in 1960 as a vocal critic of Eisenhower and the GOP's perceived complacency in the face of a growing threat, a growing disparity between U.S. and Soviet Russian inter-continental missile strength. This was the era of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, and fear that Soviet advances in technology would outpace our own gave rise to anxious expert projections that in just a few years time Russia would be able to cripple U.S. retaliatory capabilities with a first nuclear strike —and that they would if they could.

The documents released by the CIA in 2011, the star of the show for this symposium, don't apparently tell much of anything many didn't already know (or had at least guessed) about the forces at work or the facts on the ground in this period. The Missile Gap, as things turned out, never was a material threat. It had been the product of willful disinformation on the part of the Russians and some mistaken and overwrought speculation on our own part —what some of the wise old men in the room described as "mirror thinking" —assuming our opposites would play such a dangerous game of poker just the way we would.

A good part of the symposium was focused on the technology involved in debunking the myth, the story was of the way U2 overflights and Corona satellite missions surveilling the Soviets started feeding real data to take the place of raw conjecture, the way the dismal science of number crunching analysts could begin to construct the proof with near mathematical certainty that the Soviet industrial economy was incapable, that, if anything, it was the one on the losing end of any missile gap that might exist.

So it was that Kennedy would eventually find himself being lectured by his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, that the whole notion of a missile gap was a "myth" that had been "spread around" by well meaning "emotionally guided but nevertheless patriotic individuals" at the Pentagon. It was early on in the symposium that the JFK Library's director, Tom Putnam played back an audio recording of the conversation, where Kennedy dryly reminded McNamara that he himself was one of those misguided patriots.

Kennedy's self deprecation got a good laugh from the audience hearing it fifty years later. But penetration of that myth proved central to the history that followed, the ability to face down Khrushchev's provocations, first in Berlin, then later in Cuba. That was the message for all those old Cold War soldiers watching the symposium from the audience. That the facts they'd found and figured upon had helped. They had had helped steady things through most dangerous times. Intelligence, that was what it was meant to do.

There was something moving about being in the audience —out among all those old soldiers once again taking in the moment of their careers. But there was something harrowing in their story come out into to the light as well:the cold calculations of kill capacity, weapon yield, the Game Theory mathematics that had gone into projecting fatal odds, that had animated the arms race up to the point of The Missile Gap, the strategic thinking that would continue it on past that point, to this very day where arms treaties are still the fair game of domestic politics and where threats of nuclear catastrophe are still the ominous factor we have to figure in to our international policies.

They had talked of the "mirror effect" up there on the stage at one point. One of the historians was pointing to the mistaken reads we had made of Khruschev posturing, how we had assumed the Russians would act as we would act in the situation of actual relative weakness they found themselves in. Khruschev's bluff and bluster had passed for strength and strategic advantage for a while. One of the historians opined that this was a liability of "dealing with tyrants." As I heard this and the mirror effect described, I couldn't help arguing in my mind that there was a useful application of the mirror being forgotten, that of reflection —self examination. Had our political leaders been any more candid in this game of apocalyptic poker? No. Did that make them tyrants as well?

What we told ourselves, when the fear of the Missile Gap was upon us, was that our enemy could not be trusted to outgun us, not in such a way that he possessed the ability to strike us first and neutralize our capacity to strike back, because if he could he would. As it turned out, our enemy had told himself much the same thing, that we could not be trusted to appreciate our advantage, our ability to first strike with such crippling effect that we would face no threat of recourse from our opponent, because if we really knew that we could... we would.

This is the symmetry that had to resort to the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction, that sober agreement that neither should destroy the other without knowing he destroyed himself as well. This horrible balance would be the basis of treaty and negotiation throughout the Cold War. We came so close to such destruction that October just 49 years ago, in the crisis waters around Cuba. But even as we came to the brink, and even as we were launched upon an arms race with ever more frightening projections of what Armageddon would like, we had those occasionally seeing the reflection and through it at the same time and recognizing "that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal." Maybe it is that aspect of a mirror, or a reflection you might see at a window or in the water, that served to avert catastrophe back in the day, that has served us at least thus far.

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