Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Elephant in Robert Caro's Room

If you thought Jesus was the only man who ever walked on water, think again. According to rambammed Herald hack Paul Sheehan, so can Robert Caro:

"If this is the time when people sit back and relax and, hopefully, even read, spare a thought for the greatest biography ever written, a commanding work of research, insight and narrative power which sheds light on why, on both sides of the Pacific and both sides of the Atlantic, politics is currently at such a low ebb and debt is at such a high tide. The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro, the 4th volume of a 3000-page masterpiece collectively called The Years of Lyndon Johnson, was released this year and such is its command of the workings of politics that it illuminates why America is on the brink of what has become known as 'the fiscal cliff'. Reading the greatest political biography ever written unlocks the labyrinth of congressional politics, the bias towards stasis, the in-built self-interests, the regional jealousies, the personal fiefdoms and the immense power of the special interest lobbies... Caro... has produced the most sweeping historical tour de force since Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 6 volumes between 1776 to 1778. It took Gibbon 22 years to write his 3000 pages. It has taken Caro 38 years and he is not finished. He has worked on this project since 1974, the year after Johnson died. Caro was a young journalist when he embarked on this. He is now 77, and still... working on volume 5... The virtuosity of Caro's narrative is driven by the depth and breadth of his research." (In assassination's aftermath, a real political master emerged, Sydney Morning Herald, 24/12/12)

Meanwhile, over at the Herald's opposite number, journalist Troy Bramston, in his survey of our politician's alleged summer reading, is similarly smitten:

"To my mind, the best book this year was [Robert] Caro's magisterial penultimate volume on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power. To understand political power, how to secure it and how it can ultimately be used for good purpose, this book is indispensible [sic]." (Apparently, according to Bramston, Caro's latest is on Immigration Minister Chris Bowen's reading list.) (Summer reading speaks volumes, The Australian, 24/12/12)

As for Foreign Minister Bob Carr, he reckons only a mug would give Caro a miss:

"I can't think of anyone who would not want to see these volumes on his or her shelf." (Thoughtlines with Bob Carr, 7/11/11)

Awesome, eh?

Now if I may digress a little, it was under President Johnson (1963-1969) that US foreign policy took an interesting new turn, as Stephen Green makes abundantly clear in Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations with a Militant Israel 1948/1967 (1984):

"A US policy that helped, or at least permitted, Israel to build atomic devices from enriched uranium stolen in the United States appears implausible until one examines other strange dimensions in US-Israeli relations in the mid-1960s. Between 1964 and 1967, the Johnson administration found the parameters of US public support for Israel's security and territorial integrity to be too confining, and a new, unprecedented, covert military-security relationship was forged, of which the assistance to Israel's nuclear weapons program was only one aspect. In a period in which the Johnson White House was becoming increasingly obsessed with the war in Vietnam, Israel's military leaders offered to impose stability upon the peoples and countries of the Middle East - it was to be a 'Pax Hebraica'. There were, of course, costs involved for America. The United States would have to take the initial steps toward becoming what 3 previous Presidents had said we would never be - Israel's major arms supplier. We would also at least temporarily forfeit our role as primary mediator of the multifaceted Arab-Israeli dispute. The new arrangement would necessitate throwing our long-standing nuclear nonproliferation policy to the winds, the 1968 treaty to the contrary notwithstanding. Perhaps most important, US national security interests in the region would become merged with Israel's to a degree that was, and is to this day, unique in the history of US foreign relations. Inevitably, this new relationship would involve the US directly - operationally - in the Six Day War of 1967." (p 180)

And yet, amazingly for a journalist/historian who says his interest in LBJ has more to do with the subject of how political power is wielded in the US than the man himself, and whose coverage of LBJ's every move is supposed to be nothing less than exhaustive, Caro seems to have omitted all mention, in his earlier Master of the Senate, volume 3 in the series, of a letter Johnson wrote to Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Suez Crisis of 1956-7, an intervention which strongly suggests that, to pinch Mitt Romney's expression, Johnson had Israel's back - even in the 50s. The letter was published in The New York Times of February 20, 1957:

"Following is the text of a letter by Lyndon B. Johnson, Senate majority leader, to John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State, urging that the United States oppose imposition of economic sanctions against Israel by the United Nations. The letter was endorsed by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee:

"'My Dear Mr Secretary: I feel that I should tell you, most frankly, how disturbed I have been by recent stories in the press, which stories have appeared under the bylines of most reputable correspondents, that serious consideration is being given in the General Assembly of the United Nations to imposing economic sanctions against the State of Israel. The purpose of these sanctions would, or so it appears to me, be a most unwise move. It seems to me that this is so irrespective of whatever points of view one may take toward the various resolutions of the Assembly which have called for such withdrawals.

"To put it simply, the United Nations cannot apply one rule for the strong and another for the weak; it cannot organize its economic weight against the little state when it has not made previously even a pretense of doing so against the large states. I have, Mr Secretary, seen no suggestions in the United Nations of the application of economic sanctions against the U.S.S.R. Israel has in very large part complied with the directives of the United Nations. Russia has not even pretended to be polite.

"I have, as you know, been urging during the discussion on the Middle East a determined effort by the United Nations and the United States to go to the root causes of the troubles in the Middle East. One of these causes has been the hostile activity against Israel on the part of Egypt from the Gaza Strip and the threat of activity in the Gulf of Aqaba. I think you will agree that it is not utterly unreasonable for Israel to request guarantees by the United Nations that these attacks against her will not once more be prevalent, once she has withdrawn her troops from these two areas. Yet, I have seen no suggestion in the United Nations that economic sanctions should be applied against Egypt to force that state to agree to permanent cessation of hostile activities from those areas.

"There is always a tendency to oversimplify a most complicated issue when one writes such a letter as this and it is my hope that you will not think that this protest is made without some awareness of the complexities. These, however, cannot be stated in the space of this letter, nor should they be.

"But the merits, the justice and the morality in this situation are clear against such imposition of economic sanctions. It is my hope that you will instruct the American delegation to the United Nations to oppose with all its skill such a proposal if it is formally made." (Text of Johnson's Letter on Sanctions, The New York Times, 20/2/1957) (For the context, see my 17-18/10/12 posts on Eisenhower, Real US Presidents Stand Up to Israel 1&2.)

That Caro may be suffering here from a bad case of slipped halo is suggested by the following revealing account of a promotion of Master of the Senate in 2002:

"... I learned a few things while listening to Mr Caro speak. First of all, he openly acknowledged that he is Jewish, something I did not know until tonight. In fact, he told a light-hearted Rabbi joke to playfully jest about his heritage... After a 30-minute lecture about LBJ's senatorial career, Caro opened the floor for questions. I made my way to the microphone and managed to ask one. The event was being filmed so I made a point of not being confrontational. Still, his reaction to my seemingly benign question spoke volumes.

"I began... by presenting [him] with a photocopy of the front page of The New York Times dated February 20, 1957. One of the headline stories was Johnson leads action: party chiefs endorse letter to Dulles calling on US to resist UN move. The story described how Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had staged a political coup against the Eisenhower Administration which - until LBJ's intervention - had supported UN efforts to impose sanctions on Israel for refusing to withdraw its military troops from the Gaza Strip and the Gulf of Aqaba in the wake of Israel's failed attempt to expand its borders by attacking Egypt in what is known to historians as the Suez Crisis. Johnson wrote a letter [above] to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles - which was published in The New York Times on the stated date - urging him not to support sanctions on Israel. The letter was endorsed by the Democratic Policy Committee. After passing the newspaper copy to Mr Caro, I put the following question to him (I'm paraphrasing): 'In the wake of the Suez Crisis, David Ben-Gurion had refused to withdraw Israel's troops from the Gaza Strip and the Gulf of Aqaba in defiance of the wishes of President Eisenhower and the United Nations. This was not unlike the situation today with Sharon. The UN was about to impose sanctions on Israel and this was fully supported by the Eisenhower Administration. But suddenly, Senate Majority Leader Johnson intervened by writing a letter to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and having it published on the front page of the NYT. Why has this story never been told in history books? I just bought your book yesterday, but I don't think you covered it either. At least I couldn't find it. The only place I've ever seen it is on an Internet website, At first I found this information difficult to believe, so I went to the library and found the NYT article from 1957 to corroborate the incident. Why has this story never been told?'

"Caro smiled nervously as I asked the question. Then he responded by changing the subject to civil rights. He never did respond directly to the article or my question as to why historians do not want to discuss the incident. He didn't even mention Israel or the Middle East. He completely ignored my question and me. I suddenly felt a degree of empathy for the Invisible Man. But I was polite. I let it go without asking a follow-up question. After all, the event was being filmed and at least I got a chance to plug my website. I turned and walked away as he babbled nonsense about how compassionate Johnson was regarding civil rights. One would think that in his 1,049-page manuscript he would have mentioned the 1957 incident. Not only did he not mention it in print, he side-stepped it completely when asked about it in public. From the expression on his face it was clear he understood exactly what I was talking about, but he was afraid to discuss it." (Book Review> 'Master of the Senate', by Rabbi Caro, Salvador Astucia,, 30/4/02)

One is left wondering whether Caro would be receiving the adulation of all the 'right' people today if he'd addressed the issue of the initial stirrings and flexings of Zionist influence in Congress, the baby steps, if you will, of the current Israel lobby.

Now to return to where we started. I would have expected Sheehan of all people to have noticed the elephant in Caro's room. After all, his current journalistic interventions on behalf of Israel notwithstanding, Sheehan was once able to track down and report a sighting of the beast. The year is 1988:

"BALTIMORE, Thursday: For anyone who thinks the so-called Jewish lobby exerts an enormous influence on American politics, last night would have provided ample ammunition for their belief. For the first time in the 1988 presidential election, the two candidates appeared at the same event and spoke on the same subject. The event to which both the Republican candidate, Vice-President George Bush, and his Democratic opponent, Mr Michael Dukakis, converged was the international convention of B'nai B'rith and both men spoke before the international Jewish organisation and passionately reaffirmed their support for Israel. 'The principles you fight for are my principles; the causes you champion are my causes,' Mr Dukakis said. 'We will never allow the security of Israel to be compromised,' said Mr Bush." (Candidates use same platform for Jewish vote, Paul Sheehan, Sydney Morning Herald, 9/9/88)


Anonymous said...

President Lyndon Johnson ordered the aircraft carrier fighter jets to return rather than assist the crew of the USS Liberty which was under Israeli attack. See the website of the survivors of the USS Liberty for the full shocking truth.

I wonder how Caro skirts around that?

MERC said...

The current volume covers the years 1958-1964, basically LBJ's vice-presidency. We'll have to wait for the next volume for the attack on the Liberty.