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Napoleon of the Stump

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough.  Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.

Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.

Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.

Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.

I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)

Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.

H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.

So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.

I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?

I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.

And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.

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Thoughts of Persia

April 18, 2012 2 comments

Mitt Romney has a history problem. I’m not talking about his personal history; his public persona suggests his worst infraction was sneaking a sip out of a bottle of Coke behind the family’s sprawling Bloomfield Hills home. No, I mean he has a problem getting the facts of history right, as an op-ed piece he wrote to rattle his saber at Iran shows. The thrust of the piece was to paint Barack Obama as weak in the face of Iran’s rising nuclear threat, and he would be different, by gum. He started the piece by referring back to the release of the U.S. hostages on January 20, 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

The hostages, back on U.S. soil, after more than a year in Iranian custody.

To Romney, the release was Iran’s acknowledgment that they faced some tough times under Reagan’s watch if the hostages weren’t freed (not, as is widely accepted, because months of negotiations and internal Iranian concerns led Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to their release). Yup, why Reagan was so tough on the Iranians, he secretly sold them weapons, in violation of U.S. law and his own promise never to deal with terrorists. Yeah, Romney pines for the good ol’ days, under Sheriff Ronnie. You probably won’t hear too much from Romney on the Iran-contra scandal…

Attending Phyllis Bennis’s recent talk about U.S.-Iranian relations got me thinking about the shared history of those two countries. The recent past, with the hostages and ever-tense relations often inflamed by bellicose rhetoric, has not been pretty. But the History Nerd wondered: Was it always thus?

Our man in Tabriz…

Depends on who you ask, I guess. Justin Perkins recounted receiving some good treatment at the hands of the Muslim government of Persia, circa 1835. Perkins was the first American missionary to live in what we now call Iran, arriving there in 1834 with his wife. His mission was to work with the Nestorians, a Christian sect that traced its roots back to a 5th-century dispute over the teachings of Nestorius. The Persian Nestorians lived in and near the mountains of Kurdistan. Perkins not only had to deal with a foreign culture as he spread Congregationalist teachings and general learning. He also confronted religious obstacles in the form of local superstitions and “papal errors” that had crept into Nestorianism, the latter courtesy of missionaries sent from Rome. Perkins’s son recounts these years in Persia in the biography he wrote of his father, noting that even though the Nestorians were surrounded by “the gross darkness of Mohammedanism,” the land’s Muslim rulers treated the elder Perkins well.  One member of the ruling family ordered that Perkins and his associate have army protection, as thanks for their “attending to the education of the people, and render[ing] the people useful by teaching them European science.”

Learn more about those ancient Persian empires in a book by yours truly.

The Americans and Iranians first established official diplomatic relations during the 1880s. (An earlier trade treaty had been negotiated but never put into effect.) By this time, Persia was still an independent nation, but a shell of the great empire it had once been. Actually, three separate empires had risen and crumbled in the region, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty of the 6th century BCE. By the 19th century, however, Persia had become another battleground in the “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain for dominance in Central Asia. The glory of Cyrus and Darius and Mithridates and, yes, even  Khosrow I, was long past.

That point was forcefully driven home in 1919, when the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave the British virtual control of Iran. The people, as U.S. State Department correspondence indicates, were incensed by their government’s capitulation, but feared demonstrating against it because of the presence of British troops. One report said that Iran’s intelligentsia realized some foreign influence was inevitable, and “they would have welcomed such on the part of the United States.” Persians hoped for some sort of American remedy, and some were disappointed when it never came. The rising tide of nationalism, though, led to the takeover of the government in 1921 by the first Pahlavi shah, the father of the infamous shah who would be one of the greatest U.S. allies in the region—and a player in the later hostage crisis.

U.S. troops prepare to move supplies along the Persian Corridor.

By this time, a discovery beneath Persian soils set the groundwork for those deepening U.S.-Iranian ties. The country had oil, lots of it. And as we all know, America would eventually need some of that oil, and a general balance of power in the region that favored its interests. But Americans did not arrive in any force in Iran until World War II. Fearing a German takeover of the country (the first shah had established close ties to Germany), the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran in 1941. A small number of U.S. troops and civilians arrived to help move supplies through Iran–the so-called Persian Corridor–to Russia and keep oil flowing to the Allies. The Americans built roads and operated plants that made vehicles and aircraft for the Soviets. Thousands of Iranian civilians also took part in these efforts.

At the end of the war the Soviet Union was not happy, because it didn’t have the oil interests that the Brits and Americans had secured during the war. Joseph Stalin tried to reassert old Russian influence over northern Iran, supporting rebels there. He ended that support in April 1946, and Iranian troops, working with a U.S. military adviser, crushed the rebellion. The Soviets were out of what was a historical sphere of influence for them, and we were in. But U.S. leaders would continue to fear Communist influence in Iran and do whatever they had to do to keep a friendly regime in power there.

Those steps included using the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and putting the second Pahlavi shah onto the Peacock Throne. This part of the story is more familiar, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say, said shah used petrodollars and cozy U.S. relations to build a brutal dictatorship, which led to the revolution of 1978 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Which begat the hostage crisis and 30-plus years of tensions and talks of going to war with an Iran that supposedly covets nukes, to intimidate Israel and no doubt tweak the Americans yet again.

To the Iranians, Iranian-American professor Vali Nasr claims, 1953 was a motivating factor in the future animosity between Iran and the United States. The U.S.-inspired coup was a “humiliation,” one that was “exorcised by the taking of the American hostages in 1979.” The Iranian nationalism that first emerged during the 1920s had been stoked anew, and remains today, even if many Iranians oppose the new authoritarian regime that replaced the old one (“Meet the new boss…”).

What do the Iranians think of the tough talk from a Romney or other Americans? Efraim Halevy, a  former head of Israeli intelligence, said that Romney’s op-ed piece could fuel Iran’s desire to quickly do more work on a weapon, before Romney—conceivably—wins the election. But Iran’s real concern was not building a bomb, Halevy asserted, but preserving its regime, as economic sanctions begin to take effect. Whatever happens, our relations with Iran will remain complex–perhaps a little too much so for the historically challenged Romney.

Energy – Past, Present, and Future

November 25, 2009 Leave a comment

The next Spindletop or Prudhoe Bay is not filled with black gold. Instead, the next great domestic energy source (of the fossil-fuel variety, anyway) is probably the natural gas trapped inside shale beneath large parts of the United States. Compared to its oil reserves, the country is awash in natural gas, and T. Boone Pickens wants us to tap it, the sooner the better, to end our dependence on foreign oil.

The oilman and the Congressman

Pickens was in East Hartford yesterday, speaking at a forum sponsored by Congressman John Larson (D-Connecticut). Larson is a co-sponsor of HR 1835, which offers tax credits for alternative energy sources. The focus of the forum was on using natural gas to power vehicles, especially large trucks that now run on diesel. Switch 7 million trucks to natural gas, Boone said, and we could cut OPEC imports by 50 percent.

Friend T. Boone! And you can follow him on Twitter too!

Pickens had lots of numbers and facts, which he rolled out without notes or slides or a PowerPoint presentation. The man has made this effort his main focus since 2008. Then, he made a big splash by calling for a crash course in wind-power development. Now, he is gung-ho for natural gas. He claims he’s spent $62 million of his own money to spread the word about the need for energy independence, using the fuels we already have and technologies we can develop. (He has more on his “Pickens Plan” at his website.) Of course, he stands to profit from investments he’s made in wind and natural gas. But his concern for the country seems genuine. Pickens never served in the military, and he sees this effort as his “national service.” He, like many Americans, is galled by the idea of our sending billions of dollars each year to countries that don’t like us and in some cases are our enemies. He asserts: “We’re paying for both sides of this war,” though he didn’t clarify exactly which war. Iraq? Afghanistan? The general war on terror? But his point was, some of the money we pay for foreign oil trickles down to people trying to kill US troops.

Pickens had a comment on our friend in Venezuela, too. Hugo Chavez might not be arming terrorists (though he seems to be aiding Colombian rebels), but he’s certainly made it plain he wants to thwart the United States whenever he can. Pickens called Chavez a “cluck” as he lamented our buying oil from him.

But don’t let the folksy putdown and his oil-patch drawl fool you – Pickens is one sharp cookie. Trained as a geologist and successful in his field, he lays out the technical nuts and bolts as easily as he (“this old Republican”) tells stories about his new buddy, Al Gore. The former veep is pushing batteries as the next great power source for cars. Pickens prefers compressed natural gas (CNG ), but concedes the point to Al on smaller vehicles – for now. Getting the trucks to convert is Pickens’s first goal.

So, why natural gas? It’s cleaner than gasoline. We now have the largest reserves in the world. Building the infrastructure to run our vehicles on CNG will create jobs. But most importantly, as he and Larson stressed over and over again, it reduces the amount of money we send to OPEC.

Several times during the talk, Boone made reference to “40 years ago,” when we should have first come up with an energy policy that went beyond reliance on petroleum. I’m not sure why he chose that number, since the first major oil embargo came four years later. That’s when OPEC flexed its muscles and Americans realized the precarious position they were in: We did not control our own fate, when it came to this precious commodity around which we structured so much of our lives. (An earlier embargo, in 1967, had nowhere near the same impact. Perhaps that explains Boone’s “40 years”?) Of course, Boone’s point is we could have controlled our own fate since then, if we had developed a systematic policy, one that pushed forward on finding alternatives, whether oil soared to $147 a barrel or plunged down to $10.

We knew, as the years went on, that domestic oil sources would not solve the problem. Even now, the idea that offshore and Arctic drilling are panaceas is whistling in the dark, Pickens says. If we opened up all of it, maybe we could produce 2 million barrels a day. One expert he talked to laughed at that figure, and said the reality is more like 30,000 barrels. Currently, we import about 10 million barrels of oil per day, which is about 60 percent of our needs.

After 9/11, some people talked of a “Manhattan Project” for developing energy alternatives, to stanch the flow of U.S. dollars overseas. Eight years later, do we have a plan in place that will create energy independence? Pickens says no. To be fair, both Bush and Obama did call for spending more on research and providing tax credits, but the amounts are pretty small, compared to what’s needed to make a huge dent in our oil imports. (And Pickens recounted meeting Bush in 2008 and telling him that his legacy as the “ethanol president” would not exactly be one for the ages….)

Pickens and Larson admitted that natural gas is not the total solution either. The representative sees it as a transitional energy source until we have hydrogen cars. And both men admitted that money for mass transit would help. Left unsaid was the potential environmental risks of extracting the huge reserves of shale gas that seem to offer so much promise. Getting the gas to the surface requires piping in large quantities of water treated with chemicals. The problem: Some of the water returns to the surface, picking up harmful minerals that blend with the chemicals, creating quite a toxic stew. The government calls this “produced water,” and the brew from the gas production is more dangerous than what comes from oil production. Produced water from natural gas operations has led to contaminated wells and polluted streams in Pennsylvania. A few scientists also fear the produced water could kill the helpful microbes used at water treatment plants.

Honda Civic, powered with CNG and on the road today.

The hope natural gas seems to provide brings up the issue we face with all our sources of power – nothing is perfect. Even such “green” technologies as wind and ocean power raise concerns about dangers to wildlife or humans. The solution seems to be, find the least-worst alternatives. So, maybe it makes sense to push for more CNG and propane (LPG) vehicles and filling stations. The cars are already out there, though the number in the U.S. is paltry (just 130,000, out of 10 million worldwide). Work for better electric cars, though we still have to generate the electricity to recharge the batteries, yes? And that means burning coal and natural gas…unless we ramp up with nuclear, which has its own issues, mostly political/psychological. (Remember Three Mile Island and the China Syndrome.) Keep working on fuel cells and that transition to hydrogen. But the key seems to be, as Pickens says, have a policy dedicated to reducing our reliance on foreign oil. I would add, and one that calls for lessening our dependency on all fossil fuel. One day, folks, it will all be gone; no more Spindletops or shale deposits to feed our growing needs.

Blasts from the Past

November 12, 2009 Leave a comment

“A successful intervention in Iraq would revolutionize the strategic situation in the Middle East…and all to the benefit of American interests.”

iraq-war-soldiers

Success!

If you’re looking for stock tips or advice on where to place your money in the sixth race down at the track, Robert Kagan is obviously the man to see. He penned the words above back in 1998, and don’t you feel we have benefitted so much? Of course, Kagan doesn’t say what “successful” means; was it just the overthrow of Saddam? If so, then “mission accomplished.” We just might have to wait a bit longer for all the dividends.

I came across the Kagan quote in Andrew J. Bacevich’s The New American Militarism, a not-so-recent book (previously mentioned here) that I finally read, in preparation for writing a bio on the president who helped revolutionize the strategic situation in the Middle East. It struck me, as Bacevich traced the role of the neocons (especially Kagan and some select others) in providing the ideological rationale for much of the Bush-era foreign policy, how wrong these guys have been. Over and over again. As a group, the neocons disdain foreign policy realists. But when your world view is driven by an ideology — an arrogant one at that, built on the shaky base of American exceptionalism — you tend to lose sight of some things. Facts, say. Oppposing views that might have some credence. Any grasp of human (or at least American) failures and frailties.

Here’s another of the wonderful predictions from Neocon World, cited by Bacevich:

“A friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would leave Iran isolated and Syria cowed.” William Kristol  offered this in February 2002, as he began the drumbeat for war in Iraq. Iran isolated? I guess, if you mean, does anyone want to take it to the dance. Yet it still manages to stir up a bit of concern here, hmm, and maybe has some lingering influence in the region? And Syria cowed? Maybe. I haven’t read much about Syria lately. But the US military in Iraq (a sure sign that the country is friendly, since they’ve let us stay so long) says Syria still allows insurgents to operate there. Doesn’t sound real cowed to me. Of course, maybe the problem is Iraq is not free, elections to the contrary. Or not oil-produc — no, wait, there’s about 2 million barrels a day flowing now, with more to come. Not what it could be, but still oil producing. So, again, why not more isolation and cowering in the region?

iraq road

Is it this road, Bill?

Kristol and Kagan tag-teamed for this one: “The road that leads to real security and peace [was] the road that runs through Baghdad.” I hear Kabul has a road like that. Maybe Islamabad too. And one day, can you see it, wending its way through Tehran…

The neocon penchant for dazzling predictions has deep roots, back to one of the movement’s first lights, Norman Podhoretz. Of course, in his day communism and the Cold War consumed the neocons, leading Podhoretz to say in 1980: “Surrender or war are the only remaining choices.” Of course. And six years later, as Gorbachev and Reagan were already becoming buddies, and the economic collapse of the Soviet Union was becoming clear, if not foreordained: “‘The present danger’ of 1980 is still present today.”

The bum insight and advice we’ve gotten from the neocons wouldn’t be so bad if it just meant blowing this month’s rent on the ponies. But we’re talking hundreds of billions here, and still counting. Death tolls in the thousands (not including the locals), and still rising. And the lingering notion that we have a duty, a God-given right, to wage war so we can remake the world in our image.

I know, I know, it’s easy to cherry pick predictions and arguments from the past and show how wrong they were. But the consistency of the neocons’ mental meltdowns is what’s striking. Especially as I did some more Bush research and came across a February 2000 article in Harper’s by Kevin Phillips. The one-time Republican operative who popularized the notion of the party’s “Southern strategy,” now a prolific documenter of what is wrong with American politics (primarily, too much influence by the rich). He’s been called a “populist crank,” and sometimes I wonder about his depth of historical knowledge. But Phillips seems to have good insights on politics. And g0od predictions.

bushes

They don’t make ’em like they used to; dynasties, that is

In the Harper’s article, he foreshadowed his 2004 book on the House of Bush, American Dynasty. His point/prediction in 2000 was, Dubya represented the restoration of a failed ruling line, and in the past, the sons of deposed leaders did not do so well. Phillips said Bush II, like past dynastic restorers, would likely “ride into office on an arrogant, memory-driven [He tried to kill my daddy] dynamic that quickly leads to mistakes and failure.” More specifically, Bush fils “would find himself bound to replay some version of his father’s endless pleading for capital gains tax reductions.” And Phillips suggested the possibility of a “Bush restoration implod[ing] on its own whir of cocky inadequacy,” leading to disaster for both the family dynasty and the Republican Party.

We don’t know if Bush’s presidency has assured dynastic destruction and Republican irrelevance. But I’d be more likely to take Phillips’s tip down at the track than the neocons. Give me clear vision over rosy glasses any day.

Ay Caramba, Cuba!

October 17, 2009 Leave a comment

A major American orchestra makes plans for a short concert tour abroad, near warm waters and white sand. The trip will give its generous patrons, who are footing the bill, a restful Caribbean weekend. Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it?

Oh, don't let the pretty beaches fool you...

Oh, don't let the pretty beaches fool you...

But submit this for your consideration. It’s not just any island idyll the orchestra and its supporters want to visit – it’s that hellhole of horror, Cuba.

Welcome to the Foreign Policy Twilight Zone.

The New York Philharmonic planned the trip for the end of this month but had to abandon the jaunt when the State Department nixed the patrons’ accompanying the musicians. You see, 50 years after the Cuban Revolution, Castro’s Cuba is still deemed a threat to us, one so deadly, we couldn’t possibly think of letting presumably intelligent New Yorkers (and if they could afford the $10k each the trip was going to cost, pretty much fans of free enterprise) risk being infected by communism.

50 years…The History Nerd missed the actual anniversary date of January 1, when  rebel forces triumphantly marched through Havana and took power, with The Man himself arriving a week later. From the beginning, Castro’s revolution did not make many Americans happy, as long-entrenched mobsters and corporations lost influence and money. But it took another two years for Castro to declare the revolution a socialist one, rather than a nationalist one. Still, from early on he had good ties with local Communists and harsh words for the Americans. The chance of Cuba-US rapprochement, especially in light of the Cold War, was probably nil.

We put the depilatory on the cigar and the hallucinogenic on the beard! Arrghhh!

We put the depilatory on the cigar and the hallucinogenic on the beard! Arrghhh!

I won’t give a blow-by-blow of the years that followed. You probably know the basics: We consider assassinating Castro in ways that seem so quaint now – the laced cigars, the secret depilatory that would rob him of this trademark beard, the mob hits. This is a comedy, right, the proposed script for a variation of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming? No, this was your government in action.

Move on to the Bay of Pigs, a clumsy invasion effort that everyone knew was American-sponsored. Cuban Missile Crisis (gee, why would Castro want Soviet missiles on his land after the loving way we had treated him?), Cuban proxy Cold Warring in Africa, Mariel, the continuing efforts of Cubans to flee, the continuing US effort to force Castro from power with trade embargoes.

One constant through the 50 years: the incredible, wholly inappropriate influence of the Cuban refugees in shaping our relations. Hmm, we need Florida’s electoral votes, lots of Cubans in Florida, they don’t like Castro, so we don’t like Castro either. Now, I know some genuine anti-communist ideology has also shaped the US response, but the hysterical nature of it under some presidents – most recently Dubya – is just plain silly.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, we knew Cuba posed no direct military threat to the US. Did it aid rebel forces we didn’t like in Nicaragua and elsewhere? Yeah. But so did the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, when thousands of Russian missiles were trained on us, did we restrict travel to the Soviet Union like we do to Cuba today, even under a Democratic president? No. It is probably the stupidest ongoing foreign-policy inanity in American history.

In 1982, I saw Wayne Smith speak. At the start of the Reagan Era began, he served as the chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. He resigned when he realized the kind of doofuses he was dealing with in the new administration. Then, and today, Smith outlined what is a salient point for any government’s foreign policy: You don’t say, “Do everything we want, and then we’ll talk.” You engage your adversary as a way of working toward some sort of compromise or common ground. But from Reagan on, we have taken the arrogant approach. Back at that long-ago lecture, Smith recounted how Raul Castro made a behind-the-scenes overture to him to open some dialogue with America. Smith passed the word to the Reagan State Department, which then publicly said there was no reason to think the Cubans wanted to talk, so we wouldn’t. Huh? Ideology trumped any effort at real diplomacy.

Bush II fed the flames in 2004, adding new limits on what were already pretty restrictive rules for Americans’ traveling to Cuba. He also made it harder for refugees to keep in contact with family members still on the island, all part of his plan to “bring down the Castro government.” And as with so much of the Bush years, everything went right according to plan! Obama has eased some restrictions on the émigrés, but not average Americans, and the trade embargo endures. Smith says “U.S. policy toward Cuba long ago ceased to make any sense…the U.S. should open a dialogue with Cuba. How can two countries resolve the disagreements between them without talking, without dialogue?”

Amen.

50 years.