Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

October 27, 2014


MONTPELIER, VT – The other day in the locker room, an elderly man only one year my junior advised me to limit my column topics to woods, fields, and mountains, and to “stay out of politics.” It’s probably not a good idea for naked men, especially those of opposite political persuasions, to engage in debate in a locker room; so I refrained from a response that would have invited one. During the week I pondered the notion: Should I stick to flowers, birds, wildlife, and beaver dams, or instead wade now and then into the current political swamps so prominent in our various media? It was a tossup.

I was swayed in the end by an e-mail from an old friend, Terry Boone, of Norwich, who reminded me of an exchange between the 1952 Democratic nominee for President, Adlai Stevenson, and a supporter of his at the convention:

“Surely, Governor Stevenson,” she said, “every thinking American will vote for you.”

Stevenson replied, “Unfortunately, we need a majority.”

Stevenson, the thinking Democrat, in those days during the Cold War (and before the Civil Rights Act), carried only nine states in the former Solid South; his opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, the moderate Republican war hero who had led the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, took all the rest in a landslide. The victory ended twenty years of Democratic presidents.

But remembering it today, with all its nuances and side stories – Eisenhower, for example, had been courted by both parties before he chose the Republican – triggers a train of thought about the volatile nature of a democracy, a list of the bullets our country has dodged during its history, and musings that all begin with, “What if...?”

What if Sherman had failed to take Atlanta, Farragut had been repulsed at Mobile, Sheridan had not cleared the Shenandoah Valley of the Confederate Army, and as a result George McClellan had defeated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency, as had been widely expected? Though many living Americans would still disagree, the nation dodged a heavy-caliber bullet in 1864.

What if Adlai Stevenson had defeated Dwight Eisenhower for the presidency in 1952? The election took place during a national fever about the dangers of Soviet Communism, which appeared to be spreading like an infectious virus in Europe and Asia. Joe McCarthy was fanning our fears at home. Just off our southern shores, benefiting from benign neglect by the United States Government, the Mafia was running Cuba’s casinos and splitting the profits with then-President Batista. Fidel Castro, a young Marxist revolutionary serving a year’s imprisonment in Cuba for attacking a Cuban army barracks, was then barely a cloud on the horizon.

What if our nation’s fear of leftist movements anywhere had been less intense? Might we have remained engaged with the Cuban revolutionary government when it emerged, as the rest of the world has? We Americans might today be enjoying winters in the sun, along with our friends the Europeans and Asians – and incidentally, with our Yankee dollars, brightening the lives of the Cuban people and, as a side effect, hastening the day of the new Cuban Republic – instead of glowering behind our half-century-old embargo, spouting outdated Cold War rhetoric.

What if we had not deposed the leader of Iran in 1953 and installed a puppet? Where might we be today? As Iran’s first elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq nationalized the assets of the foreign oil companies that were draining his country’s resources. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, called him “that madman Mossadeq,” and with his brother Allen, the head of the CIA, colluded with Britain’s MI6 to overthrow and imprison him, essentially for life. They then installed the Shah of Iran, whose notorious excesses inevitably caused the revolution of 1979, when conservative Muslim clerics with a hatred of the West took control of the country.

All this, by the way, occurred only six years after Allen Dulles, in a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers, had this to say: “There is, as far as I know, only one certain rule in international relations. Interference by one country in the affairs of another causes resentment. It is sure to produce a result exactly the opposite of that intended...”

What if Lyndon Johnson had not taken up and pushed the civil rights legislation proposed, but not advanced by John Kennedy? What if the 2000 recount of Florida’s paper ballots had been less confused, and a different result had ensued? What if a preponderance of us had been more actively skeptical of the information that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction”? What might be the effect on American foreign policy if some politicians had the nerve to seriously propose a universal draft? What if we were to post George Santayana’s comment – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – on the inner walls of our minds and actually tried to remember when and how in the past we have been at our best, and when at our worst?

Adlai Stevenson started this train of thought, so he might as well finish it. In this quotation he expresses both his keen sense of humor and his deep skepticism about our ability to learn from our mistakes: “Americans are suckers for good news. Given the choice between disagreeable fact and agreeable fantasy, they will choose fantasy every time.”

Photo by Willem lange