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Watergate's forgotten lessons

By Alan Caruba
web posted May 7, 2007

"The United States was resolved to intervene on behalf of its interests, but it was also resolved to intervene in such a way as not to violate the principle of nonintervention," wrote Prof. Han J. Morgenthau, examining the lessons of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that was intended to overthrow Fidel Castro.

"In order to minimize the loss of prestige, the United States jeopardized the success of the intervention…and we lost much prestige as a great nation able to use its power successfully on behalf of its interests…It sought the best of both worlds and got the worst."

The Bay of Pigs invasion which occurred April 15-19, 1962 failed because then-President John F. Kennedy lost his nerve and denied the air cover needed to protect the invading forces of CIA-trained Cuban freedom fighters. Earlier, the original point of invasion had been moved to the Bay of Pigs, sixty miles away from Havana, giving Castro's forces tactical advantage. Mostly, though, the intelligence that underwrote the fiasco was just wrong.

For generations raised on Hollywood films and television programs in which American spies and military heroes triumph over evil, the distance between that popular fiction and the reality of how America has applied its power militarily and through the tradecraft of spying has been perceived by Americans as a string of defeats. We shall never know how many plots against our nation have been thwarted because it is the nature of espionage that they are rarely, if ever, revealed.

Sometimes, though, it seems as if no lessons were ever learned or ever applied from the Bay of Pigs, the Watergate break-in, and the subsequent long nightmare of the Vietnam War. The generals we trained for military leadership often proved too timid to resist the hubris of political leaders and those that did sometimes found their careers ended abruptly. This was not lost on those who replaced them.

What had begun as the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, a daring and innovative group composed mainly of the sons of America's elite, graduates of Yale and Princeton, born to patriotism as they were born to privilege, would at war's end be disbanded and then reincarnated as the Central Intelligence Agency. In time, the CIA, despite its many successes fighting the spread of Soviet Communism, would reportedly evolve into just another politicized bureaucracy.

The more that ethos took over, the less effective the Agency, often called "The Company", became. By the time George W. Bush was in the Oval Office (his father had briefly served as the Agency's Director), the CIA was not led by someone with field experience in intelligence, but rather a seasoned political operator, George Tenet, who now denies having told the President that the invasion, removal of Saddam Hussein, and the democratization of Iraq would be "a slam dunk." In his new book, he concedes the CIA analysis was wrong.

"The echoes of the Bay of Pigs have resonated in our international policy ever since," writes E. Howard Hunt, a former member of the OSS who served over twenty years as a CIA operative. He was a legend within the Agency by the time he retired and he would be involved in the Watergate scandal to the extent that his name would forever be linked to it. He had been drawn into the totally paranoid world of Richard Nixon's White House and his judgment deserted him.

I know this because I recently read his excellent autobiography, American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate & Beyond, written with Greg Aunapu, and with a foreword by his longtime friend and conservative legend, William F. Buckley, Jr. I know it, too, because I can recall living through the aftermath of that abortive break-in of the Democrat Party headquarters on June 17, 1972. It brought down all the key players around Nixon and it forced the only resignation by a President in the long history of this nation.

It besmirched the Oval Office in ways that even the sexual dalliances and mass pardons by Bill Clinton could not. A generation or more of Americans learned to no longer trust the judgment and integrity of our presidents in ways that linger to this day.

As Hunt writes, "Watergate set off a blood feud between Democrats and Republicans that may continue for generations," adding, "Americans now suffer from political fatigue, lacking faith in the leadership of both parties."

Probably at no previous time has this been more true as, early in the year of 2007, months before campaigns traditionally begin, the battle for the candidacy of both parties in 2008 has begun. Indeed, it began the day after the November 2006 midterm elections.

"And we never seem to learn," writes Hunt. "Lessons taken from the Bay of Pigs should have kept us out of Vietnam, but they didn't. The ‘quagmire' of Vietnam should have kept us from invading Iraq, but it didn't. Watergate should have made each successive administration more transparent and mindful of the law, but it didn't. Instead, almost every administration has had some scandal important enough to hang a ‘gate' on, such as Iran-Contragate under Ronald Reagan and Monica-gate under Bill Clinton."

As the American philosopher George Santayana warned, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The hubris of Richard Nixon found renewed life in George W. Bush. The sexual appetites and lack of judgment of John F. Kennedy found renewed life in Bill Clinton. No one has quite matched the flat-out stupidity of Jimmy Carter whose failure to support an Iranian ally in 1979 set in motion the Islamic Revolution that threatens the Middle East and the world today, but few recall that it was the revulsion against the excesses of Watergate that had propelled the little-known former Governor of Georgia into the Oval Office.

If our leaders cannot learn these lessons, where are we headed? ESR

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. His book, "Right Answers: Separating Fact from Fantasy", is published by Merril Press. © Alan Caruba, May 2007


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