I was surprised by Seymour Hersh’s account of Ronald Reagan which, in the course of making the case that George H.W. Bush was really in charge (‘Unlike the president, he knew what was going on and how to get things done’), echoes contemporary accusations that he was lazy, ignorant, unwilling to learn (LRB, 24 January). The reason I am surprised is that Reagan’s diaries have been published, and in them he often comments on the way people like Hersh, State Department officials and many in Congress thought of him as ignorant and ineffectual, and how very useful that was in providing cover for his hugely ambitious agenda.
As it happens, I was in the room when Reagan was given his very first State Department briefing on the need to ‘work up’ to a meeting with Gromyko, the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, at the September ‘ministerials’ in New York, in preparation for his first summit with Brezhnev, as co-existence required. Reagan cut them off, telling them very pleasantly to relax: there was no need for a September meeting with Gromyko because he had no intention of meeting Brezhnev; he did not want to coexist with the USSR, which had no right to exist. Even his own newly installed secretary of state, Alexander Haig, was sure that once the election vapours had dissipated Reagan would go down the same path as his predecessors and arrange the summit. All but Reagan and a handful of others, myself included, accepted coexistence as the basic axiom of world politics, rooted in the certainty that nuclear war was unwinnable and that the USSR was the other superpower that would endure into the future.
But Reagan was in charge, not Bush or the likes of Vice Admiral Arthur Moreau, and Reagan held no summits with Brezhnev, or his successors Andropov and Chernenko. He was happy to meet Gorbachev, already at work to dismantle the USSR.
It was the same with El Salvador. Reagan didn’t want another Vietnam, he wanted victory, and relied heavily on his CIA director, William Casey, because he didn’t want the military chiefs involved – for them the allocation of roles for every branch of every service would be the first order of business. Instead, the army was confined to training Salvadorean soldiers in the US, while a civilian at the Pentagon, Fred Iklé, under-secretary for policy, used Pentagon funds for a brilliantly effective programme using contractors to arm and train Salvadorean villagers to protect the lands they had just acquired under land reform. Reagan gave the programme his full support, and even the ever incompetent CIA helped out by digging up the ideal weapon in one of its forgotten warehouses: M2 carbines, ‘too light’ for the army, just right for the campesinos. (I too did a bit of training down in Morazán.) According to Hersh, Moreau ridiculed Casey. But Casey, who had been in charge of OSS operations out of London in the Second World War, knew the difference between uniformed popinjays in the Pentagon and individuals who would go out there (on TACA airlines) and get things done. The guerrillas were defeated and gave up war to enter politics.
Hersh contrives not to mention what horrified Bush, the Joint Chiefs and no doubt Moreau: Reagan did not believe in Mutual Assured Destruction. He would not press the button, period, not even if they bombed Washington DC (‘What’s the point ?’). When first briefed on Nato plans, according to which nuclear weapons would have to be used when the ammo ran out, he said: ‘Buy more ammo.’ He promised – and delivered – a huge increase in the defence budget, but made it clear that he would not press the button. Instead he embraced ballistic missile defence, with new technology: the Strategic Defence Initiative. The likes of Hersh and Moreau called it ‘Star Wars’. It did divert Pentagon funds from the further embellishment of the usual tanks, fighters and carriers, and much of the new technology failed. But much succeeded too, and is now in use. What terrified Bush and the Joint Chiefs was the prospect of the Soviets finding out that the US president had given up even on a Second Strike option, thereby ruining the principle of nuclear deterrence. I can’t blame them: who, by the same token, could have imagined the KGB was so far gone it accepted the Washington Post view, according to which Reagan was a John Birch Society fanatic intent on a First Strike policy? For more than two years, KGB officers were tasked with watching USAF airfields everywhere day and night, ready to report the feared mass take-off of nuclear-armed bombers.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Inigo Thomas begins his piece about Berry Bros with a recollection of final exams (LRB, 20 December 2018). The trauma of finals can be indelible. Confronted with the paper on Modern English History at Oxford in 1961 I at first failed to recognise a single question that matched the topics I had prepared. After further anxious scrutiny I found one that spoke to my slender repertoire. It read: ‘“The opposition to the Henrician reformation was exiguous." Discuss.’ Well, I knew about the Henrician reformation all right, having been to his school, King Henry VIII Grammar School in Coventry, and bellowed forth the school song ‘Religione et Republicae! With us shall ever live!’ And I knew something of the opposition, the Pilgrimage of Grace, mounted by disgruntled Northerners, as you might have expected. But I didn’t know what ‘exiguous’ meant. So, I bunged down everything I knew about the Henrician reformation, then everything I knew about the Pilgrimage of Grace, and moved to a conclusion. ‘Was the opposition to the Henrician reformation exiguous?’ I asked. ‘The evidence clearly speaks for itself!’ Despite such resourcefulness under fire – exiguously speaking – it failed to save me from a third-class degree. Redemption came later with postgraduate study and a successful academic career in history in Canada, the happy land of the second chance, free from the precipitous slopes of Oxford finals.
Indiana University, Bloomington
In his essay about Under the Net, Michael Wood discusses the influence of Murphy and says he doesn’t know if Iris Murdoch ever wrote to Samuel Beckett (LRB, 3 January). In a Sunday Times interview with Harold Hobson (11 March 1962), Murdoch claimed that ‘Samuel Beckett is the only person I’ve ever written a fan letter to.’ The first Routledge edition of Murphy in 1938 sold only a handful of copies but Murdoch had one, given to her with an enthusiastic recommendation by a fellow member of the Oxford University branch of the Communist Party – Denis Healey.
Queen Mary, University of London
Sheila Fitzpatrick’s piece about the late Robert Conquest brought to mind a somewhat difficult personal memory (LRB, 24 January). Specifically, that I should have, but in the event did not, reply to a private letter Conquest sent to me responding to a letter of my own published in the TLS of 7 September 2001. In it I objected to something Richard Pipes had said in a review of Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia and the Russians: ‘The Soviet regime never enjoyed popularity among the majority of its citizens,’ Pipes wrote. To me, this was patently wrong. I say this as someone born and raised in the USSR, who graduated from the Leningrad Medical Institute and was then drafted, against my will, into the Soviet navy. After seven turbulent years, I was thrown out of the navy for ‘reading and spreading anti-Soviet propaganda’.
Fitzpatrick sets out the ‘rules for writing about the enemy in wartime’. You ‘should never humanise the other side’, for instance, ‘but rather emphasise its essential, evil otherness’. She had Cold Warriors like Conquest in mind. There was one line in my TLS letter he especially disliked. ‘People who live through mass terror,’ I wrote, ‘are expected to feel terrorised. But the majority of Soviet citizenry did not.’ Although we lived in the iron frame of a police state, those of us who weren’t ‘taken’ led a pretty normal, even enjoyable life. It is a complex phenomenon, and would repay study. But alas, the now almost extinct Soviet civilisation will pass away without being properly analysed.
T.J. Clark’s review of the Mantegna-Bellini exhibition (LRB, 20 December 2018) drew a cogent reply from Charles Hope (Letters, 24 January), to which Clark has replied (Letters, 7 February) without, however, addressing Hope’s arguments. Hope described the Bellini Presentation of Christ in the Temple as ‘a mechanical copy’ of Mantegna’s version, made by ‘precise tracing’. As one can see from the two paintings reproduced to accompany Clark’s review, while the copyist reproduced Mary adequately he generalised Mantegna’s wonderfully particular brushwork for Simeon’s beard, eliminated what is thought to be Mantegna’s self-portrait, and added two new figures whom even Clark describes as ‘somewhat leaden’. Hope reasonably suggests that the new version was a commissioned painting ‘with different subordinate figures, possibly including the new patron’ and may have been painted by someone trained in Bellini’s studio.
Clark also endorses the catalogue’s attribution to Bellini of The Drunkenness of Noah but fails to address Hope’s objection that it doesn’t resemble ‘any well-attested work’ of his. Two features of this painting seem to me to be especially uncharacteristic. Noah’s sons are shown covering up their drunken father’s nakedness. ‘Shem, Ham and Japheth cackle and cringe at the sight of the naked patriarch,’ Clark writes, adding that ‘Ham’s bad teeth are a touch of genius.’ Clark’s own terms – ‘cackle and cringe’, ‘bad teeth’ – show how far removed this is from Bellini’s dignified and respectful representation of biblical narratives. Clark calls it a ‘farewell to high seriousness’. To Renaissance eyes it may have seemed, rather, a deliberate flouting of decorum, the appropriate matching of style to subject matter, a key principle in rhetoric and art theory. Finally, the right-angle made by Noah’s left arm, supporting his head, is reminiscent of the geometrical structures in Egon Schiele’s drawings, recently exhibited in London, in which arms and legs can get rearranged into parallelograms, contortions quite alien to Bellini’s repertoire of bodily postures. It is surely time these attributions were reconsidered.
In the discussion of the way King Arthur’s legend has been used to further contemporary political debates through the ages, I have been surprised to see no mention of what must be the most powerful role played by the mythical king – namely, as part of the Plantagenets’ campaign to fashion a unified British culture out of the hotchpotch they inherited (Letters, 3 January and Letters, 7 February). It can be no coincidence that the Arthurian legend received so much royal attention after the loss of Normandy and other French possessions under King John. England, and eventually Wales and parts of Scotland too, were ruled by a French-speaking aristocracy, cut off from their ancestral homeland, but with no clear tie to their new lands and peoples, either in the Germanic heartland or the Celtic fringe. Tapping the already ancient, pre-Saxon Arthur as a symbol of the English monarchy was a brilliant move. Here was a rare unifying figure in a cultural landscape shaped by conquest and displacement. The cult of Arthur reached its height during the reigns of Edward III – who explicitly modelled himself as a new Arthur – and his successor Richard II, at precisely the time when Chaucer and his contemporaries were fashioning a national language, a linguistic compromise between Old English and French that was accessible to everyone.