Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mercy and Politics

Politics and mercy usually don't go together: in a political struggle, an individual, or a party, will often do whatever it takes to win. Among those who rise above such a crass power struggle - among those who are willing to strive for what is good, right, just, and noble - even among this better class of political leaders, who are willing to sacrifice through hard work, and even through suffering losses and setbacks rather than compromise their understanding of what honor demands - even among them, mercy is rare, because mercy sometimes involves both a personal sacrifice and the willingness to compromise justice.

Those who are willing to compromise justice will do so for their own gain; those who are willing to compromise their own gain will do so for justice. Mercy sometimes asks us to compromise both justice and our own gain. 'Forgiveness' is another word for this.

Such mercy is rare enough among ordinary human beings. It is rarer still among politicians. Historian J.F. ter Horst recalls a brief meeting in 1974 with President Gerald Ford. Only a month into Ford's presidency, ter Horst met with Ford in order to submit his letter of resignation. He felt that he could not continue working for an administration which was in the process of issuing a pardon to former President Nixon.

Ford's decision to pardon Nixon was not a pursuit of justice; Nixon was almost certainly guilty of violating some law. The pardon was also not in Ford's personal interest: it was actually a sort of political suicide for Ford, who would stand almost no chance of winning the 1976 election. The pardon was an act of mercy.

In his book about Ford, ter Horst recalls his meeting with Ford about the pardon:

"It was not an easy decision for me to make," he said of his plan to pardon Nixon. "I thought about it a lot and prayed, too." He had just come back from the eight o'clock communion service at St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Park from the White House.

There is a strange dialectic in which mercy, as it trumps justice, and seemingly violates justice, can come to be seen as serving a higher type of justice. If forgiveness is part of justice, and if reconciliation is part of justice, then in violating a lower type of justice, mercy may yet serve a higher type of justice.

"I'm not concerned about the election in 1976 or the politics of it," he said. "I know there will be controversy over this, but it's the right thing to do and that's why I decided to do it now. I hope you can see that." Ford paused, his face somber, his strong profile silhouetted against the sunlit windows.

Ford was knew that he was doing something unpopular: something that would not help his own career. Yet most historians now credit Ford with a good decision. The pardon probably saved the nation from an agonizing trial and conviction which, although it may have served literal justice against Nixon, would have failed to serve a higher sense of justice, and would have shredded the national psyche. Ford, in a very real sense, saved the constitutional structure of our nation.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Long Struggle for Civil Rights

Gerald Ford was a champion of the civil rights movement long before becoming president in August 1975. Going back to his years in the House of Representatives, as his party's leader there, J.F. ter Horst recalls that

Ford took the view that the Republican future in the South could not be tied to racist politics.

The Democrats were still supporting segregation in 1964 and 1965, when Ford began leading the Republicans in Congress. It was through the crucial votes of Republican Senators and Representatives that the Civil Rights Act of 1960 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had become law. Likewise, Republican votes were necessary for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Democrats were approaching Ford with compromise offers. If Ford and the Republicans would support segregation, the Democrats would compromise with them on economic issues. But the Republicans stood firm, and would not vote for segregation:

As Republican National Chairman Ray Bliss was told privately by one Dixie Republican leader: "if we're going to get anywhere from now on, we've got to go after all the votes, not just the white ones." The racial nettle, however, was not so easily extracted from politics in the Deep South. In late 1965, for example, Ford had to cancel at the last minute an appearance at a big fund-raising dinner in Natchez, Mississippi, because the audience would be limited to whites. To emphasize his decision, Ford kept two speaking dates the same weekend on the University of Mississippi campus because of assurances from school authorities and civil rights groups that the sessions were open to all citizens.

President Ford's stance for full and equal civil rights was consistent, starting with his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan, where he worked in the 1930's to ensure that black football players were given the same privileges as white football players; Ford was MVP on a team that won two consecutive national championships. He maintained a determined commitment to fairness throughout his career, and in the White House, he appointed William Coleman, the first African-American to serve as Secretary of Transportation.

Secrets Can Hurt

The United States successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. Shortly thereafter, two atomic bombs were used to bring an end to World War Two. Although still somewhat controversial, it is generally understood that these bombs saved millions of lives. The destruction they caused convinced Japan to surrender; had the Japanese continued to fight to the end, millions would have been killed in the invasion of Japan. This much can be learned from any standard history book.

What is less well known is the struggle to keep the plans for the atomic bomb secret after the ceasefire with Japan brought an end to the war on August 15, 1945. The Soviet Union no longer needed to direct its resources toward battling the Germans and the Japanese; free to exert itself in other directions, it made getting those plans a top military priority. The Soviets created one of the world’s largest networks of spies.

In addition to obtaining actual diagrams and descriptions of the nuclear weapon itself, the Soviets generally worked to obtain any information about the American military: where ships might be sailing, how much weight an aircraft could carry and what its range might be, how many troops were in basic training at any one time, etc.

Rather than sending in spies as outsiders to investigate or prowl around military installations, the Soviets decided that a better tactic would be to plant operatives inside the government, where access to such information would be routine. Hundreds of individuals were successfully planted in various departments and agencies. One such person was Helen Silvermaster.

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one editor of the Michigan Law Review wrote:

Soviet cables now prove absolutely Silvermaster was a Soviet spy, her husband, Gregory, was a Soviet spy, and her son was a currier for their spy ring. Her husband was literally on the payroll of Moscow and the United States government at the same time. He worked for the Board of Economic Warfare and later, the War Assets Division of the Treasury Department. Among his services for the Soviet Union, Silvermaster smuggled out “huge quantities of war production Board data on weapons aircraft, tank, artillery, and shipping production.” While working for the Roosevelt administration, Silvermaster was given a medal for his service to the USSR.

Helen Silvermaster and her family were a unit, smuggling information to a country which was wondering if it might try a sneak attack on an American military installation, or if it could defeat the United States in a military confrontation in some remote corner of the world - like Korea or Vietnam.

Gregory Silvermaster was a connection between his family and a larger Soviet spy network. It is shocking to think that inside the U.S. government - the government whose purpose is to protect the lives and freedoms of American citizens - were agents whose purpose was to endanger those lives and end those freedoms. These agents were employed by not merely a foreign government, but rather by an enemy government: a government which had declared publicly that one of its objectives was to bring an end to the lives and freedoms of many U.S. citizens. How was Gregory Silvermaster installed inside the U.S. government?

He got his job from another Soviet agent, Harry Dexter White. When Mr. Silvermaster’s loyalty was questioned by the Office of Naval Intelligence and War Department counterintelligence, Harry Dexter White (Soviet spy) and Lauchlin Currie (Soviet spy) enthusiastically vouched for his patriotism. Roosevelt’s undersecretary of agriculture, Paul Appleby, wrote a righteous letter saying Silvermaster had been questioned simply because he happened to have been born in Russia.

This illustrates a Soviet technique: once one mole is in place, that mole can hire, and vouch for, other moles. (Readers of spy novels, and viewers of spy films, will recognize that the word ‘mole’ refers to “a spy who achieves over a long period an important position within the security defenses of a country; someone within an organization who anonymously betrays confidential information,” according to a popular electronic dictionary.) A good mole not only receives endorsements from other, well-placed moles, but also reacts with indignation when her or his loyalty is questioned:

When questioned by the FBI in 1947, suspected spy Helen Silvermaster lamented that “anyone with liberal views seemed to be called a communist now-a-days.”

“Suspected spy” Helen Silvermaster would soon become “proven spy" Helen Silvermaster. The Soviet government’s own documents revealed that she, her husband, her son, Harry Dexter White, and Lauchlin Currie were being paid by the KGB, by Soviet military intelligence, or by other Soviet counterintelligence agencies - and there were dozens of other spies in the U.S. sending secrets to Moscow. It was a dangerous time. By August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union had indeed stolen the plans for the atomic bomb and proven its own bomb in a test detonation.

Much of this information came to light when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990; in 1995, quantities of these files were released to the public under the name ‘Venona Cables’ or ‘Venona project’ - quotes here are taken from a Three Rivers Press publication of some of the Venona results.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Free Trade vs. Free Market

Although these two economic concepts might sound similar, they are significantly different. Both have played a role in America's development.

The idea of a free market is central to both America's concept of itself, and to its prosperity. A truly free market is a fair and level playing field in which individuals can buy or sell as they please, and in which creativity is encouraged as inventors and businesses offer new products, or offer old products at new prices. In this gigantic experiment, people sometimes choose to take risks - a new gadget make become popular, selling well and making its manufacturer rich; or it may sell poorly, and the investors lose their money. People also have the freedom to decide not to take risks; they can choose to manage their money more conservatively, excluding the possibility of sudden wealth, but also excluding the fate of sudden poverty. A free market generates prosperity; even when a business closes, as some inevitably must, they will be replaced by others - as long as the market remains truly free - who will offer employment.

But the notion of a free market is an internal one, a domestic concept: it refers to businesses competing with each other inside a country.

Quite different is the phrase 'free trade' which refers to international trade. This phrase indicates a movement to reduce or eliminate tariffs - import taxes. In theory, if nations eliminate their import taxes, then we would have a free market among nations. But this doesn't happen in practice. First, few nations actually eliminate their tariffs; they may reduce some, eliminate others, and leave others in full effect. Secondly, even if tariffs were totally eliminated, other factors prevent global trade from being a level playing field. Different national economies are conditioned by internal variables - regulations and subsidies - which cause price distortions in their products.

While a free market is generally desirable, and almost universally desired, free trade is much more problematic. This is seen in the long history of trade between the United States and China. Initially, China didn't want free trade because cheap, mass-produced American goods undercut China's domestic manufacturers. Later, the very opposite situation occurred, and now it is America who would rather not have free trade with China.

Despite what nations may want, they sometimes end up with something else, because other diplomatic factors may force countries to engage in free trade when they would rather not do so.