The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The Viva La Revolución Episode
Series 2 (Michaelmas term 2020)
Published 5 November 2020
NB the text below was transcribed automatically by https://otter.ai.
Adam Smith 00:11
Hello, and welcome to the Last Best Hope?, a podcast from the RAI, Oxford's Centre for the study of the United States and its place in the world, in which we try to understand America from the outside in. I'm Adam Smith. In 1960, the United States was in many ways at the height of its postwar global power. its immense economic strength as yet unchallenged by Japan or West Germany. racial tensions not yet having exploded into global prominence. This was the era of the "liberal consensus", a concept much critiqued by historians but still capturing an important truth about the pressure in those years to coalesce around a feel-good story about American democratic freedoms, delivering a prosperous expanding middle class at home, and peace and security against communist oppression abroad. That September 1960, the US was in the midst of a presidential contest between two young candidates, Richard Nixon and john F. Kennedy. More difference in temperament than they were in policy terms. Both were cold war warriors, and then waiting in to shake up the party came America's great Cold War nemesis Fidel Castro, the leader of the new Cuban Revolution. Wearing combat fatigues and flying on a Soviet jet, Castro travelled to the belly of the beast -- to New York City, to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations. It was a pivotal moment in the Cold War, with a host of newly independent former British and French colonies, taking their seats in the UN for the first time. And a rising non aligned movement led by Prime Minister Nehru of India and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and others. The balance of power in a polarised world was at stake. Here's Castro talking to the American press on arrival.
Reading: Fidel Castro 02:14
With justice we work, we vote against colonialism. We work with justice against discrimination. We work, we'll vote against imperialism, exploitation of the people. h
Adam Smith 02:37
What happened next is an amazing story, and one that's been told in detail by Simon Hall, professor of history at the University of Leeds. And Simon Hall joins me now Simon, it's great to see you. Thank you very much for joining me on the podcast.
Simon Hall 02:57
Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to it.
Adam Smith 02:59
So, Simon, let's just let's just set this up a little bit. Give us give us the scene September 1960. Fidel Castro, the leader of this Cuban Revolution, which has shaken the world attracted the world's attention. Famously just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, the United States gearing up for presidential election, and Castro decides to go to New York. Why does he do that? First of all, and second, just kind of give us the picture when he arrives in New York. What's the reaction?
Simon Hall 03:36
Yeah, so I mean, I think he goes to New York, primarily, because he sees it as a kind of extraordinary opportunity to kind of make his mark on the world stage because of the 15th general assemblies is happening. And basically almost anybody who's anybody is going to this meeting. It's a great diplomatic set piece of the post war period. So you have you know, Eisenhower is going, McMillan is going Krushchev, Nasser, Nehru, Nkrumah... really everybody who's who's who's kind of a big deal on the global stage is going to be there. And so Castro sees it as an opportunity to kind of mix it with the, with the big boys, I suppose. And to make his own claims about his own importance as a leader and also to publicise, draw attention to the the Cuban Revolution is both its achievements, but also its its place within a broader anti Imperial movement. So he's going there to sort of burnish his own sort of credentials, I suppose. But also he sees it as a great opportunity to make mischief and to cause trouble for the American government which he which he succeeds, which he sucks, he succeeds in doing what when he when he touches down at Idlewild Airport, which is modern day JFK, there are several thousand supporters -- mainly Cuban Americans -- who've gathered there to kind of cheer him and despite the fact that the weather is really sort of foul and pouring with rain and as he as his motorcade heads heads into Manhattan, they're their supporters lining the freeway to sort of chair and when he arrives at the Shelburne Hotel in Midtown is a big crowd there as well. So he's greeted quite raucously, but it's by a very select group of people. It's a big contrast: he visited New York, in the spring of 1959, as part of a wider tour of the United States and Canada. And there he'd drawn huge crowds of all different types of Americans. This one, a year or so later, his popularity has dwindled among many white Americans, but it's still very, he still very popular among African Americans, Cuban Americans and other sorts of American people in New York have of Latin American origin or or descent. This is before the Kennedy administration. And we, you know, people have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and people may have heard of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This is before all of that, of course, so. So take us back to this moment. What did the Cuban Revolution seem to represent? What why were some people or their people of Latin American extraction in the main and African Americans? Why were some people excited by Castro? And why had the majority of white Americans turned against the Cuban Revolution if they'd ever been sympathetic to it in the first place? Yeah, so when the revolution first takes place, when Castro seizes power, it does capture the imagination of a lot of people in the United States and, and elsewhere. Partly because of the sort of the aesthetic of it, or the style of it, it's sort of seems as though sort of a group of kind of, you know, very young, quite kind of bohemian looking rebels have just kind of swept down from the mountains and kicked out a terrible dictator. And it's also at that point, very early on, it's seen as, as not a communist revolution, it's seen as a kind of liberal revolution, a nationalist revolution, something that can command quite a lot of support, politically in the in the United States. And, and when Castro goes to the United States in April 1959, you know, thousands of people turn up at Harvard University where he gives a talk, and Arthur Schlessinger, the historian who's later an advisor to Kennedy sort of writes about this as though that undergraduate sort of see him as a sort of a hipster figure who's just sort of, you know, thrown out of government of wicked old men. So there's a kind of a big generational aspect to his his appeal. There. There's a lot of truth to that, isn't that I mean, he was. We look at him now. And he looks like he kind of hipster figure with his with his beard. And he was how old was he in 1960? Like he's about 34? I think so. Yeah, he was he was he was young. Certainly a lot younger than than Eisenhower. He's approaching 70. And a decade or so younger than John F. Kennedy, who's running for the presidency. And his appeal among African Americans in particular is centred on the fact that within weeks of taking power, he put his government passes a series of laws that outlaw segregation in private clubs, hotels, on beaches, swimming pools, and so on and commits the revolutionary government to ending racial discrimination. And so this is a big deal, as he said, he was just 90 miles off the coast of the segregated South and his, his willingness to overturn the the kind of racial order in Cuba, seemingly overnight is seen as a real breath of fresh air. So that explains why he retains his appeal among African Americans. He's less popular with other groups, because for a number of reasons one is, is a big sort of PR disaster really, by the Cuban government, because they, they have a series of sort of show trials for senior Battista regime figures who are then convicted and shot. And this goes down quite badly. In the United States, you sort of see it as a representative justice and talk about kind of Cuban bloodbath, the government also becomes increasingly -- at least in the view of the Americans, -- authoritarians kind of bears down on the free press, it restricts academic freedom, it restricts the freedom of the judiciary, so it seems to be coming up taking a sort of authoritarian turn. And most importantly, Americans it starts to nationalise or otherwise interfere with American owned businesses. Those policies go down very badly in Washington. And the disagreements become increasingly by template, it'll template and so there's a sort of a war of words between Cuba and the United States, which means that by the spring, summer, early autumn of 1960, relations between the two are pretty, a pretty poor.
Adam Smith 09:53
You noted that at this point in September 1960 it still wasn't clear that Castro had chosen sides in the Cold War. It still wasn't clear that he was establishing a Communist regime in Cuba. So can you talk a little bit about how Castro saw himself as part of this kind of mix of world leaders? I mean, I note that you talk in your book about how he met up with Nehru, for example, the the Indian leader. How is he trying to position himself in global political terms?
Simon Hall 10:30
Yeah, it's a good, it's a good question. And it's a bit tricky to know, for sure, because sort of two things are going on, really in in, in New York, with Fidel, so one of the things he's doing is meeting with these, these big characters with narrow with Nasser with Nkrumah And its positioning seems to be positioned in Cuba. alongside those, those leaders and those kind those countries are making Cuba and Latin America part of this broader, non-aligned movement, a movement which is defining itself in terms of anti colonial nationalism, and against, quote, unquote, western imperialism. So he's doing that, and he wants to be seen, he wants to be photographed with these leaders he wants to be, he wants to meet with them. He wants to build bridges and alliances and find common ground with them. And a year or so after this Cuba does join, becomes a member of what's formed as an online movements and official or official group of these nations. But at the same time, he's doing that he's also hobnobbing with Krushchev and becoming increasingly, you know, they get they seem to get on really well, Fidel and Khrushchev, and this is coming at a moment when Cuba is, is becoming much closer to the Soviet Union, it's turning to the Soviet Union for economic help, as America is becoming more hostile. So there's two things going on, there's a bit of a sense that finales wanting to do to do both he's wanting a strong economic and military alliance, potentially, with the Soviet Union, looking to the future for that. But also, he wants Cuba to be identified with the kind of global South with the anti Imperial movement with the non aligned bloc. So he's trying to do both in a way.
Adam Smith 12:12
Strikes me -- and this is a lot from reading your book -- I mean, Khrushchev and Castro, you could sort of see why they would either get on really well, or they would really hate each other because they're both larger than life characters. They're both extremely eccentric, they're both showman. The interesting thing about about Khrushchev , and I guess about the Soviet Union more generally, at this time, but it seems to bear particularly on Khrushchev, is it in relation to the non-aligned, the non aligned movement, as you say, define themselves around anti colonial struggles. And so it's these newly independent post colonial nations who are the at the heart of it, the leaders of this movement, and there's something about the Soviet Union at this point, it's kind of would kind of like a little bit of that themselves, wouldn't they? I mean, if there's anti imperialism going around, well, they see themselves as an anti imperial power, too, don't they?
Simon Hall 13:05
Yeah, totally. And I mean, there's so if not points, where there isn't really there isn't necessarily a contradiction, because unlike Stalin, who viewed non communist movements for national liberation as class enemies, he views these anti colonial nationalist movements, potential allies, supporters, he's willing to spend lots of money, lots of spending huge amounts of Soviet resources on development projects across Africa and Asia, to try to, you know, win alliances win support, build up, influence. So yeah, I mean, Khrushchev sees himself as an his, he views the Soviet Union and the Soviet project as anti imperialist. Yeah.
Adam Smith 13:48
I want to move on to talk about Castro in New York, he goes to a Midtown Manhattan hotel, first of all, and basically gets fed up there doesn't think they're being treated, as well as they should be by the management and the staff. There's this moment when he strops off to Dag Hammarskjöld in the United Nations headquarters and demands that the Cuban delegation be allowed to sleep on sofas, inside the UN building. And when that doesn't seem to come off, he moves up to Harlem, your book is called Ten Days in Harlem. So tell us about that move, which is the kind of signature move it's the that is the reason really why the Castro visit to New York in September 1960 is most remembered. He moves up to Harlem. And in doing so he puts himself at the heart of the historic African American community in New York City. Yeah, I mean, it's an extraordinary moment. And you know, it's not just that he goes to Harlem, but he goes to the Hotel Teresa, which is this huge landmark building, right in the heart of, of Harlem. It's just around the corner from Lewis Michaud's famous African nationalist bookstore. It's right around the corner from where all the street orators gather. So he's right in the very heart of Harlem, the very centre of the kind of African American political world, I suppose. And, and then his very first guest is Malcolm X, just you know, he's barely had time to check in when Malcolm X turns up and they, they get on really well, they have some wonderful photos of them chatting in her in them, infidels hotel suite, both sort of perched on the edge of the bed, because there isn't any real furniture to accommodate accommodate them. And, you know, this just sends out a message really about it. That is, that puts Fidel and Cuba very firmly on the side of African Americans on the side of the African American freedom struggle, and on the side of the sort of, quote, unquote, oppressed people of of Harlem. And, and then because he spends most of his time in, in Harlem, you have this extraordinary thing where you have all these leaders who make their own pilgrimage up to the Teresa to meet with him. There. And this is also kind of extraordinary, because it's an area which is usually kept hidden from the outside world. When Khrushchev was was in United States, in 1959, he did a hugely successful tour of the United States in 1959, as part of a moment in the Cold War, where it looked as though superpower tensions were but easing a bit. He spent time in New York and he was insistent he wanted to go to Harlem, he wanted to go to Harlem. And eventually, his American mind is allowed to go to Harlem, but they drive him through Harlem in the early hours of the morning on the way to the airport, as he's flying back home, when there's nobody around. So it's an area where the American government is very keen that people don't see it. And they don't want people to see it, because it's an international embarrassment in terms of its racial situation. So it's it's endemic. Poverty, crumbling buildings, or slum laws are problems with crime, problems with with with disease, like asthma, tuberculosis, as sort of endemic police corruption and brutality, police brutality. And so, by going to Harlem, Fidel doesn't just draw attention to the kind of vibrancy of the African American freedom struggle in 1960. But it also draws attention to all of the problems that African Americans who live in Harlem face are faced with everyday, you know, segregation, both formal and informal, poorly funded, inadequate schools, police brutality, all of this kind of stuff. And this runs totally against the the kind of story that the American government is telling to itself to its citizens and to the world about race relations. So what what the State Department is saying is, you know, yes, there is a race problem is confined mostly to the south for historic reasons because of the legacy of slavery. But look, it's in the process of being gradually worked through in a peaceful, democratic manner, in keeping with our constitutional form of government through Supreme Court rulings, carefully worked out federal initiatives and and a new legislation. And Fidel's visit to Harlem draws the world's attention to the problem of racism and segregation in the, in the north and America's most important, most famous city, and in a city, which is, which kind of encapsulates postwar American liberalism. I mean, its mayor, Robert Wagner is an archetypal postwar liberally supports trade unions. He supports labour reform efforts. He supports welfare spending. He's a, he's a liberal Democrat. And yet this really important section of his own city is blighted by all kinds of racial discrimination. So the idea that it's just a sort of a localised problem, which has been worked through and solved peacefully and democratically is exposed to something of a of affliction. So it's something and of course this goes down really well in Harlem, they think this is a great Hoot that Fidel has turned up and everyone's looking and the State Department officials are kind of tearing their hair out at what they do about it. And and, and it matters because 1960 is a year when more than a dozen newly independent African nations are joining the United Nations, many of their diplomats and senior government officials are in New York exactly at this time. And their allegiances, their loyalties, their sympathies are up for up for grabs in the kind of cold war contest. So it's it's it's diplomatic, what we would call it to their challenge when we it's a challenge for the State Department is a challenge for the Eisenhower administration. Yeah. It seems to me from your book as if Eisenhower doesn't really rise to that challenge very well. Isn't this is a moment where the State Department's saying look, Mr. President, you've got to go and have dinner and have lunch with these newly independent, the leaders of these newly independent African countries. And he's kind of "No, no, no, I'll see them all together. I can't be bothered to go and see them all individually." So there's Is there a sense in which Eisenhower -- I mean, he's on his way out. I guess he's at the very end of his second term, but he's just doesn't quite rise to the challenge. Does he?
Simon Hall 19:55
No he definitely doesn't and you get the sense the state there are people in the State Department who really understand that this is a key moment that these new independent countries are there. And first impressions matter. And it's really worth spending time and effort and turning on the charm, to try to make sure that those relations get off to a good start. And Eisenhower just doesn't, he doesn't get it, he doesn't rise to the challenge. He is emotionally unable really to relate to it. I think he's suspicious of a lot of these new leaders. He totally doesn't doesn't get neutralise. He doesn't get the nonaligned business. He thinks it's, you know, he says things like, you know, he understands why you might want to be neutral between two part two power blocks, but when it becomes one, it is a question of, of being free or not free, or a question of being right or wrong, how can you be neutral on those questions? So he sees it through a very sort of particular lens or Cold War, anti communist lens. And actually, you know, when he does meet African leaders one on one, it often goes very badly. So in a way, it's maybe better that he doesn't spend too much time he needs some, the one leader that he really likes that he spends time with is some the leader of ngulia independent, the total is Republic. guy called, I think it's Sylvanus Olympio. And he really likes this guy. And he writes about how, you know, it's very telling, he says, oh, he has a sense of humour, which you don't often find in many of these African leaders, which you think we are okay. And maybe they've got reasons to be serious when they're meeting the President of United States and stuff. But then that meeting seems to go quite, you know, on the surface goes very well. But, so Sylvanus is saying look, we're really an independent country, and we have to share our ambassador for the United States with Cameron, which is miles away. So yeah, it's not even a neighbouring country. And, you know, there's some talk about, you know, lack of resources and not enough money to open a separate embassy and then Eisenhower chips in with like, Well, you know, maybe the ambassador we could, we could have an ambassador and instead of building a house, they could sleep in a tent with like everybody else does in your country. It's and it's just like, yeah, yeah, yeah, so he just doesn't, Yeah, super awkward. And then they also offend Nkrumah because Nkrumah has a meeting with with Eisenhower, and he doesn't really want to talk about the issues, he just talks about his own military service in World War Two. And then the next day NKrumah gives a speech at the UN, where he's very critical of, of the policy towards the Congo and believes that African nations should take the lead in solving the problem in the Congo, but also makes a big thing about keeping the Cold War out of Africa. He thinks that, you know, the Cold War should be kept out of Africa and Christian hurted, the Secretary of State interprets this as has incriminating sort of basically gone communist, which is exacerbated by the fact that as increment steps down from the rostrum, Khrushchev makes a big deal of getting up and checking and checking and by the hand, and, I mean, he hasn't given a speech, which is communist at all, but they just sort of interpret any criticism of the West as as dangerous. So the administration is very flat footed, when it comes to this, this question of the newly independent countries. So the whole sort of story of US policy and African decolonization in the 15th General Assembly is one of 10 years being bitten eared, not rising to the challenge, not really getting the moment, I don't think, hmm. And ceding the initiative, ultimately.
Adam Smith 23:15
The United States is in the description in your book seems to come across to me as being deeply uncomfortable with the revolutionary struggles which have led to the independence of formerly colonised powers in the third world. Is that is that fair? Or Or does the kind of anti Imperial tradition in American politics find any outlet in 1960?
Simon Hall 23:48
Yeah, it's interesting. And it's also ironic, actually, because many of these anti colonial struggles and the leaders of them had taken great inspiration from the Atlantic Charter signed by Roosevelt, and and ironically, a Winston Winston Churchill was in 1941, I think, wasn't it? So you know, we talked about the rights of self made a big thing about the right to self determination, I think the Eisenhower administration it's so it's opposed to colonisation because it believes that Empire sort of formal empires as habits day, but it doesn't, but it also wants it to proceed in a very sort of orderly and careful way. And it wants to, obviously, it also wants those newly independent countries to be anti communist. And so it's, um, it finds it difficult to navigate that and I think that, particularly for the Eisenhower administration, when it has to make a choice between offending a key European power one of its key European allies like Britain, or supporting an anti colonial movement in Africa, it always leans towards pretty much always leans towards supporting the the Western powers. The exception there is sort of sewers, which is a bit that's a bit more complicated, I think. But yeah, it's uncut, it is uncomfortable with the, with the prospect that these new countries are going to be radical or that they're going to pose some sort of threat to America's own interests. Fidel gives this very long, extremely long speech at the UN General Assembly, last for four and a half hours, which is still a record, thankfully, still a record hasn't been broken yet. But one of the most interesting and most, I think, insightful things he says in that speech is that, you know, it's really easy to, to raise a flag to come up with a new coat of arms to sing and sing the national anthem, and to declare independence. But unless you have economic sovereignty, unless you have the ability to craft your own economic policies, you don't really have true independence. And United States is very resistant to any attempt by and these newly independent countries to, to exercise real economic independence, and to do things which seem to go against America's own interests. In terms of whether there's a sort of an outlet for the anti imperialist sentiment, it seems to come in what is the emerging new, new left in the United States, but the academic New Left, which is people like William Appleman Williams writing about a longer tradition of American Empire or American expansionism or American imperialism
Adam Smith 26:27
in a critical way
Simon Hall 26:28
in a critical way. Yeah, which is filtering down to the sort of new generation of college students and, and student activists they're sympathetic to, and they're inspired by that view of, of looking at America's history, and at the same time inspired by revolutionaries, like the revolution in Cuba or in Algeria, or, or elsewhere. So that's where that's where that sentiment comes the Cuban Revolution, the economic independence that Castro was seeking was very much economic independence at the expense of American business interests. So the pre revolutionary Cuba under the Battista regime, this this is the the image I have was to Vanna was a playground for rich Americans and American business interests dominated in the pre revolutionary Cuban economy, right. So so it in a way, whatever may or may not have been the impulse behind the different independence movements across Africa and Asia, in the case of Cuba, although that wasn't a straightforward, anti colonial struggle, because Cuba wasn't part of a formal Empire before the Cuban Revolution. In an informal sense, it had been part of an American economic Empire. So it was, it was the closest that you came perhaps in the post war era to an anti American colonial struggle. Yeah, I mean, certainly the way that Fidel and his fellow revolutionaries would would have it, Cuba was run as a sort of economic colony of the United States, it was run for the benefit of American business interests, not for the benefit of the Cuban people. And it was a playground for the, for the, for the rich, and for the mob as well, for the mafia. And, you know, Fidel had grown up in an area of Cuba, which was dominated by the big American sugar companies, and although his own background was quite privileged, his father was, was quite wealthy and owned a sugar cane farm, and they lived in quite grand house. You know, the kids that Castro went to school with, you know, were the sons and the daughters of sugar cane workers who earned a, basically a pittance. And at the same time that, you know, American employees of these companies lived in these very fancy gated communities with sort of lavish facilities and a life of sort of luxury, really. So Castro is always keen to sort of make make mischief. So when he when he expropriate American property and nationalised his American companies, he offers compensation in Cuban government bonds. But the value of those bonds, the value of the property is, is determined by the amount that the property was declared for tax purposes. And because the whole system was notoriously corrupt, it was all under declared, so they're not getting their full worth back. But, you know, for that's, that's part of the point where he's making a point there as well about the fact that Cuba had been run. Yeah, as as a as a de facto economic colony of the United States. I think it was, you know, something like a billion dollars worth of investments in Cuba. So there was a lot for Americans to lose. And so really, any new Cuban government that really wanted to do something about that was going to run into difficulties because it was going to antagonise business interests was going to cause tensions with the United States.
Adam Smith 29:47
Finally, Simon, I mean, what's the what are the long term? What were the consequences of all this? I mean, it's a great story that you tell in your book, Ten Days in Harlem, I mean, the really rich and colourful story and brings together all these strands of geopolitics and racial politics in the United States and everything else in all these world leaders together. After Castro left, what then? What's the long term consequence of this episode?
Simon Hall 30:14
There are a few things. One is his his trip to New York sort of seals in the minds of the Eisenhower administration that there is absolutely no way that they can tolerate him. So they're, you know, they've already begun to think about a way to replace the regime in in Havana. And in the weeks after Fidel flies back, they work out those plans more they make the more sort of robust and more and more ambitious. And that's the origins of what becomes the Bay of Pigs invasion in the spring of 1961. Under Eisenhower's successor, john kennedy, I think that the meeting with the meetings with Chris Jeff are really important because they, they get on really well. And it signals that this is going to be a really important strategic new strategic alliance, which is important in itself in terms of how the Cold War is going to play out over the next the next few years, but also, I think, symbolically is showing how the focus of the Cold War is shifting away from Europe and towards the countries of the global of the global south or Latin America to Africa, to Asia. I think it's also when Fidel arrives back in Havana, a lot of commentators, particularly the both the British ambassador and the American ambassador there, sort of see in him a sort of renewed zeal to make the Cuban Revolution, not just a success for Cuba, but like sort of a genuinely world historic event. And I think Fidel's reputation as a as a global revolutionary, is, is definitely improved, strengthened, hugely by this by this trip and helps to instil in him a real determination to to put Cuba at the heart of the global anti imperialist movements over the coming decade. And it also makes him even more of a folk hero to this sort of emerging new left and the student counterculture. This is great reception they have the the ballroom of the Teresa for him on the 22nd of September. And you know, anyone who's, you know, a kind of a cultural bigwig, literary bigwig, actors, all these people are, they're sort of fawning over him desperate to have their photograph taken with him asking for his autograph, it's a it's a really early sign of what later comes to be known as sort of radical, chic, and within the student movement in the 1960s. Within the new left, this sort of fading of, of revolutionary figures from Latin America, from from Africa from from Asia, becomes a really defining characteristic of that of that movement. And I think that Fidel's trip to New York, and specifically his stay in Harlem is an important part of sort of crafting that, that left wing politics that is so central to the story of the of the rest of the decade.
Adam Smith 32:54
Is there any way the Americans could have played it differently and more effectively?
Simon Hall 32:59
Yeah, I love these counterfactuals. They're really, they're really fun to think about. I've got, I mean, it's hard to see how the situation could have been really been recovered by September of 1960. But there's a great contrast in the way that Eisenhower behaves in the way that some Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister behaves. So Eisenhower is determined not to be seen anywhere near Fidel Castro, you know, in the general assembly hall or anywhere else, he's not going to meet him. He just arrived him in private as a madman, sort of a dangerous figure. Macmillan when he arrived in New York, one of the first things he does when he arrives in the General Assembly Hall is to stride across to Nasser, and to sort of shake him warmly by the hand and engage in some nice small talk and sort of turn on the charm. And of course, Nasser is someone who is who has, you know, just for years before humiliated Britain over the Suez Crisis. And now Macmillan was who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Eden's government was one of the leading hawks at that time calling for Britain to intervene to take out the Suez Canal and to overthrow Nasser, it was seen as a sort of a Mussolini type figure by Sir Anthony Eden, and yet, you know, Macmillian, has the flexibility, the imagination, the willingness to put all that to one side and, and turn on the charm and you sort of think, you know, it probably was never going to happen, but if I as an hour, or Christian Herter for the art had gone over to Castro
Adam Smith 34:27
Christian Herter being the secretary.
Simon Hall 34:28
So yeah, if one of them had gone, I had done that, you know, what, what would have happened, what what might not have have done? Would it have made any difference? When I read about that, that McMillan said, sort of gesture did make me think, you know, be greater sort of rewind history a bit and just play that scene, but have Eisenhower, you know, make some sort of symbolic gesture and try to try to disrupt the situation in a different way maybe
Adam Smith 34:56
He does, I will say, I mean, milling comes across very well in your book, Simon. Eisenhower comes across really quite badly as a kind of rather grumpy out of touch. Not just not really getting what's going on, you know, it's it's not a great portrait of presidential leadership.
Simon Hall 35:14
No, it's not his finest hour. He's He's grumpy. I don't think he's in the best of health. He's irritable, has an extraordinary recollection that his, his secretary Anna Whitman has. She overhears Eisenhower. Or Eisenhower comments to her after I think is after Khrushchev's speech at the first speech of the General Assembly, which is very belligerent, and he says something along the lines of you know, I wish there was nothing holding me back from pressing the button and sending all our nuclear mass missiles over to the Soviet Union. This thing, yeah, only thing to say really, but yeah, he comes across as kind of, he's run out of steam, I think. Yeah. Yeah. Let's Let's be kind to the president.
Adam Smith 35:55
Yeah that's the polite way of putting it. Simon, thank you so much. It's a it's a great book. And it's a great story. And as I think this conversation has, has shown, it's, it's one of those great little stories that opens up in so many different directions. Simon, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
Simon Hall 36:14
Thank you. It's been great.
Adam Smith 36:25
Simon Hall's book is called Ten Days in Harlem. In the end, as Simon explained, Castro's visit was so provoking to Eisenhower precisely because he knew which buttons to press, which places to go which people to see, to puncture the image of America, the administration wanted to project in the context of Cold War politics, American leaders wanted more than ever to be the last best hope of earth. And as ever, that desire made the supposed Redeemer nation especially vulnerable to the exposure of its contradictions, hypocrisy is and mundanely familiar, unexceptional, social problems. You've been listening to the Last Best Hope? podcast from Oxford's Rothermere American Institute. I'm Adam Smith. And if you've enjoyed this, please Like us on iTunes, follow us on Twitter and make it easy for others to find us. Goodbye.