Eric Alterman: When reviewers don't know what they're talking about

Roundup: Talking About History

In Sunday's NYTBR, the diplomat Richard Holbrooke writes effusively of journalist Michael Dobbs' new book on the Cuban missile crisis, here.

I'll say this for Dobbs. He is a lucky man. He gets a front-page review from a famous man in the most influential space there is. Still, while Holbrooke is a smart fellow, and as expert as anyone alive on the practice of international diplomacy, he doesn't know much about the Cuban missile crisis. The literature on the topic among historians and political scientists is as vast as on perhaps any eight days in actual -- as opposed to biblical -- human history. It is very nearly a full-time job to keep up with it. And that is not Holbrooke's job. So while it's lucky for Dobbs, it's unlucky for people who devote themselves to the topic.

For instance, Holbrooke writes that"Kennedy had asked that [the missiles in Turkey] be removed before the missile crisis, but no action had been taken." This is actually one of the most common myths about the missile crisis, of which there are many. In fact, my dissertation adviser Barton J. Bernstein demonstrated that Kennedy only thought he asked for them to be removed, but never actually did so.

This is the part that really drives me crazy:

Dobbs's research uncovers some juicy nuggets for history buffs. My favorite is the debunking of the once-famous"back-channel" between the ABC reporter John Scali and Aleksandr Feklisov, a K.G.B. station chief. The Kennedy administration attached great importance to this connection, and spent much time drafting a message for Scali to give to Feklisov. But on the basis of extensive analysis and interviews, Dobbs believes that the so-called back channel was a self-generated effort by an ambitious spy to send some information to his bosses in Moscow, as well as self-promotion by an ambitious journalist, who parlayed his meetings with the K.G.B. agent into a public legend that eventually led to his becoming the American ambassador to the United Nations. Dobbs, one of the most thorough journalists in Washington, concludes that"there is no evidence" the K.G.B. cable containing Scali's message"played any role in Kremlin decision-making on the crisis, or was even read by Khrushchev." He calls it"a classic example of miscommunication." Nonetheless, Dobbs adds wryly,"the Scali-Feklisov meeting would become part of the mythology of the Cuban missile crisis.

"One Minute to Midnight" is filled with similar insights that will change the views of experts and help inform a new generation of readers."

Sorry, but this is nonsense. I had this story in When Presidents Lie, which was published in 2004. I wrote then:

Roger Hilsman's account of the secret discussions between John Scali and Alexander Fomin -- whose real name was Feklisov -- also turns out to be a blind alley. The talks were never officially sanctioned on the Soviet side, and Feklisov did not report his contacts with Scali to KGB headquarters until after their second meeting. The news of that meeting did not, therefore, arrive until Saturday, October 27, Moscow time, and it was another four hours before the KGB sent the message to Foreign Minister Gromyko. Khrushchev, hence, would have known nothing about these contacts until after he composed both of his letters to Kennedy. Khrushchev's first letter and Feklisov's communication therefore could not have been" clearly related," much less"drafted at the same time," as Hilsman claimed. Feklisov even disputes Hilsman's account that he approached Scali rather than the other way around.93 Their talks no doubt did influence the American team, but only on the basis of a false understanding of the origin of Feklisov's instructions.

Footnote 93 reads:

Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee,1997 130-31. In his oral history, Scali also related a conversation that he estimates to have taken place in 1972 with a Soviet official who informed him"those proposals were never relayed to Moscow" because"they were never considered important." He could not, however, identify the official in question, as the conversation occurred a decade previous to the oral history interview. See John Scali Oral History, interviewed by Sheldon Stern, November 17, 1982, 10, JFKL.

So this alleged historical bombshell has actually been common knowledge to historians who have kept up with the literature since at least 1997.

I am not casting any particular aspersions against anyone with this post, but I do find it personally frustrating. When When Presidents Lie was published, the Times BR editors gave it to Gary Hart. This was a respectful and generous assignment. But like Holbrooke, Hart knows a great deal about diplomacy but very little about history, and most infuriating, he doesn't know how little he knows. He thought the book lousy and thought the Cuban missile crisis section to be the worst part of it.

Back then he indefensibly wrote, here, that I was accusing JFK of a"failure to disclose what almost everyone in Washington knew." Well, if"almost everyone in Washington knew" about the missile trade, it was news to me, and I studied the damn thing for 11 years. I responded in a letter to the Times, here, in which I pointed out:

If true, this would be big news to, among others, Robert Kennedy, who was so concerned that word of the deal would leak out that when Khrushchev and the Soviets attempted to codify the bargain through a secret memorandum of understanding, he refused to accept it, citing the potential damage it might one day do to his own political ambitions. It would also surprise the historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who noted, ''Probably no one except the Kennedys, McNamara, Rusk, Ball and Bundy knew what R.F.K. had told Dobrynin'' (the Soviet ambassador). Finally, if ''almost everyone'' knew about the deal, as Hart claims, why -- as late as January 1989 -- did Anatoly Dobrynin demand that a group of American participants in the crisis, gathered in Moscow for a post-mortem, finally own up to it? Why did Ted Sorensen respond with what he called ''a confession to make to my colleagues on the American side, as well as to others who are present,'' that he had edited Robert Kennedy's diaries that formed the basis of the book ''Thirteen Days'' to prevent the disclosure of the deal, which ''was still a secret even on the American side, except for the six of us who had been present at that meeting''?

Hart's evidenceless assertion is also contradicted by Holbrooke's impression, for whatever that is worth. He writes,"Kennedy was more than willing to dismantle them, but he was determined not to leave a public impression that he had made any sort of deal or 'trade' with Moscow. Asked by Dobrynin about the Jupiters, Bobby Kennedy said they were not an 'insurmountable obstacle' but that they could not be linked -- ever -- to the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles. Bobby Kennedy also said that there would have to be a time lag of several months before their removal. It was this 'non-deal deal' that opened the door for a resolution. In 'Thirteen Days,' his posthumously published chronicle of the crisis, Bobby Kennedy carefully edited his account of the Dobrynin meeting to remove any hint of a deal on Turkey. But almost from the beginning, many people suspected the truth, and looking back on it today, it may seem surprising to see how hard the Kennedys sought to conceal it."

I have a number of other issues with both reviews, but the upshot of this episode is that Dobbs got lucky with the generous but-ill-informed Richard Holbrooke, and I got screwed by an ungenerous-but-ignorant Gary Hart. Book reviews are by definition a crapshoot, and a deeply unfair one at that. Serious writers spend years, if not decades, writing books, and the people who review them are free to misrepresent them to far more people than will ever see the book. And while editors try to be conscientious, even the best must admit there is very little way to ensure that a reviewer is fair to a book. In both Hart's and Holbrooke's cases, they should have stuck to what they knew, which is plenty, instead of pretending to know what they didn't. But my overall point is that reviewers ought to be a great deal more respectful of the difficult process of writing a book in the first place. Serious books, like newspapers, are disappearing in our public culture just when we need them the most.

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Tim R. Furnish - 6/28/2008

Wow, Mr. Alterman got "screwed" by a bad review. A decade ago. And he's still sore about it. This column is not far removed from a Myspace page.