What next? – a $.15b ‘state house’ for Queens Wharf

Last month, we learned from Bernard Orsman of the NZ Herald of leaked proposals to build two, three-storey office and car park buildings at the Quay Street end of Queens Wharf. This month the news is that Auckland Council art bureaucrats, with the support of the Mayor, are trying to impose a $1.5m artwork at Queens Wharf’s northern, seaward end.

The work by Michael Parekowhai is a two-thirds sized sculpture of a state house.   A state house?  People of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations would be intrigued to learn that this ‘state house’ will cost over $1.5m.  $1m will come as a gift from Barfoot and Thomson, as a birthday present to celebrate the real estate agent’s 90th birthday.   The balance, it appears, will be coming out of your rates.   For the life of me, I just don’t get the logic of an oversized sculpture of a state house being plonked at the end of Queens Wharf.   The artist himself seems to have in mind an entirely new role for his ‘state house’, ‘signalling a safe harbour, welcoming to all.’  But why not then sculpt a lighthouse?  It gets even more bizarre.  To provide lighting for this ‘state house’, there will be a 45-tonne, Venetian, hand-blown, crystal chandelier costing $750,000.   Such extravagance may be artistic but it’s rather insensitive given real state house tenants find it hard to pay their light bills, and many currently are under threat of eviction.  This is also completely out of keeping with the maritime environment and history of Queens Wharf.

The view of the Waitemata Local Board is that it was a case of ‘good art but in the wrong place.’  To be fair, I can’t comment on its artistic merits because I have never seen it.  But it is certainly in the wrong place.   Public art should be relevant and in harmony with its setting.  Most of all it should be democratic and have the support of the people who will be paying for it.  Obviously the executives of Barfoot and Thompson who presumably know more about location, location, location than public art, are happy to take this prime spot on Queens Wharf, though the idea of the location apparently came from council bureaucrats.  But what about the other funders, the people of Auckland, who are once again to be shut out of the process?

Queens Wharf was purchased by the former Auckland Regional Council and the government for all Aucklanders.  Maximising views out over the harbour from the city and leaving space for future generations for their ideas and their needs was a key consideration at the time.  We should resist Queens Wharf being cluttered and privatised by present day opportunists with more money than taste.

Queens Wharf is also for future generations, which we hope and pray might regain the civic-mindedness and good taste of Auckland’s earlier generations.

PM and ARC Chairman announce the purchase of Queens Wharf, public open day, September 2009. (Photo John Hong)

Versions of this article have been published in the July issue of Ponsonby News, Verve Magazine and 10 July issue of Gulf News.

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On Guard Aucklanders – your waterfront is under threat

The National government has announced the end of its assets sales programme, which on the face of it should bring to a close New Zealand’s shameful era of privatization – of country selling.  While most of the government’s trading assets have now been completely or partially sold off, it’s probably too much to hope that privatisation will really come to an end.   In fact I have long suspected local public assets will be the next to come under pressure.   And in fact this seems to be happening with the first target being public open space.  Prime waterfront open space, judging by the revelations that Auckland Council and Council Controlled Organisation (CCO) bureaucrats have been secretly discussing the sell-off of Queens Wharf to a mysterious Cayman Islands-based corporation.

Persistent rumours suggest that behind this is Australian mining billionaire, Gina Rinehart, but this has been adamantly denied by the project frontman, businessman and Mayor Len Brown backer, Sir Noel Robinson.  But he won’t say who it is.  Why not?

Following closely on the heels of this unhappy news came the Auckland Council Governing Body’s decision, on the basis of an officers’ report emailed through the previous day, to agree ‘ in principle’ to the sell off Queen Elizabeth ll Square to the Abu Dhabi controlled Precinct Properties, as part of an expanded shopping mall – office tower development.

Like Queens Wharf, Queen Elizabeth ll Square is high value, strategically located public open space.  It is also prime blue-chip real estate, potentially the most valuable in New Zealand – though judging from the Council officers’ report it is considered neither.

 

That's it Prime Minister. BUY public assets, don't sell them. Queens Wharf, public open day, September 2009. (Photo John Hong)

Queens Wharf was purchased by the former Auckland Regional Council and the Government in 2009 and opened to the public for the first time in nearly 100 years on Anzac Day 2010.  It has proven to be enormously popular with Aucklanders.

With its purpose-built, temporary ‘Cloud’, Queens Wharf did sterling service during the Rugby World Cup as ‘Party Central’.    Its companion, historic Shed 10 has been handsomely renovated by Waterfront Auckland to become Auckland’s premier cruise ship terminal (just as the ARC recommended in mid 2010).   Apart from hosting tens of thousands of cruise ship visitors, Shed 10 has become a sentimental favourite of Aucklanders (they do after all own it).   It is used for a wide range of public events, memorably hosting thousands of supporters, morning after morning, who came to Shed 10 to cheer on Team NZ during last year’s America’s Cup series.

With its purpose-built, temporary ‘Cloud’, Queens Wharf did sterling service during the Rugby World Cup as ‘Party Central’.    Its companion, historic Shed 10 has been handsomely renovated by Waterfront Auckland to become Auckland’s premier cruise ship terminal – just as the ARC recommended in mid 2010.   Apart from hosting tens of thousands of cruise ship visitors, Shed 10, as the last America’s Cup showed, has become a sentimental favourite of Aucklanders (they do after all own it).

From the time – as chairman of the ARC-, I announced our intention to buy Queens Wharf, I always believed one of the greatest advantages of opening Queens Wharf are the views out over the harbour which link the city to the sea.  Hopefully the Cloud will soon be removed to enhance these views.   The secret plans to privatise the Quay Street end of the Wharf and block those views with crass office and car-park buildings are unacceptable.

Across Quay Street, the loss of Queen Elizabeth ll Square will be a major loss of amenity for Downtown Auckland.  Precinct Properties’ new development could have been an opportunity to redress the planning mistakes of the 1970s and 80s.    But from what I have seen so far, and given the forelock-tugging attitude of Council bureaucrats towards big business and their unwillingness to stand up for the public interest, I am not holding my breath. Neither should you.

On guard Aucklanders.  Our beautiful waterfront is under threat from the country sellers.

A version of this article has been published in the Ponsonby News (June edition).

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Nikita goes to Hollywood

Nikita goes to Hollywood – Movie Reviews (Hollywood adds new meaning to the term Theatres of War) 
by Mike Lee

(I first wrote this in early 2002 in the NZ Political Review.  Its a review of two movies which were playing at around the same time – about historical events involving America (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Russia (the Battle of Stalingrad) – which occurred 20 years apart.  I argued that the two events were very much linked.  The article was picked up by the American website Ratical which gave it a lot of coverage.  Two years later the headline ‘Nikita goes to Hollywood’ was used in the Guardian and in 2009 by the Smithsonian Institute.  Given events in the Ukraine and the bizarre but potentially grave crisis between the USA and Russia , I thought it timely to republish it.)

Nikita Krushchev - terrifying for any 12 year old seeing this on a magazine rack.

September 19 1959 
”Lunch at Fox was very interesting. I’ve never seen such a large turnout of capitalistic movie luminaries as for Krushchev, chief of the Soviet proletariat This luncheon was Hollywood’s political event of the year. I was not an admirer of Premier Krushchev but I was convulsed by Spiro Skouras’ (the head of Twentieth Century Fox) attempt to engage him in debate. Skouras stood up after the toasts were exchanged and launched into a speech describing how his life demonstrated the virtues of the capitalist system. “I was poor boy from Greece”, he said, “I came to America with nothing. Now I am head of Twentieth Century Fox” Krushchev listened to the translation, stood up and replied. “I was poor boy from Ukraine. I came to Moscow with nothing. Now I am Premier of Soviet Socialist Republic.” Charlton Heston The Actor’s Life — Journals 1956 — 1976.

In the last two or three years (prior to September 11) Hollywood had become increasingly interested in events of the middle 20th century.

Steven Spielberg’s war movie Saving Private Ryan seemed to touch a chord, building on an end-of-century mood of nostalgia. Such was the impact of Private Ryan it inspired something of a fashion for realistic/heroic World War 2-era books and movies. Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers on the World War 2 exploits of the 101st Airborne became last year’s block-buster television series. Why the popular culture would have become so interested in historic events like World War 2 is an interesting question.

In this country, this same mood is expressed in increasingly large turn-outs for Anzac Day ceremonies. (Commentators remark on the large numbers of school children now turning up for the dawn services, missing the point that the kids were being taken there by their former peacenik parents).

This same mood is why baby boomer Americans began to refer to their parents as the ‘Greatest Generation’. The term was coined by TV personality Tom Brokaw who wrote a World War 2 genre best-seller of the same name.

To be fair to Francis Fukuyama, history, after the Cold War, if not actually ending did seem to pause for a bit – as if in a lull between waves. At this point in time, it is difficult to assess the ultimate significance of the September 11 attacks, but up until then there was a noticeable public interest in an era when history did seem very much alive, was much more easy to make sense of, and was played out on a stage of heroic scale – by a cast of millions.

Last year three major movies dealt with political events of the middle 20th century and the doings of the `Greatest Generation’: Pearl Harbour, Thirteen Days, and The Enemy at the Gates.

The over-hyped, big budget Pearl Harbour was basically standard American-boy-meets-girl fare against a standard interpretation of the events that brought the U.S. into the Second World War.  Despite the movies’ technical excellence (especially the depiction of the Japanese bombing raid), the predictable story line and wooden acting meant that Pearl Harbour was . . . well, a `bomb’.

Thirteen Days

If the Greatest Generation lived in heroic times, we their kids, growing up in the Cold War lived through pretty exciting times ourselves. No more so than October 1962 when the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles, secretly installed in Cuba and aimed at the United States, brought the world to the very brink of a Third World War. Few old enough to remember the time can forget the feeling of impending doom that accompanied the reports of a looming nuclear war between the world’s two super-powers.

The movie Thirteen Days covers those dramatic days more or less in the formula of a TV docudrama. Apart from a few dramatic flourishes and the exaggerated role of ‘special aide to the President’ Kenneth P. O’Donnell, it is pretty much a faithful record of events – of course from the American point-of-view.

Thirteen Days has a New Zealand connection in Director Roger Donaldson who though an Australian made his name directing successful Kiwi films like Smash Palace and who lives here when not in Hollywood.

Donaldson and screen writer David Self chose Kenny O’Donnell, one of President Kennedy’s most trusted advisers, as the character to take the audience ‘into the room’, as sort of silent witness to the dramatic events and the marathon policy debates in the Kennedy White House. And in a movie with no sex, they sensibly chose proven box-office draw card Kevin Costner to be O’Donnell. Costner with a crew cut and Boston accent plays his usual engaging role as All-American Everyman.

Unknown, Bruce Greenwood received critical acclaim for an elegant performance as JFK, along with good support from baby-faced Stephen Culp as the President’s brother, Robert, and a compelling role by Kevin Conway as General Curtis Le May. Robert Kennedy was to play a key role in the crisis and the movie’s title Thirteen Days comes from a memoir he wrote shortly before his death in 1968.

The film itself was generally well received by critics and historians in the U.S. President George W. Bush even invited Senator Ted Kennedy along to the White House for a special viewing.

The opening credits role over a nightmare vision of fusillades of launching missile, and thermonuclear mushroom clouds – to reinforce, I guess, the movie’s subtitle – “You’ll never believe how close we came”.

The story begins on October 16th 1962, when National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy presented President Kennedy with a series of U-2 spy plane photos revealing that the Soviets had installed medium-range ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba. These were unmistakably identified as offensive nuclear weapons capable of hitting major U.S. cities including Washington DC some five minutes after launch.

Kennedy and his advisers were stunned. Prior to detection, the Soviet leadership had consistently denied any intention of placing offensive weapons in Cuba, let alone nuclear weapons. The discovery of the missile sites set off the biggest world crisis since World War 2.

When President Kennedy announced the situation to the nation in a dramatic TV address on October 22, the impact was instantaneous. Within hours, supermarkets in the U.S. ran out of supplies, churches were filled, and everywhere especially in Europe and America, people prepared for the worst. Here in New Zealand the NZ Broadcasting Corporation was jolted out of its 1950s somnolence to start putting out radio news bulletins every hour (and it was to find that there was plenty more news over the next few years to keep that routine going).

Thirteen Days closely follows the debates that went on in at the highest levels of the American state. ExComm (short for Executive Committee of the National Security Council) was the body that met virtually in continuous session throughout the crisis. Kennedy had apparently decided after the Bay of Pigs disaster (an enterprise undertaken solely on the advice of the heads of the CIA and the military Joint Chiefs) to take counsel from the widest possible range of opinion.

The movie portrays Kennedy, and his brother, the Attorney-General, and allies such as Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence, grasping for a solution while resisting intense pressure from the military, and senior establishment figures, notably Dean Acheson, (a former Secretary of State for President Truman) for pre-emptive airstrikes, followed by a full-scale invasion of Cuba. As it happened, Kennedy had just that summer read Barbara Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August – a study of the events and decisions that led to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

With the memory of general mobilisations, that once set in motion were impossible to call back, obviously still in his mind, Kennedy believed the belligerent measures his generals were advocating would inevitably draw a response from the Russians which would progressively escalate into a full nuclear exchange. Kennedy was more right than he realised – we now know what the Americans did not know, that the Russians had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and would have used them had they been attacked by invading American forces.

The movie spends much time in the White House cabinet room and oval office but time to time it escapes from these rather claustrophic confines, for instance to take a spectacular, 450 mile per hour tree-top surveillance flight over Cuba (I found myself gripping the arm-rests of my seat).

Other times we are out on the on the blue Caribbean as the U.S. Navy attempts to enforce Kennedy’s ‘quarantine’. In one dramatic encounter with a Soviet tanker `Grozny’ a US destroyer ‘clears its guns’ over the Russian in violation of the President’s no shooting orders – leading to a remarkable screaming match between Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and chief of Naval staff Admiral Anderson in the Pentagon situation room. The movie reaches its dramatic climax in the celebrated debate of the United Nations Security Council.

Some bits of the movie are pure fiction, again this comes down to O’Donnell’s role, particularly the conspiratorial conversation between O’Donnell and an airforce pilot Commander William B. Ecker (convincingly portrayed by Kennedy’s real-life nephew Christopher Lawford) prior to his Cuban surveillance flight.

Donaldson and screenwriter Self demonstrate that while Kennedy convened Ex-Comm to advise him, he sensibly manipulated the consensus to an outcome he wanted, a ‘quarantine’ of Cuba rather than military action.

An important and controversial sub-theme of this movie is the tension between Kennedy and the military. This has been criticised by some establishment historians as mythology – however Donaldson and Self based much of the dialogue on transcripts of White House tape recordings. Long before Nixon, Kennedy had installed a taping system in the White House.

Transcripts of the tapes were recently released and published in 1997 in a book by Ernest May and Philip Zelikov, The Kennedy tapes – inside the White house during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These transcripts do reveal real and quite deep-seated tensions between Kennedy and his senior military advisers.

In a famous meeting early in the crisis on October 19 when Kennedy met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff there was this exchange between the president and Airforce General Curtis Le May. The ferocious Le May who organised the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, who had offered to ‘delete’ Chinese cities with nuclear weapons during the Korean War and most infamously ‘to bomb Vietnam back to the stone-age’, was pressing the President hard for authorisation for airstrikes.

Le May: “So I see no other solution. This blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don’t see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich” (pause) . . . (This is clearly a jibe at Kennedy’s father Joseph P. Kennedy the pro-appeasement World War 2 U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain).

Le May: “I think that a blockade, and a political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And – I’m sure a lot of our citizens would feel that way, too. You’re in a pretty bad fix, Mr President.”

Kennedy: “What did you say?”

Le May: “You’re in a pretty bad fix”

The transcript indicates that here Kennedy made “an unclear, joking reply”. Self interprets Kennedy as saying “Well if I am, you’re in there with me General Le May.” After he left the room, unbeknown to the Generals, Kennedy left the tape running. The following revealing remarks were picked up as the Chiefs discussed the meeting.

Shoup: (Marine General) “You pulled the rug right out from under him Goddamn.”

Le May: (With a chuckle) “Jesus Christ. What the hell do you mean?” (unclear)

Shoup: ” I agree with that answer, agree a hundred percent, a hundred percent. He (President Kennedy) finally got around to the word “escalation”. That’s the only the only goddam thing that’s in the whole trick. Go in and out and get every goddamn one. Escalation that’s it”.

Le May: “That’s right”.

Shoup: “You’re screwed, screwed. Some goddamn thing, some way that they either do the son of a bitch and do it right, and quit friggin’ around . . .”

Despite the revealing disclosures of the mad-headed belligerence of the U.S. military, the crisis is purely seen from the American side. And perhaps a reason for its widespread appeal in America was its popular theme of ‘America as Innocent Victim’ (a deeply held sentiment amongst Americans). There is no mention of the American provocations against Cuba such as notorious Operation Mongoose (which was presided over by Robert Kennedy in his earlier cold warrior incarnation). These certainly would have provided good reason for the Soviets to believe that the U.S. was building up for another invasion. Though we get glimpses of sweating Soviet expeditionary force officers and hairy Cuban comrades frantically bull-dozing missiles sites out of the jungle – we don’t get to see Kennedy’s opposite number, the man who ordered the missiles into Cuba, Nikita Krushchev.

In many ways Kennedy’s dialectical opposite, Krushchev, like the society he represents is an enigmatic, mysterious presence looming menacingly in the background, as Kennedy and the members of ‘Excom’ struggle to divine his motives and his intentions.

For Krushchev was living up to his reputation as number one bogey-man of the Cold War – apparently in spite of (or perhaps because of) the Hollywood lunch. It was a reputation Krushchev seemed to relish and deliberately cultivate.

On one unforgettable occasion in 1960 he took larikinism in politics to a new height by hammering his shoe on the table at the UN. Bristling with nuclear rockets, and shouting “we will bury you” Krushchev was the ultimate 1950′s nightmare. Who can forget the terrifying Time Magazine cover during the Missile Crisis, with what appeared to be a furious Krushchev, finger jabbing out of the magazine rack and behind him the orange boiling mushroom cloud of a hydrogen bomb.

Enemy at the Gates

And it is Krushchev or rather a brilliant cameo portrayal of Krushchev by British actor Bob Hoskins who steals the show in another historical movie, Enemy at the Gates. Set exactly 20 years before the Missile Crisis, Enemy at the Gates, based on William Craig’s 1973 book of the same name, depicts the titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which in the end was decided in the streets of Stalingrad. Here the Second World War, many would say the future of civilisation itself, was decided.

The story-line is based on the true-life exploits of a Russian `Noble Sniper’ Vassili Zaisev, a former shepherd boy from the Urals, whose lethal art made him a propaganda star of the Red Army. Zaisev was credited with at least 149 Kills at Stalingrad.

The storyline culminates in the famous duel between Zaisev, played by British actor Jude Law, and the man the Germans sent to kill him `Major Koenig’, played by American star Ed Harris. The duel is reportedly based on a true-life episode in which a SS marksman Colonel Heinz Thorwald was dispatched to Stalingrad from the sniper school in Berlin, to eliminate the top Soviet snipers, especially Zaitsev. The Soviets were tipped-off to Thorwald mission by a prisoner. The movie reaches its dramatic climax as each man stalks the other through the ruined city.

However, as usual in historical movies, there is some debate about how ‘true life’ this famous duel really was. The episode is recounted in Allan Clark’s Barbarossa but later researchers such as Antony Beevor (author of the 1998 best-seller Stalingrad) have cast doubt on it, suggesting that the legendary duel was a creation of Soviet propaganda.

Of Zaitsev and the rest of his lethal exploits there is no argument, and neither is there argument about the key role in the battle for Stalingrad played by the other former peasant boy Nikita Krushchev.

Krushchev was ordered to Stalingrad by Stalin himself and as commissar to the military command was tasked with the political management of the battle. Up until Stalingrad, the Red Army had been on the strategic defensive, losing (with the exception of the brief mid-winter offensive in front off Moscow) virtually every major encounter with the Germans. At Stalingrad the Second World War struggle between the totalitarian powers reached its violent climax. In the rubble of the model city of cubist architecture, so new and attractive Stalin named it for himself, savage fighting went on for four months, street by street, and building by building. Men fought hand-to-hand in cellars and in attics in a pitiless struggle where the front line often ran between two burnt-out rooms.

Probably because of its name, the city became something of an emotional fixation with both Hitler and Stalin. As the Germans poured more and more troops in (believing mistakenly that the Soviets had no more reserves), the Soviets fed just enough men across the Volga to hold on, while all the while building up forces on the flanks of the massive German salient.

Perhaps the most riveting scene in the movie was at the beginning when Red Army reinforcements debark from trains on the opposite side of the Volga. As the doors of the wagons slide open the troops see with horror their destination – a true vision of hell – the city of Stalingrad in flames across the river. As one German officer wrote at the time. “Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching, howling, bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell, the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure”.

Nikita Sergeevich Krushchev was born in to a peasant family 1894 in Russian Ukraine. He was apprenticed as a metal fitter — working in factories and mines before becoming a Bolshevik in 1919, soon after which he joined the Red Army and fought in the civil war against the Whites. In 1921 his wife died in the famine caused by the civil war. After this, Krushchev rose through the bureaucracy, successfully negotiating the murderous political minefield that was Stalin’s Russia.

Early in the War Krushchev was credited with the remarkable logistical achievement of relocating Soviet industry behind the Urals. But it was at Stalingrad that Krushchev was to gain the national fame that eventually launched him to the top. Stalingrad must have been a searing personal experience for anyone involved in it. Krushchev himself suffered what must have been a bitter personal loss, his oldest son was killed in the fighting.

When the Russians finally trapped the whole German 6th Army (nearly 300,000 men) in Stalingard it was the turning point of the War and indeed world history. For the Russians, the long and bloody road from Stalingrad ended in Berlin. The commander in Stalingrad, General Chuikov, a street-fighting expert, was the man who captured Berlin and took the German surrender. From then on, it appears, those two binary opposites Stalingrad and Berlin were inextricably linked in the Russian mind.

The terrible experience of Nazi invasion and what a close-run thing it had been, gave rise to an almost obsessive dread amongst the Russians that Germany must never be allowed to rise again. This was the over-riding tenet of Soviet Cold War policy.

Which is why Berlin was the flash-point of tension for much of the Cold War – particularly during the fifties and early sixties. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin was set deep within the Soviet occupied zone and was itself divided between the Soviet and the Allied occupying powers.

As Premier of the Soviet Union, Krushchev wanted an agreement with the Allied powers which would have enabled him to conclude a peace treaty with the communist Soviet-satellite East German state – with Berlin as its capital (thus formally ending World War 2). This would have effectively permanently divided Germany thus preventing it from ever becoming a threat again (something the French tried to do after the Great War).

In the summit meeting between Krushchev and Kennedy in Vienna in 1961, Krushchev threatened the American president over Berlin. Krushchev would not have been alone in his obsession about a revanchist Germany. At the time of the Missile Crisis, along with Krushchev, virtually the whole of the Soviet High Command had been involved in the fighting at Stalingrad. This included Krushchev’s Minister of Defence, Marshall Malinovsky, the Commander of Ground Forces, Marshal Chuikov, the Minister in Charge of Strategic Missiles Marshall Biryuzov, the head of the airforce and even the head of the Soviet navy (who had organised the Volga flotillas).

Krushchev, was a remarkable character who, though he was aware of and indeed participated in the excesses of Stalin, whom he later denounced, apparently maintained a genuine idealistic belief in socialism as the ultimate saviour of humanity.

But always at heart a Bolshevik, he was contemptuous of what he called ‘bourgeois democracy’ and was once quoted memorably as saying “We have a monolithic society, why therefore found another party? That would be like putting a flea inside your shirt”. Ironically had he lived in a democratic society, he might have easily have become a successful populist politician. In one famous incident during an arty garden party in Moscow Krushchev verbally laid into modern artists, reportedly causing poetess Margarita Aliger to swoon.

Though to have risen to the top he clearly had the paysan rusé or peasants cunning, he was also by all accounts something of a gambler who worked on gut instinct. Two of his aides agreed that the word Russian word azartnyi meaning “reckless” or “hot-headed” best described him. What has become subsequently clear is that at the time of the Missile Crisis Krushchev alone had control of the Soviet government.

Scholars to this day debate why Krushchev put the missiles in (the Soviets called the operation `Operation Anadyr’) – and puzzle why he did it secretly. There are three reasons thought most likely. To redress the strategic superiority of American nuclear weapons, to head-off a possible American invasion of Cuba and to exert leverage over Berlin. It appears that there was a method to Krushchev’s madness. Apparently Krushchev’s plan was to unveil the existence of the missiles in November (after the congressional elections which he hoped Kennedy’s Democrats would win) and publicly sign a treaty with Castro. He also planned, probably during a UN speech planned at the same time, to renew his ultimatum over Berlin. With the missiles poised in Cuba, Krushchev was confident he could face down the Americans and carry through to success his German policy and lay the German demon, once and for all.

Krushchev’s high-risk gambit failed, chiefly because American technology in the form of U2 surveillance uncovered his plan before it was ready. But not completely, in return for withdrawing the missiles Krushchev extracted an assurance from the Americans that they would not invade Cuba, and an off-the-record pledge made through Robert Kennedy that U.S. Jupiter missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey after a reasonable interval.

On October 27 when Krushchev made his broadcast about withdrawing the missiles the century’s third major conflagration had been averted — with only one casualty, an American U2 pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson, whose plane was shot down by a Russian commander in violation of Kruschev’s orders.

After that having pulled back from the very brink the two Super Power leaders began to move towards peace. Kennedy’s commencement address to the American University six months after the Missile Crisis was a significant US policy departure designed to end the Cold War.

Kennedy pointed out that Russia and America “almost uniquely among the major powers” had never been at war with each other. Seeming to have grasped the deep motives and hidden fears driving the Soviet leadership he went on to say:

“No country in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least twenty million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two-thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland — a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.”

Soon after a nuclear peace ban treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was signed, a ‘hot line’ was set up between the two leaders and it seemed the 17 years of bitter Cold War began to thaw (which may not have been greeted with universal approval for those with a vested interest in its continuance). In the western press the previously feared and hated Kruschev began to be referred to in a genial, almost affectionate manner as ‘Mr K’.

But it was unlikely that such a monumental crisis could pass so lightly. The Gods of War would need to be appeased with other sacrifices. Those other sacrifices turned out to be the protagonists themselves.

Just over a year later, (according interestingly enough, to both the official Warren Report account and the unofficial conspiracy theory), President Kennedy was murdered by a gunman (or gunmen) obsessed with Cuba.

As for Krushchev, one years later his turn came when he was ousted in disgrace by his presidium rivals “You insisted that we deploy missiles in Cuba”, one of his accusers rounded on him, “This provoked the deepest crisis, carried the world to the brink of nuclear war”, (adding rather woundingly) “and even frightened terribly the organiser of this very danger!”.

Kruschev lived out a peaceful retirement and died in 1971.

 

Thirteen Days, Rated PG-13. 
Runtime: 145 minutes. Starring: Kevin Costner, (Kenny O’Donnell) Bruce Greenwood (JFK), Dylan Baker (Robert McNamara), Steven Culp (Robert Kennedy), Frank Wood (McGeorge Bundy), Michael Fairman (Adlai Stevenson), Kevin Conway (General Le May). Director Roger Donaldson. Screenwriter David Self. Available on Video/DVD.

The Enemy at the Gates, 
MPAA Rating: R (for strong graphic war violence and some sexuality). 
Running Time: 131 minutes. Cast: Jude Law (Vassili Zaitsev), Ed Harris (Major Konig), Rachel Weisz (Tania Chernova), Joseph Fiennes (Danilov), Bob Hoskins (Kruschev), Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet, The Name of the Rose). Screenwriters: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard (co-writer The Name of the Rose). Available on Video/DVD.

 

 

Nikita goes to Hollywood

by Mike Lee, New Zealand Political Review, Vol XI No.1, Autumn 2002

© 2002 New Zealand Political Review

Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

 

 

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Electric Trains in Auckland – here at last!

It’s been a long time coming, and believe me, it wasn’t easy getting there, but Auckland’s new electric trains have now entered service – opening a new era in Auckland’s history.   While Wellington’s rail electrification began in the late 1930s and Melbourne’s even earlier in the 1920s, electrifying Auckland rail proved to be much more difficult.  It was first proposed in the late 1940s, and then again in the early 1970s (Mayor Robinson’s ‘rapid rail’) but both these projects foundered for lack of government support.

It turned out to be 3rd time lucky.  Auckland’s third push for electrification began in the early 2000s.  As the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council from 2004-2010 I was involved in a long campaign to persuade first the Labour-led government to grant its support and then, after National came to power in late 2008, starting all over again to persuade them. This was a challenging, sometimes frustrating experience that certainly confirmed Arthur Schopenhauer’s words.

“All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed.  Second it is violently opposed.  Third it is accepted as being self-evident.”

New EMUs at Britomart Station. A long time coming - but worth the struggle.

But we got there. Now looking to the future, Auckland’s new fleet of 57 EMUs (electric multiple units) will be a quantum leap forward for rail commuters, both in performance but also in comfort and design.  Built by the Spanish rail company Construcciones Y auxillar de Ferrocarriles (if that’s hard to say, call it ‘CAF”) after a world-wide tender, these trains are more powerful and much faster (maximum speed 110km per hour) than our present diesel fleet – allowing services to run more often and get travellers to their destinations quicker. Each 3-car unit (two motor cars and one trailer car) can carry 375 passengers. The new trains are also more environmentally friendly: energy-efficient, quieter, and produce no air pollution.  The central car has level boarding for pushchairs and wheelchairs and room for bikes. Regenerative braking will enable them to recover 20% of the electricity used.

These trains are going to be popular with Aucklanders.  As an indication five thousand people got a free ride after the official launch today, Sunday 27 April. The tickets were snapped up in a few hours after they became available early in April.

The first electric trains are now in service on the Onehunga Line (which is also a buzz given the long battle I had to get that line re-opened) and will be progressively put into service after completing their checks at Auckland Transport’s vast new high-tech depot at Wiri. Towards the end of this year they will be in service on the Eastern Line, running from Britomart via Orakei, Glen Innes and Panmure etc., to Manukau. Early next year it will be the turn of the Southern Line: Britomart to Papakura via Newmarket etc., followed by the Western Line, Britomart to Henderson, Swanson and all stations in between.  The project is a credit to Auckland Transport who bought the trains and to KiwiRail supported by the government who erected 80kms of wiring, masts, new signalling and a major amount of civil engineering to make it all happen. But many people played a critical role in this historic achievement. As I often said during the long campaign to secure central government support, new electric trains for Auckland will not only change Aucklanders’ attitudes to rail and public transport but also the way we think about our city.

Published in the May issue of Ponsonby News.

 

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Saving the Hunua kokako – speech at the 20th anniversary celebrations

It is an honour to be with you today, 20 years after the establishment of the Kokako Management Area in the Hunua Ranges, to share in the celebration of your great achievement.

As we know, about thirty years ago it became evident that the North Island kokako was critically endangered.  At that time a cohort of older birds – long-lived males – some of which had ‘paired’ amongst themselves – died off, thereby unmasking that the numbers of breeding birds were actually very low. So low that populations were nearly unsustainable.  Many of them were unsustainable and some disappeared almost overnight.

My personal role in this long difficult project was actually quite easy because the decision to actively protect the Hunua kokako was (rather unusually) a political initiative.

I was elected to the former Auckland Regional Council (ARC) in a by-election in early 1992 – the most junior member in the 28-member body that was in effect still the old Auckland Regional Authority.  As a result of the local government reforms of that year – a new 13 member ARC was elected at the elections in October and in a few months I went from being the most junior member of the Council to being chairman of the Regional Parks Committee.  The Auckland Regional Parks Service was one of the most prestigious in New Zealand local government at that time – built up over many years by the famous Phil Jew, its General Manager.

As an active Forest & Bird member, I was aware of the plight of the kokako and I was also mindful of the special conservation values of the Hunua Ranges.  As Sir Charles Fleming once put it, one of those ‘skylines of native forest, that represents the mystery and adventure of the unknown to every youngster on farm or suburban homes.’

I was also aware of the recent breakthrough success achieved at Mapara State Forest by Department of Conservation (DOC) field scientists Phil Bradfield, Phil Thomson and Hazel Speed and John Innes of Landcare Research.  Together they pioneered by ‘research by management’ the ‘mainland island’ concept, protecting kokako nests (and everything else) from possums, rats and stoats, with grids of bait stations and traps.

At my first meeting with Phil Jew late in 1992, I raised the question of the Hunua kokako and asked for a report on their status. I followed this up with a letter (there being no such things as emails in those days).  As it happened a kokako survey took place in the Ranges a few weeks later, the participants a combination of ARC rangers, DOC people, OSNZ members and volunteers.

A report on the survey was written up by Parks scientist Brenda Green in time for the March 1993 Parks Committee agenda.  The report confirmed the serious decline in kokako numbers (very accurately as it turned out) to less than 30 birds.  The report concluded in the standard way ‘a.) that the report be received.’ At my meeting with the General Manager to go over the agenda, I decided to add a ‘b.) that the Regional Parks Service intervenes to actively protect the kokako’.   This drew raised eyebrows from Phil Jew who explained that protecting endangered species was DOC’s responsibility – not the ARC’s.  But he accepted it in good grace – being the great public servant that he was

The recommendation was duly passed at the meeting of the Parks Committee.  I said my role was easy.  To be honest, given its far-reaching implications this was one of the easiest decisions I have achieved in politics. There was no serious opposition, no heart-stopping, knife-edge votes that I was to experience for instance with the regional parks acquisitions of that era. I just pushed on the door and it swung wide open. To this day, any local government being actively involved in endangered species management is very unusual.  In fact I believe the role of the ARC – now Auckland Council – in this field is quite unique.

Armed with this political decision Brenda Green was able to gain the support of DOC for the project – a successful relationship that has lasted to this day.   So far, so easy.  But to put the concept into effect was quite another matter.  There were major problems to overcome which required an enormous amount of hard, physical work. The remaining kokako were located in the highest part of the Hunua Ranges around Mount Kohukohunui – one of the highest parts of the upper North Island.  It was a 2 hour walk up from the nearest dirt road to even get to the area.

The environment was difficult, especially in winter when freezing mist can hamper visibility (it is very easy to get lost in the Hunuas). The logistics were challenging to say the least – much more difficult than for instance at Mapara State Forest.  Worse the scientists were to find there was only one breeding pair of kokako left.  We had stepped in, just in the nick of time.

In order to create the necessary grid of hundreds of bait stations and traps, a network of tracks had to be cut, the main track up had to be progressively rebuilt, in parts to the stage of a boardwalk, with benching and wooden risers.

But fortunately there were people willing, indeed passionate about doing this work.  Here I want to thank the ARC park rangers, especially Hugh Downham, who dedicated himself to this mission for years. It was Hugh who carried out much of the back-breaking task of lugging up the wood to rebuild the track and camp sites.  Hugh had the full support of his bosses, the late Peter Rowberry, and Manager Southern parks, Tony Oliver. Also I want to thank the volunteers, especially Rosemary Gatland who was soon joined by Tony Woodroofe.  Together these two worked tirelessly with Hugh to create the Kokako Management Area.  Also I want to acknowledge Oliver Overdike from DOC. In 1995, Dr Tim Lovegrove came from Auckland University to head up the project working closely with Hazel Speed of DOC.

The story of how the project played out over these years is referred to in a section (written by Tim), in Graeme Murdoch’s wonderful ‘Dreamers of the Day – a history of Auckland’s regional parks’. The details of the science, reintroductions to achieve critical mass, egg exchanges to enhance genetic diversity, experiments with sound-anchoring etc., are in the many unpublished reports written by Tim and Hazel for the Council and DOC.

Now 20 years on, over 100 kokako chicks have fledged and there are now over 30 breeding pairs. The project is well on target to achieve its objective of 50 breeding pairs by 2020.  But the KMA has also had much wider environmental benefits for the Hunua Ranges, restoring previously damaged ecological processes and enhancing a wide range of fauna and flora including bellbirds, North Island tomtits, long-tailed bats and Hotchstetters frog.

I am  glad to say the project is in the best of hands, with Su Sinclair taking over from Tim and Dave Bryden the new on-site manager.

The 20-year collaboration of Council and DOC has been an outstanding success – and it needs to go on.

Rather like the Hunua kokako, regional government in Auckland has been through rather challenging times. Similarly the Department of Conservation has had its own difficulties with budget cuts and major re-structuring.  We are not through these challenging times yet.

This should not be a reason to retreat into our shells.  We need to keep the vision alive and the programmes advancing.  Keep in mind that while official thinking has its phases and fashions – the public is always on our side when it comes to conservation.

We therefore need to think how we might extract best conservation value from the labour and money already invested in these projects.   That is why I welcome the proposed introduction of brown kiwi into the Hunuas. I think we also need to focus more on the future and what happens after we achieve our goals here.  Do we expand the Kokako Management Area from its present 1050 ha.  Or do we set up more secondary zones like the one we are in now. Or do we diversify and translocate to other areas, areas such as Motutapu-Rangitoto – or even Tawharanui.

I make a plea for the consideration of all of these options.  There are two good reasons to do so.   First we need to capitalise on the investment already made in creating existing pest free areas and, secondly, reintroductions of birds like the kokako capture the public imagination and public support for conservation is our greatest ally.

So, leaving you with those thoughts, let me thank you all again.  Everyone here today has made a contribution to this success.  You know and I know just how significant this achievement has been.  It is our great privilege to be involved in such a campaign that changed the course of history.   If anyone doubts this, we should remember that there were two populations of kokako in the Auckland region 20 years ago – not one. Apart from the Hunuas, there was a population of kokako in northern Great Barrier Island.  Monitoring throughout the 1960s and 1970s revealed broadly similar numbers of birds in both population and a similar rate of decline.    We should not be in any doubt, had we not taken a stand and intervened 20 years ago – what happened at Great Barrier would have happened here – local extinction.

So we have just cause for celebration – you know and I know that we made a difference here – and such achievements makes life fulfilling.

See: https://www.facebook.com/Hunua.kokako

 

 

 

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Unitary Plan’s parallel iwi consent system causing dis-unity.

As we know the Unitary Plan was rushed through the Council last year with extraordinary speed.   Little or no time was given to consider the huge amount of public feedback – nor did the Council officers allow discussion on the serious criticism of the draft plan by legal reviewers.  In fact they went to some lengths to conceal its existence absurdly claiming it to be ‘confidential to management.’

But there are always consequences to such haste, and one of the more serious is now starting to emerge.  The revelation that the Council in adding 3600 sites of ‘cultural and heritage value to Maori’ to the 60 or so previously accepted sites, without first confirming their precise location or even their archaeological merits, is starting to cause concern.  As Brian Rudman pointed out in his recent Herald column, this will impact on potentially thousands of Auckland properties located with 300 metres of such sites.  I’m all for heritage protection but this seems a bit extreme, especially when you contrast it to the Council’s cavalier attitude to the demolition of 19th century villas.

What is even more concerning, is that rather than going to the Council for a consent, the householder living within proximity of these sites now has to first seek permission from an iwi authority to obtain a ‘Cultural Impact Assessment’ before the Council will do anything.  Given there are 19 iwi now claiming manawhenua over Auckland, you can get an idea of the potential cost and inconvenience to residents.  The Council is now trying to head off the growing public backlash by hiring ‘facilitators’ to act as go-betweens between the public and iwi.

While the issue is getting coverage in the media, the full story has yet to come out.   What most people don’t realise is that also affected are properties within or near Auckland’s many and extensive Significant Ecological Areas (SEA’s).  These residents too have to first obtain ‘Cultural Impact Assessments’ from iwi before they can get resource consents for work around their properties.  One of the many criteria iwi will be assessing is whether your driveway job, vegetation clearance or earthworks is consistent with the ‘principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.’

What the Council has done is to sneak through what is in effect a parallel RMA authority in Auckland based on race.   This creates a precedent that could have important future consequences.

Already resource management law experts like Professor Ken Palmer are challenging the legality of ‘Cultural Impact Assessments’, but the fact is these new provisions are now in force.   Unless the Auckland Council reverses them, these provisions of the ‘Unitary Plan’ are likely to become a source of major social dis-unity in Auckland.

Published in the April edition of Verve Magazine.

 

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The plight of the South island kokako – extinction by arm-chair?

This month for once I want to get as far away as possible from local city issues – and travel to the remote deep forests of the west coast of the South Island, where the South Island kokako has long been considered to be extinct – suffering the same fate of its cousin the huia, that most remarkable and beautiful of birds.   Hunted for the price of its beautiful feathers (previously the preserve of high chiefs) by both pakeha and Maori, the last official sighting of the huia was in 1907.

The huia belonged to New Zealand’s ancient family of wattlebirds (Callaediae) as does the kokako. The North Island kokako – was highly endangered (in the 80s I used to have a ‘Save the kokako’ sticker on the rear window of my car), but is now on the road to recovery.

Late last year, like a lot of other bird lovers I was thrilled to hear that a sighting of the South Island kokako had been officially accepted by the prestigious ‘Records Appraisal Committee’ of the Ornithological Society of NZ. I will quote from the December issue of its journal Notornis.

ACCEPTED RECORD OF A SPECIES REGARDED AS POSSIBLY EXTINCT

South Island kokako (Callaeas cinerea)

One seen among red beech/rimu forest at Rainy Creek, Upper Inangahua Valley, Reefton, on 21 & 22 Mar 2007.

On 21 March 2007 at 0945 hours Len Turner heard a call he described as a haunting resonating call (“an eerie call like an Aboriginal wailing”) that he had not heard before. About 15 minutes later he saw at close range (10-15 metres) an unusual bird with the following description. The plumage of the bird was steely grey with a bluish tinge. Most distinct were the wattles on the sides of its bill. The base of the wattles was a deep matt blue and the remainder (the larger part) ochre (“fleshy orange-brown”). The bird appeared to be curious, looking at Len, turning its head from side to side. He viewed the bird for about 30 seconds then it glided away with some heavy dull wing flapping. Len noted the rounded edge of the wings in flight, and described the flight as clumsy.

Further evidence of the presence of kokako was obtained the following day when Peter Rudolf (an experienced North Island kokako observer ) and Len re-visited the site...’

This was stunning news but after my initial euphoria I realised that this sighting actually took place in March 2007 – nearly seven years ago.  My question is, how has the Department of Conservation responded to this information? Given the number of previously inconclusive sightings of this bird, should there not be a contingency plan for circumstances like this that the director-general of Conservation could pull out of his filing cabinet? One would imagine an emergency panel of scientists and expert field workers would then be convened to decide on the details of intervention with emergency conservation measures.  Kokako are not strong fliers and are normally long-lived.  So if this bird, or birds, managed to survive the pests that infest our forests it should be still in the area where it was seen.

The answer seems to be that DOC which has suffered funding cuts and been obsessed for years with corporate restructuring, has done nothing.  In fact from the reaction of its spokespeople, as one journalist remarked, one gets the impression that it almost hopes the South Island kokako is extinct.   As one scientist suggested that this is type of apathy is tantamount to ‘killing the birds off from our armchairs.’ Let’s hope DOC’s new director-general who has a noted field conservation background can make a difference here.

The Huia - the royal bird of the Maori. Last official sighting 1907. (Painting by Paul Martinson in 'New Zealand Extinct Birds' by Brian Gill & Paul Martinson

The extinction of the huia remains a dark stain on the history of this nation – though the government officials at the time, unlike today, had meagre scientific knowledge to go on, their efforts to save the huia over a 100 years ago were bumbling, inept – and too late.   The South Island kokako, should it still exist, is part of New Zealand’s and the world’s priceless natural heritage – we are all responsible for its survival.  The tragic fate of the huia should not be allowed to be repeated on our watch.

As published in Ponsonby News (March 2014 edition).

 

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Time to end the undeclared ‘civil war’ between motorists and cyclists

The terrible accident in which 37 year old cyclist John Tangiia was killed by a truck at the Parnell Rise, Stanley Street intersection early in January put the issue of cycling safety squarely back on the agenda. Mr Tangiia’s was the 8th death from cycling in Auckland in the last five years.

Ironically the year 2013 ended on a something of a high for cycling in Auckland.  At the last meeting of the Council before Christmas – we resolved to proceed to the next stage of developing the exciting Auckland Harbour Bridge walking and cycling project – SkyPath.

Apart from the awful family tragedy – the recent accident has had a depressing effect on everyone involved in cycling in Auckland – myself as well.

Last year cycle advocates Audrey and Chris van Ryn lent me a fold-down bike in the hope that I would use it.  Well I have.  In fact I have found it invaluable – especially when the meetings started coming thick and fast before Christmas; enabling me to whiz about the city; dashing from my office at Graham Street to meetings at the Town Hall and Civic Building; then down Queen Street for meetings at Auckland Transport and often down to the waterfront for meetings there.

I used to be somewhat nervous about cycling in the city but familiarity has brought increasing confidence.  Indeed I have found it quite exhilarating. But John Tangaiia’s terrible accident has rekindled memories of the shocking death of Jane Bishop (both were crushed under the wheels of trucks) and is a reminder to all of us how unsafe Auckland roads can be for cyclists.The question of safety has always been a sensitive point with cycle advocates – some felt talking up the danger was likely to turn people off cycling – but Jane Bishop’s death changed all that. Cycling in Auckland has all sorts of benefits for personal health and for society – but yes it can be dangerous – unacceptably so.   The figures tell the story. In 2012 there was one cyclist killed and 205 injured in Auckland. Nationally there were eight killed and 828 injured.  There were 53 cycling fatalities across New Zealand in the five years from 2009 to 2013.  This is an unacceptable casualty rate and it’s time we did something about it.  In the wake of the latest tragedy there has been the inevitable finger-pointing and buck-passing, including thinly-veiled criticism of cyclists.  Indications of an unhelpful ‘them and us’ attitude between cyclists and motorists – and even worse unhelpful comments by transport officials who should know better but still don’t get it.

There is no need for a blame game here. The fact is public transport isn’t the only mode that has suffered from decades of officialdom’s excessive focus on highways and roads – and the result is Auckland has a major deficit in cycling infrastructure.  As Ralph Buehler and John Pucher pointed out in the journal Transportation:

The presence of off-road bike paths and on-street bike lanes are, by far, the biggest determinant of cycling rates in cities. And that’s true even after you control for a variety of other factors like how hot or cold a city is, how much rain falls, how dense the city is, how high gas prices are, the type of people that live there, or how safe it is to cycle.’

Dedicated bike paths are a key element in Generation Zero’s contribution to the Campaign for Better Transport and Auckland Transport Blog’s visionary ‘Congestion Free Network’. And cycle lanes are an exciting feature of the Waitemata Local Board’s draft Ponsonby Road Master Plan.  I have already mentioned SkyPath, Waterfront Auckland is building the Westhaven Promenade bike path and NZTA has built the Grafton Gulley bike path.  Auckland Transport planned to build 22 km of bike paths in years 2013/2014 but so far only 7km has been built and the important Beach Road connector is behind schedule.  Auckland Transport is also working on ways to improve safety on Auckland’s (dangerous for cyclists) Tamaki Drive – especially the Ngapipi Drive intersection.  But clearly it’s too little and it’s all too slow.  Auckland is well behind most international cities in its provision of cycling infrastructure and has even fallen behind Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.  We need a quantum change in the way we allocate spending for motor vehicles and bikes.  Dedicated bike paths are the best way to end the  undeclared ‘civil war’ between cars and trucks and bikes – and it will make cycling in Auckland a whole lot safer too.

As published in Ponsonby News February 2014

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Facing up to history – 2013 and the year of anniversaries

As the year 2013 hurries to its close it is worth noting how many important historic anniversaries occurred this year.  It is also interesting to note that we chose to ignore most of them.  But does this amnesia help foster national maturity? Our current attitude to history brings to mind the words of the Roman Cicero – ‘to live in ignorance of the transactions of the past – is to always live as a child’

Perhaps the most significant anniversary was that of the New Zealand Wars invasion of the Waikato 150 years ago.  On 12 July 1863 the British General Duncan Cameron leading his troops south from Auckland crossed the Mangatawhiri River into the lands of the Maori King.  On 20 November the first major battle in the war began at Rangiriri with heavy casualties on both sides.  The rows of graves of many of the fallen are still there within earshot of the traffic on State Highway 1. The invasion was followed by the confiscation of some 12,000 km² of Maori land. In 1995 the New Zealand government as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement signed by the Queen conceded that the 1863 invasion was wrong, apologised for its actions and committed to paying compensation.

Given those sensitivities it is understandable (but probably not healthy) that the the government chose not to commemorate this event. If the New Zealand Wars were in some ways the New Zealand equivalent of the American Civil War (which was taking place at the same time) there were other resonances.

This year also saw the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in New Zealand.  The proclamation of manumission by the New Zealand government in 1863 freeing all slaves was aimed at Maori tribes then considered to be in rebellion against the Crown. The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi had theoretically outlawed slavery in 1840 – but slavery had persisted, especially amongst the Taranaki tribes which had invaded the Chathams in the 1830s.  This anniversary of this little-known historical event not surprisingly also passed without acknowledgement.

November was also the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great Maritime Strike – a social upheaval which came close to civil war – this time a civll war between Pakeha.  In 1913 the newly-elected conservative Reform government led by a hardline Ulsterman William Massey set out to crack down on the unions – especially those associated with the militant ‘red’ Federation of Labour. In Waihi industrial unrest in 1912 had led to violence in which a unionist had been beaten to death.  In 1913 the sacking of miners at Huntly provoked a wave sympathy strikes.  The government in response recruited thousands of mounted ‘special constables’ mainly from the countryside (South Auckland and the Waikato in Auckland’s case) to suppress the strikers. On 8 November 800 mounted specials  armed with batons and revolvers – dubbed by the strikers ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ – invaded the working class suburbs of inner Auckland, cleared Quay street of picketers and seized control of the wharves.  Similar events took place in Wellington, Lyttelton and Dunedin.  This triggered a nationwide general strike. Royal navy warships appeared in Auckland and Wellington harbours. Bluejackets drilled with fixed bayonets. Machine guns were set up.

In Auckland 7000 unionists downed tools, trams stopped running, hotel staff walked out – even jockeys and paper boys struck. When the word got out that the specials had been issued with revolvers – the gunsmith shops in Auckland and Wellington were emptied (firearms not being licensed in those days).  Rather than being intimidated residents from the working class suburbs of Ponsonby and Freemans Bay fought pitched street battles with farmers from the Waikato. There was a great deal of violence, including shooting from both sides.  While there were many woundings and broken bones – miraculously no one was killed. In Wellington while the trams did not go on strike, nevertheless specials were thrown off trams if they tried to board. Tram drivers if they saw mounted horsemen anywhere near the tracks charged, bells clanging. Council workers refused to clean the mounting piles of horse droppings from the street. One of the special’s horses dropped dead and when the Cossacks thoughtfully donated it to the zoo to feed the lions – zoo workers refused to handle it.  Inevitably the government prevailed. But as Barry Gustafson wrote in Michael King’s History of New Zealand the use of and the brutality of the special constables ‘poisoned relations between town and country and helped polarise New Zealand politics for a generation’. That being said two of the Auckland strike leaders Michael Joseph Savage of O’Neill Street, Ponsonby and Peter Frazer across Freemans Bay in Hobson Street rose to become Labour prime ministers of New Zealand.

While Wellington commemorated the Great Maritime Strike with balance and objectivity – and a certain amount of flare (there were re-enacted street battles between ‘cossacks’ and ‘red feds’) Auckland chose to ignore it.  That is save for a one-sided dumbed-down tribute to Massey’s Cossacks’ (on Queens Wharf of all places!) headed ‘Who loves a scrap?’.  I am now working with Waterfront Auckland, the Maritime Museum and Trade Union historian Dean Parker to achieve a more balanced and considered interpretation.  Ironically it was the outbreak of the Great War in July 1914 that helped bring the country back together again.  But at what cost.  Next year will see the centenary of the beginning of the Great War. Thankfully preparations are well in train at both central government and local government level including service organisations like the RSA to ensure these events, which were so important to New Zealand and for so many New Zealand families, will be properly commemorated.  In doing this I am confident only good can come of it.

(and to commemorate another anniversary, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago see: http://www.mikelee.co.nz/2013/11/november-in-dallas-farewell-to-the-20th-century-mike-lee-concludes-his-1999-political-travelogue/)

This article published in the December issue of Ponsonby News

 

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November in Dallas – (Farewell to the 20th Century). Mike Lee concludes his 1999 ‘political travelogue’

This article was the final of a 3 part series covering my trip around the world in October and November 1999 – appeared in the NZ Political Review in September 2001.  I have republished it to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

At the end of my stay in France, I caught the high-speed Eurostar train which took me via the channel tunnel all the way to London.The next day was 11 November, Remembrance day, I attended the ceremonies commemorating the Great War armistice outside Westminster Abbey officiated at by the old-as-the-century Queen Mother.  A couple of days later I flew to Dublin, hired a car and drove down the coast to stay with my grandfather Lee’s family in Cork and to gaze at the little stone house (now a farm implement shed) on the Dingle peninsula of Kerry where my mother’s mother Johanna Kavanagh was born. Time was running out for the 20th Century by the time I left Dublin bound for Dallas, Texas. Soon we were out over the west coast of Ireland and the Arran Isles.  We were still climbing as I gazed down at these lonely outliers of Europe – fringed with surf from the Atlantic swelIs – lit with the last rays of the winter sun.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy 29 May 1917-22 November 1963

November 1963 – Wellington NZ.

As the saying used to go everyone knew exactly where they were and what they doing on the day President Kennedy died.  It’s rather a sobering thought that this event happened 50 years ago and most people alive today weren’t even born then.  But I am one of the aging majority who can still remember with crystal clarity that day in November 1963 – still remember and can never forget.

I was 14 and I remember the day was fine with a fresh breeze.  That morning I walked to Hataitai Park to take part in an athletics meeting.  I can see this all quite clearly but just like everyone else I’ve talked to, I find it just about impossible to remember anything about what I did in the days or even weeks before and after the assassination.

I must have hung round the park most of the day because I remember walking home through the Hataitai tunnel late that afternoon.  By then the significance of what had happened had begun to sink in.  I didn’t know much about death in those days.  As the last person in my family to die was my grandmother, just a few days after I was born, I was still innocent of the horror and finality of death.

So Kennedy, because of his larger than life celebrity I suppose, and because we all looked up to him, especially being a catholic, was the most significant person I felt I knew who had actually died.  I mused on this all the way home.  It was quite a shock when you thought about it. As I turned into my street I could hear the televisions in peoples’ houses. When I got in the door everyone was up in the front room – crowded around the TV.

They had arrested a man, a ‘loner’ with communist connections called Lee Harvey Oswald.  (A studio picture and bio details were already in the Evening Post several hours before Oswald was formerly charged in Dallas).  A couple of days later, the alleged assassin was himself assassinated – on TV –‘rubbed out’ as it were – by a character straight out of a gangster movie by the name of Jack Ruby.  This was unprecedented and difficult to make sense of.  It seemed as if the world had gone crazy.  When I look back November 1963 was really when the Sixties began.  As if to underline this, a few months later the Beatles arrived in town.  Like everyone around my age I soon became caught up in the excitement of ‘Beatlemania’ and pop music in general.

Almost unnoticed, the report of the Warren Commission, the eminent members of which had been hand-picked by the new President Lyndon Johnson, had confirmed the initial speculation that Oswald had acted alone.  No motive was established.  In time the events in Dallas faded like a bad dream – but never completely.  Life went on – but things were never quite the same again.

We couldn’t escape politics even if we wanted to – not in the sixties.  Night after night on the television it became increasingly apparent that under Lyndon Johnson, the war in Vietnam was escalating into a major conflict, with more and more troops committed and more and more people dying.

Three years to the month after Kennedy’s death, in November 1966, Johnson made the first US presidential visit to New Zealand.  LBJ came to put pressure on the NZ government into increasing its token commitment of troops to the Vietnam War.

Then in 1968, in two shocking events civil rights leader Martin Luther King and then President Kennedy’s younger brother Senator Robert Kennedy were both assassinated within weeks of one another; again, according to the authorities by ‘lone nut assassins.’ Both men had become influential opponents of the war in Vietnam.  With their removal the war was to drag on for another seven years.

The mounting public scepticism at the single assassin explanations – especially in the wake of the Watergate scandal of 1973 and 74 – led to public pressure for a new official inquiry into all three assassinations.

In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations, after a three-year inquiry marred by political argument and controversy concluded ‘...on the basis of evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.’  The report raised the possibility that Kennedy may have been murdered by organised crime.  The conclusion of conspiracy was based on acoustic evidence of a fourth shot (and therefore a second gunman) recorded on a police radio channel.  Though this was later challenged by another Government panel, it was the first chink in the wall of the ‘lone assassin’ explanation that was the Warren Commission.

Dallas. The fateful day.

Meanwhile a growing number of Warren Commission critics found much in the House Committee investigation reports to reinforce their own suspicions; that behind the assassination of President Kennedy lay not the mob – but something much more powerful.  They argued that while organised crime may have had the motive and means to carry out the killing, the mob did not have the means to organise such an extensive cover-up.  Only the United States government they argued had the power to do that.

In 1992 the controversial Oliver Stone movie ‘JFK’ was released, reawakening old memories and provoking intense debate. ‘JFK’ was based on the story of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who had taken an unsuccessful prosecution against one Clay Shaw in 1969 for being an accessory to the Kennedy killing.  Stone’s movie was a synthesis of the work of the leading conspiracy theorists, including Mark Lane, David Lifton, Jim Marrs, Garrison himself and Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty.

Stone’s movie contended that Kennedy was murdered as the result of a conspiracy involving anti-Castro CIA agents and U.S. Army intelligence, and that the crime was covered up at the highest levels of the U.S. Government.  The movie went on to propose that the motive for the murder was a series of policy decisions by Kennedy which in the eyes of militant cold warriors amounted to ‘treason.’  These especially related to Cuba.  In particular, Kennedy’s failure to back-up the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles with U.S. military force. Also in the eyes of these hawkish elements, Kennedy’s ‘victory’ in the 13-day confrontation with the Soviets during the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 was in reality a defeat.  Rumours had spread through Washington that in return for a withdrawal of the missiles Kennedy had permanently cancelled any U.S. invasion of Cuba.  Kennedy was considered to be ‘soft on communism.’

In the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis, Kennedy’s limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets (signed against the advice of his military advisers), his decision to accept a neutralist government in Laos rather than intervene militarily and his suggestion that the race to the moon be abandoned and be replaced by cooperative exploration of space with the Russians, alarmed an influential section of the American elite.

Stone pointed to the role of the American ‘military-industrial complex,’ a term coined by Kennedy’s predecessor President Eisenhower.   The Allied supreme commander in World War ll, Dwight. D. Eisenhower in his televised farewell address to the nation in January 1961, had gone to some lengths to warn the American people about the ‘rising influence of the military-industrial complex’.

Most sensationally, Stone’s movie argued that Kennedy was removed because he was attempting to back away from a ‘big war’ in Vietnam which would be worth billions of dollars to the military-industrial complex – ($220 billion as it turned out).  That the elected President was murdered and replaced with another, more amenable to the aims of the military, meant the Kennedy assassination was in effect a coup d’état. This is an astounding proposal and one could imagine the shock it would have had on America and the world had it been made at the time of Kennedy’s death.  Needless to say, Stone and his movie were excoriated by the mainstream media, (Stone responded memorably by calling his media critics.  ‘Doberman-pinschers’ – trained to protect the government.’

The possibility that the Vietnam tragedy, could have been avoided and the proposition that the two defining events of the sixties, the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination, were somehow linked, obviously has significant implications, not only for the interpretation of the history of the second half of the 20th century but raises questions about political legitimacy and the world’s greatest power.

I was aware that conspiracy theorists and a dwindling number of the more than 50 witnesses, who rejected the Warren Commission’s findings and believed that shots came from a ‘grassy knoll’ gathered there together each year on the anniversary of the assassination.  (The phrase ‘grassy knoll’ was originally coined by witness Jean Hill, who had bravely charged up the hill in pursuit of the gunmen but was stopped by unidentified ‘security men.’)

The conspiracy people, tilting against the mightiest of windmills appealed to my imagination.  I made up my mind that one day I would go to Dallas and stand with them on the grassy knoll and pay my tribute to the assassinated president.  Maybe there would be some answers, some new evidence – something to make sense at last of the greatest murder-mystery of the 20th century.

November in Dallas 1999

Some hours later after leaving Dublin, our plane made its landfall over frozen Labrador. I watched the display screen as we steadily swooped in a southwestward arc across the continentaI United States.

I was on my way to attend a Kennedy assassination research conference in Dallas, coinciding with the 36th anniversary of the assassination. I hadn’t been back to the States since the 1980′s and was awed at the vast grids of lights from the huge conurbations stretching from horizon to horizon.  I had the clear impression we were flying to the heart of a great empire.

We landed in Memphis Tennessee – and after clearing customs and being questioned by a stoney-eyed faced immigration official I suddenly felt a little self-conscious explaining why I was travelling to Dallas.

If Memphis was the ‘heart’ of America, then Dallas could be said to represent the dark side of its soul.  A cow town fattened by the fabulous wealth of the nearby East Texas oil field, Dallas became the financial and banking centre of the Texas oil industry.  It was also the post-war strong-hold of the extreme right.  In the early sixties at the time of Kennedy visit, it was known as the ‘hate capital of America.’

By the time we arrived at Dallas/Fort Worth, I had that feeling of strung-out weariness the traveller gets from extending the day across too many time zones.  I caught the shuttle to the Dallas Grand Hotel.  It was here that the annual JFK-Lancer ‘November in Dallas’ conference on the Kennedy assassination would be held.  Once upon a time the Grand, originally the Dallas Hilton, was one of the places to stay in Dallas – but now its late-fifties modernity had aged into Texan stateliness.  By the time I had checked in and gratefully unlocked my room I was exhausted.  I remembered I had been up since 5.30 am and by now it was 3am the next day in Ireland.  But I had made it. Relief is a tonic.  It occurred to me, that while yes, it was that time in Ireland, on the other hand, it was still only 11pm in Dallas.  Maybe I should go down to the bar for a nightcap.  After all as I pointed out (to my more sensible self) – I had made it here safely.  That was cause for modest celebration – wasn’t it?

Down in the lobby bar the lights were low and background music was playing.  The beer on tap was ‘Coors Lite’ which was something of a shock after Guinness.  (Why is it that the greatest country in the world makes such indifferent beer?). The southern belle tending the bar wore dangling ear-rings, pearls, a white silk blouse, designer jeans, her platinum blond hair was piled up high.  A badge identified her as ‘Rosemary’ – I estimated she was at least seventy.  Rosemary was serving a group of men around my age deep in conversation at the other end of the bar.  As Rosemary moved back and forward taking orders, I overhead her say in her Texas drawl  “Oh I knew Jack back in the 1950s – he was around here all the time handing out candy.”

When I ordered my second drink I said ‘Excuse me Rosemary – I couldn’t help hear you mention a ‘Jack’.  May I ask – Jack who?’  ‘Why’, she replied , ‘Jack Ruby.’ ‘Right. Of course’. I had come to the right place.

I went over and introduced myself to the group.  They were all assassination researchers, here for the conference.  There was Russ Swickard from California, Ed Sherry from Florida and Joe Backes from New York.  With them was a woman with striking blonde hair almost to her waist somewhat younger than Rosemary. The lady was Shari-Angel, a former dancer at Jack Ruby’s notorious ‘Carousel Club’ and something of a local identity.

The next day still somewhat jet-lagged I made my way to the Grand Hotel conference room.

The Conference

JFK-Lancer, the entity which organises the ‘November in Dallas’ seminars is a non-profit, private company dedicated to research and publications on the Kennedy assassination (www.jfklancer.com).  It is run by Texans Debra Conway and Tom Jones.  (‘Lancer’ was Kennedy’s rather dashing secret service code name – quite apt given what we now know about his private life.)

The conference was to last for two and a half days to be followed by a commemoration ceremony on the grassy knoll.  As it got underway I took a look around the room.  Most of the participants were people were around my age (middle-aged) – the baby boom generation and from all across the U.S.  The only non-Americans, was a small party from the U.K. and myself.

As a result of the uproar caused by the Oliver Stone movie there was renewed political pressure on the government for the release of millions of pages of classified documents on the assassination.  In response, Congress in 1992 had passed a bill called the’ JFK Assassination Records Act.’

This legislation established an ‘Assassinations Records Review Board’ (ARRB), which had reviewed and declassified 4 million pages of documents before ‘sunsetting’ in September 1998.   This substantial body of new resource material is still apparently being worked over by researchers and is being added to.  New fragments of information painstakingly gleaned from it, has given the assassination research movement something of a boost.  This particular conference was very much focussed on the work of the ARRB.  The presentations as you would expect were varied and I don’t propose to cover them all.  The ones I found the most absorbing were interestingly enough from former career military men, John Newman, Doug Horne and Craig Roberts.

Roberts, the first speaker was a former combat sniper in Vietnam – ’18 hits confirmed, 21 probable.’ His presentation was on technical aspects of the shooting from your sniper’s point of view.  He reviewed and dismissed the so-called ‘magic bullet theory’ – by which the Warren Commission maintained a single bullet had caused multiple wounds to President Kennedy and Governor Connally.  The theory was proposed by an ambitious young Commission attorney called Arlen Specter, now a senior Republican senator.  Roberts also dismissed the likelihood of an indifferent marksman like Oswald getting away three shots in 5.6 seconds at a moving target using a cheap bolt-action rifle.

Discussing the number, trajectory and angle of shots, Robert suggested there were likely three teams of shooters in Dealey Plaza.  One, at the west end of the sixth floor of the school book depository building – not the east end location of Oswald’s alleged ‘snipers nest’), another in the nearby Dal-Tex building, and finally a team on the grassy knoll.

Roberts mentioned that an old un-provenanced shell case had been recently found on the Dal-Tex building under some roofing material.  He also proposed that the explosive kill shot which blew open the president’s head was a slug loaded with mercury – traces of which would have been detectable in a brain examination.  Unfortunately the President’s brain had disappeared from the National Archives soon after his death.

Moving on from blood and bullets, Doug Horne’s presentation was much more low key.  A former naval officer and civil servant in both the navy and army, Horne gave an insiders view of his time as an official working for the ARRB.  The bureaucratic workings of the Board were obviously of deep interest to the conference participants, many of whom had testified before it.  This is where I first heard the word, ‘redacted.  ‘Redacted’ is officialese for when certain words or phrases or even whole paragraphs of documents are blanked out.  It became clear from Horne’s presentation that a significant amount of the documents released by the ARRB have many words, and sometimes whole passages redacted.

The most impressive presentation came late in the first day from John Newman Ph.D., a former military intelligence officer, author of two books on the assassination and a lecturer at the University of Maryland.

I guess I’m going to introduce myself – I’m a conspiracy theorist!

Kicking off with that opening line John Newman’s presentation seemed to electrify the conference.  It was based on 130 newly-released ARRB documents which covered Lee Harvey Oswald’s mysterious visit to Mexico City in September/October 1963.

Using slides and over head transparencies, [the early versions of PowerPoint were not widely used in 1999], Newman skilfully juxtaposed declassified documents to outline what appeared to be an elaborate and, (if I might say so), elegant stratagem involving Oswald (and someone impersonating Oswald) to clearly link Oswald with both the Cuban and Russian embassies in Mexico City.

Furthermore the Russian consular official Oswald had been linked to by tapped phone calls, was a man called Valery Kostikov.  Kostikov was known to the American intelligence as a member of the notorious KGB department 13 – the section in charge of sabotage and assassinations (“wet jobs” as those in that particular line of government service call it).

This explosive information was not made known to higher authorities at that time but was left to lie dormant, as Newman put it, ‘like a virus’ ready to activate after the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza.

Newman showed how the released documents which covered the first 24 hours after the assassination referred to tapes and photographs made in Mexico, ostensibly of Oswald which upon examination were found to be impersonations.  Someone was impersonating Oswald!  The most likely way such a conclusion could be reached, argued Newman, was if the tapes were flown to Dallas for comparison while Oswald was still alive and being interrogated.  Again Newman produced evidence of a special Navy flight from Mexico City carrying an FBI agent with a package containing photographs and apparently tapes which arrived at Dallas in the early hours of the morning, the day after the assassination.

Then, 24 hours after the assassination, Newman revealed, throwing document after document on the overhead projector, the official line suddenly changed.  Investigators were now informed that the Mexico City tapes had been routinely wiped soon after they were recorded.

It was a little more complex than this of course, but in summary, there appeared to be a two-level strategy running.  Oswald was in Mexico with the objective of obtaining a visa to travel to Cuba.  As it turned out the Cubans (fortunately for them) refused give him one.  As Fidel Castro told representatives of the House Assassinations Committee, ‘I said to myself, what would have happened had by any chance that man come to Cuba…gone back to the States and then appeared involved in Kennedy’s death?  That would have been a provocation – a gigantic provocation.’

That part of the apparent strategy, the provocation of a retaliatory military invasion of Cuba didn’t work out.  However when alarm bells rang in the corridors of power in the hours and days after the shooting, Oswald’s connections seemed to be not with the anti-Castro extreme-right or the FBI or the CIA, but with the Cubans and Russians.  The threat appeared to be from the Left not the Right, and to be external not internal .  The link to Kostikov and department 13, raised the possibility of war  - ‘the death of 40 million people’ – as Lyndon Johnson repeatedly stated privately in the days after the assassination.

Though, as Newman demonstrated, Johnson was made aware of the Oswald impersonation – as early as the morning after the assassination by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The awesome consequences of this avenue of enquiry appeared to act as a sort of brake on investigating agencies from following up too hard on these leads.  The threat of world war was also used by Johnson, again demonstrated by Newman using documents and tapes, to gain support at the highest levels of government, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren for a tacit consensus to support the ‘lone assassin’ explanation.

More conspiracy theorists

The bar of the Grand, run by the remarkably efficient Rosemary became the meeting place after conference sessions. I buddied up with researcher Russ Swickard (most everyone is a ‘researcher’ in this milieu).  Russ, whom I guessed was around my age and who looked like (and in fact was) an original California surfer from the Beach Boys era.  Russ had an extensive knowledge of the case and I found his shrewd insights quite valuable.

Russ introduced me to his friends from COPA (Committee on Political Assassinations) a sort of rival body to JFK-Lancer, headed up by John Judge which was also meeting in Dallas.  More of an activist group it was COPA which successfully led the lobbying for the JFK Assassinations Records Act.

In between discussing the finer points of the case, Russ and I would take our turn buying bourbon and coke for Shari Angel.

Another local character who put in an appearance in the bar of the Grand was Madeline Brown, a petite woman now quite frail, whom people openly referred to as ‘Lyndon Johnson’s mistress’.  Madeline was the author of a couple of books and once made the claim that LBJ had pre-knowledge of the assassination. Other researchers have placed doubt on her credibility.

Another ubiquitous figure in the conspiracy movement, if I may call it that, is Beverly Oliver – another former dancer.  Beverly a vivacious blonde, and a larger-than-life personality, appears in most documentaries on the assassination and claims to be the famous ‘Babuska lady’.  This person, shown in photographs wearing a coat and head scarf (hence Babushka) who with Jean Hill was perhaps the closest witness to the assassination, has never been officially identified.  Beverly also claims to have seen Lee Harvey Oswald with Jack Ruby in the Carousel Club.

I used to share the same table in the hotel dining room with two older gentlemen, both who happened to be called ‘Hal’.  Neither, I noted at the time, would have been out of place at an Alliance conference (or perhaps nowadays a Greens conference nowadays.  The first Hal, Hal McDiarmid, was in his sixties and more your strong-willed individualist.  At the time of the assassination, Hal told me over breakfast, he was a young white lawyer working for a black law firm on the south side of Chicago.  When he saw Lee Harvey Oswald on TV, making a plea for a lawyer ‘to come forward’ to represent him, Hal placed a long distance call to the Dallas police chief, Jesse Curry.  ‘Curry wouldn’t take the call’, Hal told me, and the hapless Oswald was left without legal representation until his murder the next day.

When he heard I came from New Zealand, Hal told me that he was a keen jogger.  He said he had once met Arthur Lydiard, the famous New Zealand athletics coach and long distance running guru, in a bar in Los Angeles.  Hal claimed Arthur had talked him into running a marathon the next day – which Hal claimed he did, of course in a very slow time.

The second Hal, Hal Verb, was down on the programme as a conference presenter.  Hal Verb, was described as ‘a first generation conspiracy theorist’ and was a sort of father figure in the research movement.  A dignified, quietly spoken, rather humourless man in his late sixties, Hal was a member of the ‘Fair Play for Cuba Committee at the time of the Kennedy assassination.  It will be recalled that the mysterious Lee Harvey Oswald had attempted to set up a chapter of the ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ Committee in New Orleans in the months prior to the assassination and was arrested after a street fracas when handing out ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ leaflets.  That incident, conspiracy theorists suggest had all the hallmarks of being staged.

Hal Verb, by his accent a native New Yorker, was apparently an old-style left-winger of the Militant variety.  He was active in the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.  At the time of the assassination, Hal told me he was horrified to learn of Oswald’s alleged connections to the Fair Play for Cuba committee and feared a right wing back-lash.  The Fair Play for Cuba committee was disbanded soon after.

As the conference drew to a close, an awards session and dinner featured a number of luminaries of the assassination research movement such as Jim Marrs author of the important assassination book ‘Cross-Fire’, and Mary Ferrell (now in a wheelchair), the Dallas researcher and archivist who was one of the original critics of the Warren Commission.  Also featured was Kerry McCarthy, a first-cousin-once-removed of President Kennedy, a one time senior official in the Democratic Party and a TV host.  Whether her presence meant a change in the Kennedy family position on the assassination conspiracy movement was not clear – the Kennedy’s have always maintained a strict silence on the assassination.  I studied her carefully – she was a handsome women in her late forties, she spoke very well (with a touch of the blarney) and bore quite a strong family resemblance to her famous cousins of whom she spoke fondly.

The Kennedy legacy

In reviewing Kennedy’s political career even in the most critical of his detractors trace an interesting political journey.  First of all, perhaps most importantly, Kennedy, thanks to the enormous wealth of his ambitious father, was financially self-sufficient.  This gave him a degree of political latitude virtually unique in the American experience where big corporate donors have a decisive influence on the political process.

In 1960 Kennedy campaigned as a cold warrior who strove to be harder-nosed than his rival Richard Nixon.  After the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco, the new President appeared to become distrustful, even embittered with his military and Intelligence advisers.  Kennedy’s sacking of CIA director Allan Dulles, was a direct consequence of the abortive Cuban operation.

In the aftermath of the ‘Bay of Pigs,’ in 1962, faced with a political crisis in Laos in which his military Joint Chiefs urged intervention, Kennedy opted for a diplomatic solution, resulting in a neutralist government, which included members of the communist Pathet Lao.  This suggested a President (despite the militant cold war rhetoric) who was aware of the limitations of military force.

In October 1962, and the Cuban Missile crisis, Kennedy again over-ruled the generals and together with his brother Robert contrived a solution which narrowly averted a catastrophic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

This seemed to mark a turning point in history.  In the following months the cold war tensions seemed to ease.  A nuclear test ban treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was signed and a ‘hot line’ set up between the White House and the Kremlin.  Kennedy’s move away from the cold war was best articulated in his famous commencement address to the American University in June 1963.  Here Kennedy called for a profound reassessment of the U.S. attitude towards the Soviet Union and Communism, a move toward nuclear disarmament and an end to the cold war.  ‘And, if we cannot end now our differences at least we can make the world safe for diversity.  Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal.’

The President and his son John. 'We all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal.’

A few weeks before his death Kennedy went on a pre-campaign swing through the conservative mid-western states.  He had been prepared with speeches on nature conservation.  Half through one of his first speeches (which he sensed seemed to be not connecting with the audience) Kennedy departed from his notes to talk about the nuclear test ban treaty and an end to the cold war.  The audience immediately responded.   Sensing this Kennedy increased the force and tempo of his remarks. The speech was met with enthusiastic applause. The crowd response was similar wherever he spoke.  It appeared that Kennedy had discovered a deep well of cold war-weariness, a yearning to come out from the shadow of years of Russophobia and nuclear war intimidation – and a heartfelt desire for peace amongst ordinary middle-Americans.

As the writer David Halberstam recalled on his last night in Salt Lake City, the crowds along the route were the biggest yet.  When he entered the Mormon tabernacle, thought to be the heart of the enemy camp – Birch country, Goldwater country  – the President received a 5 minute standing ovation.  Kennedy knew by then that Goldwater was to be his Republican opponent in 1964.  He believed he had found the issue to defeat the Goldwater and the right and move to America on during his second term, beyond the rigid fear and paranoia of the Cold War.

The Kennedy charm seemed to mesmerise most journalists.  An exception was the outstanding young correspondent, David Halberstam of the New York Times.  Halberstam’s despatches covering the early days of the war in Vietnam conflicted with the upbeat line of the American mission in Saigon and embarrassed the administration.

Halberstam best-selling book, The Best and the Brightest, which appeared in the early seventies is a brilliant study of U.S. politics and government of that era.  The book is a penetrating critique of how the Kennedy/Johnson administration became entrapped in Vietnam.

Recently it was republished and in it Halberstam rewrote his introduction, a reappraisal of the book from the perspective of thirty years.  As one of Kennedy’s earliest critics Halberstam’s views are worth noting.

On reflection, Halberstam claimed his book to be ‘the first revisionist book on Kennedy, though on the increasing scale of what was to come later, it was rather mild.  I did not see Kennedy as a romantic figure (although, later, I saw his younger brother Robert that way) but rather as a cool, skillful, modern politician.  Sceptical, ironic and graceful.  The best thing about him was modernity, his lack of being burdened by myths of the past.

Because I saw him as cool and sceptical it always struck me that he would not have sent combat troops into Vietnam.  He was too sceptical, I think, for that:  I believe that in the last few months of his life, he had come to dislike the war, it was messy and our policy there was flawed and going nowhere, and he was wary of the optimism of his generals.  His first term had been burdened by his narrow victory over Nixon and the ghosts of the McCarthy period; with luck he would be free of both of these burdens in his second term, and I do not believe he intended to lose in the rice paddies of Indo-China what he considered this most precious chance for historic accomplishment.

That being the case Kennedy’s second term raises intriguing possibilities.  No big war in Vietnam, continuation of the post-war economic boom without the chronic inflation set off by the Vietnam War and even the possibility of a U.S. opening to China before the Cultural Revolution.  History could have been very different.

Kennedy’s second term because it didn’t happen, takes its place as one of the great ‘what ifs’ of the 20th century.

The political orphans of JFK

As the conference draw to its conclusion, I began to feel as a non-American something of an intruder – an outsider at a family gathering. And yet looking around the room I realised I had quite a lot in common with the people here – something that transcended nationality.  The post-war baby boom generation was said to be the best nurtured and best educated in history.  With such preparation and moved to high idealism by Kennedy’s sweeping rhetoric, the new generation promised great things. The Peace Corps and the civil rights movement seemed only to be the beginning. As it turned out the promise and high expectations were never.   After all, we should remember, it was really the World War II generation which reached the moon and last walked there thirty years ago – the baby-boom generation has never really gone anywhere.   A commentator once observed that in the wake of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the youth of America suffered a ‘collective nervous breakdown.’  Things never quite worked out after that.  High idealism turned to self absorption and then to cynicism.  Personal experiments with drugs were followed by political experiments with neo-liberalism – (and most baby-boomer private lives are unhappily complicated compared to those of their parents’ generation).

If you talk to most people in the assassination research movement about their motivations for being involved, they will tell you first of all the Government’s lone assassin explanation insults their intelligence – there are just two many loose ends.  But there is also the impression of an underlying feeling that somehow they have been robbed -ripped-off.  That as young people at the time, the violent removal of Kennedy had stolen something important from their future – and the unfulfilled promise of the second term had somehow detracted from their lives. As I looked around the room, at the now middle-aged faces turned expectantly towards the podium, in their eyes I could see the youthful idealism of the sixties was still there.  That’s what they were, I decided,  that’s what we all were, I suppose – the political orphans of JFK.

"I don't think there's any point in being Irish if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess that we thought we had a little more time." – Kennedy official and later Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan reacting to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, November 1963

The Grassy Knoll

The next day 22 November 1999 was the 36 th anniversary of the assassination and the last item of business on the conference agenda – the ceremony on the grassy knoll.

We made our way out of the hotel in the bright Texan sunlight, along the arid canyon which is Commerce Street, walking the few blocks to Dealey Plaza.  The weather was fine with a mild breeze – not too different from the weather I remember in Wellington on that day back in 1963.

The giant stars and stripes flags in Dallas flew at half mast that day – but this had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination.  A number of students at Texas A&M university had just been killed by collapsing lumber when they were building a huge bonfire as part of a campus ritual and Texas Governor George W. Bush had declared a period of official mourning.

Dealey Plaza lies at the western side of downtown Dallas where Commerce, Main and Elm Streets come together.  Named for a famous Dallas civic father (a right-wing newspaper proprietor) its features were immediately familiar.  The little white colonades and the picket fence of the grassy knoll, the railway underpass and looming above, the sinister red brick Texas school book depository building.  I realised that this place had been burned into the collective imagination of my generation – the setting for the original nightmare on Elm Street.

I visited the school book depository building much of which is now a tourist attraction – On the sixth floor is a museum dedicated to the Kennedy assassination.  A video tape of Kennedy’s funeral was playing and as I watched it old memories came flooding back.

Out on the grassy knoll out-of-state assassination buffs mingled with Dallas locals – among which were a few remaining witnesses. A banner was unfurled, there were speeches and at 12.30 a minutes silence.

Here I met Tom Blackwell one of that hardy breed, a leader of the Dallas Democratic Party.  Tom runs an email information service constantly sending out news items and research developments on the JFK case, other political assassinations and general information on Dallas history and politics (http://web2.airmail.net/radio).  (I sometimes receive emails addressed “to you and other Texas Democrats”).  Tom kindly showed me over the grassy knoll and we walked around the railway yard behind the picket fence.  Here we stood behind the now dilapidated fence right on the spot where witnesses (and some photographic evidence) suggest two men were standing, one of whom many believe delivered the kill shot – blowing open the President’s head.  My feeling was that the assassins must have had ice in their veins to execute such a crime so close to where people were standing.  But no-one was looking their way, and nobody in those more innocent days would be expecting such barbaric audacity.

Standing there, I reflected morbidly of the words of Warren Commission critic Vince Salandria as told to the Congressional investigator Gaeton Fonzi. ‘I’m afraid we were misled – all the critics, myself included, were misled very early.  I see that now.  We spent too much time and effort micro analyzing the details of the assassination when all the time it was obvious, it was blatantly obvious that it was a conspiracy.  Don’t you think the men who killed Kennedy had the means to do it in the most sophisticated and subtle way?  They chose not to.  Instead they picked the shooting gallery that was Dealey Plaza and did it in the most barbarous and openly arrogant manner.  The forces that killed Kennedy wanted the message clear: ‘We are in control and no one – not the President, nor any elected official – no one can do anything about it.’

Boston psychiatrist Martin Schotz once pointed out ‘It is so important to understand that one of the primary means of immobilizing the American people politically today is to hold them in a state of confusion in which anything can be believed but nothing can be known, nothing of significance that is.‘  And while the overwhelming majority of Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy – the don’t know it. And as I stood there looking out over Dealey Plaza, I wondered whether they ever would.

On the grassy knoll. November 22 1999

When I saw the Pacific Ocean again I felt I was nearly home. After the usual excruciating middle of the night stop over in Honolulu and flight in a crowded Air New Zealand 767 we landed in the early morning at Rarotonga.  An old friend Helen Browne and her son Ken were there to pick me up.  I went home to their rambling colonial bungalow in the Takuvaine Valley, had a cold shower, took some sleeping pills and with the rumble of thunder and the sound of rain drumming on the roof, fell into a deep sleep. I slept most of the day and from time to time I was  aware of the people talking in Maori somewhere in an another room.  I rested in Rarotonga a few days, swimming in the lagoon, reading and relaxing preparing for re-entry back to routine working life. That moment arrived when I received an email – my youngest daughter Annabelle had given birth to a little girl.  I was a grandfather again.  My journey and the 20th Century’s was almost over.  I would go home to meet Omiha Pearl and her new century.

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