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Wednesday, April 14, 2010


As election day approached, the Winthrop House Senior Common Room chipped in to rent a television set, and we all gathered to watch the results. This was before the days of exit polls and projections, so we knew it might be a long night. Things were nip and tuck all night, until at two a.m. the Illinois figures, which had been frozen for hours, began to change. In a successful bid for influence in the new administration, Chicago mayor and Democratic boss Richard Daley was making his move. Precincts were discovered in Chicago that had mysteriously failed to report earlier, graveyards were voted, and Illinois swung to Kennedy. Finally, as the sun was coming up, we all went to Hayes-Bickford's for breakfast and then returned to watch Nixon's concession speech.

The long boring sleep of the Eisenhower era was over. There were moments when it seemed as though all of Cambridge was leaving for jobs in the new administration. I was not intimate with the really important people who were tapped for senior positions, but a number of my friends were leaving for junior slots. Dick Barnet went to the recently formed Disarmament Agency. My colleague from the Senior Common Room, Barbara Bergmann, with whom I had spent some pleasant hours playing string quartets, snagged a job on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers. Dick's friend, Marc Raskin [who actually knew Susie from Chicago, as I learned thirty years later] was appointed as aide to McGeorge Bundy, who became Kennedy's National Security Advisor. Poor Henry Kissinger never got the call, despite the fact that The Necessity for Choice could be seen on Kennedy's desk in a television documentary about the transition.

And then, on Sunday, April 16, 1961, just three months after Kennedy took office, a group of Cuban exiles armed, trained, and funded by the C. I. A., mounted a disastrous effort to invade Cuba via the Bay of Pigs and depose Fidel Castro.

The abortive Cuban invasion hit the New Left Club of Cambridge very hard. We had all thought of ourselves as liberals. Well, Kennedy was a liberal, if anyone was, and he had invaded Cuba. That meant that we weren't liberals. What then were we? We took to calling ourselves radicals, but that was just a place holder, a way of indicating that whatever liberals were, we weren't that. The day after the invasion, Max Lerner published a column defending it. Marty Peretz, with his finely honed instinct for the main chance, stood by Lerner, and effectively broke with us. Eventually, of course, he married money and bought The New Republic, thus securing for himself a charter seat on the runaway train called Neo-Conservatism. He always was an egregious twerp.

We had had indications that something of this sort was planned under the Eisenhower administration. In fact, we had met with McGeorge Bundy the previous Fall, after he returned from a fact-finding tour of Latin America. On that occasion, he looked us straight in the eye and lied to us, assuring us that the reports in the Nation of C. I. A. training camps for anti-Castro Cubans were untrue. But by the time the invasion took place, he was settled into the Executive Office Building, serving as National Security Advisor. Years later, after Bundy had left the White House to assume the presidency of the Ford Foundation, he wrote to invite me to participate in some sort of panel discussion. I replied that since the last time I had seen him he had lied to me, I did not feel that I could engage in an open intellectual exchange with him. I never heard from him again.

Within days of the abortive invasion, we had mobilized ourselves and were organizing to protest the attempts by the United States to overthrow the Castro government. On the evening of April 26, 1961, just ten days after the invasion, we held a protest rally at Harvard chaired by Stuart Hughes, Nadav Safran, and myself. Despite being somewhat upstaged by undergraduates protesting Harvard's decision to stop printing its diplomas in Latin, we managed to pull a big crowd, and because of the Harvard/Kennedy connection, we got considerable press coverage. At the meeting, we formed the Cuba Protest Committee, which then circulated a statement for signatures by faculty at Harvard and elsewhere. We collected two dozen signatures from senior Harvard faculty, including Barry Moore and Rod Firth.

The attempt to round up signatures was an instructive exercise. A number of very senior, supposedly savvy social scientists declined to sign, saying that they preferred to talk privately to Bundy. They suffered from the rather common misapprehension that their Harvard friendship would give them access to the inner circles of government. Some years later, during the Viet Nam War, the same notion led Harvard professors to think that their faculty friendship with Kissinger during his Harvard days would give them special access. Seymour Hirsch, in his splendid book Kissinger, skewers that delusion. The professors would come to see Kissinger and he would play them like mandolins, assuring them that he was the only person protecting the world from Nixon's craziness. As soon as they left, convinced they had whispered in the right ear of power, he would forget about them. What really worried Kissinger, Hirsch wrote, were the clueless outsiders picketing in front of the White House. Since he couldn't control them, they constituted a threat.

Our protests had no visible effect on the Kennedy Administration, but they did produce yet another contretemps with Robert Lee Wolff. By now, Wolff was Chair of the History Department, and even more full of himself. He was so distressed by the similarity of our names that he wrote to the Harvard Crimson for a second time to disambiguate us. "I should like to state," he wrote, " not for the first time, but with all possible emphasis, that I am not, repeat not, Robert Paul Wolff, Instructor in Philosophy and General Education, and I do not share his opinions on disarmament, Cuba, or, as far as I can tell, anything else." Stuart Hughes told me that at a History Department faculty meeting that afternoon people were collapsed in laughter, to Wolff's apoplectic dismay.

In the aftermath of the protest rally, a large number of young Cuban artists and poets sent me a telegram of congratulations. By mistake, it was delivered to Robert Lee Wolff, who was apoplectic at being taken for a left-wing anti-government protester. He sent the telegram to me with a curt note that read, "Kindly tell your Cuban friends to take me off their mailing list." Wolff also called me to express his distress at the confusion. As luck would have it, the night before I had attended the annual dinner of the Winthrop House Senior Common Room, held in the dining room of the Society of Fellows. One of the tutors, William Polk, a handsome, blond Middle Eastern expert who was descended from President Polk, had just returned from a research trip overseas. Bill had used his entire duty free liquor allowance - in those days the equivalent of four fifths - to bring back an enormous Jeroboam of brandy, which traveled up and down the dinner table all evening on an elegant silver Sherry trolley. For one of only three times in my life, I got drunk.

The next morning, when Wolff called, I was in no condition for polite repartée. Wolff protested that this confusion between the two of us was becoming absolutely intolerable. I replied that it was caused by the fact that he was a famous professor while I was as yet quite unknown. I assured him that I was trying as fast as possible to rectify that. He let out a strangled sound and finally closed the conversation by saying, in an almost imploring voice, "Well, for God's sake, don't marry a woman named Mary!" I collapsed in helpless laughter, because of course Cindy's first name was Mary.

But Wolff had the last laugh. Several years later, when Cindy and I had returned to Cambridge so that I could spend a visiting year at Wellesley, Cindy won a doctoral fellowship from the American Association of University Women. Before leaving for Europe for a summer vacation, she asked them to deposit the first half of the fellowship in our Cambridge Trust Company bank account. Sure enough, Robert Lee Wolff also banked there, and the money was deposited to his account. It took us some while, when we returned, to sort things out. He claimed never to have noticed the sudden increase in his bank balance.

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