San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



May 1961

The Bay of Pigs
Mediocrity in Art
Atoms and Irresponsibility
A Delightful Spring Opera Season
The Population Explosion
A Marvelous Magic Flute
The Attacks on the Freedom Riders
Courage and Cowardice in the South
Summit Meeting



The Bay of Pigs

Recently I was in Washington, and wrote back that the city was buzzing with a curtain time expectancy. Working men and politicians, editors and waitresses were all saying the same thing, “When is the show going to start, and what is it going to be?”

The President and his wife had become the most popular celebrities in America, but the “image,” as Madison Avenue calls it now, was as empty of political content as the similar image of the Royal Family or Frank Sinatra. Part of the glamour of that image was a rosy aura of high-toned ideas and progressive sentiments — but what was it all going to mean?

As they drew to a close, the Hundred Days, the “career of all the talents,” was beginning to look more like the takeover from Coolidge by Hoover — a tidying up and straightening out operation, rather than anything like the fateful first three months of the second Roosevelt.

It was nice, at least for my own caste of over-literate people, to know that books were being read in the White House and that modern pictures would soon hang on the walls. However, I am sure that Richard Nixon, one of the most elaborately briefed politicians who ever lived, would have been glad to hang a couple of Blue Period Picassos in the Blue Room if it would have mollified the intellectuals. What did it all mean in terms of real, concretely implemented political values?

Before I could get the letter, full of suchlike wry remarks, into print, the Cuban filibuster [the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion] intervened. I don’t want to go into the merits and demerits of that adventure. A good many million words of post-mortem are going to be spilled into print before that particular corpse is thoroughly dead. What concerns me most is the reflex action, the lashback that may occur in our own life here in America.

People who make mistakes have a very bad habit of punishing the innocent. Nobody likes to admit his own fault and take the medicine. The terrible frustrations and resulting breakdown of morale in the Korean war produced, on the domestic scene, an era of witch-hunting and persecution of scapegoats of which all sane Americans are now heartily ashamed.

Not just our universities, our intellectual and cultural life, were crippled, our diplomatic service was demoralized and eventually even the military forces of the country were afflicted. Our fears and suspicions and panic made us ridiculous in the eyes of all the civilized nations of the world. Furthermore — it should never be forgotten that all this occurred, not during a regime of “reactionary Republicans,” but during the nearest thing to a Labor Government this country has ever known. In other words, noble sentiments did us no good.

We cannot afford another such episode. The prime job of the opinion makers of the country at this moment is the sharpest vigilance — a constant watch to see that, overcome with guilt at our own folly we do not turn on the guiltless — even the guiltless whom we find personally or politically very obnoxious indeed.

Whoever was to blame for the failure on the Cuban beaches, it certainly was not a movie star who had once given money to the Tom Mooney Defense, or some English professor who once joined the League Against War and Fascism. Let us not forget that ideology had nothing whatever to do with the Cuban failure — not Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s lofty ideals, nor the propaganda of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, nor the John Birch Society, nor even Karl Marx.

It was a military gamble that did not pay off. Let’s not blame it on termites in the wainscoting.

[May 3, 1961]



Mediocrity in Art

On the way to the museum to look over the Society of Western Artists’ annual show, I walked past the old familiar statues, Burns, Goethe and Schiller, Don Quixote, Sancho and Cervantes, the ball player who looks like Pop Anson, the boy pressing wine, and it occurred to me that there are no statues around the bandstand of the true greats of California — no Jack London, no Bret Harte, no Ambrose Bierce, no Mark Twain, not even Joaquin Miller, not even George Sterling, who the literary critics of Native Son San Francisco used to say was greater than Dante or Homer.

I wonder why not? I guess because they were and are too controversial. Mark Twain was pretty close to an atheist, Bret Harte was apparently one of the world’s most disagreeable men, Ambrose Bierce believed in nothing. The rest were Socialists.

I have never understood the defiance of modern sculptors. A French village is exterminated by the Nazis. Money is appropriated after the war to honor the martyred peasants. An immense, overblown imitation of Giacometti is stuck up in the town square — something that belongs in the boudoir of a provincial heiress who is trying to get startling art cheap. Everybody for miles around passes the thing on market day in acute embarrassment. Who has been honored?

All this introduction to the Western artists. Why is this stuff so mediocre? It is not as bad as it was in the days the group called itself Sanity in Art, but it is certainly not very good.

Why not? Why can’t some conventionally figurative art be as good as any other kind? Nowadays it’s okay to paint like African sculpture or Chinese calligraphy or photographs of microbes or chalk marks on the sidewalks or cow tracks in the mud. We live in an eclectic age. We take our art, its techniques and subjects from all times and places.

Why doesn’t anybody paint like naked ladies, bowls of fruit, babies or eucalyptus-shaded hillsides of Escholtzia and lupin and manage to get away with it?

Whether it’s Dali, Magritte, or Wyeth, representational painting is strictly for untutored laymen. None of these three nor any others like them are good painters. Their technical facility is superficial — only slightly above that of the buckeye painters who used to turn out large-size renditions of The Moose at Bay in the hardware store window in 15 minutes.

It is not just us. The Russians have brought to bear on their artists the whole weight of the greatest terror machine in history. All the first abstract painters, when Russia was the headquarters of abstract art, have been liquidated long since. Furthermore, say what you will, the Revolution, the industrialization of the country, the collectivization of agriculture, the “New Soviet Man” — these are all exciting subjects for those who believe in them. Certainly they should engage the sympathies of a Communist artist at least as much as the mistresses of Louis XV engaged Boucher. But what have you? Simply awful potboilers, technically bad painting of absurdities.

So I found the Society of Western Artists dull. Also — how shocking! — I found them slowly yielding to modernism. Soon the Cubism of 1906 will be “sanity in art.”

On the other hand, in Washington I saw the first big show of modern Polish art. Once these boys and girls threw off the yoke of Socialist Realism, they all started painting just like the boys and girls of the San Francisco Art Institute. Barcelona and Warsaw are the hottest capitals in Europe, culturally speaking — for the same reasons. Both are blowing off steam accumulated over years of repression.

So what happens? Everybody collapses meekly into the standardized academy art of the Free World. What good did all the repression do?

Rooms and rooms of Maurice Prendergast at the Legion. These are all lovely paintings, simple, joyous, a little monotonous seen all together. Now that the insatiable demand of the Paris art market is forcing a revival of the forgotten movements of the 1900s — Jugendstil, the Nabis, Intimisme, the minor Neo-Impressionists, Walter Sickert, Maurice Denis, Puvis de Chavannes — our own art dealers have finally got around to our own painters of the T. Roosevelt and Taft Epoch.

Look for “revivals” of Glackens, Henri, George Luks, Guy Pène Du Bois. Best of all certainly was Prendergast. His taste is gracious and unobstructive, his color chords are as sophisticated as Tiepolo’s or Guardi’s; behind the tapestry-like “picture plane” of his characteristic style lies a really profound sense of space.

It doesn’t sound like much to say that he was as good as Sickert or Maurice Denis, but that is no mean achievement for American painting in 1910.

[May 7, 1961]



Atoms and Irresponsibility

At the height of the commotion in Algiers, at the bottom of the main story about the revolt was another story, a little inch of type or so. The French had set off another atomic bomb, due south of Algiers, cut off from the metropole (as they call France) by the revolt.

How many people noticed this conjuncture of events? How many pondered the real meaning, spelled out the consequences in terms of other similar events in the years to come? As Sir Charles Snow has said, the things are sure to go off in ten years, if not by design, then by folly, accident, drunkenness or insanity.

Suppose instead of milling around in the cities of Algeria, the generals had sent their paratroopers straight off to the Sahara base and grabbed the bombs and their attendant scientists and blackmailed the world?

Don’t forget that most of these Foreign Legionnaires are not only not French, they are ex-Nazis who have no place left to go, men literally at the end of the rope. As connecting rods are thrown and gears stripped in the machinery of our society here and there around the world, more and more men like this come into existence. They are not just displaced persons, but desperate men without hope, willing to do the dirtiest work for any side. Fewer and fewer people “in the metropole,” citizens of the civilized countries, are willing to do this dirtiest work. So power gravitates to the most irresponsible. Not power at long mahogany tables in Geneva or the UN, but real power — firepower.

Today the atoms go off just across the sands from the rebel generals and their armed pariahs. What guarantee do we have that in the years to come they won’t go off in the hands of the Sultan of Yemen, Moise Tshombe, Latin American dictators of either the Left or the Right, or both?

With all due respect to the hard-working and conscientious leaders of the new Africa, everybody south of the Tropic of Cancer is not a Leopold Sédar-Senghor. The only atomic reactor in Africa is precisely in The Congo. The protons and the electrons and the neutrons are busily stewing away while people are being arrested for cannibalism around the corner.

This is the real meaning of disarmament. It doesn’t do any good to say, “Let’s get tough with the Russians.” The Russians are, in the last analysis, us. They may be heretics, but they are our heretics, however dangerous.

Far more dangerous is the leaking of power, absolute power, away to the uncivilized or the irresponsible. Absolute power always corrupts, said Lord Acton. Ten hydrogen bombs in the hands of a gang of illiterate demagogues would sure do some nifty corrupting.

So today the issue is always peace. Not “peace at any price” but pressure for peace that can make itself felt in Prague and Moscow as well as London and Washington. The alternative is not even war — it is “any price” all right — any and every and all price.

[May 10, 1961]



A Delightful Spring Opera Season

The new Spring Opera Season is one of the best notions anybody hereabouts ever had. As you know if you read the papers at all, all the other critics are in stitches of delight, and me, I’m in stitches too. How thoroughly enjoyable it has all been.

Opening night was like a stately, lyrical dream. It was not only the best production of Roméo et Juliette I have ever seen, but Lee Verona was way and above the finest Juliette, in fact, one of the finest actresses and light lovely voices I have ever encountered. It is difficult to imagine a girl mature enough to be a trained singer still managing to look and act exactly like that hot foolish Italian child; she not only made the character convincing, she even made Gounod’s amorphous music convincing, no mean feat.

Everything else was just fine. That is the trouble, writing about it now. No one stood out above the general level of excellence, except perhaps Janice Martin, who did a superb Nurse. Even a play with a small cast has achieved something when everybody fits in his place and functions as though he’d been there all his life. It is close to unheard of for this to happen with an opera.

Not the least factor was the stage direction or choreography. I suspect that Allen Fletcher and Lew Christensen worked together on the motions and dispositions of people through all the action. Anyway, every foot and finger was in place.

Three nights later — La Bohème, and my superlatives are all used up. This girl Verona is certainly an actress, and with Puccini’s music she had something to sing — Gounod you don’t sing, you overcome.

A good deal has been made of the fact that there were two Negroes in possibly the two most important positions in the opera. What was more important by far, to borrow a phrase from the American Balkans, “Suh, yo’d never a guessed it!” It wasn’t of the slightest importance that they were Negroes; they were just splendid musicians. People are always talking about how everybody should be judged regardless of color. Here it happened.

During the first intermission of Marthe, I came on three sissies in the lobby, three modest and serious sissies. One was saying in tones of anguish, “Oh! But it’s false, so false! Life isn’t like that!” I got the impression that a good part of the San Francisco audience is too provincial, too locked in its own narrow time, to take Marthe in stride and enjoy it. Where was Freud? Where were the tone rows? What about the class struggle?

Marthe certainly isn’t any better than The Merry Widow or Rosemarie, but it’s different. Like the ballet La Sylphide the Danes did when they were here, it is a straight dose of High Victorian vulgar sentimentality, but nice vulgar, not bad vulgar.

Properly directed and costumed, Marthe has a big potential — it can communicate a real feeling of the theater of Old England, in the days when the little toy dog was new and there really was an Empire. (I am aware that Flotow himself knew little of all this.)

Anyway — that’s just what happened the other night. Mary Gray and Margot Blum looked like they would go, after the show, off to a gambling hell with a couple of Regency bucks — or maybe even Beau Brummel himself. Spiro Malas was not only dressed like “Le Bon Franklin,” he had just the right tone of a wise and rich yeoman.

Margot Blum stole the show. I suspect the opera was written in the first place for the soubrette; it’s a sure-fire role. She gave it all it would take. Her duets with Malas were marvels of easy song. More important was the communication of two such handsome people. It was easy to believe that you were back in the heroic days of the British stage. Beau Brummel? You could almost hear her name being mentioned with grave concern in the House of Lords while all the Bench of Bishops blushed. And to think that she is a modest San Francisco housewife and mother. (Father and the children were there, happy as mudlarks.)

There’s nothing makes me feel better than to watch one of the hometown folks make good. It’s a kind of rosy domestic bliss, especially when it’s somebody you know and have watched come up.

I don’t suppose this piece of mine is going to do any good as far as selling seats is concerned. There’s only a week left, The Magic Flute and Carmen. I think it’s worth trying for standing room, assuming they’re all sold out, which they sure should be. It’s been a lovely little season and promises to turn in a very small deficit indeed. Let’s hope there is a rain of checks from sponsors and another season as good. It would be hard to do better.

[May 14, 1961]



The Population Explosion

Maybe you saw the recent announcement that the “have” nations were planning to lend India a billion dollars to help her with her economic plans. How many people who marveled at that large sum of money, most of which will be coming from their own pockets, were aware that after it is spent, India will be no better off than she is now?

If the next three projected Five Years Plans that have been sketched out for the country’s economic development are all fulfilled to the rupee and the kilowatt, India will at best only have marked time. It is impossible to draw up a workable, finance-able plan that can do any more than keep abreast of the population explosion.

By the end of the century Mexico will have doubled her population. So will most of the other countries that can’t feed the people they have now. It is not just the have-not nations that are exploding. The Netherlands and the United States have better than Oriental rates of increase. So has Russia. We all know about how a Chinese army of ten men abreast could march past a given point and never stop coming.

If you are my age, maybe you remember your first view of Los Angeles or the Bay area by night from the air back in the thirties. Every time I see those lights, strung out and then solidly massed together from beyond San Bernardino to Ventura I get the shivers. What kind of world are my daughters going to live in?

Like Mark Twain’s weather, the population explosion is something everybody talks about but nobody does anything about. Birth control practices are changing, and those religious bodies that have objected to the old methods have already accepted the none too reliable “rhythm method” and there are indications that they will likewise accept oral contraception. To a large degree American families are already “planned,” whatever the economic status of the parents, as long as they are stable, employed individuals.

The startling thing is that this doesn’t make as much difference as you might think. The increase in the United States is still excessive. France, where the population was pretty stable for many generations, has suddenly picked up and started the same good old Malthusian rate of increase.

Pure biologists have a habit of dismissing the problem. They say, “Things like this are self-limiting. When a species reaches the limits of its environment, it stops increasing.” That is right, but this kind of spontaneous limitation is, translated into human terms, pretty gruesome. After all, we aren’t lemmings, or jack rabbits. Maybe the bomb is Nature’s remedy. I would prefer to think not.

Perhaps we can triple the population of the earth in the next couple of generations and all manage a living. However, the conditions under which the human species would have to live would be so vastly different from the “natural habitat” that produced man in the first place, that we could look forward to the rapid evolution of a new species, and, from our point of view, not a very nice one. Most human values and virtues would vanish.

What is the answer? I don’t know. Pills? Beads to keep track of “rhythm”? Maybe the religious window-shopping so fashionable nowadays will come up with a world craze for celibacy. Maybe. Maybe it is the bomb. This is mankind’s most serious problem, along with the related ones of exhaustion of natural resources and impossible overcrowding of the cities. And it is certainly the most frightening problem, because nobody’s answer gives any promise of working soon enough.

[May 17, 1961]



A Marvelous Magic Flute

Maybe I should write this in some other language because I have used up all my fund of English superlatives on the Spring Opera. I just can’t get over The Magic Flute. My daughter and I left the Opera House in a kind of stunned rapture and both of us are still slightly dazed when we think of it.

Musically, once again, the whole thing was one compact entity. It would be unfair to single anybody out. What made it a stunner was the production, design, direction.

The costumes were such as might have been worn in the premiere — if there had been enough money available in those days. They were not just the court dress of the late 18th century, they were rather such slightly fantastic and elegant clothing as might have been worn at a court masque — or at a grandiose Masonic ritual in the Age of Reason.

This of course is what The Magic Flute in fact is, and I have never seen it so perfectly projected as a mystery play of love and reason and light.

All the Spring Opera shows have shared an extraordinary sense of period authenticity. This time it was overpowering. I should not have been the least surprised to see Voltaire leaning out of a box and grinning like a sly old lady, or to have overheard in the row behind me some powdered and brocaded and belaced mathematician explaining the wonders of analytic geometry to a dreamy courtesan, breathing softly at her décolletage the whiles.

I think the effective inventiveness in production is due to a simple virtue or state of being, very popular with the Age of Enlightenment, by the way — freedom. Freedom and comparative youth. These six operas have violated a lot of traditions and abandoned a lot of stereotypes, and in every case for the good. It takes “young unknowns” working with “limited budgets” to turn in something good and new.

It is not so long ago that stage sets at the Met bore a haunting resemblance to the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of my childhood. I haven’t any idea of the age of directors and producers Porcaro, Farruggio, Colangelo, but they have young ideas and to them should go first credit for an unforgettable night.

Speaking of race and its insignificance in music. In the lobby, talking to a friend of mine, a physician and little theater director, he said, speaking of George Shirley, “What a clever idea to use brown makeup for the tenor.” Well, well.

I was a little surprised at audience comment on the use of English. Late in life I have become a convert to opera in English, except where the text is so ridiculous it is better left in the decent obscurity of a foreign language, to paraphrase Gibbon. Certainly in The Magic Flute, with so much recitative and just plain talking, it is much easier to follow. The old chestnuts might well stay in Italian, nobody really cares.

* * *

A lovely letter from William E. Huey of the Junior Chamber of Commerce on my interest in questions of race and discrimination. Also an article by Mr. Huey in Future, the Jr. C. C. magazine, on the work they are doing at Hunter’s Point. This is just a handful of young executives who have taken on themselves what is called an uphill job, the sacrifice of a lot of time and energy for very modest ends. The significant thing is that it is the direct assumption of personal responsibility. They aren’t just fretting and sending checks to an organization in New York. Each of these individuals has gone out in the flesh and met and worked with live people — “not a talking picture” and not noble thoughts. If any appreciable number of people who do so much worrying about these issues did some concrete acting of this kind, the problem would slowly start heading around towards solution. This includes, by the way, the Negro middle classes, many of whom have never impressed me as losing too much sleep over the plight of “predelinquents.”

One of the best things about both article and letter is that it is very obvious that Race, in capital letters, is of no importance to these young men. They are just interested in doing what they can in company with other, less privileged human beings, little younger in fact than themselves. And they have discovered that they like it — they like people. Race was not the issue in the casting of La Bohème or The Magic Flute — to have learned that it is not the issue in Hunter’s Point either is the beginning of wisdom.

[May 21, 1961]



The Attacks on the Freedom Riders

Last time I was in the office turning in the Sunday column, I said, “Well, thank heavens I won’t have to write about Race for a while. I’m a bit sick of the subject.” Now look what happened.*

Why write any more, there is no need. Even the craziest screaming mobster has been touched some time in his life by some intimation of Christianity if not of civilization. Socrates thought that if man knew and understood the good he would perforce seek it. The fact that men do evil in full consciousness is known as “the Socratic dilemma.” Some Christians call it Original Sin.

Chesterton once said that a man who doubts the existence of God may be a rationalist, a man who doubts the existence of original sin (defined in this way) is given over to folly.

Man tends to choose, in full sight of the consequences, a lesser immediate good over a greater ultimate good. Reason is not defective here, but the will and the emotions.

One of the most shocking things about talking with the educated, even cultured, members of the hard core of the reviving Confederacy, as I did last year, all through the South, is the discovery that they willfully refuse to see beyond the narrowest horizons of time and space.

They simply don’t care that they are destroying America’s power and respect in the council of nations. They don’t care that they are sowing a frightening retribution for themselves. They don’t even care that they are sabotaging the future economic development of the South and robbing their own pockets here and now.

All they care about is striking out with a defiance born of three hundred years of guilt.

Rioters in The Congo can be excused. Most of them literally know nothing beyond the confines of tribe or village. Ignorance is itself a kind of paranoia. Their world is populated by enemies and saviors. The average Congolese has scant idea of the meaning of “Belgium,” “Russia,” “America,” let alone such abstractions as “freedom” and “democracy.” Every American who violates the integrity of another human being knows better.

Confronted with shocking headlines, the average citizen says, “What can I do?” in hopeless anguish. Like the floods and famines of China, the problem is so far away and so vast it seems totally unreachable.

It is not. There is plenty to do right here in San Francisco and there are agencies of the community to enable you to do it. Furthermore, there are things you, personally, immediately can do, yourself, without any organizational help, and you don’t have to think very hard to figure them out.

If you feel like it you can even write the President and the Attorney General and back them up. Politicians love to be commended for doing good, they so seldom get the opportunity.

[May 24, 1961]

*In May 1961 Freedom Riders were violently attacked by Southern segregationists. Buses were burned and the riders were beaten and arrested. On May 21, Martin Luther King, Freedom Riders, and the congregation of Ralph Abernathy’s church in Montgomery, Alabama, were besieged by a mob of segregationists; Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent in federal marshals to protect them.



Courage and Cowardice in the South

I think it’s tiresome bringing up this subject again and again, don’t you agree? But then I didn’t bring it up. Precisely what is incorrigible about incorrigible evil is its incorrigibility. In morals, in politics and in history burned babies unfortunately do return again and again to the fire.

This week again America is being tried in a courtroom which is the whole world before a jury of more than a billion people who are not white. The judge is history and the decision is the character of future civilization on this planet.

No care for the import of their actions penetrates the weasel brains of redneck mobsters. Unscrupulous politicians condone or encourage their blind violence. They may not represent the majority of the South but they do still hold the balance of power and to this the whole community of the South is forced to bow. This is the ultimate folly. These are the guilty — those who know better and stand passively by.

A couple of hundred crazy women in New Orleans did more damage to America than a medium-size atom bomb. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of Louisiana disapproved — but not out loud. Until the enlightened opinion — and you don’t have to be very enlightened to be disgusted at the events in Alabama — of the South speaks out with courage and conviction, the gallus-snapping politicians will continue to coddle the rednecks.

We are all waiting to see some “massive resistance” to ruin. A little bravery among the vast bulk of the normal, decent population would push the balance of power the other way.

Are only black Southerners brave any more? Don’t forget — handsome, cultivated, even pampered, children of members of the Negro middle classes are risking their lives for the right to use a public toilet.

I’d much rather write about art, music, entertainment, food and wine than about politics and social morals — but society won’t calm down and let me alone.

When I started this column I said it was my ambition to follow in the footsteps of the great journalist critic James Gibbons Huneker. Unfortunately I live in far more perilous times than he did. How nice it must have been in those days of profound calm before the Other War when the most stirring events were the first Futurist exhibition, Mary Garden’s Salomé or de Pachmann’s renditions of Chopin.

When I was a little boy I saw the Emperor Franz Joseph in an open carriage in the St. Stephen’s Day procession in Budapest. It’s like having seen Rameses, inconceivably far away in history. At the end of his life H.G. Wells began to suspect that the human species was genetically exhausted and going crazy en masse. Maybe he was right. Mankind at the End of the Tether he called one of his last books. Could be.

* * *

People do still sing, play music, dance, paint pictures. Last Sunday evening, still fascinated by Margot Blum’s performances in the Spring Opera, I went to the Jewish Community Center to hear her in concert. She was every bit as good.

I think it significant that she was best in a Loeffler “Serenade.” Musically it didn’t compare with the Bach and Brahms and Scarlatti, but its special resonances brought out the individual qualities of her voice.

I do wish someday she would try the Bartok song cycle, Opus 16. The awe-inspiring melodic line is just made for her voice, and she even looks a lot like Magda Laszlo in her young days, when she made these songs one of my life’s unforgettable musical experiences.

A new ballet company — Pacific Ballet, yesterday and Friday. Too late for me to do it this time — it is not yet “yesterday” as I write this, but as of this writing I am looking forward to Alan Howard and especially to Janet Sassoon. She is certainly one of the more impressive young dramatic ballerinas now in America. Unfortunately her style is not Lew Christensen’s or George Balanchine’s. It is a pity that she couldn’t replace Melissa Hayden when she dropped out of Ruth Page’s company. The Express Ballet descended from Kreutzberg is not my dish of tea precisely, but we do need at least one strong note of dissent from our current Neo-Classicism somewhere in this country.

Herb Barman’s band is playing this afternoon at the Marines’ Memorial Theater. If you missed the first two concerts and like brilliant big band jazz, be sure to take it in. It’s better than ever.

[May 28, 1961]



Summit Meeting

John Foster Dulles, a gentleman with whom I had little in common, was always opposed to summit meetings as a matter of principle. Here for once I am inclined to agree with him. I suppose they are now an unavoidable ritual binding on all important statesmen.

Maybe at the best they can be outward visible signs of inward political realities. As a matter of fact, if they really meant anything, their real meaning would be pretty frightening.

Russia and the United States are two enormous countries, the most powerful the world has ever seen. Their economies, their social organization, their internal ambitions and needs, real or imagined, are unbelievably complex. Resolutions of conflict in these areas are a matter for experts in both countries, aided by plenty of nonpartisans from Sweden or India. There is no way in which they could possibly be resolved by a few hours’ meeting between two professional politicians.

America and Russia are not two bad boys who have been clouting each other in the school yard and whose fathers can get together in the corner saloon over a can of beer and straighten everything out. The quarrel between the two countries is not a personal thing, and glamorous charades that personalize it only foster in both countries attitudes towards international relations that are, to begin with, major impediments to understanding. They are as unreal as the old-fashioned publicity office arranged marriages of movie stars. They may excite the fans, but it is precisely excited fans that we don’t want or need.

Mussolini and Hitler began these summit meetings on the eve of the war and the Big Three followed suit. In every case the implication is that the destiny of the world is safe in the hands of Our Leaders. It certainly isn’t. It isn’t in their hands, and if it were, it wouldn’t be safe, and it isn’t safe anyway.

Kid Kennedy and Wild Bill Khrushchev are going to start marching toward each other across the Wienerwald in the deathly chill of the Vienna noon while all the world cowers behind shuttered windows. Last time Wild Bill was quickest on the draw and popped a pigeon out of the sky before his opponent could reach his holster. [The U-2 incident.] This time he’s got a bunch of Bad Guys camped on the hill above the home ranch. Some of our waddies tried to bust it up, but they got run off. [The Bay of Pigs.] Who’s going to get the drop this time? Five-minute break for commercial.

Really. What has all this got to do with the price of eggs? The trouble is that men do make history. Economic forces, geopolitical considerations and so on may set the stage. But the stage of impersonal forces can be taken over by ambitious individuals and turned into melodrama or farce.

The President has let on that he doesn’t expect much. He’s just going to get acquainted. Suppose he doesn’t like Comrade Khrushchev? It’s politics personalized. Suppose they just take purely personal, thoroughly irrational dislikes to each other? Harry Truman used to say that he “liked” Stalin, who seems to have acted out his gruff old uncle role at Potsdam. Did that prevent the Korean War?

I wish these gentlemen would stay home and mind their knitting — their knitting and ours. I’d feel safer if 500 experts issued a million-word statistical report. It would be more comforting than tons of publicity photos of high level cocktail parties. And safer.

[May 31, 1961]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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