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TRB from Washington: Matters for Mencken

How H.L. Mencken would have skipped his paunchy knee and twinkled his china-blue eyes in cynical rapture over the Neutron bomb as another example of human folly. Really, the thing is wasted without Mencken around. The Neutron bomb, you see, is small, it’s “clean”; it’s teensy-weensy; it’s a cutrate H-bomb that kills all the people in the neighborhood with radiation but lacks the punch to destroy buildings. How economical. What a weapon tor cleaning out cities. And what a plaything for the generals.

At last we have invented a humane bomb: humane to buildings. Mencken would have kicked up his short legs in sardonic relish over man’s new absurdity.

Is it that there are more of these Menckensque touches nowadays, or does it just seem that way? (I remember interviewing Senator Homer Capehart at Wendell Willkie’s acceptance speech along with Mencken and, I think, Turner Catledge, out in the wilds of Elwood, Indiana. Capehart was in charge of the sanitary facilities and boasted of his woodshed structures, “everyone a 100-holer,” he said, complacently; and Mencken could hardly wait to get outside to rub his hands over this addition to the American language. But Capehart’s buildings were hardly adequate and Rabelaisian scenes followed for the crowd of 100,000 in the high grass. Ah well.

Most Americans consider our system superior to that of the Russians (which it is), of course. Why can’t Russians accept our goodness of heart; why do (hey have to raise such a howl at the thought of these “enhanced-radiation warhead” N-bombs, propelled by Lance missiles or heavy artillery? We are discussing SALT disarmament, but so what? The Russians always have a good deal of trouble understanding us; some even argue that our proposed humane N-bombs are akin to outlawed poison gas.

Or take another example: take abortions. In the United States the way the Supreme Court and Congress are working it out the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection of laws are going to allow women who want abortions and who can pay for them to have them legally in hospitals, the poor women who can’t pay for them from Medicaid funds must either have the unwanted child (as another recruit to welfare rolls) or must submit to some back-alley, kitchen-table, witch doctor. How different the Russian approach. In the absence of birth control in Russia, abortion is the most widely used method of preventing unwanted children, as it is in China, Stalin made abortions illegal in 1936 but abortion-on-demand was legalized again in 1955. The Russians probably will ridicule the confused situation in the United States and try to make it seem as though there were some kind of discrimination against the poor.

Only Mencken could do justice to the American government’s campaign to assassinate a string of small country’s leaders we didn’t like, implacably spread on the record in September 1075 by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Some taxpayers object to having their money used. A few are always squeamish. It’s all on the record, Richard Bissell was chief of covert operations for the CIA, with a small section known as “Executive Action.” The Senate committee documents eight of our attempts against Fidel Castro, and Castro says there were 24 (but you know how he exaggerates everything). One idea was to dust his shoes with powder to make his beard fall out; another was to impregnate his cigars with LSD to make him babble when making a speech and thus discredit him. The secret program began under Eisenhower; Jack Kennedy probably knew of the attempts on Castro and Robert Kennedy certainly did; Bill Moyers reviewed the whole thing last month in an extraordinary one hour CBS documentary. Besides these jolly efforts to discredit Castro in a rather nice way there were the straight-out murder attempts, such as our government used against eight foreign leaders, of whom five died violent deaths, A couple of handy Mafia murderers were enlisted by Robert Maheu (later to show up in Watergate)—Roselli, Giancana and Trafficante.

A cobra venom and a lethal shellfish toxin was distilled, an ingenious fountain pen was invented by the “Technical Services Division” that propelled a tiny poison pin; a slight prick in the skin, 2/10 of a milligram and, poof, no Castro. You and 1 paid for it; we were the employers. It will go down in history for antiquarians to relish for centuries to come that .at the moment Kennedy was assassinated by the wicked killer in Dallas, a CIA official in Paris was meeting with a Cuban spy (probably a double agent) to whom we had methodically contracted out the job to killing Castro. (If you doubt this you might look up the Senate report, or read David Wise’s excellent, highly documented book, The American Police State; Random House, 1976.)

Let us leave Mencken for more immediate affairs. Have you wondered how one nation “signals” another? Come into a downtown hotel where there are 35 reporters, two secret service men and the Secretary of State. Secretary Vance is speaking on the is speaking on the record with a directness I can’t recall from Dean Acheson on. He waves away breakfast (cantaloupe, two fried eggs, three small sausages, fried potatoes and rolls); he discusses world affairs. Middle East? Prime Minister Begin should agree to negotiations without pre-conditions. Cuba? We should continue the dialogue. China? He’s going there the week of August 20, “we seek full normalization.” Congress? It’s a “mistake” to reject international institutional aid for small countries because of their politics, it ties the President’s hands. SALT talks? “I think it’s unlikely that we will reach agreement before the October 3 expiration date of the interim agreement.”’

That last grabs reporters’ attention; it tells how bright hopes have deteriorated. Then comes the signal: a reporter recalls that just before taking office President Carter said he intended to meet Party leader Brezhnev by September. Will they meet, he asks? “It will depend on the willingness of Mr. Brezhnev,” signals Vance carefully, and elaborates. That’s the invitation. Vance, mild, ruddy faced, attractive, with droll smile, uses his glasses as Arthur Burns uses his pipe: he plays with them, taps them, looks over them never looks through them.

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977, issue of the magazine.