- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

Anyone who lived through the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, one of the most perilous moments in contemporary history, will find Sheldon M. Stern’s Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford University Press, $35, 459 pages) a real page-turner. In highly readable fashion it details the inside story based on Oval Office tapes of the 13 days that shook the world. On October 25 that year as a reporter at the United Nations, I witnessed the Security Council’s supercharged debating duel between Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador, and Valerian Zorin, the Soviet representative. But we knew little at the time of what was going on behind the scenes, such as Stevenson’s suggestion that the U.S. surrender the base at Guantanamo.

“Averting ‘The Final Failure’” is an extraordinary report on the day-by-day, hour-by-hour meetings of the Executive Committee (or ExCom), which was in permanent session with President Kennedy. The ExCom comprised the highest Cabinet officials, Kennedy’s personal staff and the CIA but, interestingly, rarely members of the Joint Chiefs. Kennedy had little confidence in military solutions to political crises, although the ExCom tapes make it clear that an attack on Soviet supply ships en route to Cuba was always on the Oval Office agenda. But to launch such an attack would have been a political decision.

What is so intriguing about these newly released tapes is to see how the ExCom participants behaved like ordinary mortals even as they and the American people faced extinction. They hadn’t the slightest idea of what was going on inside Nikita Khrushchev’s bald head. Nor apparently did the panicky Khrushchev have any idea what Kennedy and his advisers were up to. As I read this fascinating book one thing became apparent to me: Khrushchev’s 1962 defeat over Cuba was the beginning of the end for his rule (he was ousted by the Politburo two years later), and perhaps helped precipitate the early stages of the Soviet Union’s decline.

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By contrast, you get a sense of the politics of Thomas Doherty’s Cool War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism and American Culture (Columbia University Press, $27.95, 305 pages) when you note Mr. Doherty’s evaluation of the 1998 CNN 24-part documentary on the Cold War: It was “scrupulously nonpartisan and nonjudgmental, determined (at the personal directive of CNN President Ted Turner) to avoid any unsportsmanlike ‘triumphalism.’” This is non-judgmental?

Disagreeing with that assessment when the documentary aired were a number of prominent critics such as Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, Mark Falcoff, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Charles Krauthammer, Ronald Radosh and Mark Steyn. In 2000, I assembled articles by them and other writers in a volume I edited, entitled “CNN’s Cold War Documentary.” The volume included an essay by Mr. Doherty himself. Three years ago he wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “in avoiding ‘triumphalism’ [the documentary] too often forgets why the West had a rooting interest in the home team.”

The book itself has some illuminating comments about television as a “cool medium” and mini-biographies of some early television programs like “The Goldbergs.”

• • •

From politics and the media to the financial world: The Contrarian of Contrarians is the title I bestow on Joel M. Stern, co-author of Against the Grain: How to Succeed in Business by Peddling Heresy (John Wiley, $29.95, 221 pages). Or, perhaps, Mr. Stern is corporate America’s Heresiarch-in-Chief. With the aid of veteran author Irwin Ross, a graceful stylist, 62-year-old Mr. Stern explains how his Economic Value Added (EVA) concept has taught CEOs and CFOs a more realistic and even a more accurate method to measure corporate performance and, sometimes, even create shareholder wealth.

The Stern-Ross team has prepared a fascinating read on the great American theme: the “rags to riches” saga of the young man born to a middle-class family (in this case orthodox Jewish) who found no difficulty in combining religious observance with upward mobility. But as usual in such success stories, there is another hero, here an academic whose book became an explosive intellectual discovery. For Mr. Stern, the crucial book was Milton Friedman’s famous work, “Capitalism and Freedom,” whose pages “changed my life.”

While a good deal of this autobiography is purely anecdotal, there are aspects of “Against the Grain” which investors will find highly instructive, especially in these days when Wall Street has been at its shadiest. EVA is a simple concept and this book makes clear why it has become a powerful tool of stock analysis. There is, of course, still the problem of crooked balance sheets. But not even Mr. Stern with all his talents can do anything about that problem.

• • •

On a more somber note, just when you thought you had read the most harrowing Holocaust survivor’s memoir, another comes along which surpasses it. A Childhood under Hitler and Stalin: Memoirs of a “Certified Jew” by Michael Wieck (University of Wisconsin, $19.95, 293 pages), a bestseller in Germany and now beautifully translated by Penny Milbouer, is an eyewitness account of what happened to a young boy of mixed parentage (Jewish mother, Gentile father) in the East Prussian town of Koenigsberg. Obliterated by Allied fire-bombing during World War II, Koenigsberg, once the home of Immanuel Kant, was annexed by Moscow in 1945. It is today a Russian city called Kaliningrad, an ice-free port on the Baltic, geographically separated from the Russian border but an unshakeable part of the Russian Federation.

Mr. Wieck’s tragedy was double that of the ordinary victim. He was persecuted first by the Nazis as a “certified Jew,” and then as a German by the Russian occupiers who took over in victory. As a child Mr. Wieck, now 75 and a retired musician in Stuttgart, wore the Star of David and saw his aunts deported to the death camps. Yet on his father’s side of the family were Wehrmacht officers and even a dinner companion of Hitler.

What is unusual about this memoir is its account of the aftermath of the war, of what it was like to be 17 in postwar Soviet-occupied Koenigsberg when cannibalism became a way of life and rotten potatoes a gift from heaven. The Red Army was out to make the Germans pay, and pay they did. It’s a fascinating memoir — but not for the squeamish.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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