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The Best and Worst of Our Government

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

There are two prominent, and unusual, stories in this issue of Cigar Aficionado. The first is a Kevin Costner profile that revolves around his new movie, to be released in December, called Thirteen Days, a docudrama about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The second is an exclusive interview with E. Howard Hunt, the former Cold War CIA operative who played key roles in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the Watergate scandal, among other actions. You might say these stories are small windows into some of the best and worst moments in our nation's history.

In Thirteen Days, we are reminded how the administration of President John F. Kennedy was faced with a truly global crisis; it was the closest mankind has ever come to an all-out nuclear war. On one side, the U.S. military brass argued for a quick strike on Cuba to take out Soviet nuclear missile bases built there. On the other side, more restrained voices, mostly politicians and civilian appointees, countered that such a course of action would almost certainly lead to a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. The nation went on full alert as U.S. warships imposed a naval blockade around Cuba. In the end, through behind-the-scenes diplomacy and resistance to the hawks, there was no war.  

The lessons of those two weeks should remind us that at one critical moment in history, John and Robert Kennedy made decisions that, in retrospect, saved our country from a devastating war, and perhaps saved the world from catastrophe. (It wasn't until 1992 that American politicians and historians learned that the Soviet commander in Cuba during those tense days had authorization to fire tactical nuclear missiles, already on the island, in response to an American invasion.) It was a shining moment for our Constitution and the wisdom of our forefathers, who gave ultimate military authority to a civilian president, elected by the people. It should remind us that we are a nation of laws.  

The E. Howard Hunt story is a reminder that our government doesn't always act in such honorable ways. This article is virtually the only time since the mid-1970s, when Mr. Hunt was indicted, convicted and imprisoned for his role in Watergate, that he has spoken at length about his career. He remains unrepentant. But his roles in the Bay of Pigs invasion and other CIA operations serve as guideposts to policy disasters by an organization that for too long remained virtually unchecked by civilian oversight, or, at times, was wrongly encouraged by various administrations. Moreover, the CIA Cold War mentality, embodied in Mr. Hunt, that all laws can be subverted, whether in other nations or at home, may have played a key role in Watergate's unfolding.  

Mr. Hunt's interview should be a lesson to all of us that we should never take our government for granted. We cannot abdicate our role as participants in our democracy in the naïve belief that our government always acts in our best interests. In any democracy, government is only as strong as its people, and if we, the people, don't pay attention and don't get involved, there are no guarantees that our government will remain true to its constitutional obligations. In a very real sense, we are the guardians who will ensure that our government has more moments like the successful conclusion to Thirteen Days, and fewer like the sad end to Watergate.

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