In 1976 I was in my final weeks as a Yale undergraduate, drinking coffee from a fire hose and hopelessly anxious that I would ever graduate.
The final obstacle to my diploma was a senior thesis. As the clock wound down, who stood in my way was a post doctoral assistant professor in the political science department from South Korea.
I was a Chinese language major. Yale, at the time, was the quiet feeder for bright, young people ready to serve the nation. As a Chinese language major, I was in the running.
In my senior thesis I attempted a point of view unpopular in certain circles. Namely, that the US State Department failed to parse the difference between Mao and Stalin during the early 1930's, and this miscalculation reverberated all the way to the Second World War.
With a little more worldliness, I might have taken a different approach, since a South Korean recipient of Yale's support was unlikely to be sympathetic to this version of history.
Memory of this distant event flooded back while reading the recent article in Foreign Policy by William LeoGrande, "The Cuba Lobby". Mr. LeoGrande begins his essay, lamenting the bureaucratic inertia that has stymied US foreign policy to Cuba with the China example:
"A wasteland." That's how W. Averell Harriman described the State Department's Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs when he took it over for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. "It's a disaster area filled with human wreckage.… Some of them are so beaten down they can't be saved. Some of those you would want to save are just finished. They try and write a report and nothing comes out. It's a terrible thing." As David Halberstam recounts in "The Best and the Brightest", the destruction of the State Department's expertise on Asia was the result of the China Lobby's decade-long assault on everyone, from professors to Foreign Service officers, who disputed the charge that communist sympathizers in the United States had "lost China."
LeoGrande goes on to lament the influence of the Cuba lobby in the inner workings of the state department, through junior staffers and into the ranks of political appointees. He ends his piece wondering if President Obama will have the courage to do what Nixon did in China, in 1972.
A visit to Havana by President Obama would do a great deal to exorcise the ghosts of a policy that has served neither American nor Cuban interests.