Monday, May 17, 2010

A Dramatic Day

Until recently, if anyone thought of Oct. 15, 1969, it probably was in connection with the World Series, which was known at the time — and is still remembered today — as the triumph of the Miracle Mets, the Amazin' New York Mets, over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.

October 15 wasn't the day that the Mets wrapped up their improbable championship — that happened the next day — but it may have been the day when the Mets' triumph became all but official.

On that day, the teams met in the fourth game of the World Series. The Mets held a two games to one advantage. After dropping the opener on Oct. 11, the Mets got a narrow win in Game 2 and a 5–0 victory in Game 3 and entered Game 4 with the chance to build a 3–1 lead, which has been virtually insurmountable in the annals of World Series competition.

Oct. 15, 1969, was a controversial day. For one thing, it was Moratorium Day, a global demonstration against American involvement in Vietnam. The mayor of New York (where Game 4 was to be played) ordered flags flown at half–staff in honor of all who had died in Vietnam, but the commissioner of baseball, in an apparent effort to keep the Series out of the political debate, said the American flag would be flown at full staff during the game.

That wasn't all, though. A photograph of Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, who lost the opener to Baltimore, was used in antiwar literature that was circulated outside New York's Shea Stadium that day — even though Seaver insisted the photograph had been used without his permission.

Seaver was slated to pitch on October 15 as well. He shut Baltimore out through eight innings, then yielded a run in the ninth and the game went to a 10th inning, when the Mets scored the winning run. They clinched the championship with a 5–3 victory the next day.

For the most part, public attention was devoted to Moratorium Day and the fourth game of the World Series on Oct. 15, 1969. I know of nothing that President Richard Nixon said about the World Series, but he did say that, while activities like Moratorium Day were expected from antiwar activists, "under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it."

Nixon's actions in Vietnam were, indeed, apparently unaffected by the massive protests, but, within the last week, we have heard, through England's Telegraph, of actions that Nixon apparently took to prevent a nuclear war on that day.

The Telegraph reports that a Chinese historian claims that, on Oct. 15, 1969, the Soviets were about to launch a nuclear strike against China but were dissuaded by Nixon's assurance that, if they did, the United States was prepared to attack more than 100 Russian cities, thereby starting World War III.

If that is true — and I have no reason to think it is not — it may lend some credence to a scene from Oliver Stone's 1990s biopic "Nixon," in which Nixon, Henry Kissinger and other Nixon advisers discussed foreign policy over dinner on the presidential yacht.

In the movie, Nixon talked about playing Russia and China against each other and using "triangular diplomacy" to get better diplomatic deals from each. Introducing the nuclear option may have been a high–stakes way to nudge each into doing as he wanted.

Nixon played hardball, as his handling of the Watergate scandal clearly demonstrated. In spite of extremely vocal opposition in this country to American involvement in Vietnam, Nixon followed his own course, initiating a policy that was, if anything, even bloodier than the approach that had been taken by the much–reviled Johnson administration, and he always claimed that, if he had not resigned the presidency, the Americans never would have been driven from Saigon less than a year after he relinquished power.

But perhaps there was more to it than that.

I was never an admirer of Nixon, but one thing was clear to me when he was alive and has become even more so in the years since his death. Things were never simply one way with Nixon. He was calculating, yes. He was manipulative. He was paranoid and secretive, and writer Richard Reeves may well have been correct when he observed that Nixon "assumed the worst in people, and he brought out the worst in them."

Nixon's personality may have been predisposed to wreck his presidency, but there were also aspects of his character that seemed to make him more empathetic than normally would be expected from someone who has often been described as a narcissist.

Perhaps Nixon was offended by the Soviet Union's belligerence, its reckless approach to the use of nuclear power only seven years after the Cuban missile crisis.

Even a narcissist may have a sense of what he/she believes to be correct — if only because it violates the narcissist's view of his/her role in events.

As a young man, Nixon was quite a poker player. During his time in the Navy in World War II, Nixon won enough money playing poker to finance his successful 1946 campaign for a House seat. Perhaps he felt that the Russians were forcing him to reveal his hand so he upped the ante.

The real truth may never be known.

But it is a fact that neither the Soviets nor the Chinese — nor, as a result, the Americans — used nuclear weapons on Moratorium Day 1969.

The only bombshells that week came in the world of baseball.

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