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Fidel Castro's offer to swap rebel prisoners for heavy-duty tractors has raised a strange debate, in which every speaker seems to vie for irrelevancy.
On the one side there are those like Richard Nixon, who declare that the tractor deal is blackmail--another disastrous loss of prestige for the U.S. Nixon's position is probably the sanest criticism of the Castro proposal, since Nixon is simply capitalizing on the American public's worry about its prestige abroad, a concern that cost Nixon votes in the recent campaign. But in the more extreme versions of this attempt to exploit Castro's offer by crying blackmail, there are ugly hints of another cry that one would prefer not to hear in American politics again: appeasement.
Scare rumors aid the scare mongers. Senator John McClellan reports that many of his constituents actually fear that the tractors will be used for "military purposes," a less-sophisticated version of the same hysteria that prompts Time to label the tractors "bulldozers"--an ogre word with a vaguely military sound. The National Review hints that Castro's tractors will immediately be shipped to Red China. And the darkese suspicion of all was voiced by a reader in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who said that henceforth American foreign policy would be directed by Walter Reuther.
On the other side of the debate there are those who consider this a chance for America to prove to the world that it values lives over tractors. At its elegant and ginger best, the New York Times led the way with an editorial whose policy was later put more colorfully by the Daily News: "From the humanitarian angle we may have to make this smelly deal." Agreeing that the "humanitarian angle" was what counted, Senator Humphrey insisted that the U.S. was demonstrating strength, not weakness, in acting to save the rebels.
In this debate, with the opportunists crying appeasement, the humanitarians concerned with looking kind in the eyes of the world, and all parties obsessed with saving face, the real reasons for applauding President Kennedy's encouragement of the exchange have been obscured. The government does have a moral obligation to save the lives of the rebels it sent to Cuba. Despite the failure of the Cuban invasion, and despite what one thinks of its intentions, the United States is directly responsible for the lives of the men it landed there. We sent them; we should ball them out.
The only humanitarian argument that has any validity is that the tractors will help the Cuban people. This has not been advanced by any of the image-inspired humanitarians in the debate so far, but--all questions of prestige aside--giving the Cubans tractors will unquestionably help feed Cubans. And feeding men, whatever their regime, is doing good.
Kennedy supporters assess Latin American reaction to the tractor deal as largely hostile to Fidel Castro, and believe that the U.S. has scored an unthinking propaganda coup. But whatever his critics or supporters decide, Kennedy was right to accept the offer. By spurning it, he would have been betraying the men the U.S. landed in Cuba, and giving Castro still another opportunity to remind Latin Americans of a fact that already know--that the burden of blame for Cuba today rests on the shoulders of the United States. Our pattern of denial must end now.
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