Robert Frost and the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Gerald Therrien

[The following is a transcript to Gerald’s recent lecture to the Rising Tide Foundation. To access the lecture format click below.]

I wanted to talk about Robert Frost – not about his poetry, but instead about his politics and about the year 1962 – the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was 60 years ago, and like 1962, we live in very dangerous times too. What had started as a civil war in eastern Ukraine, is now a military confrontation between Russia and NATO, that threatens us with the danger of nuclear war – a war that most of us won’t survive, and those that do survive, will wish they hadn’t. We have western leaders or ‘managers’, who talk about the limited use of nuclear weapons, and these same managers are opposed to having nuclear power plants in their country, but support having nuclear weapons placed in their country.

Now when I was growing up, I was taught the exact opposite – that we could have the peaceful use of atomic power, like Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, while we tried to stop the MAD-ness of a nuclear war. So, where have all those peace-lovers gone?

Well, today one of our problems is the arrogance of these managers in the west, that we’re not even allowed to question their decisions. Let’s say if you are opposed to Global NATO’s actions, or even if you’re trying not to take sides but somehow want to remain neutral, and only want there to be negotiations for peace, you would still be called a source of ‘enemy disinformation’. And your name might be put on a NATO-Ukrainian black list of the ‘Center for Countering Disinformation’ – like our friend Ray McGovern who spoke to us here at Rising Tide Foundation, a few weeks ago.

Oddly enough, another one of these black lists, is actually a hit list called ‘Myro-tvorets’ that is translated as ‘peacemaker’. I guess it means that any peacemaker gets put on this list. So, we need to rescue this word, peacemaker. Maybe we need to get rid of this myro-tvorets list, and make our own list of real peacemakers, who actually are fighting for world peace. There was a time when, to be a peacemaker, was thought of as something honorable, something to strive for. So now, I want to talk about one such peacemaker – the poet, Robert Frost. And to start, to just say a few words about who was Robert Frost.

Although Robert Frost is mostly associated with scenes of New England, he was born in San Francisco in 1874, when Ulysses Grant was President. His father, William Frost Jr., was a teacher, who later became the editor of the 4-page San Francisco Evening Bulletin. After his father’s death from tuberculosis when Robert was 11, his family moved back east under the care of his grandfather, William Frost Sr., who ran a mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Robert graduated from Lawrence High School in 1892, where his first published poem was in the high school magazine. After that, he worked at various jobs, but none of which he really liked, because he felt that poetry was his real calling. He sold his first poem, My Butterfly, to the New York Independent magazine in 1894 for $15, and because of this, he felt so confident and secure enough in his future, that he proposed marriage to Elinor White.

A few years later, he attended Harvard from 1897 to 1899 but left due to an illness. Afterwards, he settled and worked on a farm that his grandfather had bought for him and his wife in Derry, New Hampshire, while he worked on his poetry early in the morning, before starting his farm work. After six years, when his life as a farmer proved unsuccessful, he became an English teacher. After six years as a teacher and being discouraged that his poems would not find success in America, in 1912, he and his family moved to Beaconsfield, England, where he was able to have published his first book of poetry ‘A Boy’s Will’ in 1913 (when he was 38), and his second book of poetry ‘North of Boston’ in 1914.

In 1915, Robert returned to the United States, where his first two books of poetry were just being published, and the next year his third book of poetry ‘Mountain Interval’ was published. In 1917 he would become a teacher at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and later at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, before returning to Amherst College. Without having graduated from college, Robert would receive over 40 honorary university degrees, and he would write 6 more books of poetry: ‘New Hampshire’ in 1923, ‘West-Running Brook’ in 1928, ‘A Further Range’ in 1936, ‘A Witness Tree’ in 1942, ‘Steeple Bush’ in 1947, and ‘In the Clearing’ in 1962. He would also write two short dialogues – ‘The Masque of Reason’ in 1945, and ‘The Masque of Mercy’ in 1947.

In the Bible, the Book of Job has 42 chapters and the Masque of Reason is supposed to be a 43rd and final chapter for the Book of Job. The Masque of Mercy is about the Book of Jonah.

Every summer, starting in 1921 and for the next 40 years, Robert taught at the Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College in Vermont. In 1974 a wonderful book came out, “Robert Frost, A Living Voice’ by Reginald Cook, and part 2 of the book is transcriptions of some of these classes.

On January 20th 1961, Robert was asked to speak at the inauguration ceremony for President John F. Kennedy – he was the first poet to speak at an inauguration of a president. He had planned to read a poem that he had written just for this occasion, but he said, he couldn’t read his notes, because of the wind and the sun’s glare. So instead, he recited from memory his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’.

“The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were England’s, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.”

I just want to repeat a few lines, a few thoughts, from that poem:

‘Such as we were, we gave ourselves outright’, to that land of living, ‘Such as she was, such as she would become’.

Doesn’t this remind us of those words from Kennedy’s own inauguration speech that he gave that very same day. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”, that is, what can I give as a gift ‘outright’, meaning without any ifs ands or buts, what can I give as a gift for the common good?

So, when you read Kennedy’s inauguration speech, read Frost’s inauguration poem too, and see the connection. One year later, on March 26th 1962, on Robert’s 88th birthday, his last book of poetry ‘In the Clearing’, was published, and it contained ‘For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration’ that he had wanted to recite at the inauguration. And that very same day, President John Kennedy bestowed upon Robert Frost the Congressional Gold Medal – “in recognition of his poetry which has enriched the culture of the United States and the philosophy of the world”.

Perhaps by learning more about Robert Frost, we can learn more about the culture of the United States, and the real soul of America, the good and the bad – ‘such as she was, such as she would become’ – what makes America, America – the America in the Gift Outright, of a manifest destiny of giving, not of taking.

[To know more about this correct meaning of Manifest Destiny, you have to read Matt Ehret’s books ‘The Clash of the Two Americas’, especially volume 3 – ‘The Birth of a Eurasian Manifest Destiny’.]

So far, all this sounds like a wonderful life, with a happy ending, but wait, this is right where our story starts – ‘the part where the adventure begins’!

In the summer of 1962, American nuclear missiles were being installed in Turkey, and Soviet nuclear missiles were being installed in Cuba. While some of President Kennedy’s cabinet and his military advisors were proposing a full-scale invasion of Cuba, this would most likely have caused a military response from Premier Khrushchev to repel the invasion.

The question was, would this then escalate into a nuclear world war? President Kennedy, with the agreement of the Organization of American States, instead launched a ‘quarantine’ of the island of Cuba, (sort of a special military operation, one could say) and secret negotiations began between Kennedy and Khrushchev, negotiations that could only work if the two leaders could trust and understand each other.

There are two books that I’d recommend. One book is told from the American side by Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother, ‘13 Days’ that was published posthumously in 1969, the year after Robert Kennedy died. The second book is told from the Russian side by Sergei Khrushchev, volume 3 of the ‘Memoirs’ of his father Premier Nikita Khrushchev, that was published in 2007, before Sergei died in 2020.

Earlier, one evening in May 1962, Robert Frost was invited to dinner at the home of Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior, along with Anatoly Dobrynin, and at that dinner it was proposed that there should be a cultural exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, of one American poet and of one Soviet poet. Robert thought that these cultural exchanges were the way towards a real understanding between the two nations. President Kennedy wanted him to be the American poet sent to Moscow, and the 88-year-old Frost would agree.

Robert wrote to President Kennedy on July 24th to accept the president’s request that

I have been having a lot of historical parallels lately: a big one between Caesar’s imperial democracy that made so many millions equal under arbitrary power and the Russian democracy. Ours is a more Senatorial democracy like the Republic of Rome. I have thought I saw the Russian and American democracies drawing together, theirs easing down from a kind of abstract severity to taking less and less care of the masses: ours creeping up to taking more and more care of the masses as they grew innumerable. I see us becoming the two great powers of the modern world in noble rivalry … This is the way we are one world, as you put it, of independent nations interdependent – the separateness of the parts as important as the connection of the parts.

Robert never used the word ‘coexistence’, he used this word ‘rivalry’, of a ‘noble rivalry’ between Russia and the United States – “our countries are rivals in magnanimity” (i.e. in noble spirit). What a brilliant conception – so missing in western leaders today – rivals in noble spirit, rivals in the common aims of mankind. This concept of a different kind of nobility is not based on blood lines, but is a nobility based on being noble in spirit, being magnanimous, a concept that’s against that blood and soil dogma of the clash of cultures, the clash of civilizations.

[A good description of Russia’s noble spirit is found in Cynthia Chung’s article of Pushkin, ‘The Russian Poet of Freedom’.]

Udall would tell Robert “how important it could be in helping to shape a fresh, peaceful attitude between the Russians and ourselves”. The Soviets would agree that while in Russia, Robert could talk openly and candidly about anything that he chose to. Robert was very hopeful that he would be able to talk with Premier Khrushchev, but he wouldn’t let on what he wished to say to him (except maybe to the President). Robert thought the exchange of poets between countries was more useful than the conversation of diplomats, it brings kindred spirits together.

Robert was accompanied by his friend Fred Adams, director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, and by the poet and professor of Russian literature, Franklin Reeve, who served as Robert’s Russian translator and who wrote a wonderful book about the trip ‘Robert Frost in Russia’ in 1964.

[All quotes that I use here, are taken from this book: Robert Frost in Russia, by Franklin Reeve]

[At Moscow airport, Alexander Tvardovsky, Robert Frost, Stewart Udall, and Franklin Reeve.]

On August 29th 1962 at the press conference upon his arrival in Moscow, Robert would tell the Russians that

“I’m here to talk with you about science, art, athletics, great music, and of course, poetry. We admire each other, don’t we? Great nations admire each other and don’t take pleasure in belittling each other. Petty, small talking down … You’ve got to have power to protect the language, to protect the poetry in it. You’ve got to be strong to protect poetry. Poetry’s the most national of the arts, not so much painting or music. A great nation makes great poetry, and great poetry makes a great nation. It works both ways.”

[Today, the present Regime in Ukraine considers the Russian language ‘an element of enemy propaganda’, while the Russian government has said that any attempts to ban the Ukrainian language in Russia were illegal.]

Robert was well received in Russia, translations of his poems were printed almost daily in the papers, poets were writing encomiums [praises] of him, and the press was reporting everything he did.

Robert wasn’t at all interested in any sight-seeing, but in meeting and talking with writers, novelists, and poets – including with the poet Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor of New World, with the poet Alexei Surkov, the secretary of the Writers Union, with the novelist Konstantin Paustovsky, with the writer of children’s verses Kornei Chukovsky, with the poet Evgeny Evtushenko, with the poet Konstantin Simonov, with the poet Anna Akhmatova, and with the translators of his poetry in Russian, Mikhail Zenkevich, Andrei Sergeyev and Ivan Kashkin.

[Robert Frost and Evgeny Evtushenko at Café Aelita.]

Robert was invited to read his poems at a packed auditorium at the Pushkin House in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and at the Foreign Literature Library in Moscow, saying

“Our two countries, mine and yours, are great nations, and it’s the duty of great nations to compete and see who’s going to produce the greatest ruler. We won’t call them kings anymore. You can always tell a great ruler if he’s a dreamer, if he’s got a lot of dreamer in him.”

Robert would read his poems to hundreds, would reach thousands through reports in the papers, and would be seen by millions on TV. After a dinner with some Russian poets, the Literary Gazette would carry a report of that evening in a poem written by Evgeny Evtushenko, called ‘Robert Frost in the Café Aelita’:

There’s America the Pentagon,

   there’s America the raftsman!

There’s America the show-off

   like a second-rate farce.

There’s the America of Frost

   and that’s not hot air!

There he is – aren’t I right?

   with farmerish cunning.

Robert Frost is the President

   of the real America!

And I know that by right

   for his being so natural

   all the grasses selected

   him as the candidate.

These elections weren’t like

   the others at all.

He was picked by the florets

   and the dew-covered glades.

The wheat was a voter,

   and so were the woods.

And he got all the ballots

   of the songs of the birds!

Like the essence of truth

   he was born from the earth.

He was chosen by trees

   and confirmed by the rain!

… It’s hot; the hall’s jammed.

We’re quiet like children.

He’s at the Café Aelita

   reading us poems.

Gray-headed he’s speaking

   not from a position of strength

   but from a position of blue

   above the green earth.

And without laying it on

   I simply toast

The Frosts still to come

   And you, Robert Frost.

[Judging by this poem, the Russians really loved this guy!]

[Robert Frost and Nikita Khrushchev]

Robert was finally able to meet Premier Khrushchev at his dacha at Gagra, in the Republic of Abkhazia, but by then Frost felt extremely ill, possibly caused by indigestion and the strain of so much travelling. Khrushchev sent his own personal doctor to his room to check on him, and then he came to his room himself and sat in a chair while Robert sat on his bed, and they talked, at first about art and poetry and about the artist’s relation to his society, and that the morality of politicians determined their merit, that the top thing a government could bestow was character, and that this was the poet’s role in government.

Then the conversation moved into politics and about a way for working out an East-West understanding. Robert made his ‘modest proposal’ for re-uniting the two halves of Berlin – he was worried of the possibility that bickering over Berlin might provoke a huge war between the two countries. Khrushchev proposed that the Americans consider establishing Berlin as a free city, garrisoned by UN troops, and with access guaranteed to the Russians. Robert said that Germany wouldn’t be a threat if it was united and demilitarized, but Khrushchev criticized NATO for allowing the resurgence of Nazism in West Germany, and that if they really wanted peace, then sign a peace treaty – he said that Kennedy himself had said that he wanted to sign a peace treaty but couldn’t because of conditions at home.

Robert Frost and Nikita Khrushchev talked together for an hour and a half, before they shook hands goodbye. Frost deeply admired Khrushchev – “he’s our enemy and he’s a great man”, and in a press conference later he called him a ‘ruffian’ and the press misinterpreted him and wrote as if he had called him a bully.

Frost was against this nonsense of the so-called rugged individualism, this Teddy Roosevelt fraud, and he didn’t like Carl Sandburg either. But “he meant the word [ruffian] in a Vermont sense of praise for the energetic, audacious and virile man who comes down from the hills on Saturday night and has the courage and skill to pick the town up by the scruff of the neck”. Like telling people to stop the nonsense, cut it out. Something we would call ‘valor’. And, Khrushchev said he thought Frost had the “soul of a poet”.

Later when Robert was asked if he planned to visit Russia again, he replied, “yes, when I’m older and wiser”.

Four months after he had returned from his mission to Russia, Robert Frost passed away on January 28th 1963. I can only guess all that work and travelling, and the pressure and stress took its toll on that 88-year-old body. After his death, Amherst College held a ground-breaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library in October 1963, and at that ceremony, President Kennedy gave a eulogy of Frost, about the purpose of poetry.

“… When power leads man toward arrogance,

poetry reminds him of his limitations.

When power narrows the areas of man’s concern,

poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.

When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,

for art establishes the basic human truths

which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality,

becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility

against an intrusive society and an officious state …”

One month later, President Kennedy would be assassinated and the America, under Kennedy, that Khrushchev had found a common understanding with, was gone and the crazies around the Dulles brothers regained control. A year later Premier Khrushchev would be ousted, and a split between Soviet Russia and Mao’s China engineered. The Great Game was back on. Perhaps this is what today’s Ukrainian Missile Crisis is really all about?

But somehow, at that critical moment in the course of human events, these men were able to steer the world in the right direction, away from war and toward peace – with an unwritten agreement of trust.

And Robert Frost played an important role in doing just that. Here’s a quote from an article ‘How My Father and President Kennedy Saved the World’ by Sergei Khrushchev.

“However detailed the information the White House got

from its intelligence sources and diplomats,

the President based his final decision on his idea of conduct in the Kremlin.

That is the crux of the matter.

People invariably think in terms of their own traditions, their own culture,

which may have nothing in common with the other party’s way of thinking.

Furthermore, a leader will trust his own intuition

more than all the intelligence agencies in the world.

Otherwise, he would not be a leader.”

Here’s a quote from ’13 Days’ by Robert Kennedy

“The final lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is

the importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes.

During the crisis President Kennedy spent more time trying to determine

the effect of a particular course of action on Khrushchev or the Russians

than on any other phase of what he was doing.

What guided all his deliberations was an effort not to disgrace Khrushchev,

not to humiliate the Soviet Union, not to have them feel they would have to escalate their response because their national security or national interests so committed them.”

[Robert Frost and John  Kennedy]

I really like this picture – with Frost and Kennedy talking and standing under a portrait of John Quincy Adams.

It’s like a great painting that picks a defining moment in life, that looks back on the good from the past, and also looks towards what could be the good in the future. It’s poetry in politics.

Maybe by Frost showing Khrushchev that the real America was not the crazies around the Dulles brothers, and maybe by Frost showing Kennedy how the Russians really thought and what the Russian character was made of. Because to be a peacemaker, to understand the true character of your rival, you have to try and see what’s noble in them that you’re trying to make peace with.

And, I think, that is why poets, like Robert Frost, should be the unacknowledged peacemakers of the world. And someday, I hope, we all can make it onto that list of peacemakers, the real peacemakers, the true peacemakers, like Robert Frost, and “the Frosts still to come”.

Also, for more reading about Frost’s poetry, please see thechainedmuse.com, and read the articles:

Beyond the Lines, by David Gosselin, and

Profiles in Poetry: Robert Frost, by Adam Sedia.

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