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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Drew Pearson, the sequel

In 2006, I did a long piece here about one of my favorite books, the diaries of newspaper columnist Drew Pearson from 1949 through 1959.  Pearson was probably the single most famous and influential journalist of the middle third of the twentieth century.  He and his one time partner, Robert Allen, created a sensation in 1932 with their anonymous book, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, which combined a scathing portrayal of the federal government in general and the Hoover administration in particular with a great deal of high-level Washington gossip. (Pearson at the time was related by marriage to the Patterson family, which owned the Washington Post.)  He lost his job after his authorship was revealed, but The Washington Merry-Go-Round became a seven-day-a-week column that was carried by more than 600 newspapers around the country as late as the 1960s.  He also became a network radio broadcaster and did some television broadcasting as well.  The stories he broke included General Patton's slapping of an enlisted man in a hospital in Sicily during the Second World War, the payroll padding and kickbacks by the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities committee, J. Parnell Thomas, which landed Thomas in jail, and the payments accepted from industrialist Bernard Goldfine by Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams--and dozens more.  Jack Anderson began his career with Pearson and eventually became his collaborator, and took over the column after Pearson's death in 1969. 

Pearson had begun keeping his diary in 1949 and left instructions in his will for his stepson Tyler Abell to publish them, and to edit them "not from the viewpoint of what willhurt people, but wha tmight hurt the public good."  In the preface to the first volume, which appeared in 1974, Abell indicated that he had had to make very large cuts in the enormous diary.  He anticipated two more volumes at that time, which extrapolating from the length of volume 1 would have amounted to more that 1600 pages.  That, however, he wrote, would be only about 1/3 of the total.

Somehow I missed the publication of the diary in 1974, but I discovered it in the 1980s and have eagerly looked forward to more of it ever since. By the 1990s Tyler Abell had given most (but not all) of the original to the LBJ Library in Austin, but under terms that did not allow researchers to view it.  Some key passages from the 1960s were released in the 1990s in response to the JFK Assassination Records Act, because they bore upon the assassination of JFK and its aftermath.  At some point in the 1990s I wrote Abell a letter protesting that his father-in-law would be most unhappy to know that most of his diary was still closed, but I received no reply.  Just last month I was in Austin giving a talk at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and I contacted the library again to see about access. The original remains closed, but when I did a google search I found, to my amazement, that the University of Nebraska Press had published a second volume on 1959-69 just two years ago.  It received only one visible review, in The New Yorker, which I had missed. Within a week, I had a copy, and I have now finished it.

I do wish that I could have made contact with Abell and edited the book myself.  In place of the two volumes of about 500 pages each that Abell had foreseen in the early 1970s, we now have one of 700 pages of diary text.  The published volume is a bit unbalanced: its first five years (1960-4) take up just 278 pages and the next four take up more than 400.  (The diary doesn't get very far into 1969 because of Pearson's failing health.)  Oddly, some of the material that was released by the LBJ Library in the 1990s is not included, but at least one very important entry bearing on the JFK assassination from 1967 is in the published version even though it was not released then.  The book is edited by Peter Hannaford, a long-time Washington consultant and friend of Abell's, and I can't say that he did a particularly good job.  He did not, unlike Abell, make much of an effort to identify the players or to to provide necessary background in the midst of the text so as to enable readers to understand long-forgotten parts of the story.  Many names are misspelled and some people are misidentified. Carmine Bellino, to cite one example, was an investigator who had worked for Robert Kennedy, not a Congressman as alleged here.  There is relatively little material on the election campaigns of 1960 and 1964, compared to what Abell had published in 1952 and 1956 and what we find here on 1968.  Pearson was not merely a columnist--he was a Washington player who promoted his favorite candidates and causes.  He supported Lyndon Johnson over JFK in 1960 but that story is largely untold here.  It is tragic that the full ms. remains unavailable to researchers at the LBJ Library.  The editor unfortunately also failed to include any reaction at all to the Supreme Court decision, New York Times vs. Sullivan, that provided new protection for journalists tried with libel suits.  Pearson was the king libel law, having faced literally dozens of suits, trying many, and losing only one.  There is indeed a whole book devoted to the suits with which he and Jack Anderson had to deal.

I did not think that this volume told as coherent a story of the period it dealt with as its predecessor until 1965 or so, but it was filled with fascinating detail nonetheless.  A good deal of it is salacious. Pearson loved gossip, and he identifies previously unknown girl friends of JFK, LBJ, Robert Kennedy, and Barry Goldwater, among others.  He also goes in some detail into the emotional collapse of Phil Graham, the husband of Katherine Graham and editor of the Washington Post, which led to Graham's suicide in the summer of 1963.  But the bulk of the material reflects Pearson's policy interests and political stance.   He was a New Deal liberal domestically who fought corruption and the influence of money on politics, and he continually sought better relations with the Soviet Union and a durable peace.  As a result, he visited the USSR and had long interviews with Nikita Khrushchev more than once, and they are detailed here. 

Pearson had strong personal likes and dislikes, but they did not prevent him from appreciating what political figures actually said and did.  He was initially very cool to John F. Kennedy because he had disliked his father and he referred repeatedly to Kennedy's compulsive womanizing, which he expected sooner or later to end in scandal.  He had as I mentioned tried to stop Kennedy's nomination in Los Angeles in 1960 but he immediate praised him for a "great acceptance speech" and warmed to him during the campaign.  Late in that campaign, he broke another of his biggest stories: that airline magnate Howard Hughes had lent Richard Nixon's brother Donald $206,000.  That was one of many of his columns that the Washington Post and other papers refused to print.  The diary notes that the Kennedy campaign, confident of victory in the last two weeks of the campaign, decided not to do antying with it either, and they may have paid the price when Nixon carried California and turned the election into a squeaker.  Pearson was also very unhappy during 1961 when Kennedy turned to hard liner Dean Acheson for advice on the Berlin crisis and started a military build-up, but he warmed to Kennedy's efforts to bring about detente with the USSR in the last year of his life.  He never, however, warmed to Robert Kennedy, whom he remembered from his days as minority counsel on the Senate committee chaired by Joe McCarthy, a critical Pearson antagonist, and whom he regarded as cold and a ruthless campaigner. 

Pearson's relationship with Lyndon Johnson provides much of the drama of the last 2/3 of the book.  In the 1950s Pearson had often been critical of Johnson as a conduit for the money and influence of Texas oil barons, but in the 1960s they developed a family connection.  Tyler Abell's wife Bess became Lady Bird Johnson's social secretary, and after Johnson became President he appointed Tyler Abell assistant postmaster general. Pearson had interviewed FDR from time to time, had been estranged from Harry Truman for most of his turbulent  presidency, and had never been close to Eisenhower or Kennedy.  Johnson was the first President to whom he had frequent access.

Pearson's personal ties to Johnson were not enough to turn him into a loyal supporter, particularly when it came to the Vietnam War, which the columnist opposed from the beginning.  Johnson repeatedly invited him to the White House for a chat in an effort to win him over.  The diaries provide a revealing glimpse of Johnson's one-on-one technique: he delivered nonstop emotional harangues, which gave his interlocutor almost no opportunity to dissent. He could not win Pearson over on Vietnam but he successfully fooled him about certain aspects of his position.  Neither Pearson nor anyone else in Washington outside the Administration understood that Johnson had approved full-scale war in Southeast Asia in early December 1964 and given the word for both the bombing and the ground war in March 1965, as I showed in American Tragedy.  Until 1966 he bought Johnson's line that he was hoping for peace talks at any moment while doing the minimum necessary militarily.  After that, the book painfully documents the way in which the war destroyed the Democratic coalition that had been put together by FDR, Truman, JFK and Johnson himself, the coalition that reached the height of its power after the 1964 elections but disintegrated thanks to the Vietnam War, leaving Hubert Humphrey with 43% of the vote in 1968 compared to Johnson's 60% in 1964.  He also has insightful things to say about changes within the civil rights movement, and the diary includes some extraordinary conversations with the comedian and activist Dick Gregory, whom Pearson had come to know well.

The published volume treats the 1968 election campaign in great detail.  Pearson was one of the few to speculate in 1967 that LBJ might not run again.  "Maybe he isn't going to run again," Leonard Marks, the head of the US Information Agency and a Johnson confidante, said to Pearson on November 10, 1967. "This may be true," Pearson wrote in his diary. "He has acted and talked like a candidate, but he coudl do what Harry Truman did in spring 1952, after Kefauver beat him in the New Hampshire primary and was about to beat him in the Wisconsin primary. Harry just bowed out."  That, of course, was exactly what Johnson did do after Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a peace candidate, nearly beat Johnson in New Hampshire and was clearly destined to win in Wisconsin.  Pearson liked McCarthy and was not impressed by Robert Kennedy's decision to jump into the race after McCarthy had proven LBJ to be vulnerable, after previously saying that he would not run.  Indeed, Pearson hurt RFK during the primary season by publishing the story of how he, not J. Edgar Hoover, had insisted on wiretapping Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, after Courtney Evans of the FBI had advised against it.  (The FBI showed Pearson the memo that proved this, which was published about 15 years later by David Garrow.)  According to the editor, Pearson's immediate reaction to RFK's assassination is missing from the diary; I hope eventually to be able to verify whether it is lost forever.  Pearson remained sympathetic to McCarthy but fell behind Humbert Humphrey after the Democratic convention, while trying, together with Averell Harriman and George Ball, to move Humphrey away from the Administration position on Vietnam. Humphrey moved, but only slightly. 

Thanks to both LBJ and Humphrey, Pearson was denied a scoop of potential historical impact.  Right up until election day, Pearson found it hard to believe that Richard Nixon could become President.  He had always been, in his estimation, a crook, and he expected--rightly as it turned out--that he would remain so.  He wrote some more highly critical columns during the campaign which the Washington Post and other papers refused to publish.  Neither Johnson nor Humphrey, however, told him about Nixon's attempts to stall the peace talks in Paris by telling the Saigon government to boycott them.  They had decided that the good of the country required that these contacts be kept secret. Pearson would surely have published them and they could have swung a very close election.  It was clear to Pearson--as it is to me now, having read some of Johnson's published conversations from that fall--that Johnson was so angry at Humphrey for staking out his own position that he preferred Nixon to win.

Jack Anderson's name comes up quite a few times but the editor did not give us a real sense of his relationship with Pearson.  He served as an alibi for stories powerful people did not like--Pearson could always say, usually truthfully that Jack had written them.  (He was writing more and more of the columns in the 1960s because Pearson spent a lot of time on the lecture circuit to make up for lost income.)  It turns out that Anderson unilaterally decided to publish the March 1967 column that broke, for the first time, the story of the CIA's assassination plots against Castro and alleged a possible connection between them and the assassination of JFK.  Pearson had gotten the story from Edward Morgan, a Washington attorney who represented Johnny Roselli and Robert Maheu, both of whom were involved in those plots.  Hannaford bizarrely left out the diary entry in which Pearson gave the story to President Johnson.  Pearson did not know that Johnson immediately called CIA director Richard Helms to demand an explanation.  The document generated by the CIA's inspector general's office in response is the reason we know about those plots at all.

After Pearson's death in September 1969, Anderson carried on his tradition.  As Seymour Hersh once pointed out, Anderson broke some very important stories during the Nixon Administration which most major news outlets refused to pick up.  Pearson would have thrived in the days of the internet--if he could have found a way to monetize his independent reporting.  But reading the second volume of his diaries is painfully said not because of what has happened to journalism, but because of what has happened to politics.  It is a story of a different age, when political leaders worked hard to correct racial injustice, spread prosperity, and maintain the rights of labor.  It was a most hopeful moment in American history, one beginning to be swept away by the tragic, catastrophic mistake of the Vietnam War

Friday, October 20, 2017

Living in a dangerous world

At least since the time of the French and American Revolutions, international politics have involved conflicts among different domestic political systems.  In the periodic crises in the international system since the 1790s, the warring parties have fought in part to establish their own form of government.  The Napoleonic Wars ended with the old aristocracy firmly entrenched in Great Britain and bureaucratic monarchies firmly in control in nearly all of Europe.  In the 1860s the victory of the democratic North over the aristocratic South in the American civil war helped lead to the institution of some form of democracy in Britain France, and Germany.  William II of Germany and Woodrow Wilson both saw the First World war as a context between absolute monarchy and democracy.  In the Second World War, the communist USSR and the democracies in Britain and France fought National Socialism in Europe and the Japanese military regime in Asia.  In each case, the resolution of the crisis left some forms of government more popular than others, helping to determine the course of politics for decades to come.

We are now sliding into the next great international crisis.  I have never thought that it was going to lead to all-out world war on the scale of twentieth century conflicts, but it does revolve, in part, around an ideological struggle.  Among the three most important world powers, the United States still stands for democracy, in theory at  least, and for an open global political and economic order.  Both Putin's Russia and Zhi's China stand for something very different: an authoritarian model of government that they specifically distinguish from the weak, divided, socially permissive democracies of the decadent west.  Both also have rhetorically challenged the US claim to lead the world and determine the rights and wrongs of international disputes.  And both have festering territorial demands.  Putin clearly wants to restore more of the old USSR, and looks longingly at the Baltic states.  China insists that Taiwan remains a part of it and has extensive claims on the seas and islands surrounding them.

Alarmingly, the governments of both Russia and China seem far more firmly established, at this moment, than our own.  Zhi is strengthening the control of the Communist Party and the state over public opinon and the economy, reversing the trend of the last couple of decades.  Putin has a stable authoritarian regime without serious opposition that has weathered the impact of economic sanctions.  The United States government is unorganized, almost leaderless, and floundering on mnay fronts.  Most key State Department positions have not even been filled.  Low-level functionaries in the White House such as Steven Miller and Jared Kushner are evidently exerting important influence on foreign policy.  The kind of policy process that has allowed our government to survey the world scene and identify the most important threats seems not to exist any more.

Meanwhile, the President has brought us to the brink of war with North Korea, and is reversing the Obama Administration's move towards peaceful co-existence with Iran.  What disturbs me more than anything is how easy it would be to set off a replay of the events that led to US involvement in the Second World War.  In an increasingly anarchic world, war anywhere can easily lead to war almost anywhere else.

Thus, in 1939, Japan was already in the third year of its attempt to subjugate mainland China, and the Japanese were claiming a special leadership role in Asia, an idea that the United States rejected in favor of the maintenance of an "open door."  In September of that year, Hitler invaded and conquered Poland, and the British and French declared war on Germany. Then, the next spring, Hitler successively invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, forcing France to conclude an armistice, and leaving Britain perilously exposed to a possible German invasion.  Those events had enormous repercussions in the Far East,.  The French, who ruled Indochina, and the Dutch, the rulers of what is now Indonesia, would clearly not be able to defend those territories against a Japanese attack.  The British would be hard put to defend Malaya, Singapore, Burma, and perhaps even India.  The Japanese moved into northern Indochina almost at once and laid plans to go further.  Meanwhile, the US government also prepared to meet German or Italian moves into French, Dutch and British possessions in the western hemisphere.  The lend-lease agreement of September 1940, in which FDR gave Churchill 50 destroyers in exchange for US bases in an Atlantic arc of British possessions from Newfoundland to Trinidad, moved the US defense line hundreds of miles to the east.  A year later, in the second half of 1941, with the US effectively at war against German U-boats in the Atlantic, the Japanese decided to attack British, Dutch, French and American possessions in the Far East, beginning on Decmeber 7, 1941.

The possibility that some one in Washington, it seems to me, needs to think about,. is that war--perhaps in North Korea--could easily tempt Putin to move into the Baltic states, claiming a need to protect their ethnic Russian inhabitants, or China to move further away from its coastline.  It would be extremely difficult, I think, for the US to react effectively to such moves while fighting a war against North Korea (or, for that matter, while fighting one against Iran.)  Putin has pointed out many times that successive US Administrations have acted unilaterally to alter borders (in Yugoslavia in 1999) or to overthrow governments (in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011) without getting the permission of the world community.  He did the same thing in Crimea in 2013 and has weathered the subsequent sanctions.  He could certainly do it again.

Traditionally the world's leading power has a strong interest in maintaining peace.  That was what Bismarck understood in Europe after 1871, and what American leaders including Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon understood in their time.  Peace does not seem to be one of Donald Trump's priorities. He is more interested in intimidating or defeating enemies and proving that we can "win" again.  Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush managed to achieve similar goals in Grenada and Panama, but those nations were close to the US and did not have nuclear arms.  War against North Korea and Iran could very easily set off a new era of worldwide conflict.  No one would come out of it better off than when they began.

Friday, October 13, 2017

LeCarré Looks Back

John LeCarré has been a major figure in my literary landscape since 1964, when I read his sensational best-seller, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  That was in fact his third book, but his first big success, and it established him as a major Cold War novelist.  I discovered later that Spy (as I shall call it) had used an interesting literary device.  It was in fact a kind of sequel to an earlier, less successful novel, Call For the Dead, which had introduced the character of British spy George Smiley, and the German Hans-Dieter Mundt, who had worked for a while in Britain, committed several murders, and returned to Germany to become (by the time of Spy) the head of East German intelligence.  It turned out theta LeCarré, real name David Cornwall, had been a British spy himself, but he left the Secret Service in the 1960s.   After writing three stand-alone books in the next ten years, LeCarré revived Smiley (who had been a minor character in Spy) in his 1974 masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, dealing with the hunt for a Soviet mole at the highest levels of British intelligence.  Tinker, Tailor spawned two sequels completing the story of Smiley's duel with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.  During the 1980s he wrote The Little Drummer Girl, about Israelis and Palestinians; A Perfect Spy, in which he re-created his father, a con man, as the father of another treacherous British spy; and The Russia House, based on a true case of corrupted intelligence during the Reagan years--just as Tinker Tailor  was based on the case of the real defector Kim Philby.  Then the Cold War came to an end, and LeCarré went in another direction.

I do not mean to put off my faithful readers for whom all this may be new, but if you have never read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I must urge you to stop reading now, go to your local library (or to abebooks.com), and get it.  It is one of the most brilliant and provocative thrillers ever written, complete with one of the most shocking denouements, and I cannot do what I want to do today without giving away the key to the plot.  If cold war thrillers will never be your style, I suppose you may as well go ahead; but I feel both sad and deeply envious for anyone who still has this book ahead of him or her. I feel the same way about Tinker, Tailor, although it is a somewhat longer and more difficult read.  The reason for all this is that LeCarré has now published a new sequel to Spy, A Legacy of Spies, which I want to discuss--more as a literary critic than an historian, although this post will have historical points.  And I can't do it justice without giving away a great deal about Spy.

The title character in Spy was Alec Leamas, a hard-drinking British agent, who at the beginning of the book watches his last agent inside East Germany shot as he tries to cross the relatively new Berlin Wall into West Berlin.  The killing is the handiwork of Hans Dieter Mundt, who years earlier, serving his country in London, had murdered an agent and her husband--and nearly murdered George Smiley--but somehow managed to escape before being apprehended.  Leamas now returns to London, and the mysterious Control--the head of the Service until his death years later, just before the main action of Tinker, Tailor begins--suggests to him that they "take another crack at Mundt."  Leamas agrees.  He leaves the Service, and finds work in a small public library.  There he meets Lis Gold, a pretty young woman who happens to be a Communist, and they become lovers.  He drinks heavily, behaves erratically, and then, without warning, beats up his grocer, and serves some months in prison.  When he gets out he keeps drinking, and then is approached, indirectly, by East German intelligence, who want him to defect.  Eventually, he does.

Brought to East Germany, Leamas is interrogated by Mundt's deputy and rifle, Fiedler, whose Jewish parents had returned to East Germany after 1945 because they were Communists.  He is Mundt's rival in part because Mundt is an ex-Nazi who has not changed his views about Jews.  Fiedler wanted to talk to Leamas because he suspected Mundt of having become a British agent after being arrested for the murders he had committed in London.  Leamas, it becomes clear, has prepared various stories that will convince Fiedler that he is right. Leamas thinks he is arranging for Mundt's removal, and probablyi his execution, as a British spy.  He establishes a kind of personal bond with Fiedler, who is portrayed as a man of good will and genuine feeling.

Eventually Mundt is indeed arrested and put on trial, with Fiedler in the role of prosecutor.  Leamas continues to insist--as he believes--that Mundt was never a British agent, but the evidence has mounted that he was.  Then, in the midst of the trial, who should appear, to Leamas' astonishment, to Lis Gold, who has been brought to East Germany as part of a Communist exchange program.  On the stand, she is forced to reveal that she has been visited by George Smiley and another British official since Leamas's department and that she suddenly received a paid-for lease for her flat.  Leamas's cover is exploded, Mundt is saved, and Fiedler is obviously headed for execution.  Then, Leamas realizes that his mission, all along, has been the reverse of what he thought: he has been sent to save Mundt from Fiedler, not to get revenge on Mundt. Mundt is, indeed, a British spy.

And for this reason, Mundt puts Leamas and Liz in a car to drive to East Berlin, where they will cross over the wall.  On the way, in a brilliant scene, Leamas tries desperately to convince Liz, and himself, that all this really is necessary because of Mundt's value to British intelligence.  But she is not convinced, and in his heart, Leamas isn't either.  She also cannot understand why Mundt would let her return to Britain.  Her intuition is apt.  As they climb up the wall, she is shot by one of the sentries.  Leamas pauses literally at the top of the wall, with Smiley screaming at him to jump from the other side. Instead, he climbs back down next to Liz, and is shot and killed himself.

The novel shows how two people are caught in the great Cold War struggle and destroyed.  But there is another level to it, and nearly all LeCarré's spy writing, which did not occur to me until much later.  Never in LeCarré's books do the intrigues of the spies, on both sides, mean anything to anyone but each other.  Nearly all the information they seek and the operations they run relate to their own loyalties and disloyalties.  They live and die playing a deadly game of interest to no one but themselves.

A Legacy of Spies (hereafter Legacy, picks up the story of Spy  at some unspecified moment in the relatively recent past.  Its exact date is never given away, but based on the ages of some of the characters I would put it early in the 21st century, that is, at least 10 years ago.  Its protagonist is another old friend, Peter Guillam, who had a brief role in Spy and a much larger one in Tinker, Tailor, as a protege of Smiley's.  Guillam, it suddenly occurred to me for the first time, is pretty clearly LeCarré himself.  They are about the same age and share (from what I have been told) a great interest in the opposite sex.  As the book opens Guillam is living in retirement in France, but the Service contacts him to help deal with a lawsuit.  The suit has been filed by two new characters, the illegitimate son and daughter, respectively, of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold--two characters we never learned about in Spy. They want damages for their parents' deaths, and in the entirely new climate of post Cold War Britain, they may get them.  Guillam realizes that the government has settled on him as a logical candidate to take the rap. 

To write Legacy, LeCarré uses the same technique that he used to write Spy a year or two after Call for the Dead: creating new characters and plot lines out of gaps left in an earlier work.  We learn a whole new story of how Mundt was captured and recruited as a British agent.  We learn much  more about Leamas's network of agents in East Berlin.  We learn a lot more about Liz Gold, whom Guillam, it turns out, had briefly courted as well.  And that involves some fascinating scenes. No one is more aware than LeCarré of the huge differences between the world of the 1960s and our own--yet when he dexcribes Liz's brief romance with Guillam, she becomes very much a 21st-century young woman, not the reserved, proper girl we met in Spy.  Leamas, seen in flashbacks, is far more emotional and loquacious than the stolid cold warrior  of Spy.  Of course, younger readers would probably have trouble accepting their old portraits--but they were true to life all the same.

Legacy ends suddenly and equivocally, without telling us what happened to the lawsuit.  LeCarré is now 86 and he indicated in a New York Times interview that this book might be his last, but a sequel to this one could easily be in the cards.  It would allow him to fill out another new plot line he introduced: that Control and Smiley decided to recruit Mundt to in the hope that he would rise high enough in the esteem of Soviet intelligence to be able to tell them the identity of the mole they suspect is hiding in their own service.  There was never a hint of such a mole in Spy, but that has not stopped LeCarré from adding this new dimension. We shall see if that part of the story also gets fleshed out.

Meanwhile, the books LeCarré has written since the end of the Cold War do drive home the enormous differences between its world and our own. In those days the state reigned supreme in East and West, exerting extraordinary claims on soldiers, spies and citizens alike in the pursuit of something bigger.  The books were, among other things, a commentary on the excesses of civic virtue. By contrast, civic virtue is nowhere to be found in books like The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor, and A Delicate Truth.  Now Russian oligarchs, greedy corporations and and privatized intelligence groups seem to rule the world, and they grind honest individuals to powder just as the Cold War did Leamas and Liz.  In just a few decades we have gone from a world ruled by ideology to one ruled by the self-interest of the powerful.  LeCarré has documented that very well, and that is probably his greatest achievement.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

A radio appearance

Ten days or so ago I participated in a radio panel discussion in Austin, Texas, talking about many of the issues I talk about here.  You can listen to it here--it is currently the top of the list--dated October 6, 2017. Enjoy!
Don't miss the new post, below.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Burns's Vietnam

I must admit that when Ken Burns's and Lynn Novick's Vietnam series started, I was not eager to watch it.  Two or three years ago--I am not sure which--I had heard about the series by accident, and I had called Burns's office in hopes of taking part in it.  I was summarily informed that the series was already in post production, and that was that.  I was frustrated by the first two episodes, which covered things I had researched and written about myself, with some significant gaps.  But after the major American involvement began in 1965, I changed my mind.  To begin with, Burns had used almost no historians at all on camera and very few, apparently, in preparing the script.  I had no reason to take my own exclusion personally.  But more importantly, Burns had decided to present the war almost entirely from the perspective of combatants and their families on all sides--American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese.  That he had done superbly, and I was very grateful for it.  I think it is probably the best film that he has produced.

The single best thing about the series, for me, was its portrayal of combat.  Burns combined interviews with participants in battle--again, on all sides--with extraordinary footage.  At times I wondered, and I still don't know, if the footage really was footage of the exact day and place the veterans were talking about, but it certainly looked as if it might have been.  And in his battlefield episodes Burns demolished one of the enduring myths of the war:  that the United States never lost a battle  Several of the battles that veterans described in excruciating detail fit the classic pattern of Vietnam combat.  An American unit--generally anything from a company to a battalion--patrolling in the jungle or the highlands, walked into a VC or North Vietnamese ambush.  The Communist forces tried not to open fire until the Americans were just a few yards away.  This tactic, to "grab them by the belts," meant that the US forces would not be able to call in their devastating artillery or air support during the battle for fear of hitting their own men.  For hours, North Vietnamese and US forces would exchange rifle and machine gun fire and grenades, inflicting heavy casualties.  Many American companies suffered losses large enough to put them out of action as effective fighting forces in these firefights.  The North Vietnamese, of course, wanted to continue these encounters until US casualties had become so high that the American people would insist on de-escalating, and, eventually, quitting the war.  In the end, the turning point came at Hamburger Hill, in May 1969--one of so many battles that fit that pattern, and which forced the US to try to avoid many more of them.  That battle, coincidentally, took place nearly at the very moment when American forces in South Vietnam had reached their highest point.

Burns not only decided not to use historians, but he also decided not to use anyone, really, who had become famous during the Vietnam era.  The highest-level civilians he interviews are Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the Pentagon papers, and John Negroponte, who was then a junior diplomat at the Paris peace talks.  He did not interview Henry Kissinger, or Daniel Ellsberg, or John McCain (who is seen in an interview in a hospital bed shortly after his capture.)  Nor did he interview James Webb or Ron Kovic, two activist veterans with opposing views of the war and its lessons.  But I thought the ordinary veterans he selected gave a fine portrait of my own Boom generation as it was then.  Many joined out of idealism, and we forget how many of us (like me) fully supported the rationale behind the war when it began in earnest in 1965.  The treatment of changes on campus during those years was also excellent.

Burns did what he can do, very well.  I have done something very different throughout my career--reading, researching and studying to understand the decisions US leaders took to intervene, fight, and withdraw, and why they were not successful.  I would like to make a few points that Burns did not address,  or where he contributed to longstanding misconceptions.

The first concerns the role of the Eisenhower Administration, on the one hand, and the Kennedy Administration, on the other, in involving, or not involving, the United States in wr in Southeast Asia.  Eisenhower in 1954 refused the entreaties of his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to intervene actively on the side of the French.  But in subsequent years, I found researching American Tragedy, his administration laid down policies calling for American intervention to stop Communist aggression in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam--using nuclear weapons as necessary, and accepting the risk of all-out war with China. And indeed, in late 1960, a civil war in Laos, which the American-backed forces were losing, brought the Eisenhower Administration to the brink of carrying out those policies before Ike left office and dumped the situation in JFK's lap.  Burns said almost nothing about any of this.

That, in turn, leads to the aspect of JFK's policies that I and other historians have highlighted, but which Burns did not really explore.  From the moment that Kennedy took office through early November 1961, he was besieged with a series of proposals for full-scale American intervention, including large ground forces, in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both countries.  Virtually all his senior advisers--Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Bundy's deputy Walt Rostow, and most of the Joint Chiefs--pushed for intervention. Kennedy repeatedly rejected it.  In the last meeting in which he did so he laid out a series of excellent reasons why war in South Vietnam would be a dreadful mistake: that the war would be hard to explain to the American people, that the Saigon government had not managed to handle the insurgency, and that we would not be supported by major allies.  He also abandoned the civil war in Laos in favor of a negotiated settlement, which he eventually achieved.  He did all this, in part, because he had a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda aimed at easing tensions in the Cold War, which war in Southeast Asia would not help.  His successor had no such agenda.

I also found fault with Burns's treatment of Lyndon Johnson in 1964-5.  He made extensive use of Johnson's phone conversations, which often show the President agonizing over what to do in Southeast Asia.  I too was fooled, initially, when I heard some of those.  But gradually I realized that while Johnson loved to agonize, he had never seriously considered any alternative to fighting a war to try to save South Vietnam from the Communists.  His plan to do so was clear as early as March 1964, although he was determined to wait until after the election.  More seriously, Burns, like so many historians, gave the misleading impression that Johnson first decided on sustained bombing of North Vietnam in early March 1965, and then was gradually pushed into a ground commitment.  In fact, Johnson in December 1964 approved a planning paper that linked the anticipated bombing of the North to "appropriate deployments to handle any contingency."  In the late 1990s I got the appendices to that document declassified, and they showed a specific plan to deploy hundreds of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of troops to Southeast Asia, beginning with the Marines who landed in Da Nang the week the bombing of the North began.  Subsequent events followed that timetable quite closely, although plans to send forces ot Thailand were dropped, and those troops wound up in South Vietnam instead.  There was only one decision to fight a huge war in Southeast Asia, and it was taken in December 1964.

Burns also failed ever to identify the real issue in the peace talks that began in 1968: the issue of who would rule South Vietnam, and what would happen to it in the long run.  The Geneva Agreements of 1954 that ended the French war had recognized the "unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Vietnam, and for the next 18 years the US had struggled to establish, and define, South Vietnam as a separate and independent nation.  Beginning in 1965, North Vietnam had demanded not immediate reunification, but the establishment of a coalition government in the South and the withdrawal of American troops, leaving that new government to negotiate eventual reunification.  Not until the fall of 1972 did the Nixon Administration abandon its position.  It did not agree to a coalition government, but the agreement it signed put the Viet Cong on a footing of equality with the South Vietnamese government and directed the two parties to work out new political arrangements.  It also, of course--as Burns did show--allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam.  To his credit, Burns gave almost no support to the idea that the South might have remained independent if the US had simply given it more aid.

Over the course of the 18-hour broadcast, viewers got to know Burns's select group of US veterans (and similar groups of North and South Vietnamese) very well.  The last hour or so on the aftermath, featured the controversy over the Vietnam Memorial--and their own visits to it.  Many of them cried as they described them, and I found myself crying as well.  I return again to the theme I struck at the end of American Tragedy.  The war marked the end of an heroic era in American history, and set off a process of political disintegration that is still continuing.  We live with it to this day.