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Muhammad Ali and the Supreme Court Case that Redefined the Role of Sports Heroes in American Culture: Part 1

HNN    October 4, 2015

Over 40 years have passed since the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Clay, aka Ali, v. United States, which was argued before the Supreme Court Justices on April 19, 1971. On June 28th of the same year, the High Court ruled in favor of the petitioner Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.), the boxing heavyweight champion of the world, who was stripped of his title by various boxing commissions when he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army. Ali claimed exemption due to the fact that he was a Nation of Islam (also known as the Black Muslims) minister. The fact that he did so when the U.S. was involved in a war — Vietnam — angered many people.

The idea that sports stars in the U.S. were infallible athletic gods walking among us mere mortals was always disputed by some and with good reason. Ty Cobb, according to many accounts, was a virulent racist and Babe Ruth spent most of his adult life in an alcoholic stupor. For decades, beer companies supplied free samples of their beverage to National Hockey League (NHL) players and beer is not the ideal beverage if one is a professional athlete. Before the days of million dollar contracts, the beer companies employed these same athletes as salesmen during their off-season free time. The Molson Brewing Company once owned the Montreal Canadiens. Since World War Two, the National Football League (NFL) team owners have had to deal with the fact that gambling on NFL games happens and in the long history of the league, occasionally NFL players have been found guilty of betting on their own team. Regarding gambling, Major League Baseball (MLB)’s all-time hit accumulator, Pete Rose, received a life-time ban on participating in the sport when he admitted to betting on baseball games. For much of American boxing history, the sport was controlled by mobsters, who made sure that the outcome of bouts was fixed beforehand.

Yet what Muhammad Ali stood for somehow superseded all of the above. He was a 6’4,” 235 pound bombastic personality named after the 19th century abolitionist and anti-slavery newspaper editor, Cassius Clay. His father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., was a talented artist and sign painter who was proud of his black lineage. Odessa Clay, Ali’s mother, was born of mixed blood and was part Irish — and so, of course, is her famous son. Born a Christian, Clay converted to the Black Muslim faith 24 hours after he won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1964. At first he told reporters that he wanted to be known as Cassius X, but then amended that to the name of Muhammad Ali. He began boxing at the age of 12, won the 1960 Olympic Light Heavyweight gold medal, and did not retire from the sport until he was badly beaten by Trevor Berbick in a December, 1981 match held in the Bahamas. Until Parkinson’s Syndrome had begun to stop his speech (he actually began to shown early signs of the disease at the time of the Berbick fight), Ali was always talkative and displayed a colorful and outgoing personality.

So during the 1960’s, here came a brash, young (he was only 22 when he won the heavyweight title), prolix man on the world stage. The fact that he publicly renounced Christianity, and took up the Nation of Islam religion (in 1975, he would convert to Sunni Islam) at a time when the American power structure (legislative; judicial; presidential; media and press; corporate; military) was run either by Christians or Jews baffled Americans. At the press conference where Ali made his announcement that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, he famously said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Influential newspaper sports columnists Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith belittled Ali in their columns.

The day after Ali returned from a trip to New York with his then good friend Malcolm X (Ali would later stop following Malcom X’s beliefs and devote himself to Black Muslim founder Elijah Muhammad’s tenets) at a Muslin rally, he “received a notice to report to the Armed Forces Induction center in Coral Gables, Florida to take a military qualifying examination,” wrote Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace in their book, published in 2000, entitled Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Clay v. The United States of America. Bingham was Ali’s long-time personal confidante and personal photographer. Later, on March 20, 1964, Ali’s military aptitude test results were made public. He failed the test, and especially had trouble with the mathematical questions on the test.

For once, the talkative Ali (who had barely graduated from the public high school that he attended in his native Louisville, Kentucky) was quiet; frankly, he was embarrassed by the disclosure that he flunked the test. “I said that I was The Greatest [a title he bestowed on himself previously], not The Smartest. When I looked at a lot of them questions, I just didn’t know the answers. I didn’t even know how to start about finding the answers,” confessed Ali.

All of this took place during the time of the civil rights movement for blacks and also the American military build-up in Vietnam. Both of these events created emotional turmoil for Americans, so Ali’s growing discovery of his true self (i.e., his religious conversion, and his inchoate reflections about the world), which he was always glad to share with reporters and audiences, made for yet another spicy ingredient in the American societal stew.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover, U.S. Senators, and others in the 1960’s federal government power structure refused to believe that Ali failed his military aptitude test. When the FBI began an investigation they found that Ali was at best a sub-par high school student. For some months Ali himself believed that all of this meant that he was stupid, but his former high school teachers, reporters, and others who knew him well have noted that he was a highly intelligent person. The military aptitude test was as flawed as the standard IQ test. Author Norman Mailer (who attended Harvard, and was certainly no mental midget) knew Ali well and told of Ali being wise and intelligent on a number of subjects. After Ali’s retirement from boxing, he acted as a Goodwill Ambassador. He knew numerous world leaders well, ranging from Cuba’s Fidel Castor to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. He personally designed many of the buildings at his personal; boxing training camp. Citizens, irate that Ali was preparing himself not to be drafted, wrote letters to President Lyndon B. Johnson asking him to do something about the situation.

A lesson that professional athletes learned from Ali is that, thanks to a progression in communications, they can voice their comments and ideas on any topic in the world and they will be known throughout the world. Furthermore, the more famous and talented the athlete, the more people will somehow react when he or she voices said comments and ideas. Thanks to a boom in satellite technology, and also other media and press technology, which began in the 1960’s, Muhammad Ali became the world’s first truly international sports star. People from Atlanta to Zanzibar could see Ali daily in television news reports and also watch his boxing matches. Ali became a hero to other famous black American athletes of the 1960’s (most notably football’s Jim Brown and basketball’s Lew Alcindor, who would become known as Abdul-Jabbar). They saw that — contrary to notable American black athletes of the past — they were free to offer their opinions on anything they wanted. Both Brown and Abdul-Jabbar also took note that Ali spent much of his free time doing charity work and also kept busy with other altruistic activities and so Brown and Abdul-Jabbar began to do so as well.

In April of 1964 Ali went on a tour of numerous countries in Africa. The tour was scheduled previous to his military draft imbroglio. Tens of thousands of Africans came out from their homes, shops, and places of work to see and hear the boxing heavyweight champion of the world. By a strange twist of fate, Ali just happened to notice Malcolm X, from a distance, walking in a city square in Ghana. He did not attempt to get Malcolm X’s attention for by this time, Ali and Malcolm X’s friendship was null and void. Ali had decided to follow the beliefs and tenets of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad rather than those of Malcolm X. As Ali was preparing to defend his heavyweight title against Liston in a 1965 rematch (which Ali would win by a knock out in the first round), Malcolm X was publicly predicting to CBS-TV’s Mike Wallace and other reporters that he, Malcolm X, would be assassinated due to his conflicts with Elijah Muhammad. In 1965 he was, and ever since Ali had feelings of remorse about his and Malcolm X’s failed friendship. After Malcolm X’s murder, five FBI agents were assigned to bodyguard Ali.

Numerous polls taken during this time period of the mid-1960’s show that the majority of Americans supported the U.S. military activities in Vietnam but, ever so slowly, this was beginning to change. President Johnson announced that 17,500 more men would be drafted and additionally, he ordered another 50,000 more troops be assigned to Vietnam. In November, the Pentagon issued a directive in which any person who took a military induction test and had a recorded score of 15 could be eligible to be drafted. As Ali’s score was 16, this now meant that, by the unit of measurement of a sole point, he could now be drafted. Numerous prominent athletes of the 1960’s served in the military. The most notable was Roger Staubach, who won the 1963 Heisman Trophy after successfully quarterbacking the U.S. Naval Academy to a winning season. So Ali’s upcoming refusal to be drafted was something that U.S. citizens, of all creeds, races, and religions, were thinking about.

This simple fact — that a prominent athlete was by his conduct outside of his work place (in Ali’s case, a boxing ring) — virtually forcing a country’s people to confront a major issue of enormous controversy — was, and still is, quite rare. Ali was, in essence, defying the federal government and the military during a war.


Mark Weisenmiller is a Florida-based author/historian/reporter. Previous employers include United Press International (UPI); Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA); Inter Press Service (IPS); The Economist, and the Xinhua News Agency (XNA). He is currently at work on a non-fiction book of reportage about China, which will be the second in a planned series of non-fiction books of reportage about the countries and regions of the world.

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Muhammad Ali and the Supreme Court Case that Redefined the Role of Sports Heroes in American Culture: Part 2 

HNN   October 11, 2015

Muhammad Ali was boxing heavyweight champion of the world for much of the 1960’s. During this decade he was admired internationally, but not in his native country of the United States. Chief reason for this was his vocal opposition to serving in the U.S. Army, or any other branch of the military which, as fate would have it, was the same time period as the U.S. military intervention into Vietnam.

Ali was controversial ever since becoming famous. This applies to both his boxing style (in which he moved away from his opponent’s punches and also specialized in moving laterally, rather than the conventional method of moving toward an opponent’s punches and vertically) and also his behavior outside the ring (such as his proclamation that he was renouncing Christianity and his given name and was joining the National of Islam). Looking to Ali as an example, more and more athletes the world over, and especially American black athletes, began to become influential members of society. No longer would athletes be silent automatons mindlessly providing sports entertainment.

While in Miami in 1966 awaiting word from his draft board when to report for induction, Ali was told by a news wire reporter that he was eligible for the draft. Not long afterwards, many television news reporters arrived in their television station trucks, parked outside of Ali’s home, and began annoyingly asking for him to step outside and make a statement. What happened next was, and still is, unclear. For we reporters who have covered stories in which numerous reporters place numerous microphones in front of an interviewer and ask him or her to speak, we know that, despite technological advances, something can be said and not fully understood. This now happened with Ali. Reporters were asking him many questions and he clearly began to lose his temper. After he was asked the question “What do you think of the Viet Cong ?” many reporters quoted him as saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” However Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times and some other reporters who were present noted that Ali answered with “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong.” In either case, whatever Ali said began a series of social and politically vindictive attacks.

Here we have another first, in this two-part story, that resonates with today’s times. If the reader is a professional athlete, the lesson is the following: Be careful and deliberate what you say in public and furthermore, be honest and sincere in said speech. With the gift now of hindsight, we now know that Ali did not do the first, but did the second. Also, whatever one’s opinion of Ali and his refusal to be drafted, one cannot deny Ali’s courage in standing up for his religious convictions. It would have been very, very easy for him to simply move to Canada to live and avoid the draft (as thousands of men did) — and thus be able to obtain boxing licenses in other countries and to fight for millions of dollars — but as Ali often said, “The United States is my home country. I don’t run away from home.”

Something else needs to be recorded here, even though the following is slightly off our narrative: many Americans — such as liberals, Democrats, and especially hippies — took up Ali’s cause with gusto, but Ali frequently did not reciprocate their feelings. For example, the piously religious Ali (he has never smoked or drunk a drop of alcohol in his life, and, as per Muslim custom, he avoids all pork products and prays five times daily) was repulsed by the hippies’ fondness for recreational alcohol and drugs. Even though Ali is now quite aware that due to his Parkinson’s Disease he must take medications, he still, after all of these years, dislikes taking these medications and also putting any sort of chemicals into his body. Many “long-hairs” (to use a popular word of the 1960’s and 1970’s) spent much of their time doing the polar opposite. Ali strongly disliked long hair on men and scorned men who burned their draft cards. Even when he spoke before audiences composed mostly of young people, he was always well groomed (he has always been narcissistic about his appearance) and wore a well-cut suit and matching tie.

After Ali heard black leader Stokely Carmichael say “ain’t no Viet cong ever called me nigger,” Ali borrowed this saying and modified it for himself to be “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” The Illinois Athletic Commission (which issued boxing licenses in that state) ordered Ali to appear before them and publicly apologize for his anti-war remarks. Usually Ali avoided such orders, but this time he did appear before the commission and publicly refused to apologize.

Thus another lesson to be learned from this complicated story. To wit: if a sports commission tries to mandate how an athlete conducts their personal life, the commission is likely to face criticism.

In February of 1966, Ali’s attorneys filed their famous client’s first request for military draft exemption status. The exemption was mostly based on finite, picky legal grounds. However three weeks later, in mid March, the lawyers adopted a new legal tactic. They argued that since Ali was a minister of the Nation of Islam, and since as per the Holy Koran, pious Muslims could only fight in holy wars, Ali should be exempted from the legal draft. To many Americans, this latter legal tactic sounded dubious. How, they wondered, could Ali proclaim that his religious belief in international brotherhood and peace made him exempt from the military draft when he beat people up for a living? This particular draft exemption was denied, and then his team of lawyers filed an appeal. However as per federal law, before the appeal could be heard (before ae state appeal board), the U.S. Justice Department had to review the case and decide whether or not Ali was sincere in his beliefs. A retired judge named Lawrence Grauman heard the case.

Ali’s fate rested in this judge’s hands. To most people’s surprise, but not to Ali himself, Grauman ruled in Ali’s behalf. “I recommend that the registrant’s claim for conscientious objector status be sustained,” wrote Grauman. Despite the ruling, the federal government pressed onward, ordering Ali to report for military induction in Houston, where he had moved to lead a mosque.

On April 28, 1967, Ali went. When an Army officer said, “Mr. Cassius Clay, you will please step forward and be inducted into the United States Army,” Ali refused to do so. “Furthermore, Ali faced imprisonment for his action and was barred from boxing while his case was litigated. He called himself ‘The People’s Champion’ and continued to be recognized as the world heavyweight title holder in Great Britain and Japan,” reads a paragraph of Ali’s biography in the 1999 reference book, The Boxing Register International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book.

From this time, the late 1960’s to today, athletes would no longer mindlessly do what their bosses, and other well-established institutions (military, political, religious, etc.) told them to do if they disagreed. Atop that, if these athletes refused to do so, they would try to make their points in the courts. Major League Baseball St. Louis Cardinals star outfielder Curt Flood’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court (which he would lose) proclaiming that the reserve clause in baseball is illegal is but one example.

From this point onwards, Muhammad Ali was considered a pariah to millions of Americans. Denied a right to make a living in his home country, he did all sorts of things: spoke for fees on college campuses, starred in a Broadway musical titled “Buck White” (where he surprised all by displaying a very melodic and pleasant singing voice), and doing pro-bono work for charities. He continued to make his case to anybody who cared to listen. The day of the quiet, taciturn sports star was over. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon neatly captured frustrated Americans views about pushy athletes with the line, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you” in the 1968 song “Mrs. Robinson.”

Ali’s case wound its way upwards through the judicial system all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States after the Fifth Circuit confirmed his June 20, 1967 conviction (on a felony charge of refusing to be drafted). He remained free on appeal. From March 1967 to October 1970, due to his military draft problems, he was inactive in boxing. The case got to the Supreme Court in January of 1971 and Justice William Brennan convinced his colleagues to grant certiorari (approval to hear the case). As Justice Thurgood Marshall had been Solicitor General when Ali was originally convicted, he recused himself. (Another reason he did so, known to his colleagues and their respective law clerks but less well-known to the general public, was that he despised the Black Muslims.)

In their 1971 book The Brethren: Inside The Supreme Court, Scott Armstrong and Bob Woodward write that “On Friday, April 23… the [Supreme Court Justices’] conference decided, 5 to 3, that it agreed with [Solicitor General Erwin N.] Griswold. Ali was not really a conscientious objector and should go to jail.” Yet Ali didn’t. This was thanks to Justices John Harlan and Potter Stewart (though Ali didn’t learn this for years).

Harlan was assigned to write the majority opinion by Chief Justice Warren Burger, but before he did so, Harlan (who had served in the military during World War II) read the Nation of Islam treatise book, Message To The Black Man in America, at the suggestion of his law clerks. In it was stated that Black Muslims could fight holy wars, but the fact that Ali obviously disapproved of ALL wars convinced Harlan to change his vote. This now dead-locked the Justices vote at four for conviction and four for Ali’s freedom. If the court stayed deadlocked Ali would go to jail, but as it is long tradition that deadlocked cases do not come with written legal opinions by Supreme Court Justices, Ali would never know why he lost the case and never would really know why he went to jail.

Justice Stewart came up with a solution: he and his law clerks discovered that a state appeals board gave no reason for the denial of Ali’s conscientious objector status. With this in mind, and also considering that there are three legal grounds a claimant must meet for conscientious objector status, it would therefore be impossible to determine on which of the three legal grounds the U.S. Department of Justice decided to proceed with its case against Ali. Therefore, went this legal argument, Ali should go free. In a unanimous 8-0 decision, that is the legal conclusion that the eight Supreme Court Justices came to.

Ali heard the news that he had won when he was shopping in a grocery store in Chicago and a grocery clerk came over and hugged him and told him the news. Ali then thanked Allah and the Supreme Court, in that order, then immediately went to a South Side gym to work out.

Angelo Dundee, Ali’s life-long boxing trainer, was interviewed many times by this reporter and, when reflecting on Ali’s career, told me, “We never saw Muhammad Ali at his peak. He was out of the ring for three and a half years and those three and a half years [in Ali’s case, when he was just short of age 25 to the age of 28] are primary years for most boxers. Who knows what he could have done?” Herewith our final lesson: whenever a prominent athlete takes issue with a government agency — or worse, as in Ali’s case, the federal government and the military — he or she will somehow, someway be punished—even if the punishment isn’t just.

SOURCES FOR THIS TWO-PART STORY

Websites: www.aavw.orgwww.oyez.orgwww.scotus.comwww.hbo.com.

Books: “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Clay v. The United States of America” by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace; “The Boxing Register International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book, 1999 Edition”; “The Brethren: Inside The Supreme Court” by Scott Armstrong and Bob Woodward; “The Muhammad Ali Reader,” Edited by Gerald Early; “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest” by John Hennessey; “The Greatest: My Own Story” by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham; “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Of All Time” by Robert Cassidy, “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero” by David Remnick.


Mark Weisenmiller is a Florida-based author/historian/reporter. Previous employers include United Press International (UPI); Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA); Inter Press Service (IPS); The Economist, and the Xinhua News Agency (XNA). He is currently at work on a non-fiction book of reportage about China, which will be the second in a planned series of non-fiction books of reportage about the countries and regions of the world.

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War Without Reason

Henry Kissinger dismissed facts and data in favor of grandiose notions of moral power.

Jacobin  September 14, 2015
Henry Kissinger at an April 1975 news conference on the evacuation of Americans and others from Saigon.

Henry Kissinger at an April 1975 news conference on the evacuation of Americans and others from Saigon.

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and the author of many books, including Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, from which the following is adapted.

The ferocity with which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger bombed Cambodia, along with the desire to inflict extreme pain on North Vietnam, had a number of motivations. Some were explicit — to wring concessions out of Hanoi; to disrupt the National Liberation Front’s supply and command-and-control lines — and others implicit — to best bureaucratic rivals; to look tough and prove loyalty; to appease the Right.

“Savage was a word that was used again and again” in discussing what needed to be done in Southeast Asia, recalled one of Kissinger’s aides, “a savage unremitting blow on North Vietnam to bring them around.”

But there’s another way to think about the savagery, along with the wild, off-the-books way their air assault was carried out.

Everything about the secret operation seemed to be a reaction to the man Kissinger identified as the ultimate technocrat: Kennedy’s and Johnson’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. In office from 1961 to 1968, McNamara is famous for imposing on the Pentagon the same integrated system of statistical analysis he had, in the previous decade, used to rescue the Ford Motor Company.

“McNamara’s revolution” continued reforms that had been underway since World War II, but in a much more intensified and accelerated fashion. McNamara’s “whiz kids” sought to subordinate every aspect of defense policy — its lumbering bureaucracy, its cornucopia budget for equipment appropriation, its doctrine, tactics, chains of command, its supply logistics and battlefield maneuvers — to the abstract logic of economic modeling. Intangibles that couldn’t be graphed or coded into an economic model — will, ideology, culture, tradition, history — were disregarded. McNamara even tried, without success, to impose a single, standard uniform on all the different branches of the armed services.

As might be expected, such efforts to achieve “cost effectiveness” greatly expanded paperwork. Every operational detail was recorded so that, back in DC, teams of economists and accountants could figure out new opportunities for further rationalization. Finance and budget came under special scrutiny; among McNamara’s early major reforms was to “develop some means of presenting” the Pentagon’s “costs of operation in mission terms.” What this meant for the Strategic Air Command is that every gallon of fuel was accounted for, every flight hour recorded, every spare part used, along with every bomb dropped.

Kissinger’s plans to bomb Cambodia — plans worked out with Air Force colonel Ray Sitton, who was also skeptical of McNamara’s methods — weren’t quite the antithesis of McNamarian bureaucracy. They were more a shadow version, or perversion, of that bureaucracy.

According to Sitton, Kissinger approved a highly elaborate deception to circumvent “the Strategic Air Command’s normal command and control system — highly classified in itself — which monitors for budgetary requirements such items as fuel usage and bomb tonnage deployed.” A “duel reporting system” was established; briefings of pilots focused exclusively on objectives inside South Vietnam, but once in the air, radar sites would redirect a certain number of planes to their real destination in Cambodia. All documentation — maps, computer printouts, messages, and so on — that might reveal the true targets was burned.

“Every piece of paper, including the scratch paper, the paper that one of our computers might have done some figuring on, every piece of scrap paper was gathered up,” Maj. Hal Knight, who carried out the falsification on the ground in South Vietnam, testified to Congress in 1973: “I would wait until daylight, and as soon as that time came, I would go out and burn that.”

For Kissinger and the other men who bombed Cambodia for four years, this was a way of subverting the soulless enervation of “systems analysis,” of taking war out of the hands of bureaucrats and giving it back to the warriors.

Kissinger was much more aware of the philosophical foundation of his positions than most other postwar defense intellectuals. Yet, what is more important, at least in terms of understanding the evolution of the national security state, is how his critique reflects a deeper current in American history.

The idea that spirit and intuition need to be restored to a society that had become “overcivilized” and “overrationalized,” too dependent on logic, instruments, information, and mathematics, has a pedigree reaching back at least to the late 1800s. “Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, in a 1911 Harvard address (quoted by Kissinger in his undergraduate thesis).

Throughout the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, every generation seemed to throw up a new cohort of “declinists,” militarists who warn about the establishment’s supposed overreliance on data and expertise, complain about the caution generated by too much bureaucracy, protest the enervation that results from too much information. The solution to such lassitude is, inevitably, more war, or at least more of a willingness to wage war, which often leads to war.

Kissinger, in the 1950s and 1960s was part of one such cohort, contributing to the era’s right-wing lurch in defense thinking, the idea that we needed to fight little wars in gray areas with resolve. In the mid-1970s, ironically, he himself was a primary target of just such a critique, at the hands of Ronald Reagan and the first generation of neoconservatives.

But before we get to that irony, there’s another worth considering: the role that one of Robert McNamara’s left-behinds, the economist Daniel Ellsberg — a man who liked to do his sums, whose understanding of the way the world worked was so diametrically opposed to Henry Kissinger’s metaphysics that he might be thought of as an anti-Kissinger — had in bringing down the Nixon White House.


Henry Kissinger and Daniel Ellsberg did their undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard around the same time, both young veterans on scholarship and both brilliant and precocious. And it was Ellsberg, stationed in the US embassy in Saigon, who briefed Kissinger during his first visit to South Vietnam.

Like Kissinger, Ellsberg was interested in the question of contingency and choice in human affairs. But Ellsberg approached the subject as an economist, going on to do groundbreaking work in game theory and abstract modeling. Focused on atomized individuals engaged in a series of rational cost-benefit transactions aimed to maximize their advantage, these methods were far removed from Kissinger’s metaphysical approach to history, ideas, and culture.

Kissinger, in fact, had Ellsberg’s kind of methodology in mind when he criticized, in his undergraduate thesis, the smallness of American social science and the conceits of “positivism,” the idea that truth or wisdom could be derived from logical postulates or mathematical formulas.

Ellsberg spoke the language of axioms, theorems, and proofs, and believed that sentences like this could help defense strategists plan for nuclear war:

For any given probability distribution, the probability of outcome a with action III is p(A ∪ C) = PA + PC. The probability of outcome a with action IV is p (B ∪ C) = PB + PC. . . . . This means there must be a probability distribution, PAPB PC (0 ≤ pi ≤ p ∑ pi = 1), such that PA > PB and PA + PC < PB +PC. But there is none.

In contrast, Kissinger the metaphysician, wrote things like:

It does not suffice to show logically deduced theorems, as an absolute test of validity. There must also exist a relation to the pervasiveness of an inward experience which transcends phenomenal reality. For though man is a thinking being, it does not follow that his being exhausts itself in thinking. . . . the microcosm contains tension and polarity, the loneliness of the individual in a world of strange significances, in which the total inner meaning of others remains an eternal riddle. Rhythm and tension, longing and fear, characterize the relationship of the microcosm to the macrocosm.

The clash between these two ways of thinking about human experience would play themselves out in the first few months of Kissinger’s tenure as Nixon’s national security adviser.

Shortly before Nixon’s inauguration, Ellsberg, in a meeting with Kissinger at the president-elect’s headquarters at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, offered some advice. He related a story of how Robert McNamara, soon after being named secretary of defense, shook up the bureaucracy by immediately flooding Pentagon officers and staff with written questions. The answers he received weren’t important. McNamara was merely establishing his dominance.

Ellsberg suggested Kissinger do something similar: draft questions on controversial issues and send them out to the whole bureaucracy, to every agency and office. The agency principally responsible for any given subject, Ellsberg predicted, would have one opinion on the matter, and secondary agencies would have another, and the difference between the two opinions would provide a useful map of the ambiguities, doubts, and uncertainties that existed in the bureaucracy.

But, Ellsberg said, there was another, more Machiavellian reason to conduct the survey. The “very revelation of controversies and the extremely unconvincing positions of some of the primary agencies,” he said, “would be embarrassing to the bureaucracy as a whole. It would put the bureaucrats off-balance and on the defensive relative to the source of the questions — that is, Kissinger.”

“Kissinger,” Ellsberg remembered, “liked the sound of that.”

The questions, as Ellsberg predicted, prompted a backlash. Soon a counterproposal for reorganizing the NSC around the State Department began to float around, which allowed Kissinger to identify potential rivals. The proposal was quashed and its authors were sidelined.

That first stage of the exercise worked well for Kissinger. The next, not so much.

Kissinger had asked Ellsberg to collate, analyze, and average the responses to the questions related to the Vietnam War, over five hundred pages in total. The gloom revealed by the survey was astounding.

Even those hawks “optimistic” about the pacification of Vietnam thought that it would take, on average, 8.3 years to achieve success. All respondents agreed that the “enemy’s manpower pool and infiltration capabilities can outlast allied attrition efforts indefinitely” and that nothing short of perpetual troops and bombing could save South Vietnam.

When the findings were presented to Kissinger, he must have immediately recognized the trap he had fallen into. For all his warnings about how the “accumulation of facts” by technocrats like Ellsberg has the effect of sapping political will, Kissinger had foolishly given him free rein to, in effect, data mine the bureaucracy, providing him with hard evidence that the majority of the foreign service thought the war either was unwinnable or could be won only with actions that were politically impossible: permanent occupation or total obliteration.


Kissinger was the statesman, Ellsberg the expert. And according to Kissinger’s worldview, Ellsberg shouldn’t have existed, or at least he shouldn’t have done what he did.

Ellsberg was what Kissinger in his undergraduate thesis called a “fact-man.” His faith in data, his belief that he could capture the vagaries of human behavior in mathematical codes and then use those codes to make decisions, should have led him to a state of, if not paralysis, then predictability.

Kissinger would later boast about the difference between statesmen and experts, writing “the scope of the statesman’s conception challenges the inclination of the expert toward minimum risk.” But it was Ellsberg who was speaking out against the war and then leaking top-secret documents, taking a tremendous risk, including the possibility of imprisonment. And with this one audacious act, he changed the course of history.

The difference between Ellsberg and Kissinger is illustrated by the Pentagon Papers themselves. The “major lesson” offered by the massive study, Ellsberg thought, “was that each person repeated the same patterns in decision making and pretty much the same policy as his predecessor without even knowing it,” thinking that “history had started with his administration, and had nothing to learn from earlier ones.” Ellsberg, the economist, believed that breaking down history into discrete pieces and studying the decision making process, including the consequences of those decisions, provided a chance to break the destructive pattern.

But when Ellsberg tried, in their last meeting before leaking the documents, to get Kissinger to read the papers, Kissinger brushed him off.

“Do we really have anything to learn from this study?” he asked Ellsberg, wearily. “My heart sank,” recalls Ellsberg.


On Monday, June 14, 1971, the day after the New York Times published its first story on the papers, Kissinger exploded. He waved his arms, stomped his feet, and pounded his hands on a Chippendale table, shouting: “This will totally destroy American credibility forever. . . . It will destroy our ability to conduct foreign policy in confidence. . . . No foreign government will ever trust us again.”

The Pentagon Papers were a bureaucratic history of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia up until Johnson’s presidency. There was nothing specifically damaging to Nixon. But it was Kissinger’s “fury” that convinced Nixon to take the matter seriously. “Without Henry’s stimulus,” John Ehrlichman said, “the president and the rest of us might have concluded that the Papers were Lyndon Johnson’s problem, not ours.”

Why? The leak was bad for Kissinger in a number of ways. He was just then negotiating with China to reestablish relations and was afraid the scandal might sabotage those talks. He feared that Ellsberg, working with other dissenters on the NSC staff, might have breached the closed informational circuit that he had worked hard to establish, perhaps even acquiring classified memos on Cambodia.

Also, on a more abstract level, the Pentagon Papers really were something conjured out of Kissinger’s worst anti-bureaucratic fever dream. The project was a huge endeavor, written by an anonymous committee staffed by scores of what Robert McNamara called “knowledgeable people” drawn from the mid-level defense bureaucracy, universities, and social science think tanks.

Headed by two “experts,” Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb, the committee based its findings on the massive amount of paperwork produced by various departments and agencies over the years — what Kissinger in his undergraduate thesis dismissed as the “surface data” of history. Missing, therefore, from its conclusions was what the young Kissinger would have described as the immanent possibility, the contingency, the intuition, and “freedom” that went into every decision point.

But Kissinger’s rage was also as much about the leaker as about the leak, obvious in the way he swung between awe and agitation when describing Ellsberg to his coconspirators, as almost Promethean in his intellect and appetites. “Curse that son of a bitch, I know him well,” he began one Oval Office meeting.

Kissinger keyed his performance to stir up Nixon’s varied resentments, depicting Ellsberg as some kind of liberal and hedonisticsuperman — smart, subversive, promiscuous, perverse, and privileged: “He’s now married a very rich girl,” Kissinger told Nixon. “Nixon was fascinated,” Ehrlichman said. “Henry got Nixon cranked up,” Haldeman remembered, “and then they started cranking each other up until they both were in a frenzy.” “Kissinger,” he said, “was absolutely infuriated and, in his inimitable fashion, managed to beat the president into an equal froth of fury.” Alexander Haig said that Kissinger, “did drive the president’s concern” about the leak.

It was in the meeting where Kissinger gave his most detailed denunciation of Ellsberg that Nixon ordered a series of illegal covert operations, putting Nixon on the road to ruin. These included the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in California, hoping to find information that could be used to “discredit his character.”

“He’s nuts, isn’t he?” Haldeman asked Kissinger, about Ellsberg, in one of their meetings.

“He’s nuts,” Kissinger answered.


For what must have been for him a long year, between mid-1973 and mid-1974, it seemed Henry Kissinger, now holding the position of both national security adviser and secretary of state, was going down with Richard Nixon, along with his top aides.

Kissinger almost got caught on Cambodia, when Maj. Hal Knight sent a whistle-blowing letter to Senator William Proxmire informing him of his falsification of records. The Senate Armed Services Committee held hearings through the middle of 1973, and Seymour Hersh came very close to establishing Kissinger’s involvement in setting up the dual record reporting system. Hersh couldn’t confirm Kissinger’s role (he would at a later date) but that didn’t let Kissinger off the hook.

In June 1974, Hersh widened the net, filing stories fingering Kissinger for the first round of illegal wiretaps the White House set up, done in the spring of 1969 to keep the Cambodia bombing secret. Reporters, senators, and representatives were circling, asking questions, digging up more information, issuing subpoenas.

Landing in Austria, en route to the Middle East, and finding that the press had run more unflattering stories and editorials, Kissinger took a gamble. He held an impromptu press conference and threatened to resign (this was June 11, less than two months before Nixon’s resignation). It was by all accounts a bravura turn. “When the record is written,” he said, seemingly on the verge of tears, “one may remember that perhaps some lives were saved and perhaps some mothers can rest more at ease, but I leave that to history. What I will not leave to history is a discussion of my public honor.”

The bet worked. The press gushed. He “seemed totally authentic,”New York Magazine wrote. As if in recoil from the unexpected assertiveness they had shown in recent years, reporters and news anchors rallied around. The rest of the White House was being revealed to be little more than a bunch of shady two-bit thugs, but Kissinger was someone America could believe in.

“We were half-convinced,” Ted Koppel said in a documentary in 1974, just after Kissinger’s threatened resignation, “that nothing was beyond the capacity of this remarkable man.” The secretary of state was a “legend, the most admired man in America, the magician, the miracle worker.”

Kissinger, Koppel said, “may be the best thing we’ve got going for us.”

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W. E. B. Du Bois to Malcolm X: The Untold History of the Movement to Ban the Bomb 

By Vincent Intondi

Zinn Education Project July 30, 2015

Coretta Scott King (R) with Women Strike for Peace founder Dagmar Wilson (L) in a march on the United Nations Plaza, New York City, Nov. 1, 1963. Image: © Bettmann/CORBIS, used with permission.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. announced his strong opposition to the war in Vietnam, the media attacked him for straying outside of his civil rights mandate. In so many words, powerful interests told him: “Mind your own business.” In fact, African American leaders have long been concerned with broad issues of peace and justice—and have especially opposed nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this activism is left out of mainstream corporate-produced history textbooks.

On June 6, 1964, three Japanese writers and a group of hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) arrived in Harlem as part of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki World Peace Study Mission. Their mission: to speak out against nuclear proliferation.

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Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American activist, organized a reception for the hibakusha at her home in the Harlem Manhattanville Housing Projects, with her friend Malcolm X. Malcolm said, “You have been scarred by the atom bomb. You just saw that we have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.” He went on to discuss his years in prison, education, and Asian history. Turning to Vietnam, Malcolm said, “If America sends troops to Vietnam, you progressives should protest.” He argued that “the struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World: the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.” Malcolm X, like so many before him, consistently connected colonialism, peace, and the Black freedom struggle. Yet, students have rarely heard this story.

With the recent developments in Charleston surrounding the Confederate flag, there is a renewed focus on what should be included in U.S. history textbooks and who should determine the content. Focusing on African American history, too often textbooks reduce the Black freedom movement to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Rosa Parks and Dr. King are put in their neat categorical boxes and students are never taught the Black freedom struggle’s international dimensions, viewing slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement as purely domestic phenomena unrelated to foreign affairs. However, Malcolm X joined a long list of African Americans who, from 1945 onward, actively supported nuclear disarmament. W. E. B. Du Bois, Bayard Rustin, Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panther Party were just a few of the many African Americans who combined civil rights with peace, and thus broadened the Black freedom movement and helped define it in terms of global human rights.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois

If students learn about Du Bois at all, it is usually that he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or that he received a PhD from Harvard. However, a few weeks after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Du Bois likened President Truman to Adolph Hitler, calling him “one of the greatest killers of our day.” He had traveled to Japan and consistently criticized the use of nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, fearing another Hiroshima in Korea, Du Bois led the effort in the Black community to eliminate nuclear weapons with the “Ban the Bomb” petition. Many students go through their entire academic careers and learn nothing of Du Bois’ work in the international arena.

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Bayard Rustin speaking at the 1958 Anti-Nuclear Rally in England. Image: Contemporary Films.

If students ever hear the name Bayard Rustin, it is usually related to his work with the March on Washington. He has been tragically marginalized in U.S. history textbooks, in large part because of his homosexuality. However, Rustin’s body of work in civil rights and peace activism dates back to the 1930s. In 1959, during the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin not only fought institutional racism in the United States, but also traveled to Ghana to try to prevent France from testing its first nuclear weapon in Africa.

These days, some textbooks acknowledge Dr. King’s critique of the Vietnam War. However, King’s actions against nuclear weapons began a full decade earlier in the late 1950s. From 1957 until his death, through speeches, sermons, interviews, and marches, King consistently protested the use of nuclear weapons and war. King called for an end to nuclear testing asking, “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by Strontium-90 or atomic war?” Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, King called on the government to take some of the billions of dollars spent on nuclear weapons and use those funds to increase teachers’ salaries and build much needed schools in impoverished communities. Two years later, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, King argued the spiritual and moral lag in our society was due to three problems: racial injustice, poverty, and war. He warned that in the nuclear age, society must eliminate racism or risk annihilation.

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Letter from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament inviting Dr. King and Bayard Rustin to their mass march. Click to read letter at the King Center website.

Dr. King’s wife largely inspired his antinuclear stance. Coretta Scott King began her activism as a student at Antioch College. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, King worked with various peace organizations, and along with a group of female activists, began pressuring President Kennedy for a nuclear test ban. In 1962, Coretta King served as a delegate for Women Strike for Peace at a disarmament conference in Geneva that was part of a worldwide effort to push for a nuclear test ban treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Upon her return, King spoke at AME church in Chicago, saying: “We are on the brink of destroying ourselves through nuclear warfare . . . . The Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement must work together ultimately because peace and civil rights are part of the same problem.”

Soon, we will commemorate the 70th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not long after comes the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Students will then return to school and to their history textbooks. However, most will not learn how these issues are connected. They will not learn of all those in the Civil Rights Movement who simultaneously fought for peace. But this must change, and soon. The scarring of war and poverty and racism that Malcolm X spoke of continues. It’s time that students learn about the long history of activism that has challenged these deadly triplets.

vincent_intondiVincent J. Intondi is an associate professor of history at Montgomery College and director of research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute. He is the author of African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement(Stanford University Press, 2015).

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What Trump Doesn’t Get About Vietnam

The conflict was an internal class war as well as a war against a foreign enemy.

Politico Magazine July 20, 2015

Vietnam wasn’t supposed to rear its head in 2016. With the election of Barack Obama, the first president to have come of age after the war’s close, many political observers expected that the quadrennial debate over who served and who dodged—an issue in every presidential election from 1992 through 2004—was at last over. Leave it Trump to drag it back into the public square on Saturday, when he derogated the wartime service of Sen. John McCain, a combat veteran who endured five years of torture as a POW in the notorious Hanoi Hilton. “I like people that weren’t captured,” he said.

The Donald, who received a medical deferment in 1968 for bone spurs in his heels, seems genuinely confused by the backlash. It would be easy to write his nescience off as a form of adolescent self-absorption (though, in fairness to adolescents, most probably know how to recognize a war hero when they see one).

But part of his problem owes to a lasting historical legacy of the Vietnam War. Simply put, Vietnam was an internal class war as well as a war against a foreign belligerent. Unlike all American conflicts that preceded it, Vietnam drew sharp lines between those with means and those without. Young men from privileged backgrounds who served in Vietnam, like John McCain and John Kerry, usually did so electively, and as officers. Most working-class men, on the other hand, had no choice. They could join or be drafted, and almost always, they were enlisted.

We tend to lump the “sixties generation” into one undifferentiated cohort. But there was considerable divergence between the experiences of working-class men and those of their more privileged peers. This departure explains much about politics in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as some of Donald Trump’s current struggle.

***

In September 1967 the New York Times spent several days following a group of 18-year-old students as they arrived at area colleges. Freshman orientation, the paper observed, was a wonderland of “boat rides, excursions and get-together dinners.” From the moment of their arrival, freshmen were greeted with open arms and made to feel like important members of the collegiate community. At Columbia University, volunteers helped them move into their dorm rooms. University administrators hosted teas and lunch receptions to welcome them to campus. At nearby schools like Vassar and Hofstra, students learned that they were free to attend faculty and administration meetings. At Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system, the associate dean assured freshmen that if they had “any problems or complaints, come and talk to me about it. My door is always open.”

Hundreds of miles and many worlds away, young men like Ron Kovic experienced an altogether different rite of passage. Filing off a military bus at Parris Island, South Carolina, in the pitch dark of night, Kovich and his fellow Marine recruits were greeted by a tall, muscular drill instructor who gave them three seconds to line up on yellow-painted footprints spanning the hard concrete parade deck. “Awright, ladies!” the DI barked. “My name is Staff Sergeant Joseph. This is Sergeant Mullins. I am your senior drill instructor. You will obey both of us. You will listen to everything we say. You will do everything we tell you to do. Your souls today may belong to God, but your asses belong to the United States Marine Corps.”

While college deans invited incoming students to join them for sandwiches and orientation lectures, Staff Sergeant Joseph berated his trainees. “There are eighty of you, eighty young warm bodies,” he yelled, “eighty sweatpeas … and I want you maggots to know today that you belong to me … until I have made you into marines.”

Roughly 27 million young men came of draft age between 1964 and 1973—the peak years of American military engagement in Southeast Asia. Of that total, 2.5 million men served in the Vietnam War. Roughly 25 percent of all enlisted men who served in Vietnam were from poor families, 55 percent from working-class families, and 20 percent from the ranks of the middle class. In an era when half of all Americans claimed at least some post-secondary education, only 20 percent of Vietnam War servicemen had been to college, while a staggering 19 percent had not completed 12th grade. “When I was in high school, I knew I wasn’t going to college,” remembered a typical recruit. “It was really out of the question. Even graduating from high school was a big thing in my family.”

Among enlisted men who fought in Vietnam, roughly one-third were drafted, one-third joined entirely out of choice and one-third were “draft-motivated” enlistees who expected to be swept up by the Selective Service and volunteered in hopes of choosing the branch and location of their service. Many recruits who joined of their own volition had few alternative options. Unemployment rates for young men hovered around 12.5 percent in the late 1960s (over double that figure for young black men), and even in places where unemployment was low, companies were reluctant to hire and train young working-class men, for fear they would soon be drafted. “You try to get a job,” explained one such unemployed man, “and the first thing they ask you is if you fulfilled your military service.”

By contrast, middle-class boomers enjoyed a host of options in avoiding the draft. The government extended deferments to students enrolled in college or graduate school, but only to those who were full-time students. For one draftee who was working his way through the University of Hartford, the deferment system proved useless. “I was in school,” he recalled. “But I was only carrying a course load of nine credits. You had to have 12 or 15 back then [to earn a deferment]. But I was working two jobs and didn’t have time for another three credits.” Selective Service snatched him up.

Potential conscripts could also avoid the draft if they furnished military authorities with proof of psychiatric or medical ineligibility, but as a general rule, few working-class families enjoyed regular access to private physicians who could furnish or fabricate evidence of long-term treatment for a qualifying disability. Even something so simple as orthodontic braces were grounds for ineligibility, but few working-class men could afford to pay $2000 for elective dental work.

Because of the built-in bias in the draft system, Vietnam split Americans by class and geography. Three affluent towns in Massachusetts—Milton, Lexington and Wellesley—lost 11 young men in the war out of a total population of roughly 100,000. Nearby Dorchester, a working-class enclave with a comparable population, saw 42 of its sons die in southeast Asia. A study conducted in Illinois found that young men from working-class neighborhoods were four times as likely to be killed in the war as men from middle-class neighborhoods, while in New York, Newsday studied the backgrounds of 400 Long Island men who died in Vietnam and concluded that they “were overwhelmingly white, working-class men. Their parents were typically blue collar or clerical workers, mailmen, factory workers, building tradesmen, and so on.” In 1970, where a man lived, who his parents were, and how he grew up mattered enormously.

***

For most enlisted men who fought on the front lines in Vietnam, boot camp followed a predictable pattern. “They strip you, first your hair,” one veteran recalled. “I never saw myself bald before. … Guys I had been talking to not an hour before—we were laughing and joking—I didn’t recognize no more. … It’s weird how different people look without their hair. That’s the first step.” New servicemen began a grueling routine of physical and mental conditioning that began each day at dawn 4:00 a.m. and lasted until after sunset. Long hours of pushups, sit-ups, marches and outdoor infantry training were de rigueur.

After basic, new servicemen underwent several weeks of training for their military occupational specialty (MOS) and then shipped off for the balance of their service. For many enlisted men, this meant 12 or 13 months in Vietnam, followed by another six months of stateside service.

From the very start, war was surreal. Rather than send servicemen by military transport, the government contracted with commercial airlines to shuttle fresh troops to Southeast Asia. The sleek civilian jets were “all painted in their designer colors, puce and canary yellow,” remembered one veteran. “There were stewardesses on the plane, air conditioning. You would think we were going to Phoenix or something.” One veteran remembered that “you could cut the fear on that plane with a knife. You could smell it.”

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The Most Dangerous Man in America” 
The Fall of Richard Nixon
By Tim Weiner

TomDisptach.com   July 14, 2015

[This essay has been adapted from chapters 1 and 22 of Tim Weiner’s new book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, with the kind permission of Henry Holt and Company.]

Richard Nixon saw himself as a great statesman, a giant for the ages, a general who could command the globe, a master of war, not merely the leader of the free world but “the world leader.” Yet he was addicted to the gutter politics that ruined him. He was — as an English earl once said of the warlord Oliver Cromwell — “a great, bad man.”

In Nixon’s first State of the Union speech, he said that he was possessed by “an indefinable spirit — the lift of a driving dream which has made America, from its beginning, the hope of the world.” He promised the American people “the best chance since World War II to enjoy a generation of uninterrupted peace.”

But Richard Nixon was never at peace. A darker spirit animated him — malevolent and violent, driven by anger and an insatiable appetite for revenge. At his worst he stood on the brink of madness. He thought the world was against him. He saw enemies everywhere. His greatness became an arrogant grandeur.

By experience deeply suspicious, by instinct incurably deceptive, he was branded by an indelible epithet: Tricky Dick. No less a man than Martin Luther King Jr. saw a glimpse of the monster beneath the veneer the first time they met, when King was the rising leader of the civil rights movement. “Nixon has a genius for convincing one that he is sincere,” King wrote in 1958. “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.”

Unscrambling the Whole Omelet

That spring was a dark season for Richard Nixon. Each week brought deluges of bad news. The downpours turned to floods, and the rising torrents slowly eroded the stone wall surrounding the White House. The wars of Watergate consumed every waking moment.

Vietnam had found its successor,” Nixon wrote, underscoring every word.

Friday, April 13, 1973: The president’s legal counsel John Dean relayed inside information from federal prosecutors to the White House, and his news was dismal, befitting the day. Dean had served as a kind of human switchboard in the cover-up, conferring with every central participant. Now he was using his lawyers to winkle information out of federal investigators, even as he dangled a promise of becoming a witness for the prosecutors.

Watergate burglary overseer Howard Hunt was set to appear Monday afternoon before the Watergate grand jury; he had blackmailed the White House by threatening to reveal “seamy stories,” and he knew several. Up next was deputy director of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President Jeb Stuart Magruder, whose will to continue committing perjury was weakening. If Magruder testified truthfully, he could incriminate John Mitchell — the “Big Enchilada,” as adviser John Ehrlichman called him, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer from 1969 to 1972, and of late the president’s raiser of hush money. And if Mitchell were indicted, “that’s the ball game,” Nixon said.

Saturday, April 14: Nixon spent seven hours strategizing with key advisers H.R. Haldeman and Ehrlichman, talking until midnight. They started by speculating about what Hunt might say to the prosecutors. “Question: Is Hunt prepared to talk on other activities he engaged in?” Nixon asked. These included breaking into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, forging diplomatic cables implicating JFK in the assassination of South Vietnam’s president, and being paid for his silence at trial. The demands for money in exchange for silence had not ceased; Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman discussed how to smuggle more than $300,000 in cash out of the White House and into the hands of the convicted burglars.

“Hunt’s testimony on hush money,” Nixon said, could lead prosecutors to the president’s doorstep. They wrestled with the implications of Magruder’s testimony. Ehrlichman composed an imaginary magazine story: “The White House’s main effort to cover up finally collapsed last week when the grand jury indicted John Mitchell and Jeb Magruder… The White House press secretary, Ron Ziegler, said the White House would have no comment.” The president moaned like a wounded man.

Magruder had just pointed a dagger close to the heart of the White House. “I’m going to plead guilty” and testify for the prosecution, he told Haldeman, who taped their telephone conversation. Magruder had implicated John Mitchell that day in an informal conversation with federal investigators. “I am in a terrible position because I committed perjury so many times” in the Watergate case and the cover-up. He couldn’t take it anymore, he said, and he had to seek absolution. Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman had arrived at a moment of truth — or falsehood. The Watergate break-in was one problem. The greater danger was the cover-up and the peril it posed to the president if it began coming apart.

“There were eight or ten people around here who knew about this,” Ehrlichman said. “Bob knew. I knew.”

Then Nixon said — as if unconscious of his rolling tapes — “Well, I knew.” He was acutely aware that he was doomed if Dean testified about the cancer on his presidency and the million-dollar cure.

Haldeman: “If Dean testifies, it’s going to unscramble the whole omelet.”

Ehrlichman: “Dean seems to think that everybody in the place is going to get indicted” — referring to himself as well as Mitchell, Haldeman, Colson, and 10 more prominent presidential appointees — on charges including “paying the defendants for the purposes of keeping them, quote, on the reservation, unquote.”

Nixon: “They could try to tie you and Bob into a conspiracy to obstruct justice.”

As night fell, Dean returned from the Justice Department to deliver more startling news to the White House: that afternoon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman had become targets of the federal grand jury. Now no one could predict how far up the chain of command the criminal case could climb.

Ehrlichman, who recently had started taping his own telephone conversations, called Mitchell’s successor, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. He began by saying he had spent the day with the president and had made some phone calls on his behalf.

“Ehrlichman: The first one I talked to was your predecessor. Then I talked to Magruder… He has decided to come clean.

Kleindienst: No kidding?… Inconsistent with his testimony before the grand jury?

Ehrlichman: Dramatically inconsistent.

Kleindienst: Holy shit!

Ehrlichman: And he implicates everybody in all directions up and down the Committee to Re-Elect.

Kleindienst: Mitchell?

Ehrlichman: Yep, cold turkey.”

“John,” the attorney general said, giving truly gratuitous legal advice, “it seems to me that you are going to have to be very careful.”

“He Reveled in It, He Groveled in It” 

The mercurial Al Haig, promoted from colonel to four-star general by Nixon, was the new Haldeman and Ehrlichman — the president’s chief of staff and palace guard. He was the only man Nixon could depend upon in his time of crisis. The Senate Watergate Hearings were set to begin in 17 days — and the president had no counsel, no one in official command at the FBI or the Justice Department, and only Haig to trust.

Then another general — Vernon Walters, the president’s handpicked deputy director of central intelligence, a man of impeccable discretion who had worked with Nixon since 1958 — delivered a set of documents to Haig. Copies would soon be in the hands of senators and Watergate investigators.

These scrupulously maintained memoranda of conversations, memcons for short, detailed the meetings among Walters, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman during the days immediately after the Watergate break-in. They described the orders from the White House to use the CIA to turn off the FBI’s investigation with a spurious assertion of national security.

May 11th became judgment day at the White House. First Haig read the memcons. They were devastating. One passage said: “It was the President’s wish that Walters call on Acting FBI Director Gray and… suggest that the investigation not be pushed further.”

Haig immediately called Nixon at Camp David. “It will be very embarrassing,” Nixon said. “It’ll indicate that we tried to cover up with the CIA.” In a second telephone call, the president put it more bluntly: “If you read the cold print it looks terrible… I just don’t want him to go in and say look, they called us in and tried to fix the case and we wouldn’t do it.” Nixon wrote in his memoirs: “One of the things that made the memcons so troublesome was that Walters was one of my old friends; he would not have contrived them to hurt me. In addition, his photographic memory was renowned, and he was universally respected as a scrupulous and honest man.”

That same morning, page-one stories described the White House wiretaps Nixon and Kissinger had placed on presidential aides and prominent reporters starting in 1969. Kissinger, who was expecting to be appointed secretary of state, brazenly denied that he had chosen the wiretap targets among his NSC staff and national security reporters; he implied he was only following orders. Nixon shouted: “Henry ordered the whole goddamn thing… He read every one of those taps… he reveled in it, he groveled it, he wallowed in it.

That same day’s newspapers reported that the federal judge presiding over the espionage trial of Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case had dismissed the charges on grounds of government misconduct. Belatedly, the Justice Department, as required under law, had disclosed the misconduct — a warrantless White House wiretap recording Ellsberg, and the Plumbers’ break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.

The Pentagon Papers case was a total loss for the president: Ellsberg went free and the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize. Nixon was embittered.

“Doesn’t the president of the United States have the responsibility to conduct an investigation with regard to leaks in the goddamn place?” Nixon argued to Haig on May 11th, regarding the wiretaps. “I got to go to the court to ask them? Screw the court.” The court begged to differ.

John Mitchell publicly denied signing the wiretap authorizations. Nixon had a one-word response to that: “Bullshit.” He was right about that. But that same afternoon, FBI agents had wrung a modicum of truth from Mitchell.

He confessed that the taps were part of “a dangerous game we were playing.” He also told them where transcripts of the wiretaps might be found: in the White House safe of John Ehrlichman. The acting FBI director William Ruckelshaus recalled: “An FBI agent, sent by me to the White House to guard those records and others in Ehrlichman’s office, was badly shaken when the president of the United States seized his lapels and asked him what he was doing there.” He was upholding the law of the land — and helping to make a case against the president of the United States.

Nixon saw no alternative but to fight to keep these documents secret. “Good god, if we were going to stonewall executive privilege and a lot of other things we can sure as hell stonewall this,” he told Haig on May 12th.

How they were going to stonewall the Huston Plan was another question. Nixon had endorsed every kind of government spying on Americans — opening their mail, bugging their phones, breaking into their homes and offices — until J. Edgar Hoover himself killed the program. John Dean had placed a copy of the incendiary plan in a safe-deposit box and given the key to Judge Sirica. He intended to turn the copy over to the Senate Watergate Committee.

Nixon’s constant refrain had been contempt for court rulings on wiretapping, break-ins, any aspect of “the national security thing.” Nixon insisted: “I’m going to defend the bugging. I’m going to defend the Plumbers [and] fight right through to the finish on the son of a bitch.” But when he thought about people actually reading the patently illegal Huston Plan, he changed his tune. “The bad thing is that the president approved burglaries,” Nixon said on May 17th; he could be perceived as “a repressive fascist.”

The tension at the White House was unbearable. With the Watergate hearings days away, Nixon screamed at his underlings as he schemed to save his presidency. Ziegler cautioned him to stay calm: “If we allow ourselves to be consumed by this — ”

“– We’ll destroy ourselves,” the president said.

Tim Weiner is the author of five books. Legacy of Ashes, his history of the CIA, won the National Book Award. His journalism on secret government programs received the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He directs the Carey Institute’s nonfiction residency program and teaches as an Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton. This essay is adapted from his new book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (Henry Holt and Company). 

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The 1960s are celebrated—and loathed—as a time of political and cultural liberalization. But the decade’s legacy is ambiguous. / National Archives

Forget the Summer of Love. Forget acid, Ken Kesey, and consciousness expansion. Forget the Grateful Dead and the smell of patchouli oil. Forget everything you know about the hallowed 1960s, everything every greying, former hippie has told you about how amazing and paradigm-shifting the whole psychedelic, turn-on-tune-in-drop-out freak show was.

Forget too the bile of right-wing blowhards such as William Bennett and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who seem incapable of blaming America’s perceived ills on anything other than the big, bad Decade of Perdition and the narcissistic navel-gazers it allegedly spawned. Conservative pundits have blamed the ’60s for everything from Bill Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky to, as Robert Bork wrote in his 1996 book Slouching Toward Gomorrah, a “slide into a modern, high-tech version of the Dark Ages,” a Boschian neo-con delirium worthy of the worst mescaline trip.

George Will, another of those right-wing pundits, did manage, quite accidentally, to stumble upon a kernel of the truth. In a 1991 Newsweek essay excoriating Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Will describes the death of front man Jim Morrison as “a cautionary reminder of the costs of the ’60s stupidity that went by the puffed-up title of ‘counterculture.’”

Puffed up it certainly was, but the proposition that the ’60s served as the cultural turning point of the twentieth century, ten years that changed everything, has largely become an article of faith, a shibboleth for an entire Woodstock Industrial Complex of aging boomers. The decade’s icons and totems persist to this day. For example, no man—save, perhaps, a twenty-something hipster at a Halloween party—would be caught dead in a ’70s-vintage leisure suit. But tie-dyed clothing is everywhere, from the sale booths at a Dave Matthews Band concert to the runways of the Milan fashion shows.

Or try this mental exercise. Ask yourself when you last heard John Lennon’s “Imagine,” one of the world’s most popular engines of ’60s nostalgia, written by the decade’s leading secular saint. Was it last month? Last week? “Imagine” has come to signify everything the decade allegedly stood for—a quest for tolerance, peace, brotherhood, and generosity. Granted, Lennon meant well. But the irony of a man who once owned a major chunk of the Dakota—widely considered New York City’s most exclusive co-op apartment building—singing “imagine no possessions” borders on the breathtaking. To his credit, the irony wasn’t lost on Lennon. When confronted with it by a friend, the former Beatle reportedly remarked, “It’s only a bloody song.”

Perhaps the saddest irony of all is that Lennon was shot and killed by a lunatic, Mark Chapman, who believed the singer had turned his back on ’60s ideals—whatever the voices in Chapman’s head told him those ideals were. But “Imagine” is not “just a bloody song.” It is an anthem, and it celebrates everything that the 1960s failed to achieve.

• • •

The counterculture’s most enduring, most emblematic moment came in August 1969, during a large, three-day rock concert in upstate New York. The promoters stopped collecting tickets, everyone got to listen to some really cool music, and the vibe was so cosmic and peaceful that nobody so much as got into a fist fight. A memorable event, to be sure, but the keepers of the ’60s flame want so much more, from the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement, from consciousness expansion to the sexual revolution.

To credit the ’60s for the civil rights movement is an insult to that movement’s history and the long struggle for equality. Dr. Martin Luther King may have given his “I Have A Dream” speech on the Washington Mall in 1963, but the death of Jim Crow owes as much to the activists of the 1950s, such as Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that began the long drive to integrate America’s schools. Or Claudette Colvin, who, as a fifteen-year-old high school student in Montgomery, Alabama in March of 1955, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Colvin was arrested, handcuffed, and forcibly removed from the vehicle. She was followed a few months later by Rosa Parks, who also told the City of Montgomery what it could do with its Jim Crow laws and who was also arrested. Thus was born the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first shot fired in the modern civil rights movement, which itself followed a legacy of protest dating back to the previous century.

The ’60s wasn’t the era that brought forth the Civil Rights Movement. It was the era when well-meaning white people began to notice it.

And the antiwar movement? True, Vietnam was entirely a ’60s affair. The critics were also quite correct when they called the war a hideous waste of human life and national treasure. Our presence there was predicated on policymakers’ fears that we would somehow “lose” that tiny country to Communism, and with it all of Southeast Asia. As the body count grew and the horrendous fallacies of U.S. foreign policy became all too apparent, America’s youth began to question the wisdom of the country’s leaders. Finally, an angry generation said, “Enough!”—there were protest marches, placards, and slogans, the spectacle each night on the Huntley-Brinkley report of young men and women demanding peace and in return being gassed and beaten by the police.

Seeing this, an entire nation slowly woke up to the delusions and reckless arrogance of its rulers. The antiwar movement lit the fire, and America responded. In 1968, a year that saw more than 16,000 killed in action, voters marched to the polls and sent veteran commie-baiter and cold warrior Richard Nixon to the White House.

Indeed, one could argue that the country’s present conservative movement is the most enduring political legacy of the ’60s. Though civil rights foe Barry Goldwater—Nixon’s predecessor as Republican presidential candidate—was decisively beaten in the 1964 election, his followers refused to let the torch of right-wing extremism burn out. The ’60s saw the founding of groups such as the Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union. These groups and their devotees were, at the time, mostly considered punch lines, when they were considered at all. But with the help of William F. Buckley, his friends, and their money, these organizations and associated right-wing lobbying and media campaigns laid the groundwork for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

So, while ’60s activism can’t be discounted, the record is mixed and not quite as advertised. But if the results are largely a wash, then what is left? Alas, less than the Woodstock Nation wants us to believe. Whatever the ’60s might wish to claim as a breakthrough in thought and morality, midwifed by its turned-on, tuned-in avant garde, the whole show had been reduced to a crass, corrupt parody of itself long before the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1969.

Take, for example, consciousness expansion. It all began with such promise. In the early days of 1962, we have highly regarded Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary writing to famed author and mescaline connoisseur Aldous Huxley, extolling the progress Leary was making in bringing hallucinogenic drug research into the mainstream. He tells Huxley about students writing their PhD theses on the effects of psilocybin mushrooms and proudly states that a “visionary experience”—code for an acid trip—had become de rigueuramong grad students at the Andover Newton Theological Seminary, which was aiding Leary in his work.

He also tells Huxley about another experiment he is conducting, administering psilocybin to prisoners at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute:

The death-rebirth theme is the center of attention. We are experimenting (collaboratively with the advance joint assistance of the convicts) with more systematic ad hoc rituals in the prisons. Next Monday we are running a last judgment–rebirth sequence for four convicts. The therapeutic force of this approach is astounding.

Leary doesn’t explain in the letter what a “last judgment–rebirth sequence” entails or why it proved so salutary to the participants, but he would later claim reduced recidivism rates among the prisoners in his experiment. However, a follow-up examination of Leary’s work conducted in the late 1990s found no difference in recidivism among the convicts treated with magic mushrooms as compared to Massachusetts ex-prisoners as a whole.

There would be none of Leary’s high-minded vision questing on display a few years later when, in 1967, at the height of the famed Summer of Love, Beatle George Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd took a stroll through San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The two had dropped acid themselves that afternoon, and decided to go off with several friends to see the hippies and groove on the expected good vibes. In a television interview, Harrison recalled:

We were expecting Haight-Ashbury to be this brilliant place. I thought it was going to be all these groovy, kind of gypsy kind of people with little shops making works of art and paintings and carvings. But instead it turned out to be just a lot of bums. Many of them were just very young kids who’d come from all over America and dropped acid and gone to this mecca of LSD. . . . It certainly showed me what was really happening in the drug culture. It wasn’t . . . all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic. It was like any addiction.

Describing the same incident in her 2007 autobiography, Boyd said the crowd grew hostile after Harrison was offered more drugs and turned them down, prompting the two to beat a hasty retreat to their limo. They left San Francisco later that night, and Harrison said in the interview that he never partook of psychedelics again.

By the 1970s, cocaine was ubiquitous, heroin was finding a larger audience, and the pretense of drugs as a path to a higher spiritual plane was largely gone. The first year of the decade saw the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the former overdosing on smack, the latter choking on his own vomit after mixing pills and alcohol. The aforementioned Jim Morrison would die of a heroin overdose in a Paris bathtub the next year.

But what about the sexual revolution? One need only Google “erotic Greek pottery” or “Pompeian wall paintings” to see that free love, open marriage, homosexuality, group sex, sado-masochism, etc. have long been with us. While it is true that reliable oral contraception—the pill—became available by prescription in 1960, reasonably trustworthy methods of birth control, such as condoms, had been available since the first half of the century, the only potential obstacle to their purchase a derisive scowl from the local pharmacist. Ergo, in a brief appearance in the 1981 film Reds, writer Henry Miller, describing his youth in the early 1920s, said, “There was just as much fucking going on then as now.”

Yet many continue to see the ’60s as America’s defining moment of sexual liberation. That the decade had a tremendous advantage simply by coming after the girdled-and-crewcut 1950s, ten years of nation-wide uptightness on a scale unseen since Victorian-era Britain, is seldom noted. More to the point, though, any evidence that the ’60s set us free from the chains of sexual repression and inhibition is murky and anecdotal, at best. The evidence that it did nothing of the sort is considerably stronger.

In 1970, Albert Klassen and his colleagues at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University conducted a nationwide poll, which found that roughly 75 to 90 percent of the nation still felt homosexuality, extra-marital sex, and pre-marital sex involving both teens and adults was always or almost always wrong. Even masturbation took a hit, with just under half of both men and women labeling the practice as wrong or almost always wrong. These results were recently affirmed by the Institute’s Thomas G. Albright, who re-tabulated the data.

For folks born in the 1940s, who would have been entering early adulthood at some point during the 1960s, Klassen put the total number of lifetime sexual partners at roughly six for males, four for females. Only 3 percent of women polled managed more than ten partners. Klassen summarized the findings by noting that, if there had been some kind of sexual revolution during the ’60s, his research had unearthed little evidence of it.

Today the ’60s are associated primarily with counterculture entertainment, but mainstream artists such as Herb Alpert were massively popular at the time. / Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

One explanation for this grand misperception may lie with ’60s mainstream entertainment, which helped take the commercialization of sex to an all-time high. Not that sex started selling then—it always had, of course—but modern mass media, particularly television, proved very effective at bringing miniskirts and go-go boots into America’s living rooms.

One nudge-wink example was the popular ABC series The Dating Game. Premiering in 1965, the show hooked up eligible, attractive young single men and women for what was billed as the ultimate blind date. The winning couple was shipped off for a week of implied carnality in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, all expenses paid.

On the show, the main contestant would put questions to three unseen prospects of the opposite sex, hidden from his or her view behind a wall running down the middle of the set. The questions were scripted, mainly to keep the bachelors from asking the bachelorettes the most obvious questions, such as breast size or number of sexual partners. Instead, the show’s writers would devise queries brimming with double entendres and not-so-subtle innuendo.

Q: Bachelorette Number Three, if you were a flavor of ice cream, what flavor would you be?
A: (giggle) Cherry.

The show’s background music was provided by trumpeter Herb Alpert and his band the Tijuana Brass. The tunes were vibrant, fresh and effervescent, in grand symbiosis with the youth on display. Though largely forgotten now, the band was at one point the musical face of the Swingin’ Sixties in the United States, outselling even The Beatles in 1966. The Tijuana Brass also laid claim to a memorable piece of sexploitation of their own, with their fourth album Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Released in 1965, the cover featured a photograph of a voluptuous brunette covered in whipped cream, holding a single red rose and looking into the camera with a classic come-hither gaze. Sultry and seductive, it was an image worthy of a Playboy spread and, for a while, just as likely to be found in any well-appointed bachelor pad as was Hefner’s publication.

But as the Kinsey study found, though sexual references and imagery were exploding on television and album covers, in magazines and movies, those pads were rarely rocking.

• • •

Alpert’s former popularity as a mainstream entertainer—his music eclipsed by the memory of such immortals as The Who, Joplin, and Hendrix—should serve as a reminder of how few Americans actually participated in the counterculture. Max Yasgur’s farm held about 500,000 people, a tiny tribe when compared to Americans at large, most of whom couldn’t tell Jerry Garcia from Bigfoot. For the country’s masses, blended scotch and Pabst Blue Ribbon were the drugs of choice, not pot and psychedelics. Hefner’s Playboy Mansion trumped the outdoor rock festival as the ultimate symbol of sybaritic abandon. Acapulco, not Haight-Ashbury, was the hip, happening destination. The Cadillac and the Ford Mustang ruled the highways of our great nation, running the VW Microbus off the road.

The idea of the ’60s as ground zero for a massive cultural shift also becomes suspect when one considers how anomalous the decade was economically. It was ten years of wondrous material plenty, unlike any the republic had previously seen. America experienced both an exceptionally prolonged period of economic expansion and some of the lowest sustained unemployment numbers in the twentieth century. Though few would want to admit it now, much of what came out of those ten years wasn’t prompted by acid-induced vision quests or transcendental meditation. It was purchased through America’s increased affluence, particularly the affluence of its young, who constituted a new consumer class.

On both the left and the right, however, we continue to believe a fifty year-old press release, minting bespoke memories of the ’60s tailored to whatever ideology we happen to champion. A Pew poll conducted in 1999, trying to gauge whether there is a discernible collective memory of the twentieth century, found that the ’60s had made the strongest impression on the national psyche of any decade before or after. “The collective memory of this important epoch,” the researchers determined, was “American Cultural Revolution.”

A truer, sadder epitaph for the era is provided by John Sebastian, who played a solo set at Woodstock and was lead singer of The Lovin’ Spoonful. In When the Music Mattered(1983), by rock journalist Bruce Pollock, Sebastian says:

I think we are devourers of our own culture and cannibalized a lot of things that could have happened out of Woodstock. A media culture can absorb and regurgitate stuff so fast that it loses meaning almost before it’s out of the pot. Somehow every mood that was created was suddenly turned into a marketable item. I regret that more of the spirit that existed at that point in time could not carry over to the sort of cocaine-and-glitter thing that filled the void once it was gone.

And you, dewy-eyed young person with your tie-dyed T-shirt and iPod full of Grateful Dead MP3s, I fear you will always look upon your own era and somehow find it lacking. A great pity, that.

Just remember to forget that Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippies, went on to become a shill for snake-oil vendor Werner Erhard and his EST Seminars. Forget that Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver became a conservative Republican and endorsed Ronald Reagan. Forget that Jane Fonda had a boob job. The ’60s will always be whatever we say it is, regardless of what may have actually happened. That is why the song is called “Imagine.”

Hal Stucker is a writer and photographer. His work has appeared in Wired, the New York TimesPhoto District News, and the book Black Star: 60 Years of Photojournalism. His Boston Review story “Strapped” was included in Best American Essays 2014.

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Nixon, Kissinger, and the Madman Strategy during Vietnam War

By William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball

National Security Archives  May 29, 2015

book-cover-346-2Washington, D.C., May 29, 2015 – President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed they could compel “the other side” to back down during crises in the Middle East and Vietnam by “push[ing] so many chips into the pot” that Nixon would seem ‘crazy’ enough to “go much further,” according to newly declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.gwu.edu).

The documents include a 1972 Kissinger memorandum of conversation published today for the first time in which Kissinger explains to Defense Department official Gardner Tucker that Nixon’s strategy was to make “the other side … think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further” – Nixon’s Madman Theory notion of intimidating adversaries such as North Vietnam and the Soviet Union to bend them to Washington’s will in diplomatic negotiations

Nixon’s and Kissinger’s Madman strategy during the Vietnam War included veiled nuclear threats intended to intimidate Hanoi and its patrons in Moscow. The story is recounted in a new book, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War, co-authored by Jeffrey Kimball, Miami University professor emeritus, and William Burr, who directs the Archive’s Nuclear History Documentation Project. Research for the book, which uncovers the inside story of White House Vietnam policymaking during Nixon’s first year in office, drew on hundreds of formerly top secret and secret records obtained by the authors as well as interviews with former government officials.

With Madman diplomacy, Nixon and Kissinger strove to end the Vietnam War on the most favorable terms possible in the shortest period of time practicable, an effort that culminated in a secret global nuclear alert in October of that year. Nixon’s Nuclear Specter provides the most comprehensive account to date of the origins, inception, policy context, and execution of “JCS Readiness Test” – the equivalent of a worldwide nuclear alert that was intended to signal Washington’s anger at Moscow’s support of North Vietnam and to jar the Soviet leadership into using their leverage to induce Hanoi to make diplomatic concessions. Carried out between 13 and 30 October 1969, it involved military operations around the world, the continental United States, Western Europe, the Middle East, the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Sea of Japan. The operations included strategic bombers, tactical air, and a variety of naval operations, from movements of aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines to the shadowing of Soviet merchant ships heading toward Haiphong.

To unravel the intricate story of the October alert, the authors place it in the context of nuclear threat making and coercive diplomacy during the Cold War from 1945 to 1973, the culture of the Bomb, bureaucratic infighting, intra-governmental dissent, international diplomacy, domestic politics, the antiwar movement, the “nuclear taboo,” Vietnamese and Soviet actions and policies, and assessments of the war’s ending. The authors also recount secret military operations that were part of the lead-up to the global alert, including a top secret mining readiness test that took place during the spring and summer of 1969. This mining readiness test was a ruse intended to signal Hanoi that the US was preparing to mine Haiphong harbor and the coast of North Vietnam. It is revealed for the first time in this book.

Another revelation has to do with the fabled DUCK HOOK operation, a plan for which was initially drafted in July 1969 as a mining-only operation. It soon evolved into a mining-and-bombing, shock-and-awe plan scheduled to be launched in early November, but which Nixon aborted in October, substituting the global nuclear alert in its place. The failure of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s 1969 Madman diplomacy marked a turning point in their initial exit strategy of winning a favorable armistice agreement by the end of the year 1969. Subsequently, they would follow a so-called long-route strategy of withdrawing U.S. troops while attempting to strengthen South Vietnam’s armed forces, although not necessarily counting on Saigon’s long-term survival.

In researching Nixon’s Nuclear Specter, the authors filed mandatory and Freedom of Information requests with the Defense Department and other government agencies and examined documents in diverse U.S. government archives as well as international sources. Today’s posting highlights some of the U.S. documents, many published for the first time:

    • A March 1969 memorandum from Nixon to Kissinger about the need to make the Soviets see risks in not helping Washington in the Vietnam negotiations: “we must worry the Soviets about the possibility that we are losing our patience and may get out of control.”
    • The Navy’s plan in April 1969 for a mine readiness test designed to create a “state of indecision” among the North Vietnam leadership whether Washington intended to launch mining operations.
    • Kissinger’s statement to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin in May 1969 that Nixon was so flexible about the Vietnam War outcome that he was “was prepared to accept any political system in South Vietnam, provided there is a fairly reasonable interval between conclusion of an agreement and [the establishment of] such a system.”
    • The top secret warning to the North Vietnamese leadership that Nixon sent through an intermediary Jean Sainteny: If a diplomatic solution to the war is not reached by 1 November, Nixon would “regretfully find himself obliged to have recourse to measures of great consequence and force. . . . He will resort to any means necessary.”
    • The Navy’s plan for mining Haiphong Harbor, code-named DUCK HOOK, prepared secretly for Nixon and Kissinger in July 1969.
duck-hook-cover-346

The cover page to the Navy’s Duck Hook plan for mining Haiphong Harbor, developed in July 1969 at the request of President Nixon and national security adviser Kissinger.

    • A telegram from the U.S. Embassy in Manila reporting on the discovery of the mining readiness test by two Senate investigators, including former (and future) Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus. After learning about aircraft carrier mining drills in Subic Bay (the Philippines), the investigators worried about a possible escalation recalling that Nixon had made such threats during the 1968 campaign.
    • A report from September 1969 on prospective military operations against North Vietnam (referred to unofficially within the White House as DUCK HOOK) included two options to use tactical nuclear weapons: one for “the clean nuclear interdiction of three NVN-Laos passes”-the use of small yield, low fall-out weapons to disrupt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The other was for the “nuclear interdiction of two NVN-CPR [Chinese People’s Republic] railroads”-presumably using nuclear weapons to destroy railroad tracks linking North Vietnam and China.
    • A Kissinger telephone conversation transcript, in which Nixon worried that with the 1 November deadline approaching and major anti-Vietnam war demonstrations scheduled for 15 October and 15 November, escalating the war might produce “horrible results” by the buildup of “a massive adverse reaction” among demonstrators.
    • As part of the White House plan for special military measures to get Moscow’s attention, an October 1969 memorandum from the Joint Staff based on a request from Kissinger for an “integrated plan of military actions to demonstrate convincingly to the Soviet Union that the United States is getting ready for any eventuality on or about 1 November 1969.” .
    • A Department of Defense plan for readiness actions that included measures to “enhance SIOP [Single Integrated Operational Plan] Naval Forces” in the Pacific and for the Strategic Air Command to fly nuclear-armed airborne alert flights over the Arctic Circle.
    • Navy messages on the 7th Fleet’s secret shadowing of Soviet merchant ships heading toward Haiphong Harbor

The thematic focus of Nixon’s Nuclear Specter is Madman Theory threat making, which culminated in the secret, global nuclear alert. But as the Kissinger statement to Dobrynin cited above suggested, a core element in Nixon’s and Kissinger’s overall Vietnam War strategy and diplomacy was the concept of a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam and the possible collapse or defeat of the Saigon regime. In private conversations Kissinger routinely used phrases such as “decent interval,” “healthy interval,” “reasonable interval,” and “suitable interval” as code for a war-exiting scenario by which the period of time would be sufficiently long that when the fall of Saigon came-if it came-it would serve to mask the role that U.S. policy had played in South Vietnam’s collapse.

In 1969, the Nixon’s administrations long-term goal was to provide President Nguyen Van Thieus government in Saigon with a decent chance of surviving for a reasonable interval of two to five years following the sought-after mutual exit of US and North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam. They would have preferred that President Thieu and South Vietnam survive indefinitely, and they would do what they could to maintain South Vietnam as a separate political entity. But they were realistic enough to appreciate that such a goal was unlikely and beyond their power to achieve by a military victory on the ground or from the air in Vietnam.

Giving Thieu a decent chance to survive, even for just a decent interval, however, rested primarily on persuading Hanoi to withdraw its troops from the South or, if that failed, prolonging the war in order to give time for Vietnamization to take hold in order to enable Thieu to fight the war on his own for a reasonable period of time after the US exited Indochina. In 1969, Nixon and Kissinger hoped that their Madman threat strategy, coupled with linkage diplomacy, could persuade Hanoi to agree to mutual withdrawal at the negotiating table or lever Moscows cooperation in persuading Hanoi to do so. In this respect, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter is an attempt to contribute to better understanding of Nixon and Kissinger’s Vietnam diplomacy as a whole.

William is Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive, where he directs the Archives nuclear history documentation project. See the Archives Nuclear Vault resources page;
Jeffrey is professor emeritus, Miami University, and author of Nixon’s Vietnam War and The Vietnam War Files.

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Saigon-hubert-van-es

By 

New Republic    April 29, 2015

On April 23, 1975, before a youthful crowd of forty-five hundred at Tulane University, President Gerald R. Ford announced that the Vietnam War was over. “Today,” the president proclaimed, “America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam, but it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” The crowd erupted in “a jubilant roar” and “nearly raised the roof with whoops and hollers,” the New Republic’s White House correspondent wrote. In less than a week, thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese would be evacuated from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the capital city.

One hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese left South Vietnam that April, ten times the number that the State Department had planned for. In the final phase alone, in just over 14 hours’ time, Marine helicopters lifted out almost 8,000 U.S. military personnel, South Vietnamese, and their dependents—about 5,600 from Tan Son Nhut airport, another 2,206 from the roof and courtyard of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and dozens more from other locations.

Like the Vietnam War itself, the evacuation of Saigon was both a demonstration of extraordinary courage and resolve, and an ignominious failure.  Thousands of Americans and many South Vietnamese acted heroically and selflessly during those final weeks of near chaos, among them State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence officials, Marine Corps soldiers and officers, Marine helicopter pilots and crews, Air America pilots and crews, and many South Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. The United States thereby avoided what could have been a horrible disaster. As National Security Council official Richard Smyser noted, “I can at least say that we did do the decent thing to get the people help.”

At the same time, the evacuation of Saigon was a disaster in some fundamental respects. As Smyser also pointed out: “It was obvious that we couldn’t help them all.” Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who wanted to leave could not. These were the people who didn’t make it on board USAF transport aircraft or the CIA’s Air America flights, who couldn’t reach the helicopters, who were unable to make it onto the U.S. embassy grounds, or who could not escape by boat. Many simply did not have the political clout, military standing, personal ties, cash and other valuable possessions, good looks—many dancers and bar girls were among those taken out—or other assets that allowed them to get out.

The sheer numbers were daunting. As of mid-April, about 4,000 Americans remained in Saigon, according to the U.S. embassy and NSC’s calculations, and they figured there were another 90,000 relatives of U.S. citizens who likely wanted to leave. There were also 17,000 local employees of the U.S. government and their 120,000 relatives, whom Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, had promised he’d evacuate. Martin wrote Brent Scowcroft, then deputy national security advisor, that the United States owed protection to about 175,000 people, among them “local national employees, in-laws of U.S. citizens, Vietnamese employees of American concerns, including the communications media, American foundations, and volunteer agencies, religious leaders, and Western educated professionals” in the employment of the Thieu government. The government of South Vietnam had about 600,000 employees of its own, too, together with their dependents—and all of them would be vulnerable to reprisals after the fall of Saigon. A total of two to three million people thus had a legitimate claim for being evacuated or a good reason to fear for their safety should they stay in South Vietnam.

With the North Vietnamese forces [in late March and early April, 1975] advancing much faster than either Hanoi or Saigon had expected, the situation in South Vietnam became acute. One hundred and twenty-five Vietnamese Air Force planes were able to flee to U-Tapao and other bases in Thailand—many of the aircraft filled with refugees—and much of the Vietnamese navy was also able to escape, eventually making it to Subic Bay in the Philippines. But ARVN personnel, officials of the Thieu government, and others who had worked for the U.S. and South Vietnam governments were trapped. “It was frantic, a mess,” Scowcroft told Newsweek.

Survivors from both the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese armies have attested to the fact many ARVN units fought vigorously to defend what remained of South Vietnam against the advancing communist divisions, despite their logistical handicaps and waning morale, especially around Xuan Loc. However, that same commitment wasn’t apparent among South Vietnamese government officials or its civilians. “No spirit of support or sacrifice has been summoned,” wrote one reporter. “No crowds of Saigonese collected blood or money or food for the soldiers, or helped care for the sick and wounded in the hospitals, or offered their services for the refugees,” observed another. “No swarms of volunteers appeared at recruiting stations. No civilians built barricades or filled sandbags or dug antitank ditches. Nor were they asked to.” Ultimately, “the Saigon regime could find no reserve of will largely because it had no relation to its own people,” the reporter, Arnold Isaacs, found. “Its leaders could conceive [of] useless appeals to the United States for the return of B-52s, but not to their countrymen for a common effort at survival.”

“Vietnam [was] falling to pieces,” in the words of David Hume Kennerly, Ford’s prize-winning photographer. Kennerly agreed with the State Department’s William Hyland that Vietnam was a lost cause. “I don’t care what the generals tell you,” Kennerly told the president after visiting Vietnam with Army Chief of Staff Frederick C. Weyand in April, “they’re bullshitting if they say that Vietnam has got more than three or four weeks left.”

Ford, Kissinger, Scowcroft, Schlesinger, Ambassador Martin, and Joint Chiefs Chairman General George S. Brown (who succeeded Admiral Moorer in July, 1974) now [had to decide] how to evacuate Saigon.

In early April the planning began in earnest. “Timing is of utmost importance,” the State Department reported to Scowcroft, adding that “for maximum success the implementation must begin promptly after intelligence sources have indicated Saigon is doomed—and before it is too late to be effective.” Since the evacuation would most likely leave South Vietnam without any effective political and military governing authority, the White House wanted to start the evacuation only when absolutely necessary. Yet the more it delayed, the less the chance that all U.S. officials, American citizens, and high-risk Vietnamese needing to leave Saigon would be able to get out safely. Fundamentally related to the matter of timing was, therefore, the matter of “sufficient speed,” since the logistics of the evacuation depended on which assets—ships, helicopters, cargo planes, commercial aircraft—were available, in what numbers, and when.

The timing and speed of the operation depended, in turn, on more basic questions. Who was to be evacuated? How many were to be taken out? And what was their order of priority? It was assumed that virtually all U.S. citizens would leave (some missionaries, humanitarian volunteers, and contractors excepted), but it wasn’t obvious to U.S. officials which and how many South Vietnamese were to be evacuated. Defense Secretary Schlesinger and some members of Congress wanted to evacuate few, if any, South Vietnamese. In many of his decisions on the evacuation, the president was given the option to leave all South Vietnamese (or those South Vietnamese remaining, as the case may be) behind to face the North Vietnamese.

Another factor Ford’s advisers had to consider was how the U.S. government was going to protect those being evacuated, as well as the flight crews and the soldiers helping get people out, since Congress had prohibited U.S. forces in Vietnam from engaging in further conflict. Would extra forces need to be brought in? How was the U.S. military to respond when attacked by hostile fire? And would some in the South Vietnamese military who opposed the Americans’ departure resist and obstruct the evacuation?

In addition, Ford’s top military and civilian advisers had to decide on a policy for those rescued at sea, since many South Vietnamese were fleeing by boat. What resources should the United States spend on rescuing the boat people, especially if most were not in the high-risk category? How was the administration going to handle the thousands of refugees? Where were these people to be housed, fed, processed, and eventually located?

Scowcroft and his NSC staff, Bud McFarlane in particular, were responsible for overseeing and coordinating almost all phases of the evacuation. They monitored how many Americans and Vietnamese U.S. forces took out each day, using figures from the Saigon embassy and Department of Defense, so as to calculate how many people remained to be evacuated. They coordinated actions with the State Department and the Pacific Command. Mostly, they simply tried to impose a modicum of order on what Scowcroft called a “confusing, crazy” mess.

Under the circumstances, Scowcroft advocated evacuating “as many as possible,” believing the United States had a “moral obligation” to those who worked for the U.S. government and to U.S. contractors. He also believed that Washington’s management of the evacuation would affect the United States’ international reputation: “Other nations will see in our handling of this issue how the U.S. deals with the people of a country which has long been involved with us.”

The administration feared that the Americans still in Saigon would effectively become hostages. DCI [William] Colby and embassy officials warned that some South Vietnamese held the position that the “evacuation of Americans should not be permitted unless guarantees for their own safety [were] made.” Americans might be subject to “reprisals” if the United States attempted to evacuate U.S. citizens “without taking along friendly South Vietnamese.” The South Vietnamese might even “fire on anyone trying to leave.”

Ford decided to evacuate as many as possible, including the South Vietnamese dependents of American personnel, the high-risk Vietnamese along with their families and other dependents, and others who had assisted or collaborated with the United States.  Scowcroft gave Ford immense credit for this decision, especially since members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had unanimously recommended that the last U.S. forces be withdrawn “as fast as possible.” Ford had “nothing to gain” politically by refusing to abandon the Vietnamese, Scowcroft pointed out, while he had “everything to lose” had the evacuation led to U.S. casualties or a subsequent military engagement with the North Vietnamese. It was, he later wrote, “perhaps Ford’s finest hour. It was a tough, lonely decision made with great courage.”

With the North Vietnamese about to overrun Saigon, Kissinger and Scowcroft depended on Ambassador Martin’s presence on the ground and relied on his judgment of the situation.  Martin nevertheless attempted to stall the evacuation as long as he could and tried to delay the closing of the defense attaché’s office, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, and the shutting down of the South Vietnamese government.

On April 21, after Martin told Thieu it was time to leave, the South Vietnamese president resigned and was flown to Taipei, where his brother was ambassador (Thieu’s wife had already left for Taiwan). On April 28, after a weeklong interregnum during which the vice president was in charge, Duong Van Minh (known as “Big Minh”) became president of South Vietnam. The next morning, the situation deteriorated further. The South Vietnamese army began to disband and the North Vietnamese shelled Tan Son Nhut airport—the center of the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam—littering the runway with the debris of destroyed aircraft and wrecked trucks.

When [Secretary of Defense James] Schlesinger heard the news that the airport was inoperable, he called Scowcroft, yelling at him, “For Christ’s sake, let’s go to the helos.” Ford checked with Kissinger and agreed: “We have no choice but to send in the helicopters, get our Americans out, and try to save as many friends as we can,” Ford told Scowcroft. Thirty minutes later, Armed Forces Radio in Saigon played “White Christmas,” signaling that the final evacuation was under way. Some South Vietnamese had their own name for the operation: “The Running.”

Over the final two days of April, 71 helicopters made 689 sorties staffed by 865 Marines. As long as Americans remained at the embassy, Martin knew, the helicopters would keep flying. So he used the flights to evacuate dependents and other at-risk Vietnamese, even as hundreds of Americans at the embassy remained to be evacuated. To Kissinger, Scowcroft, and the Joint Chiefs, Martin’s insistence on evacuating Vietnamese against explicit orders to the contrary was insubordinate. “Graham gave me an initial headcount of several hundred that included both Americans and Vietnamese,” McFarlane reports in his memoirs, “and we started the [last set] of sorties.” Once the helicopters lifted off, however, “Graham reported back” and gave McFarlane “a number that was more than we had started with.” Since McFarlane “knew what [Graham] was doing,” and since he agreed with “his desire to evacuate as many Vietnamese as possible,” he didn’t pass anything along. After a while, “Henry caught on,” and he became very upset when his military assistant admitted that Martin “was padding things a bit and bringing out more Vietnamese.”

The usually calm Scowcroft snapped. “Understand there are still about 400 Americans in embassy compound,” he cabled Martin. “You should ensure that all, repeat all, Americans are evacuated in this operation ASAP.”

Furious, the ambassador gave as good as he got:

Perhaps you can tell me how to make some of these Americans abandon their half-Vietnamese children, or how the president would look if he ordered this.  Am well aware of the danger here tomorrow and I want to get out tonight. But I damn well need at least 30 CH-53s [Sikorsky Sea Stallion helicopters] or the equivalent to do that. Do you think you can get president to order CINCPAC [Office of the US Commander in Chief Pacific] to finish job quickly? I repeat, I need 30 ch-53s and I need them now.

As the waves of helicopters scurried back and forth between the U.S. embassy and the U.S. fleet, Martin kept boarding Vietnamese, even though embassy staff, U.S. Marines, and others waited at the mission. “Brent Scowcroft had promised me 50 more of those big helicopters,” Martin recalled. “We had taken the Vietnamese and the Koreans to whom we had made a promise, we carefully counted them and brought them across the wall into the inner compound. We had no intention of bringing the people we had left in the outer compound. We were going to bring these other people out—some of them were cabinet ministers and so on.”

Many wouldn’t get out. The word in the White House and in the Pentagon was that Martin was “always going to have 2,000 more.” “No matter how many helicopters left, the estimate of the number of evacuees remaining never changed,” one helicopter squadron commander said. “It was like trying to empty a ‘bottomless pit.’” Military leaders already held Martin responsible for delaying the evacuation, and they now (rightly) suspected that he was deliberately withholding Americans so he could evacuate more Vietnamese.

For his part, Martin blamed Scowcroft for not ordering enough helicopter sorties so he could evacuate all of the Vietnamese still at the embassy. “Actually we very carefully calculated the whole bloody business, taking ninety at a time, and with what Scowcroft had promised me—well, God knows if you can’t count on the President’s National Security Adviser, who the hell do you count on?”

But the decision wasn’t Martin’s to make. The White House and Joint Chiefs had decided that time was up. Recounted Martin, “Suddenly we got this message that everything was off. ‘The next helicopter is coming; please come out.’” After receiving the news, he cabled Scowcroft, “Plan to close mission Saigon approximately 0430…Due to necessity to destroy [communications] gear, this is the last Saigon message to SecState.”

At 4:42 a.m. on April 30, the ambassador, pale, suffering from insomnia, unsteady on his feet, and still recovering from a recent medical operation, was helicoptered from the embassy. Additional helicopters rescued the remaining few Americans. The final CH-46 and its escort of Cobra gunships landed just before 8:00 a.m.—in full daylight—to pick up the last eleven Marines. As the last Marines quickly climbed the stairs up to the embassy roof, desperate South Vietnamese raced up behind them. And as the Marines hastily boarded the one waiting helicopter, the first Vietnamese to reach the roof made a dive for the helicopter as it began to lift off.

About 400 Vietnamese who were crowded in the embassy courtyard and whom Martin or other U.S. officials had promised to evacuate were stranded. For the U.S. officials and Marines taking the last few helicopters, the scene was excruciating: Although orders were orders, many of them had worked for years with the South Vietnamese, and they felt responsible for abandoning them.

At about noon on April 30, the lead tank from the 324th Division of the North Vietnamese army crashed through the gates to the presidential palace in Saigon. Big Minh was placed under arrest, and the U.S. embassy was ransacked not long afterward. All of Vietnam was in communist hands.

The evacuation crisis was the most severe leadership test Brent Scowcroft had faced in his career. Throughout it, he was constantly in touch with Kissinger and frequently with the president. He spoke often with Schlesinger and others in the Department of Defense as well as with Ambassador Martin, Wolfgang Lehmann, [CIA station chief] Tom Polgar, and President Thieu, whether by telephone or cable. He also worked closely with Adm. Noel Gayler, commander in chief of the Pacific Command. And he was “able to knock heads together at CINCPAC and with the fleet commanders when critical bottlenecks showed up,” historian John Prados reported, not losing sight of what the U.S. hoped to achieve.

Scowcroft ran the situation room “for a long, exhausting day of one emergency after another.” And with the twelve-hour time difference between Washington and Vietnam, he was often up most of the night and sometimes all night during those final days. To others in the White House, he appeared “frail and exhausted.” In contrast to Kissinger, who “grew increasingly irate and short-tempered” as the evacuation drew to a climax, Scowcroft kept his poise. Hartmann, who disliked the holdovers from the Nixon White House, especially Kissinger, appreciated Scowcroft’s “tireless and unflappable” personality.

Still, Scowcroft found the end of the Vietnam War greatly disturbing. Having dealt with hundreds of families of POWs and MIAs in his role as military assistant and having himself been confined to military hospitals for two years, he couldn’t view the episode and the suffering it involved from twenty thousand feet.

The end of the Vietnam War was in many ways a microcosm of the multifaceted history of the failed U.S. involvement in Indochina. “It was,” admitted Scowcroft, “a miracle we got out.”

This piece was excerpted from The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security. (PublicAffairs Press, 2015)

Bartholomew Sparrow is a professor and associate chair of the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin

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The United States Isn’t the Only Country Still Trying to Figure Out the Vietnam War 

HNN  April 20, 2015

Forty years ago this month, the savage war in Vietnam ended dramatically with North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. As Americans continue to struggle over the legacies of the Vietnam War, it may surprise many of us that our former enemy who won that war is confronting a crisis over its meaning.

Ever since the end of the war, Hanoi leaders have sought to capitalize on their military victory to legitimize their rule. Every year the event is celebrated with great fanfare, as “the day when South Vietnam was liberated and the country reunified.” The victory on that day, Vietnamese are told again and again, epitomized the 4,000-year history of Vietnamese struggle for independence. Its greatness validated the eternal mandate of the Communist Party to rule the country.

Yet public opinion inside Vietnam about the meaning of the war has quietly shifted in the last two decades as Vietnamese gained the freedom to travel abroad, as scholars gained access to previously classified documents, and as the internet broke the government’s monopoly on access to information. The internet has been the government’s chief adversary more than anything else. Most Vietnamese were born after the war, and without the internet they would not have been able to know what really happened during the war and in its aftermath.

No opinion survey on the topic is permitted, but one gets a sense of the public mood by following online discussions and by initiating informal conversations with ordinary Vietnamese. Much to the government’s chagrin, Vietnamese now view the war as a proxy war and civil war rather than one for national liberation and unification.

In fact, Mr. Le Duan, the leader of the Communist Party who is now acknowledged by historians as the primary architect of the war effort within North Vietnam’s leadership, said in closed meetings that the ultimate goal of the war was to establish communism all over Vietnam. As recently declassified documents show, Mr. Duan repeatedly insisted that the war was fought not only in Vietnam’s interests but also for the Soviet bloc.

Mr. Duan was no Soviet lackey. Recent studies by historians Lien-Hang Nguyen and Pierre Asselin show that he rejected the advice of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who supported peaceful coexistence between the two Vietnams. In fact, Mr. Duan ordered the arrests of many high-ranking Party members and hundreds of their supporters who opposed his risky military campaign known as the Tet Offensive. They spent years in prison, being accused of spying for the Soviets. This was the civil war in North Vietnam that was only recently revealed.

In this civil war, the enemies of Mr Duan and other fanatical leaders in Hanoi included not only their comrades but also North Vietnamese landlords, industrialists, merchants, intellectuals, and even ordinary peasants. At least 15,000 landlords were executed during a land reform in the mid-1950s. Shops and factories as well as private newspapers were nationalized soon afterwards. Thousands of writers, professionals, and business owners who criticized those policies were sent to labor camps.

By the early 1960s, the free farmers of North Vietnam were no longer free. They were coerced into joining collective farms which paid them barely enough to survive. They fought back with those “weapons of the weak” which are so astutely analyzed by the political scientists James Scott and Benedict Kerkvliet: footdragging, petty thefts of public property, and destruction of crops and livestock.

Radical communist policies were not implemented because Hanoi needed to mobilize resources for war. After the war ended in 1975, the same policies were forced upon South Vietnamese as well. Truckloads of “books that spread decadent capitalist culture” were seized and burned on the streets. Big businesses and factories were nationalized immediately, followed by smaller ones. The free farmers of South Vietnam, like their northern compatriots earlier, were forced to join collective farms.

It wasn’t just former South Vietnamese officials, but also many intellectuals, religious leaders, and entrepreneurs ended up in “re-education camps” or “new economic zones” as well. The civil war in this sense did not cease in 1975, but much later, in the late 1980s, when the Party abandoned collectivization, legalized private enterprises, loosened the ideological yoke on writers, and lifted restrictions on international travel for ordinary people.

The greater freedom and comfort Vietnamese enjoy today came not from the end of the war, but from the end of the communist revolution in the late 1980s. The market reforms that the Party launched since then have been popular, but have ironically invited greater scrutiny into its past fanaticism. Numerous eyewitness accounts of the land reform, re-education camps, and famished life in collective farms are now readily available online for those who want to learn more about that past. This gives birth to the popular joke that “the longest and bloodiest path to capitalism is through socialism.”

In fact, Vietnam’s “market economy with socialist orientations” is making the Vietnamese road to capitalism longer and more brutal. Market reforms have significantly lifted living standards, yet at the same time have fueled increasing discontent. The Party has refused to return ownership of land to farmers, enabling officials at all levels to grab land to enrich themselves. State corporations monopolize the rice export trade and make millions of dollars every year while farmers are forced to accept low prices for their crops.

Except for a few honest leaders, the Party has morphed into a family-run racket. Children of officials, or the “red princes and princesses,” are now routinely appointed to key positions early on to succeed their parents when they retire. This perverse outcome naturally causes the war that brought the country under the Party’s control to be seen in a new light. As the popular poet and once-People’s Army soldier Nguyen Duy wrote, “whichever side won in war, it is the people who lost.”

Nguyen Duy spoke for numerous other North Vietnamese intellectuals from military leaders such as the late General Tran Do and Colonel Pham Que Duong, to scientists and scholars such as Nguyen Thanh Giang and Nguyen Hue Chi, to prominent writers such as Nguyen Ngoc and Nguyen Quang Lap, to young lawyers and doctors such as Nguyen Van Dai and Pham Hong Son.

General Do, the most “Bolshevik” among the dissidents, joined the communist party in his teens and was the commissar of North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam during the later years of the war. In the 1990s, he gave up hope on communism and called for reassessing the communists’ contributions to the country, pointing to Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, which had achieved independence and economic prosperity without being led by a communist party. For his criticisms, Mr. Do was expelled from the Party. At his funeral, the government even ordered thugs to harass the hundreds who came to pay their respects.

In a recent two-volume book about postwar Vietnam, journalist Huy Duc admitted that in hindsight it was the South that liberated the North, not vice versa. North Vietnamese lived in abject poverty caused mostly by their leaders’ fanatical policies, yet many were led to believe that their socialist system was superior and that their Southern compatriots’ lives were much worse under imperialism. What they saw with their own eyes in the South after 1975 liberated their minds from the web of lies told by their leaders.

Mr. Duc grew up in North Vietnam during the war and once served as a captain in the People’s Army of Vietnam. He had access to top Party leaders and their advisers, and maintained a balanced perspective throughout his book. Mr. Duc’s book, which was published in the U.S. and sold on Amazon last year, created an immediate sensation inside Vietnam. It spurred lively online debates for months afterward, and has received widespread acclaims from Vietnam experts.

Mr. Duc was close to the late Vo Van Kiet, who was Vietnam’s Prime Minister in the 1990s. During the war Mr. Kiet was one of the top leaders of communist forces in the South. His wife and two children were killed during a bombing raid, yet he was honest enough to have once admitted that the anniversary of the communist victory in April 1975 brought not only joy to millions of Vietnamese but also sorrow to millions of other Vietnamese.

Forty years after the end of the war, prominent Vietnamese from diverse backgrounds now feel that it was a costly mistake. Of course, the Party would never admit that. A military parade is being planned in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the communist victory. We’ll have to see whether the show of guns can substitute for the loss of mandate. As the symbolism of that victory has shifted, how long the regime will still be around to celebrate future anniversaries is another interesting question to ponder.

A native of Vietnam and an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, Tuong Vu has authored many books and articles about the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Vietnamese revolution. He can be reached at thvu@uoregon.edu.

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