Monday, October 15, 2012

Q&A with Professor Larry Berman

Larry Berman's books include Perfect Spy, Lyndon Johnson's War, and Zumwalt. Berman is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, and Founding Dean of the Honors College at Georgia State University.

Q: Your new book, Zumwalt, is about Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. What is your take on his role during the Vietnam years?

A: Admiral Elmo Russell Zumwalt, the charismatic Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and “the Navy’s most popular leader since WWII” (Time) was a man who embodied honor, courage, and commitment to those under his command. In a naval career spanning 40 years, he rose to the top echelon of the U.S. Navy, as a commander of all Navy forces in Vietnam and then as CNO (1970-1974). His tenure came at a time of scandal and tumult, from the Soviets’ challenge to U.S. naval supremacy and a duplicitous endgame in Vietnam to Watergate and an admirals’ spy ring. Unlike many other senior naval officers, Zumwalt successfully enacted radical change, including the integration of the most racist branch of the military—an achievement that made him the target of bitter personal recriminations. His fight to modernize a technologically obsolete fleet pitted him against such formidable adversaries as Henry Kissinger and Hyman Rickover.

Ultimately, Zumwalt created a more egalitarian Navy as well as a smaller and modernized fleet better prepared to cope with a changing world—a policy that has helped keep the Navy a modern and relevant fighting force. But Zumwalt’s professional success was marred by personal loss, including the unwitting role he played in his son’s death from Agent Orange.  It was Zumwalt who issued the order to defoliate the jungles.  Retiring from the service in 1974, Zumwalt spearheaded a citizen education and mobilization effort to successfully help others in securing reparations for thousands of Vietnam veterans and their children. That activism earned him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by Bill Clinton in 1998. Today, his tombstone at the U.S. Naval Academy is inscribed with one word: Reformer.Q: How have the lessons of Vietnam been applied, or ignored, in Iraq and Afghanistan?

A: Despite the passage of time, America’s war in Vietnam remains a metaphor for defeat but also an experience from which curious lessons and analogies have been drawn.  President Barack Obama, when ramping up the war in Afghanistan, explicitly rejected the Vietnam analogy, saying, “you have to learn lessons from history… each historical moment is different. You never step into the same historical river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.”  The president went on to say that those who think Afghanistan cannot be stabilized and that it would be better to cut losses are “basing their argument on a false reading of history.”

In T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” Eliot suggests that as one becomes older, the past ceases to be a mere sequence—or even development—because we accept popular or superficial explanations for what occurred and we thereby disown the past…leaving us with the experience but missing its meaning.  Thus, “the past has another pattern.” The United States is hoping to achieve in both countries [Iraq and Afghanistan] what it failed to do in Vietnam—create and sustain a government and political order that will be supported and fought for by its populace.  In Vietnam, the United States backed a client regime that was unable to muster the political legitimacy or military skill necessary to survive after our withdrawal.

Vietnam should have given us a better grasp of how unstable military power is for low-intensity conflicts and how it often leaves us supporting regimes over which we have little leverage.   The Vietnam experience should have underscored the power of local circumstances and indigenous forces to resist transformation by an intervening power.  What the United States lacked in Vietnam was not persistence, not will, nor even good intentions, but rather understanding—of Vietnamese history, culture, values, motives and abilities.  Many of the factors that made Vietnam a quagmire are all replicated in Afghanistan where the only counter-escalation open to our adversary has been broadening the insurgent base.  In Vietnam, the more troops we put in, the more Vietcong were recruited. The more we bombed, the stiffer their resolve became.

Can support for the Taliban be related to the number of U.S. troops fighting on their soil? Can foreign troops provide locals the motivation to fight against their own countrymen for a foreign power?   What Afghan institutions—army, police, government—are strong enough to survive after we leave? I agree that many of the U.S. objectives in Vietnam were noble. I think that many U.S. officials and certainly many of the American soldiers and civilians who served in Vietnam were motivated by a genuine desire to advance the cause of freedom and to defeat tyranny.  However, I also think that the nobility of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was compromised in innumerable ways by American hubris, ignorance and arrogance—qualities that often led the United States to fight and act in ways that were both counterproductive and morally deplorable.

Q: In your opinion, which president was most adept at applying lessons from the Vietnam War to his own decisions about whether to send troops into battle?

A: Allow me to use the technique employed by presidential candidates during debates and give an answer to a slightly different question.  I would say that Dwight Eisenhower’s decision not to intervene in Dienbienphu to save the encircled French garrison—the day we didn’t go to war. The Eisenhower process produced contingency plans and a wide range of options. Eisenhower regularly reformulated questions and broadened potential courses of action by considering tradeoffs and other considerations.  Eisenhower encouraged dissent and multiple-advocacy.  He understood that the worst place to send U.S. troops was to the jungles of Vietnam.

Q: What are the most striking changes you have seen over the years in Vietnam during your various trips there?

A: Vietnam is an extraordinary country to visit.  The greatest changes I have witnessed are in the area of education and the wide use of the prevalence of the English language and the number of English-language bookstores.  Of all the students I have taught, I most enjoy being in a classroom on a campus in Vietnam.  The students are so hungry to earn and appreciate the role of a teacher. English has become a commodity in Vietnam—those who speak it have a chance to earn a living for their family.

Q: Your book Perfect Spy focuses on Pham Xuan An, Time magazine reporter and North Vietnamese agent. What set of circumstances caused him to lead that double life?

A: All An ever wanted for the Vietnamese people was the chance to determine their own future, free from foreign interference. He was imbued with nationalist ideals of creating a new society based on social justice and economic equality. His dreams for the revolution turned out to be na├»ve and idealistic, but the power of his life story is driven by the noblest of goals for Vietnamese nationalism.  He would also pay a heavy price for holding onto his dreams. He had no idea back then that the Party he joined would turn into the brutal regime of 1975. He was not a hard-core party member and anyone who says otherwise is misinformed. He was, as Germaine Loc Swanson said, a communist by obligation.

It was in the mid-1940s when the Communist Party recruited An. The Party chose his cover in journalism and developed a carefully scripted artificial life history. In the years prior to his American journey, An befriended Colonel Edward Lansdale’s covert CIA team. In fact, it was Lansdale himself who helped expedite An’s trip by having the Asia Foundation sponsor An’s studies in the United States. From 1957-59 An attended Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, majored in journalism, interned at the Sacramento Bee and then drove across the country for an internship at the United Nations. He learned so much about American culture and the American people--their compassion, generosity, way of thinking, and their freedoms. He often spoke of how Americans taught him a new way of thinking, a way of looking at the world that the Communist Party could not do. He also said that Americans taught him about humanity.

What makes An’s life story so interesting to me is that he apparently loved living his cover; being a correspondent for a free press was a dream come true in his vision of the revolution. For over 20 years An lived a lie that he hoped would become his reality—working as a newspaper correspondent in a unified Vietnam. He developed enduring bonds of friendship with many prominent journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and with members of the American intelligence community like William Colby and the legendary Edward Lansdale. An admired and respected the Americans he met in Vietnam as well as during his time in the States. He just believed that they had no business being in his country. He came to admire Americans for their way of thinking, their values and the freedoms they possessed. He wanted his children to be educated in America because that was the place he had learned about humanity.

At first, nothing was more difficult for me in writing about An’s life than trying to understand these friendships. In order to survive, An deceived those closest to him about his mission, yet hardly anyone rejected An when they learned he had been a communist spy. What kind of man can forge such enduring friendships based on a falsehood and, when the deception is unveiled, leave so few feeling betrayed?  Why is it that so many refused to believe they had been source material for their friend’s reports to Hanoi?

Q: Anything else you think we should know?

A: The web sites are:

Interview with Deborah Kalb. A version of this interview was previously published on

Larry Berman

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