Saturday, October 7, 2017

Leaving Ken Burns Behind

Followers and Leaders,

Our world turns.  Leaving the Ken Burns documentary about Viet Nam behind stirs memories.  For me, well into my thirties as the war played out endlessly, a lot of what happened was immediate, personal.  I remember emerging from a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. with Doris Kearns -- she was still a graduate student, not yet a Goodwin --  to find the streets in riot during an anti-war rally.  A phalanx of cops in black raincoats and gas masks were releasing a cloud of tear gas to calm the citizens down; Doris and I crawled on our bellies for at least a block to locate our cars.  The "Pogo Riot"! 

Those days I was running around piecing together my first book about Ted Kennedy.  Bobby, no doubt conditioned by his years working for family friend Joe McCarthy and all the recriminations about "losing China" during the Fifties and heavily influenced by General Maxwell Taylor, had pushed for troop involvement and was tagged around the government as "Mister. Counterinsurgency."   JFK had wavered.  Ted was already unreservedly opposed to our involvement, and in time hung an amendment onto a sure-fire piece of legislation that effectively ended the deferment racket by means of which rich kids stayed in school or produced overnight families to evade the draft. This provision alone had a lot to do with our ultimate withdrawal.  Viet Nam was never a preferred destination for the country club crowd.  I remember several heated exchanges with Ted and his cousin Joey Gargan over drinks between campaign stops over how in God's name to extract ourselves from this quagmire.

Individuals I had known well at Harvard were embroiled.  I was surprised that Burns had largely skipped over the flareups produced when David Halberstam kept on detailing in The New York Times how the Diem regime was hounding Buddhists, leading to the infamous "Buddhist barbecues" once individual martyrs started to immolate themselves in protest against the iron-fisted Catholic newcomers controlling the south..  Within months unhappy Buddhists were forming the cadre of the Viet Cong.  When CIA analyst Sam Adams -- a good friend of mine in college -- went to the mat on national television with General Westmoreland over how many Viet Cong there were in country -- Adams estimated that there were several times the number official U.S. Army numbers projected -- Adams was forced out of the Agency.  "Adams had it right, of course, but none of us intended to march over to the White House and lay anything like that on Lyndon," Richard Helms, CIA operations chief at the time and later the director, explained to me years later.  "If Adams was correct we would need to at least double the troop deployment over there, and everybody knew that was not politically feasible."

Very little of that seemed to get into Burns' documentary, although there has survived plenty of television footage  and press conference takeouts to demonstrate the lethal politics that poisoned those miserable years.  The impact of Gene McCarthy and Allard Lowenstein and even Sarge Shriver -- who is dismissed as George McGovern's incompetent running-mate -- remain unexplored.  In time individuals were forced to double back and quietly expunge their own positions.  I once asked Frank Mankiewicz, Robert Kennedy's companion when he was campaigning out West for the Democratic nomination for president in 1968, how Bobby of all people turned into such a ferocious dove.  "Mostly a political decision," Mankiewicz was willing to admit.  "Nothing else could possibly have beaten Lyndon."  Meanwhile, so many had died pointlessly and so many, many others came home broken.  Along with his endless patchwork of personal reminiscences by working-class survivors of both cultures, a sophisticated editorial confrontation of the savage geopolitical battles of the period might well have lifted Burns' work to a much wider significance.                                                                 
Most likely it doesn't pay to live in the past.  But it is ruinous to ignore it.

Cheers, whatever.

Burton Hersh 

Friday, July 28, 2017


Stalwarts everywhere,

Again, back in New Hampshire.  The trolls have scrapped the format of my earlier e-mail link over the winter; this is a new site, Fresh History, which I hope gets to you all through the ever-talented ministrations of George Pequignot.

As Donald Trump buddies up with Vladimir Putin in Hamburg I keep hearing reverberations of 1945, when Joseph Stalin and the ailing FDR laid out the parameters of postwar Europe in 1945 at Yalta.  Meanwhile, a British scientist under KGB control in Los Alamos, Klaus Fuchs, was filling his notebook with the critical formulas and emerging technology that would permit the Soviet Union to come up with an atomic bomb of their own months after Hiroshima.  In D.C., Alger Hiss was reassuring the liberals around Roosevelt.

Just now the primary dupe in Washington would seem to be the president himself, whose gratitude is only too plain for the timely nudges the Russians provided his hapless campaign that helped him stumble through to a sort of victory.  Surviving Cold Warriors in Washington, alarmed at Trump's reference to NATO as obsolete and beyond skeptical about the wily Putin, are alarmed that Trump might be quite capable of feeding Eastern Europe into the meatgrinder of his own ever-famished self-esteem.  What they seem to be missing is the largely ignored recognition throughout the ex-Communist bloc that too ambitious a territorial engorgement usually leads to a cosmic bellyache.

Perhaps the first president to comprehend this was Richard Nixon.  Universally reviled at the moment in the aftermath of Watergate, perhaps Nixon ought to be reconsidered as the author of much of the progressive legislation Donald Trump and his crew of reactionary sellouts are in such a hurry to scrap, from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO, Bob Kennedy's inspiration) and the Witness Protection legislation that led to the breakup of the Mafia.  Having recognized the hopelessness of the misbegotten struggle in Viet Nam, Nixon sent my friend Maurice Williams to China to sound out Mao and open the way to the Paris Peace Talks.  Williams would remember Richard Nixon as the most intelligent among the several presidents for whom he undertook troubleshooting missions.  Nixon understood that the war was a burden to the Chinese too.  Soon afterwards Henry Kissinger had pressured the Soviets out of Egypt and the Middle East.

When positioning ourselves vis-a-vis today's Russia, we ought to keep in mind just how the Russian state that Putin has taken over turned into what it is.  General John Reppert, a St. Petersburg friend who found himself the primary Russian-language translator for our military delegation in Moscow during the Gorbashev years, has filled me in on details that don't seem to be commonly available.  The Reagan administration's breakthroughs in Star War technology left Russian scientists stunned, at least a generation behind. More immediately, the essential realization that the Comintern appear to have absorbed was that empire and great power status had now become intolerably expensive.  That led to the release of the Soviet grip on the East Bloc -- Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, finally -- with misgivings -- the DDR.  But even the fourteen secondary republics that made up the USSR seemed to cost a lot more than they contributed, and by 1991, rather abruptly, the Supreme Soviet under Gorbashev's rather shaky leadership had cut them all loose.  Containment had paid off in a major -- and unexpected -- way!

In many quarters -- certainly among old KGB hands -- this was a blunder that Putin would not scruple to label treason.  Much of the old Russia's industry was located in largely Russian-speaking Ukraine.  The Crimea was Russia's primary port on the Black Sea, vital to both commerce and the Russian navy.  With its faltering Third-World economy, dependent largely on oil exports, Russia had pretty much eviscerated itself, and its ruling oligarchy was subject to acute sellers' remorse.  Putin would attempt a recovery.

Having themselves briefly abandoned Great Power Status, the Russians are now attempting to
recoup.  How far they get is going to depend on us.

Cheers, as always,

Burton

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Russia Again

Beloved Followers,

I know.  Months have passed.  It has been a long winter here in Florida.  My major accomplishment seems to have been the repackaging of the first novel of The Landau Trilogy, The Hedge Fund, with new covers and a very readable format.  Available on Amazon Books, at Haslam's in St. Petersburg, around the struggling planet.  The two successor volumes, Wet Work and Comanche Country, are also available on Amazon even as we work on final details.  One reader responded to The Hedge Fund by observing that he got so excited as he read that he was afraid the cops would move in and arrest him. Get the novel and see how you feel.


Another reason I haven't been writing these blogs is that the conventional media, from the on-air comedians to CNN to The New York Times to The Washington Post have been covering the early months of the Trump presidency so comprehensively, so acutely, that nobody seemed to need me.  It did surprise me that outrage and astonishment are so general here at Moscow's involvement in our affairs.  This has been standard operating procedure probably since the Thirties.  In 1992 Scribners published a book of mine, The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, that tracked in detail the involvement of Carmel Offie and Frank Wisner, the socialite director of operations in the early Agency.  Wily and utterly self-serving, it would become clear afterwards that Offie was under the control of the KGB all along.  Throughout those same Cold-War years, as Richard Helms confided to me during several long interviews, most of the information the CIA was processing came through the headquarters of General Reinhard Gehlen, once Hitler's intelligence chief and subsequently our pick to handle secrets for the Bundesrepublik.  Gehlen, as it developed, was completely penetrated by the KGB.

At Richard Helms' insistence I managed to corner James Critchfield, who had been the CIA officer posted in Gehlen's Apparat in Bonn.  Critchfield spoke no German, and a lot that was going on clearly went by him.  Definitely an inside operator, Critchfield would reappear in my book Bobby and J. Edgar for having been spotted, reportedly, both in Dealey Plaza and later in the basement of the Ambassador Hotel the evening Bob Kennedy was murdered.

One week in 1997 I joined a group of perhaps a dozen American writers on intelligence as the guests of the KGB retirees association in Moscow.  Over discussions at dinner I discovered that these Soviet spymasters were more than conversant with all these background details.  Intelligence stalwarts around Langley were not, and were shocked when The Old Boys appeared.  Currently, however, it is on the must-read list there for officers-in-training.

So Russian intelligence has been interested and involved in our business for quite a while.  That they would land on Donald Trump, with his many bankruptcies, cannot be much of a surprise.  Given The Donald's devouring feelings of inadequacy, how could they go wrong?

Meanwhile, the rest of us mostly lie there like an unwilling patient whose appendix is about to burst.

Cheers.  Burton Hersh