Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy II


So here we are, wading through the last few days of 2012.  Christmas is behind us; most of us have survived the Holiday Goose.  Will we be so lucky with the fiscal cliff?

My last blog, in which I questioned the apparent determination of David Nasaw, in his current biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, to maintain that Joe was innocent of any involvement with bootlegging or any of the nastier underworld honchos of his time, has stirred up quite a lot of comment.  Perhaps the shrewdest arrived from Steve Sewall, who cited Nasaw's "categorical denial of Joe K's bootlegging" recently on Chicago Public Television, following which "Nasaw boasts that he was virtually commissioned by the Kennedys to write about Joe: after being 'approached by Jean Kennedy Smith' he had lunch six months later with Senator Kennedy."

The truth is, too many contemporary biographies amount to carefully confected public-relations puff jobs, produced largely to project the image that the supporters or the friends or the heirs of the subject would prefer.  One principle I have always held to in my work is never to permit the people I am writing about to see the result until after the book or magazine piece is out.  I tell my subjects that it is really in their best interest not to go over the manuscript prior to publication -- whatever I say is certain to offend somebody in their world, and, having reviewed the material, they too will be tarred with resentment.  I also tell them that I have enough editors already.  Mostly they attempt to live with this, although they always maintain -- Ted Kennedy was no exception -- that they only hope to pick up on any mistakes before the book goes to press.  I always say no, and usually they can live with the result.
The one -- to me -- regrettable exception was Paul Mellon.  Over several years, during which I saw or heard from Mellon every week, we developed a genuine friendship.  Paul was a very graceful and utterly honest individual -- he gave his huge fortune away, mostly through enormous philanthropic endeavors like the East Building of the National Gallery.  He had his human susceptibilities, and -- in keeping with my responsibilities -- I touched on those, observing at one point in The Mellon Family that, like J.P. Morgan, Paul remained devoted to Old Masters and Old Mistresses.  I also took a selective blowtorch to his parents' sticky divorce and some of the deserving Pittsburg relatives.

When the book came out Paul was evidently furious, and vented in an interview in the the Pittsburgh newspapers.  I had abused the extraordinary access he had granted me.  I did not respond.  Then, years later, Paul himself wrote an autobiography, Reflections in a Silver Spoon.  It was a solid book, characteristically adroit, which dealt with many of the same details that upset him when I opened them up. Then he wrote me a letter, admitting that pretty much everything I had dealt with needed to be included, and apologizing for his tantrum at the time.  Still -- foolishly -- miffed, I never wrote him back.

A few years ago Yale gave a banquet in celebration of Paul Mellon's centenary -- he had died eight years earlier.  I was invited.  There were many speeches, but I suspect that of the perhaps one hundred celebrants at that dinner, the shrewd and generous-spirited Englishman who helped Paul assemble his wonderful collection of English art for Yale, John Baskett, and I were the only guests who actually knew the man.  Paul had built a museum for this outstanding collection in New Haven and donated the paintings and drawings and sculptures to the University.

My point here is that the treatment of any important historical subject that is likely to endure is one that is not compromised by prior commitment, implicit or explicit, to the subject of the work.  The heirs are not interested in a vivid depiction of their ancestor -- the last thing they want, as the poet says, is the truth with the bark off.  I would be more than curious about whether Jean Kennedy Smith demanded and got the opportunity to go over and "correct" Nasaw's manuscript before it was published.  Did money change hands?  Apart from the sanitized remains of Joe Kennedy's selected papers in the Kennedy Library, what sources did Nasaw trust?  In Bobby and J. Edgar I worked the entire waterfront, careful to validate whatever I found and key the reader to the authenticity of every source in close to seventy pages, thousands of careful, tightly packed notes.

I haven't gotten to Nasaw's biography yet.  When I do, you will hear.

Warmest wishes for the New Year,

Burton Hersh 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy


Again, a trip under the lights for several reviews and commentaries, all suggestive of the fact that what turns up in print is too often a long way from what really happened on the ground.

On The New York Times op-ed page of December 1,  Paul Finkelman compares the unfailingly laudatory treatment of Thomas Jefferson in Jon Meacham's recent, prizewinning biography of the statesman with results derived from the work of Jefferson scholar Henry Wiencek.  Wiencek's research would have it that Jefferson was particularly reactionary when it came to his judgement of blacks, whom he kept enslaved in large numbers, impregnated, refused mostly to liberate in his will, and regarded as no better than children, "pests in society," and "inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind."  Jefferson was, Finkelman concludes, "a creepy, brutal hypocrite."

All this is tough on Jefferson, and surprising to find in The Times.  More relevant to my efforts has been the Times' treatment of the current biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, The Patriarch, by David Nasaw.  A lot of the press Nasaw has been getting revolves around his assertion in essence that Kennedy was not a bootlegger at the start of his career and that he never affiliated himself with the kingpins of organized crime.

Now -- where to start.  Having myself written a long and meticulously researched book -- everything in it is carefully sourced -- that tracks in great detail the history of the Kennedy family, Bobby and J. Edgar (Carroll and Graf, 2007), which focuses especially on how Joe Kennedy's dependence on mob resources and the intervention of major criminal personalities from Al Capone and  Frank Costello to Sam Giancana led to the assassination of John Kennedy, I had to be astonished at Nasaw's conclusions. 

Nasaw makes a great point during interviews that his material was largely derived from unlimited access to the Joseph P. Kennedy papers in the Kennedy library, which -- unsurprisingly -- made little mention of Joe's criminal connections.  Having myself had unlimited access to these same documents, I assure the reader they were mostly, not entirely -- see Joe's exchange of letters with Carroll Rosenbloom, who was heavily mobbed up, here and in Havana  -  well sanitized before innocents like Nasaw got a look. 

But I was also given unlimited access to FBI records on the Kennedy family by J. Edgar Hoover's right-hand man, Deke DeLoach, who remembered well Joe's mob involvement.  Based in the documents alone  many of the cross-connections became apparent.  Experts like Gus Russo helped fill in the gaps, along with individuals involved in Joe Kennedy's practical affairs.  Credible insiders from Peter Maas to Gore Vidal, a shirttail relative of the Kennedys, have spelled a great deal out.  Unmistakably, Joe did have regular arrangements with mob leaders his entire business life, and was in fact a co-owner with Sam Giancana, the gangster who reportedly gave the go-ahead to shoot Jack, of the Cal-Neva Lodge at the time the president got shot.

When Bobby and J Edgar came out a number of the most important Kennedy historians immediately recognized its accuracy.  Richard Whalen, whose seminal biography The Founding Father opened up the subject, wrote that my book constituted "a major contribution" to the Kennedy literature, since my "original research on [Joe's] mob connections and his bootlegging career, among other revelations, shed important new light on this mystery-shrouded subject."  Richard Reeves was generous in his appreciation.  Facts are facts.

Go buy Bobby and J. Edgar yourselves and see what you think.  A new edition, concurrent with the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting of JFK, with a startling new Preface, will be coming out next year,
 courtesy of Basic Books.

Meanwhile, y'all, cheers.  And a Merry Christmas.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Spies in the Bedroom II


Again, a moment or two of rueful retrospection engendered by the brief rise and unexpected collapse of the CIA career of General David Petraeus, victim of a few misdirected e-mails and a round of raging chick business in Tampa funneled through a starchy minor FBI agent.  Tabloid fodder, except with bewildering national-security implications.

The fact is, at least since David was undone by Bathsheba, or Samson by Delilah, spies have been expected to accomplish their purposes below -- often in -- the fold, to misappropriate a standard term of newspaper jargon.  Sex has been the weapon of choice, and many an otherwise staunch patriot has gone down -- so to speak -- seduced and too often abandoned by the seducer -- or seductress -- of the moment. 

When I was delving into the personal histories that formed the basis of my group biography The Old Boys:  The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA I would rarely have to interview and research very deeply before I became aware that most of the individuals who operated as bad boys and girls in the nation's behalf remained bad boys and girls in every aspect of their private lives.  Misbehavior testified to their necessary deviousness.  Wild Bill Donovan, who created the Office of Strategic Services, the first American intelligence-gathering and covert action entity, was a notorious hound.  The lawyer who pushed operations into the CIA's mandate and himself came to epitomize the "classic era" of Agency machinations around the world, CIA Director Allen Dulles, cut a sensational swath through the bedrooms of Bern and Georgetown.  If you require details, check out the memoir by one of his more articulate conquests, Mary Bancroft.  Allen's anguished sister Eleanor took time to quote me chapter and verse as regarded Allen's antics over many decades.

Secondary personalities were equally active.  Donovan's deputy, that highly regarded diplomat David Bruce, once wrote me a letter explaining in surprising detail how and why he had abandoned his marriage to Ailsa, Paul Mellon's sister, while on station after the Blitz in London and how he had taken up with the divine Evangeline.

Flagrant misbehavior was not necessarily heterosexual.  The rather ominous fixer who virtually controlled U.S. policy toward the East Bloc during the Eisenhower years, Carmel Offie, made very little effort to hide his homosexual preferences.  When I once asked Jim Angleton, founder of counterintelligence at CIA, why Offie -- who was in all probability on the KGB's payroll -- why CIA never investigated Offie's proclivities and contacts, Angleton said that Offie was simply too powerful -- he had too many influential friends.  The Soviets would remain impenetrable --  see The Old Boys.

Insiders were quite open about a lot of this.  I once went to the Watergate apartment of a top CIA official to confirm some information.  Before long he appeared with another top Agency officer; both middle-aged men emerged from the bedroom in matching Japanese kimonos.  Neither of them bothered with an explanation.

Evidently, those were more worldly times.  People kept their jobs based on how they did their jobs.  We are subject to the tabloids today, and we are paying the price.

Best of the season to all of you.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Spies in the Bedroom


Perhaps it's the continuous seepage of the Women's Movement into our rotting culture, or perhaps its the afterecho of Rick Santorum, who warned us that we had better get ahold of ourselves.  Whatever, the abrupt resignation of General David Petraeus as Director of the CIA puts us on notice that the times they are a'changing, the clandestine balances and restraints inside our swollen National Security bureaucracy have collapsed, and matters regarded as venial by our more sophisticated forebears seem to be more than enough to break careers overnight and set the government itself wobbling.

It happens that I myself spent ten years poking around Langley and interviewing, ultimately, more than a hundred top serving and recently retired functionaries in the CIA while preparing to write The Old Boys:  The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA. Once attacked by propagandists for the Agency, this book is today on virtually every desk around CIA headquarters.  Lively reading still, controversial in many places, The Old Boys serves as the Agency's widely acknowledged secret institutional history.

I suspect that if the founders of the CIA came back to life they would be astonished that the threat of exposure for having had a lady friend or two on the side seemed to be grounds for forcing out an otherwise exemplary director.  They would be even more astounded that another co-equal bureaucracy in the government, in this case the FBI, took it upon itself to comb out the CIA Director's e-mails and seemed to threaten to expose the liaison it had surfaced.  Amazing!

Powerful men have assumed the perogative of acquiring a romantic interest on the side at least since King David's reign.  Ask Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin.  Grover Cleveland was elected twice in spite of the fact that the superPACs of the era ran a slogan against him pointing up his bastard child :  "Ma, ma, where's pa?  He's in the White House, ha, ha, ha."  FDR appreciated  the occasional  interlude of female companionship, especially when Eleanor wasn't around.  As for JFK or Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton?  In every case the occasional indiscretion leaked, but our leaders kept their jobs.  There were a lot more important considerations, even around the Bible Belt.

To start with, there were matters of war and peace.  I remember sitting in the office of the Deputy Director at the Agency, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, when the warhawks around Ronald Reagan were manipulating the press and instigating incidents on the ground -- Iran-Contra ultimately -- in hopes of starting a war with Nicaragua.  He was about to leave, Inman assured me.  Himself a far more experienced intelligence officer than the Director, William Casey, a Wall Street sharpie with a few months of World War II service in London with the OSS, Inman had served as director of the much larger and more important NSA and hated the direction the warhawks were headed under the clueless Reagan.  "I"ve got to leave before they drag me out of this place by the ankles, kicking and screaming," he confided to me.  Weeks later he was gone.  In those days policy issues, not the irrevelancies of anybody's private life, decided who kept his or her job.

Agree with him or disagree, David Petraeus is without a doubt a valuable, seasoned leader, one we will miss.  Does his flirtation with his knockout of a biographer, Paula Broadwell, really compromise his effectiveness?  Is Paula in league with the Chinese Commies or Iran or the Soviet Union -- a historical memory, except to Mitt Romney -- or anybody else we might not like this week?  Where is Missus Grundy going to take us all?

Answer me that, troopers.


Burton Hersh


Perhaps it's the continuous seepage of the Women's Movement into our rotting culture, or perhaps its the afterecho of Rick Santorum, who warned us that we had better get ahold of ourselves.  Whatever, the abrupt resignation of General David Petraeus as Director of the CIA puts us on notice that the times they are a'changing, the clandestine balances and restraints inside our swollen National Security bureaucracy have collapsed, and matters regarded as venial by our more sophisticated forebears seem to be more than enough to break careers overnight and set the government itself wobbling.

It happens that I myself spent ten years poking around Langley and interviewing, ultimately, more than a hundred top serving and recently retired functionaries in the CIA while preparing to write The Old Boys:  The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA. Once attacked by propagandists for the Agency, this book is today on virtually every desk around CIA headquarters.  Lively reading still, controversial in many places, The Old Boys serves as the Agency's widely acknowledged secret institutional history.

I suspect that if the founders of the CIA came back to life they would be astonished that the threat of exposure for having had a lady friend or two on the side seemed to be grounds for forcing out an otherwise exemplary director.  They would be even more astounded that another co-equal bureaucracy in the government, in this case the FBI, took it upon itself to comb out the CIA Director's e-mails and seemed to threaten to expose the liaison it had surfaced.  Amazing!

Powerful men have assumed the perogative of acquiring a romantic interest on the side at least since King David's reign.  Ask Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin.  Grover Cleveland was elected twice in spite of the fact that the superPACs of the era ran a slogan against him pointing up his bastard child :  "Ma, ma, where's pa?  He's in the White House, ha, ha, ha."  FDR appreciated  the occasional  interlude of female companionship, especially when Eleanor wasn't around.  As for JFK or Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton?  In every case the occasional indiscretion leaked, but our leaders kept their jobs.  There were a lot more important considerations, even around the Bible Belt.

To start with, there were matters of war and peace.  I remember sitting in the office of the Deputy Director at the Agency, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, when the warhawks around Ronald Reagan were manipulating the press and instigating incidents on the ground -- Iran-Contra ultimately -- in hopes of starting a war with Nicaragua.  He was about to leave, Inman assured me.  Himself a far more experienced intelligence officer than the Director, William Casey, a Wall Street sharpie with a few months of World War II service in London with the OSS, Inman had served as director of the much larger and more important NSA and hated the direction the warhawks were headed under the clueless Reagan.  "I"ve got to leave before they drag me out of this place by the ankles, kicking and screaming," he confided to me.  Weeks later he was gone.  In those days policy issues, not the irrevelancies of anybody's private life, decided who kept his or her job.

Agree with him or disagree, David Petraeus is without a doubt a valuable, seasoned leader, one we will miss.  Does his flirtation with his knockout of a biographer, Paula Broadwell, really compromise his effectiveness?  Is Paula in league with the Chinese Commies or Iran or the Soviet Union -- a historical memory, except to Mitt Romney -- or anybody else we might not like this week?  Where is Missus Grundy going to take us all?

Answer me that, troopers.


Burton Hersh


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Memories of Arnold II


Again. at our post, dispensing the secrets of the universe.  Enunciating the unspeakable.

One of the great boons that appears out of a blog like this is the reappearance of people -- at least their voices -- lost for years and years inside the fretwork of history.  Most delightful to me was to hear from that timeless beauty Helga Wagner.  Herself an Austrian from the Alps, Helga gently reminded me that Arnold Schwarzenegger does not have a Tyrolean accent because he grew up in Styria, an offshoot of the Alps well to the east of the Tyrol itself.

Helga is right, of course.  I became acquainted with Helga in 2009.  I was working into the manuscript  the last details of my consolidated treatment of Edward Kennedy's life, Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography (Counterpoint Press, 2010).   I had discovered that after his car dumped off the bridge at Chappiquiddick and he nearly drowned swimming across the cut to Edgartown to arrive finally in his hotel room, Ted Kennedy had placed several telephone calls.  One -- key -- was to Helga Wagner, at that time his principal romantic interest, according to Kennedy insiders the love of his middle years.  She had refused all along to talk to anybody about her sensitive relationship with Ted. I wanted to know what Ted -- deeper by the minute in shock -- had been able to tell Helga about the convulsive tragedy that was just then unfolding.

She told me everything she could.  To find out what she said, buy my book.  Helga was very young then; like most sophisticated Europeans, her sense of life, love and most human interrelationships was quite different from that of middle-class Americans.  Having spent several years myself living in the town in the Alps above Innsbruck, Igls, where she grew up, I obviously understood.  That's probably why she talked to me.

I have a hunch that Helga's take on Arnold Schwarzenegger's missteps is equally tolerant.  The Arnold I knew during the 1970s was a fondler, a grabber sometimes, a blocky musclebound egoist, very perceptive, with a great natural sympathy with almost everybody he met.  When Charles Gaines' novel Stay Hungry was made into a movie by Bob Rafelson, and Arnold was invited to star in his first feature film as the leader of a rabble of body-builders, I snagged a magazine assignment and spent several weeks in Birmingham, Alabama, where most of the scenes were shot.

As it happened, I was put up in Gaines' rental house.  Arnold often visited.  One night about four in the morning a call of nature woke me and I shambled out into the hall headed toward the john.  Halfway there I encountered Arnold barreling down toward me -- bollicky bareass, all balls and a yard wide, as the saying goes.  He had stopped off to administer what's-what to Charles' au pair girl.  We exchanged grins and went about our separate undertakings.

Another incident that took place during the production of that film is equally engraved in my memory.  After a day of long and often harrowing takes, the actors and production people were gathered drinking around the pool of the big motel where most people involved were staying.  The building itself surrounded the pool, set back by twenty or thirty feet.  Suddenly one of the younger body-builders appeared on the edge of the roof, a number of stories up, undoubtedly smashed on cocaine.  "Hey, everybody!  Look, look," he yelled.  "Watch this.  I'm going to dive from here into the pool."

Everybody froze -- except Arnold.  "No -- listen, buddy," he called up, his voice warm and confiding. "You don't want to do that.  Ve all know you could make it, but what if you banged your elbow or something and couldn't compete in the next Mr. Olympia contest? I'm going to retire, so you vill be the next Mr. Olympia, for sure."

None of this made any sense, except to the kid about to splash his brains all over the cement of the patio.  Slowly he backed off.

I have a hunch a lot of the same instinct to protect and preserve others was at work when Arnold decided to admit to the paternity of his son by the housekeeper.  Such actions have deep roots.

As things developed, Arnold and I stayed in touch.  I have one very long letter from him, single-spaced  and several pages long.  When he decided to buy the building which housed Gold's Gym in Santa Monica with the $10,000 he got for starring in Pumping Iron he called and asked my advice.  He really didn't need it:  Arnold has made hundreds of millions of dollars through shrewd investments.   For a while he maintained a house in New Hampshire to stay close to the charismatic Gaines.

We are a culture of the descendants of immigrants. They show up every working day, precariously overloaded with dreams.  Arnold Schwarzenegger hoists their banner.


Burton Hersh 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Memories of Arnold


OK, no more excuses.  After more wear and tear than you can imagine we are resettled in our Florida domain.  Where we are master and mistress, as Seinfeld once had it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been making the rounds of the talk shows, flogging his autobiography, excessively straightforward about what a sequence of miracles his life in America has been, an unlikely climb straight up from body-builder to action movie hero to Gubernator.  But then the lightning struck:  that son by his housekeeper -- who is Arnold coming into adolescence, down to the split front teeth.  Not really a great move, Arnold is quick to concede.  Dumb.

There really aren't that many people whose first name is enough to identify them anywhere on the planet.  Madonna is one.  Arnold is certainly another.  As it happens, one of the many strange juxtapositions of my life put me in touch with Arnold shortly after he showed up in the United States, still in his middle twenties, already the coming name in body-building after a stint in Munich, aggressively determined to master the New World.  My good friend and then neighbor, the writer and cultural stylesetter Charles Gaines, had himself taken the sport up, picked up on Schwartzenegger, and approached him as the potential subject of a photo-cum-text book that turned into Pumping Iron, which itself was quickly developed into the documentary by George Butler.

All this was brewing toward the end of the seventies when I found myself checking into the Algonquin in Manhattan to attend a Mister Olympia pose-off  in Brooklyn the next night.  Schwarzenegger and his claque, Franco Colombu and a number of other coming musclemen of the era, filled up the little lobby clamboring for their room keys.  Arnold was definitely the Alpha Dog.   Not that tall, around six feet, he was a triumph of too many steroids and endless hours in the gym.  I remember the prognathous jaw and how he was wearing an XX Large cotton shirt which he had slitted lengthwise in a number of places along the sleeves to accommodate his gigantic biceps.

His English at that time was workable, at best.  But even then, as if to compensate for his overwhelming brute physicality, he had an antic detachment, a sense of the absurdity of his presentation, which came over as a kind of whimsy.  He was very perceptive, with great emotional intelligence.

He won the contest -- Arnold always won the contest -- and afterwards we talked about his background.  He came from a crossroads town near Graz, in the Eastern Austrian Alps, near the Obertauern, where I liked to ski.  His father had been the police chief and remained -- this I discovered once I knew him better -- an early and largely unreconstructed Nazi.  Years later I would wonder how this fit with Arnold's close association with Rabbi Hier in Los Angeles.  Hier ran the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  Wiesenthal made a career out of hunting down and imprisoning top Nazis.

Pushed along by Gaines' instinctive showmanship,  body-building had its vogue in America.  At one point Gaines and Butler managed to persuade the culturati who ran the Whitney Museum to mount an event which was to signify the arrival of body-building as a serious aesthetic presentation, epic, living sculpture.  My wife and I went down to Manhattan for that.  There was a party first at the Astors', then the beefcake display itself in the main auditorium of the Whitney.  Candace Bergen was running around frantically photographing this extravaganza.

Afterwords a dedicated socialite gave a major champagne evening in a penthouse overlooking the East River.  The place was jammed with overdressed Society types.  Arnold settled into an overstuffed chair to watch the lights of the barges going by on the river, and one bejeweled ditz after another in low-cut cocktail dresses kept seeking him out to flirt with and pinch his muscles.

At some point he had had enough.  I was drifting by when suddenly his enormous arm came up and circled my waist and pulled me down onto his lap.  "Ladies," he announced in his heavy Tyrolean accent, "maybe you should know this, der Burton here is my one real love."  With which he gave me a kiss on the cheek.

The women scattered.  There never has been a straighter male than Schwartzenegger.  Except maybe for me.  But Arnold had made his point.  Recently, when he and Maria broke up, I asked Gaines if I should get in touch with Arnold.  Maybe I had a chance.

And there is more.  Next time.

Burton Hersh   

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Entitlements II


Again, a relocation.  The seasons change and we push off for St. Petersburg shortly.  A productive summer behind us in the Granite State.

A month or so ago an old friend, a veteran CIA functionary still hard at work attempting to present the Agency with a human face, responded to one of my speculations about the frightening shift of wealth in this democracy into the hands of fewer and fewer, while larger numbers every month are sliding into dependency, with her own conclusion that the deficit would kill us.  We were about to degenerate into another Greece.

I fear it could turn out a lot worse.  We could be moving into the middle years of the Weimar Republic.  Even as a high-school student I was absorbed in German language and literature, and kept it going through college, where I spent a lot of time contemplating the cultural convulsion the Nazis brought to what had become the center of European civilization.  After that I spent something over a year supported by a Fulbright grant in Freiburg im Breisgau, in the Black Forest;  one of my teachers there was the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, the rector during the late thirties and himself a Nazi convert.  I lived with several German families, in one of which the father had been forced into the Party to save his job and fought in both World Wars.

This was in 1955-1956.  Several neighborhoods in Freiburg were still rubble.  What came through, month after month, was the extent to which the economic horrors of the twenties had effectively liquidated the middle class in a country long regarded as the most enlightened in Europe.  Allied reparations demands imposed by the Treaty of Versailles had induced Hjalmar Schacht, whose answer to the occupation of the Saarland, when payments were not paid in time, was to so inflate the currency that it was effectively destroyed.  It took a billion Marks to mail a letter.  The savings of middle-class families which had lived comfortably for hundreds of years vaporized.  In response radical parties of the left and right formed militias and terrorized the streets.  Communists occupied Berlin and Munich; alarmed onlookers from the major industrialists to the Vatican treasury subsidized the Brownshirts.  British and American bankers -- among them Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of two U.S. presidents -- made their fortunes pushing bond offerings Hitler would ultimately repudiate -- see my book The Old Boys for details.  The result by the middle of the forties was utter devastation of the German heartland and the extermination of close to an entire generation of German men, along with many tens of millions of Russians and Poles and Jews.

In our time, the equivalent of the unrealistic reparations demands may turn out to be the swelling deficit.  Like global warming, the implications of too much debt are insidious.  Technology and off-shoring and no-interest bank accounts are swiftly eroding the faltering middle class. We can deal with it, or in the end it will deal with us.  Everybody will have to give up quite a bit, from our avaricious billionaires to food stamp addicts.  If we don't face up to what is happening before long, and act, what portends for Greece may look like a vacation.

If that doesn't buck you up, wait until I get to Florida.

Burton Hersh

Wednesday, September 12, 2012



Greetings, a few days belated.  As fellow members of the property-owning class, I felt that you all might appreciate the chance to share my current take on the politics of jobs and taxes.  Accordingly....

Some of the most anguished sounds, the most heartfelt wails of outrage, emerging from the Tea Party stalwarts these days, arise from the fear that the Obama government has become the instrument of redistribution, of taking from the deserving opulent and scattering the wealth of the Republic at the feet of the demanding poor.  The "I did it" crowd, home safe after cashing this month's trust fund check, fears those insatiate populists out there, those would-be Socialists, the rabble determined to take away everything that grandfather accumulated for them.

It would be hard to imagine an apprehension less grounded in reality.  One thing that some of our more astute commentators have started to pick up on is the extent to which the current, painfully slow recovery is the result of onsetting technological changes.  In the July 23 issue of TIME, the ever perceptive Fareed Zakaria notes that, after each recent recession, the rebound has been slower and slower no matter which party is in charge.  He anticipates that "it may take about 60 months -- five years! -- for unemployment to return to pre-recession levels...."  He attributes this to "world globalization and the information revolution...."  Fareed -- always diplomatic -- is talking about outsourcing and computerization, both of which have a way of relocating those precious jobs either in the Third World or perhaps in The Cloud.  Either way, nobody you know is going back on any payroll in any hurry.

Much of the slack all this off-shoring and robotization produce is taken up by those deplorable government programs so resented by the right.  Businessmen have the right to fire people, a particular source of delight to Candidate Romney, but why should anybody's taxes subsidize the months these dead-beats waste on unemployment before they find themselves another job?  Other programs are equally deplorable.  Food stamps -- what a waste.

Recently I have discovered that the younger generation in a number of families like mine -- well-educated, of considerable social status throughout recent generations, youngsters likely to have graduated from good colleges and eager to work -- are now food-assistance  -- "food-stamp" -- recipients.  Some are in graduate school; others, especially single mothers, do have jobs, in industries like fast food and eldercare, that pay so poorly, rarely more than the $7-plus minimum wage, that to eat regularly they are dependent on food assistance and whatever additional help state or federal auspices can provide.

Now, step back.  What is really going on is that gigantic American corporations -- read McDonalds here, but there are innumerable others -- which hire these desperate souls by the millions in the midst of a faltering economy, are pumping up their own bottom lines by enlisting government to subsidize their balance sheets and pick up the minimum living costs for underremunerated employees.  The redistribution here is plain enough --  from government to corporations.  After which the radically overcompensated senior executives can be expected to complain day and night about the corrupting "nanny-state."

I could go on.  And I will -- next time.  We have a federal budget that now runs well over a thousand pages, every lobbiest-ridden line of which authorizes somebody some kind of deduction or carve-out or depletion allowance or matching governmental grant.  It will demand simplification, sooner rather than later if this economy  -- this political system! -- is to survive.  The first step is going to be a frank look at who really benefits, and who suffers, and what we can do about all of it.


Burton Hersh 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Edward Kennedy Redux IV


So.  We find ourselves swinging around for one more pass at the life and times of EMK, fondly remembered and sorely missed.  The occasion for this one is the response to one of my recent blogs from Joan Mellen, our  versatile and frequently trenchant colleague in the intelligence field.  Joan wrote an important book about the attempt by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison to dig up the roots of the conspiracy to murder Jack Kennedy, A Farewell to Justice.  Joan wrote me:

"I don't know if I missed this segment, but people keep asking, why did Teddy stand in the way of the investigation of the death of his brother JFK?  Because he certainly did, following Bobby's lead, maybe, but Bobby was dead.  What was the rationale?"

In his memoir, True Compass, published shortly before he died, Edward Kennedy wrote that "Late in 1964, Bobby asked me to review the Warren Commission's newly released report on the assassination because emotionally he couldn't do it."  Earl Warren gave Ted a briefing, and "made the case for me."

In Bobby and J. Edgar I dealt in some detail with Robert Kennedy's response to the shooting, his suggestion to Warren that he include on the Commission Allen Dulles and John McCone -- two go-along types unlikely to challenge a cover-up.  When Garrison began his investigation, Bob sent Walter Sheridan -- his most reliable demolition expert -- to undermine the inquiry.  And so forth.

I responded as follows to Joan:

"You didn't miss the segment.  I always found Ted ambivalent about the JFK murder, not anything he would talk about.  He once told me that "Dad had a lot of friends and contacts we didn't really know anything about," which was as close as he dared go.  I suppose when Ted was handing around cash that originated with the mob in 1960 in West Virginia he must have had an inkling that there were family associations he had to protect.  Underneath, Ted felt dependent on his father's support and afraid of what the old man might do to him -- he remembered -- and told me about -- the way Joe had deep-sixed Rosemary, as I spelled out in Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography.

"In Bobby and J. Edgar I attempted to lay out the entire scenario.  While running Mongoose Bobby had himself worked closely with syndicate types like Johnny Rosselli, who had become assets of the CIA.  Eager to justify another invasion of Cuba, on the pretext of a purported assassination attempt by Oswald, who had been set up as a pro-Castro fanatic while working as a CIA agent in New Orleans, Bobby had probably signed off on the whole big-store operation, which the Agency's mob associates had been brought in to front.  Then Jack got popped, Oswald survived the original planning to take him out and everybody involved scrambled to cover up his tracks.  I assume that Ted had figured out enough of all this to realize that Bob was implicated, however inadvertently.  Loyalty to his brother -- or at least the public perception of his brother -- no doubt lay behind the rather tepid support Kennedy gave to the Warren Commisssion conclusions in his memoirs.  Interestingly, a number of people closest to Ted, whom I still see regularly, have come around to accepting my overall conclusions.

"In outline, that's what I think."

A slice of history, bound to be controversial.


Burton Hersh

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Edward Kennedy Redux III


This summer I have been working mostly on a sequel to my last novel, which introduced the Landau family, a wide-ranging and vigorous -- some would say oversexed -- assortment of individualists who have a startling way of backing hilariously into politics.  You'll hear about them.

Here I would like to add a footnote or two to the Mitt Romney saga.   Like so many voters, I am now confirming my opinion of Romney as a kind of perfumed manikin of country-club politics, the robotic floorwalker you might expect to find in a genteel ladies' ready-to-wear boutique.  Perhaps most unsettling is Romney's apparent aphasia, his seeming inability to recall positions he took on virtually every significant public issue.   In a June 28 column in The New York Times Nick Kristof ticks off a few quotations from the now-effaced predecessor Romney persona, starting with "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose" through "we seek to establish full equality  for America's gay and lesbian citizens" to "I believe that climate change is occurring." and that "human activity is a contributing factor" to "It's critical to insure more people in this country.  It doesn't make sense to have 45 million people without insurance."  And on and on.

Romney now trumpets that, as president, his first order of business will be to cancel President Obama's Affordable Care Act legislation. As governor of Massachusetts, of course, Romney engineered the passage of a program of almost universal health coverage for the citizens of that state, Romneycare, which served as the model for the Obama initiative.  Heralded as Romney's signal  -- pretty much only -- accomplishment as governor at the time, it remains the candidate's number one embarrassment.

The way in which Romneycare came into being has largely gone unnoticed.  As a Republican governor in a historically liberal state, with a heavily Democratic legislature, Romney needed to present himself as at least a little progressive to get anywhere at all.  His one accomplishmet in semi-public life at that point had been his takeover of the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics -- Winter is important here, a series of ski races in the mountains forty-five minutes north of Salt Lake City is an incomparably easier event to orchestrate than the all-embracing summer games in the midst of some enormous metropolitan area.  Once installed as governor in Massachusetts Romney maintained a low political profile and went along with most of the comparatively progressive legislation that crossed his desk -- for example he signed, without hesitation, a bill outlawing assault weapons in The Commonwealth.

As things worked out, a program to universalize health care in Massachusetts was not in any way forced on Romney.  He went after it. An undeservedly neglected piece by Karen Tumulty in TIME on November 12, 2007 specifies how that worked out.  Before the Tea-Party fanatics convulsed Republican politics, most of the elements associated with Romneycare were developed by conservative strategists, who took umbrage at the way the undeserving leeched off the taxpayers by exploiting the nation's emergency rooms.  We needed an "individual mandate." Let the working poor buy health insurance.
Health care was Kennedy's issue. He was soon following Romney's thinking in The Boston Globe, and promptly reached out and put his powerful Washington connections behind Romney's initiative.  This involved helping Massachusetts hang into $385 million in Medicaid funds that HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was threatening to take back from The Commonwealth.  Kennedy's own health-care specialists moonlighted on Beacon Hill to help tune up the drafting of the bill.  When Massachusetts legislators hesitated, Ted Kennedy returned to Boston and implored the local legislators on the house and senate floors, alluding movingly to the battles with cancer his son and his daughter had suffered.  Kennedy found federal money to help subsidize the start-up years of Romneycare.  The day Romney signed  the nation's first comprehensive health care bill into law, Kennedy was standing behind him.

That was in April of 2006, time out of mind in politics today.  Edward Kennedy is dead.  What progressive spirits survive are struggling to hang on.  The outcome in November will determine whether any of us have much of a future.

Cheers, Comrades.

Burton Hersh 


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Edward Kennedy Redux II


Again, computer meltdown.  Again, salvation.  Bear with us.

Our last blog was taken up with anecdotal reminiscences about Ted Kennedy.  Three books and many pieces for Esquire and The Washingtonian later, I put it all together in the spellbinding Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography (Counterpoint, 2010) .  Hard-cover or trade paperback, it's all there.  Let's turn to substance.

One of my earlier treatments of Kennedy's life and career was called The Shadow President. The title was intended to suggest Kennedy's amazing capacity to manipulate beneath the surface of public events and work toward outcomes frequently more effective and ultimately more meaningful than the legislative process.  No president could hope to realize his agenda without Kennedy's quiet cooperation.

LBJ saw that unlike Jack Kennedy -- whom Lyndon Johnson regarded openly as a crippled playboy during his Senate years -- or the fractious Bobby, Ted Kennedy, within a few months of his arrival in the Senate in 1963, was demonstrating an extraordinary legislative gift.  At home in the Senate, Ted was a ferociously hard worker. Johnson set the freshman Senator to work on immigration legislation and involved him with the Voting Rights boilerplate already making its way through committee.  This gave Kennedy status enough to push for an end to most of the exemptions keeping middle-class youngsters out of the butchershop in Viet Nam, which provoked an uproar among the country-club set and begin to legitimize the agonizing process of American withdrawal.

Simultaneously, Kennedy maneuvered within the committees drafting the Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation to introduce language eliminating the poll tax, a device cherished since Reconstruction around the Old South to prevent a significant number of blacks from voting.  While the segregationists who controlled the important committees were able to block Kennedy's legislation, the issue now surfaced with such prominence that the Supreme Court was drawn into the battle and quickly ruled the poll tax illegal. Were Kennedy still around, by now it's safe to bet he would  have inserted himself into the struggle over "voter registration," another hard-right conspiracy artfully designed to disenfranchise the helpless.

Deft as he was, Kennedy managed all this without alienating even outspoken bigots like Mississippi's James Eastland. Ted had a knack for trading favors, enlisting idealism and practicality and self-interest among his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.  Conservatives from Orrin Hatch to Bob Dole found themselves sponsoring Kennedy's legislation, often with their names attached to the bills.  Kennedy was after results, not glory.

Many of his successes, especially in foreign policy, were spectacular, if largely unheralded.  When a confrontation with the Soviets over intermediate-range missiles threatened, Kennedy worked back-channels with Leonid Breznev and defused the crisis.  When most of the leadership in the Reagan White House had opted for a quick and dirty ground war in Nicaragua, Kennedy colluded with Tip O'Neill and John Boland in the Congress while himself creating an issue over the Misquito Indians in the region that made intervention too sticky to consider.  After a quick visit in Bobby's memory to South Africa, Ted recruited Connecticut Republican Lowell Weiker and double-teamed the Congress into enacting legislation that cut off all U.S. investment until apartheit ended and democracy emerged.  As things developed, that didn't take long.

Without question Kennedy's most durable issue was reform of the health system, universal coverage.  He stole good ideas from anybody who came up with one. Himself perhaps the greatest expert in government on the intricacies of the issue, he shared whatever he knew with anybody willing to learn.  One avid student, it turned out, was Mitt Romney.

But more on that next time.

Burton Hersh

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Edward Kennedy Redux


So here we find ourselves, inside the muggiest dog days of the quadrennial political season.  Important issues are scrupulously evaded by both sides, while irrelevancies absorb the cable channels.

Watching Mitt Romney flail around I keep being reminded of his 1994 attempt to unseat Teddy Kennedy in Massachusetts.  It happened that I had covered Kennedy's regular rises and falls and rises again and again for Esquire Magazine since the middle sixties.  In 1994 I spent a day or two rolling around the state in a rusting van with Ted and his watchful new wife Victoria and a student driver.  Things had definitely changed since, say, 1970, when there was a lot more Kennedy family money available and Ted campaigned in a motorcade of black limousines, each journalist alotted a few minutes of face time with the fair-haired, high-strung candidate, hustling hard to come back from the Chappiddick disaster.  You can follow a lot of this minute to minute in my comprehensive 2010 volume Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography.

 By 1994 campaigning with Kennedy had gotten a lot simpler.  There were analogies.  The notorious Palm Beach incident a few years earlier, during which Kennedy's nephew had essentially assaulted a woman he picked up at the local Au Bar while Ted floated around the beach in his nightshirt -- that had gone down hard.  Kennedy was being outspent many times by the wealthy and personally immaculate Mitt Romney.  Kennedy was far behind in the polls.

At some point I asked Ted how he felt about all that.  He gave me that long, sympathetic glance of his which meant:  How can you be this thick?  "We're not that worried," he told me.

I wondered how that could be.

"Romney's problem is, there isn't anybody there," Kennedy said.  "You pick an issue, Romney has flip-flopped on it at least a couple of times.  The guy doesn't seem to believe in anything.  The voters in this state will pick up on that."

Ted had never let anybody remain confused as to where he himself stood.  JFK, accused of a liberal bias in the press, had stormed:  "I'm not a liberal.  I've told everyboy that all along."  When Kennedy family friend Joe McCarthy came up for censure in the Senate, Jack absented himself strategically.

Ted, characterized in 1962 as a promising young liberal, agreed with this characterization, at once.  When there was flak to be taken, Teddy took it.  Early in his career he came down on the side of Choice for Women, an infuriating position even among his siblings, especially Eunice.  When the Democratic Party slid right, Kennedy held his ground.  "That's the last thing this country needs, two Republican Parties," he broke out during one interview.

Pressed in 1994, worried by the Romney onslaught, Bob Shrum and Kennedy's other handlers came back by putting their very limited campaign funds into ads which spelled out the devastation Romney's pump-and-run financial methods were producing in the "private sector."  Kennedy won the Senate race overwhelmingly.

All that stayed with me a few years later when Romney actually became governor of Massachusetts.  Struggling with a heavily Democratic legislature, Romney accomplished very little except for the program to extend mandated health coverage to almost everybody in Massachusetts -- Romneycare.  What almost nobody seems to have noticed is the extent to which, day by day, Ted Kennedy came back and micromanaged this singular success for Romney.

Next time.

Burton Hersh


Monday, July 2, 2012

White Like Me #3


Yes, yes, I know.  I'm running behind schedule.  The fact is, lightning did hit our computer.  You have your doubts?  How about, an elephant stepped on our monitor?  Here in the New Hampshire rain forest that sort of thing happens all the time.

In any case, here is the third and final installment of my three parter on racism in the military during the nineteen fifties, already recognized as the most promising interlude during our unsuccessful experiment with empire.  I served 1957-1959.  A couple of vignettes should help establish the period.

One member of my platoon during basic training was a sleek young black boxer from Harlem, already accomplished enough for Sugar Ray Robinson -- often enough referred to as "pound-for-pound" the greatest middleweight we had ever developed -- to have bought up the contract on the fellow and to be training him personally.  My fellow recruit was good-natured but perhaps a bit withheld; he obviously regarded the army, its rules, the entire system as designed mainly for farmboys and jailbirds, but not for him.  I'd been invited to join the army boxing team -- I didn't, wised up by having sparred from time to time with my friend for a few minutes behind the barracks.  As a courtesy he refrained from knocking my block off.  He told me my arms weren't that bad but my legs needed work.

As it happened he occupied the bunk under my own.  During basic training he had a way of mounding his clothes underneath his blanket and stealing out for a night in the nearby town, Killeen.  Whenever there was bed-check, and one of the sergeants came by with a flashlight and saw that he wasn't there, I mumbled something about his having probably left for the latrine.

Once the Fourth Armored Division was gyroed and sent to Germany we wound up in different units, if in the same camp.  Then one day word got around the camp that somebody had been killed much earlier that morning.  It was my friend.  Predictably, he'd fallen into the habit of slipping out of the barracks and frolicking with the Frauleins and returning to camp without a pass during the wee hours.  That night an officer of the guard had heard him making his way through the brush around the guard post, challenged him repeatedly, then -- when he did not surrender -- blown him away with his standard-issue .45.  This sort of thing happened all the time.  There was no investigation.

Another,  perhaps more telling incidence of military justice broke around me a few months before I was discharged.  When we got to Germany I had picked up a very old Opel, which got me to the camp every day -- as a newly married man I lived off post -- and even had miles enough in it to get Ellen and me to Brussels for The World's Fair, then Paris, then back to Goeppingen, our base near Stuttgart.  Then we bought a new blue Opel wagon, an event which caused something of a stir around the camp when word got out that we'd paid cash for it --@$1500, as I remember.  I sold its predecessor to a mild-mannered black staff sergeant from the adjacent company, for $400.

The next thing I heard was that the staff sergeant's company commander, a stocky, single-minded popoff who had supposedly won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Korea, was bringing the staff sergeant before a court martial proceeding for allegedly stealing the car from me.  I was called to testify.  I assured the board that the staff sergeant had bought the car from me for cash.  The sergeant got off.

The next move the company commander made was to arrange for me to be transferred to his unit from the headquarters battalion.  He intended to make me pay.  For days he kept me on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor of his orderly room.  While I was scrubbing devotedly the company commander issued word that he wanted to call a special formation that afternoon.  He'd made sure I never got the word.  Then he informed me that he was instituting a court martial action against me, for "missing a movement." as the military parlance went.

That burned me up, immediately.  Characteristically, I came back hard if not that far-sightedly.  "If you do that," I told him, "I will bring over the best defense attorney in Manhattan.  Before this is over I'll have your captain's bars.  Furthermore, you'd better leave that staff sergeant alone."

I suspect that what convinced the vengeful old reprobate was the rumor that I had paid cash for my new car.  The professional military of the period lived by time payments and borrowed money.  If I had $1500 at my disposal, God knows what resources I might bring to bear.  I was bluffing, totally, but he crumpled at once.  The next day he released me back to the headquarters company.  I hope he left the staff sergeant in peace.

Later, when I began writing novels, it occurred to me that here was an episode parallel to the plot in "From Here To Eternity."  But by then a lot more had happened to me.  I present you all with the bare bones.



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

White Like Me II


So now we proceed, our familiar collection of monsters except holding forth from another galaxy.  Back now in Photoscenic New Hampshire, after driving for days through a hurricane that thankfully degenerated into a nasty tropical storm.  Like two days of plowing through a car-wash, with 18-wheelers jack-knifed and crumpled into the cement retaining walls along I-95 and an incessant downpour that never really let up, so that a few seconds forging through an underpass was cognitive bliss.

After two days we landed in D.C. for a short visit.  Research for my next novel, in and around the Supreme Court.  Finally arriving at the Mother Ship in Bradford, NH, where the storm that had been stalking us up the East Coast overtook us again and blew the guts out of our computer.  But we are finally on line, as you might surmise.

Most followers of this blog seemed captivated by my barracks story last time around.  One, the courageous investigative reporter and biographer -- and professor -- Joan Mellen admonished me about getting into race and/or sex as subject matter.  She is undoubtedly right, but when did I ever listen?

The next incident I remember from my army days involving color came about once Basic Training was over and I was stationed for several months in what was then Camp Gordon -- now Fort Gordon -- in Augusta Georgia.  I was training to become an 053, a radio operator.  Our classes were held in a big grid of one-story buildings; we were expected to double-time in the fearful August heat between classes, our "Tessie-rolls"  -- rolled-up raincoats -- under our right arms and paired off according to height, the tallest pair in front and the rest of the trainees in descending order.  Very military.

It happened that the classmate who was exactly my height was a black draftee who had just gotten his PH.D. in physics at the University of Chicago.  I had studied the subject a little in both high school and college, and during the breaks he brought me up to speed as regarded developments in quantum mechanics and uncertainty theory.  I definitely wanted to hear more, and so I invited him over for dinner one Saturday to the one-room apartment in which my new wife -- we had gotten married perhaps a month earlier -- and I were starting out.  Essentially, the place was an abandoned gas station, with a huge plate-glass window facing -- yes, really! -- the original Tobacco Road and a bed and a couch and a primitive little stove.  The place was literally crawling with field mice, and after lights-out we lay in bed together and listened to the traps my wife had set all over the block-linoleum floor snap shut.  Once we had counted down, and were sure each contained a dead mouse, we turned to our newlywed obligations.  This was no honeymoon for the squeamish.

My fellow draftee got off the bus from Camp Gordon at the appointed time, and I ushered him into our flat and mixed us a couple of drinks.  My wife had come up with hors d'oeuvres.  The conversation was just getting interesting when my red-neck landlord happened to pass the big plate glass window, and peered in, and immediately all but kicked the door open and joined our party.  "Git that nigguh outta mah house!" he roared; all of us stood up.

What happened during the next few minutes promised a race riot.  Hillbillies literally brandishing pitchforks stormed through the surrounding weeds; GIs who were renting in the upper reaches of the building -- both Northerners and Southern youngsters who were obviously rethinking Jim Crow after months in the desegregated military -- clambered down the fire escape steps to help us out.  The local sheriff rolled up in a battered prowl car, a heavy-set fellow who attempted to explain to my wife and myself that "Understand, boy, the red birds do not congregate with the black birds in this world.  The nigruhs, they don't want that neither...."

I had by God invited this fellow over for a meal, and I was determined to show him hospitality.  Our guest had another idea.  Lynchings were still common in the Eisenhower-era South, and he obviously had another notion as to how he wanted his life to play out.  I had a car, a dented green Buick sedan with lots of portholes, over a decade old.  Perhaps I might give our guest a ride into Augusta?  There was a blacks-only nightclub where nobody would give him trouble.

I suspect I learned a lot more about Race in America that evening than my guest did.  But there was more to come, once we were deployed to Germany.

As you will discover.



Saturday, May 26, 2012

White Like Me


Here in Florida the sticky waterless spring is deepening into summer.  Our bags are packed.  When next I rant, it will be from the hills of Photoscenic New Hampshire.

The Trayvon Martin shooting and the embroilments of its legal aftermath have started me musing about race in America.  Race relations during my lifetime.  It's been a choppy graph.

In 1960 a novelist named John Howard Griffin published a book called Black Like Me.  Griffin, a susceptible white man, had dyed his body black and floated around the Jim Crow South of the later fifties.  He had been insulted, condescended to, and brutalized hour by hour as he hitchhiked through the Old Confederacy, and hearing it from an educated Caucasian had quite an impact on genteel white America.  Martin Luther King was rising.

During the same decade, the fifties, I put in my two-year hitch in the U.S. Army.  The spring of 1957 I went through basic training in the reconstituted Fourth Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas.  Roughly half of my fellow trainees were black.  The Negros of the period, as they were then called, probably spanned a cultural range wider than their white counterparts.  The few I had known in college were a select culling -- one of my classmates, Cliff Alexander, went on to become Secretary of the Army, and another, my friend Nat Lamar, was no doubt the most promising novelist of his generation.

The draftees in my platoon during basic were unquestionably more representative.  But across an enormous social range.  One mild soul with whom I boarded the Army bus in Minneapolis that carried us to Texas was an accountant in civlian life.  We hit a rest stop in Arkansas, where he was not only refused counter service but denied access to the washroom. He'd have to hold his water. The South was rising again.

My sharpest memory of interrace conflict during our training months involved a face-off I managed to get into in the barracks after hours.  I was already in my middle twenties. The days of double-timing for miles and tossing fragmentation grenades over barriers produced a definite craving for sleep by nine PM, when the lights went out, and as I lay on my upper bunk the blaring rock and roll coming out of the transistor radio of a black teenaged kid across the aisle was keeping me awake, night after night.  In time, I blew.  After asking -- semi-politely -- that this harebrained jitterbug turn the frigging thing off, I swung down clad solely in my boxer shorts and went for the radio. 

The kid reached into his locker and grabbed  an entrenching tool, a heavy stubbed foldable shovel that would have served nicely as a mace, perfect for laying my head open.  A few steps before I got squarely into range, through the last of the twilight, another black recruit, a huge but amiable fellow I later learned was a Christian minister in the deep South, slipped in between us and gripped each of us by the wrist and hoisted us both off the floor.  We dangled like chickens in a poultry shop.  "Now, mens," he recommended in his deep, soothing voice, "does you really have to fight like this?  They catch you, you wind up in the stockade fo' years.  Ain't hardly worth it, seem lahk to me."

We both stopped wriggling.  The minister dropped us.  The jitterbug slumped over and turned the radio off.  I slouched across the aisle and swung back up onto my upper bunk.  The Lord had been served.

I'm still a hothead, but that was a lesson I never forgot.  It tuned me up for the incidents later on.
Stay tuned.

As always,

Burton Hersh

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Great Hair Ticket II


I thought last week that once around about the John Edwards/Bunny Mellon tragicomedy was enough, but so many of you came back with astute and often enough amusing comments that it forces me to take another look, if only to quote what you have to say.  Money, politics, and the ancient human urges ignite a combustible mixture.

One pal, Vern Farnsworth, sums up his days in politics with a reminiscence of having come home puffed up after lunch in the prestigious Tavern Club in Boston with Elliot Richardson and Senators Saltonstall and Henry Cabot Lodge.  His wife "listened patiently to my account of the luncheon and then told me to take out the trash.  So much for arrogance."

Another acquaintance of several decades, a fixture in our intelligence structure who understood right away in 1992 that my book The Old Boys represented a revolutionary interpretation of the history of U.S. intelligence despite the anguish of her colleagues at having so many of their deepest secrets and most profound embarrasments out there in print, felt profoundly the predicament of Bunny Mellon.  The heir herself to the traditions of one of America's oldest and most respected families, my friend confessed that her "heart goes out to a withdrawn, private Bunny Mellon who is at that age and condition where a conniving little xxxx like the dapper Edwards can make her feel that mortgaging her house to fund his next misadventure...serves some greater purpose."

I responded privately that, whatever the fallout publicly, it was my impression that as the heir to the Lambert fortune as well as Paul Mellon's estate Bunny was no doubt well provided for.  But then I read in the NY Times of May 9 that "Mrs. Mellon, an heiress, had given more than $6 million to his [Edwards'] campaigns and causes and an additional $725,000 secretly through Mr. Young to care for Ms. Hunter."

Perhaps we were talking real money. Meanwhile, my friend the intelligence bureaucrat came back with an e-mail that revealed how much more she knew than I did about Bunny Mellon's predicament.  "Yes, Bunny has plenty of assets," she wrote, "but not a lot of money.  A common problem for the elderly rich who live grandly.  She had to sell the NYC place, and some houses in France, for liquidity.  And her financial retinue has begun asserting controls on spending."  The tens of millions that Edwards and Young attempted to extract to underwrite some sort of "foundation" that Young would run probably set off alarm bells all over the accounting houses of Manhattan.

"Families grow concerned that you will be taken advantage of, snookered, start funding some n'er-do-wells," my friend writes.  "Or worry that their inheritance will be frittered away in your final years.  Every contact is fraught with expectations, distrust, psychological/medical snooping, and gossip. become a prisoner of the trappings of wealth rather than one living out final days in splendor with few worries."

What can I add?

Blogs to come will probably become a little more intermittent over the next month or so while I take a quick research trip to Costa Rica and we then embark on our late-May resettlement for the summer in New Hampshire.  Stay tuned in.  There is more to come.

Buck up.  See -- poverty hath its privileges!

Burton Hersh      

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Great Hair Ticket


As the tabloidization of the American psyche proceeds, each new sensation
heaves into view the ghosts of sensations past.  I have been reminded of how
this operates by the attention even the more august papers have been giving the
last few weeks to the court testimony of Cheri and Andrew Young.  Young was
the aide whose adoration for Senator John Edwards was such that he agreed to
'fess up that he himself was the father of the baby that Edwards sired with his
adventurous mistress, Rielle Hunter.  Edwards was the vice-presidential
candidate John Kerry picked in 2004.

As things happened, I had a sort of remote advisorial role in the Kerry cam-
paign, and found myself more and more taken aback by the extent to which
the leaders of the ticket seemed to be cruising along, disinterested in political
reality.  While he was still angling for the Democratic nomination I suggested
to Kerry that he consider disavowing his vote for the resolution to go into Iraq,
which was already turning into a fratricidal disaster.  He dug a long forefinger
into my chest and lectured me on consistency.  A year later, when photos of
the Senator were being released to the newspapers featuring him hang-gliding
in a wet suit off some soigne overseas beach while the Bush brothers in shirt-
sleeves were handing out bottles of water after the Punta Gorda hurricane, I
questioned the p.r. implications of that.  Nothing registered.

I go into this to suggest the obliviousness that tends to overtake political
candidates once they are into their campaign burn.  I suppose something like
that happened with John Edwards.  His girl friend's pregnancy must have
seemed like just another awkward detail, something the staff could fix.  And-
rew Young apparently stepped forward.  The participant who surprised me
here was Rachel -- Bunny -- Mellon.  I spent five years during the seventies
hanging around Paul Mellon in preparation for writing The Mellon Family.
Bunny, Paul's wife, was certainly no pushover.  A natural manager, she latched
onto Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once Jack was headed toward the White
House and designed the Rose Gardens.  Bunny could take on anybody.

Perhaps in her nineties she softened up.  Still, her nephew, a long-time friend,
tells me that even now, at one-hundred plus, Bunny is still adroit, still tending
her gardens at Upperville.  Perhaps in the cavalier John Edwards she spied
another JFK.  What did a little womanizing amount to at those social alt-
itudes? The lawyers could deal with the rest of it.

Google has rejiggered the format of this blog again.  Please forgive any irre-
gularities.  And Godspeed.

Burton Hersh

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Who Serves V


Again, unexpectedly, a few more comments dealing with the structure of our military.  This was not anticipated, but several of your comments in response to my earlier observations seemed so on point, so thought-provoking, that I felt they deserved another look along with my take on their take.

One came from my pal Vern Farnsworth, who quotes a retired Special Ops Colonel with whom he serves on a local board as having concluded that "If a nation does not want to change, it will not happen."  In any case, "Don't send a boy to do a man's job."  My own exchanges with senior brass over the years suggest that this apprehension about the vulnerability of the raw volunteers who fight our wars is widespread among professional soldiers.

Another friend, MA Fairbank -- Mark, I assume -- from the New Hampshire pole of our family enterprise wonders:  "Is Imperialism so different from Nation Building?"  He cites "Roman legionnaires in Gaul and Albion, Crusaders in Constantanople, British regulars in Bombay, U.S. Marines in the Phillipines" as engaged in "nation building to serve our national interest" and equates this with "putting a state's force into a foreign land to secure vital resources."

Mark is an astute fellow, but it seems to me that you don't have to be much of a historian to bridle at the assumptions behind this.  Tooth-and-claw imperialism has almost always had disastrous long-term consequences for the imperial power, from the appearance of the Goths at the ramparts of Rome in 552 to the rather lame attempts by spokesmen for the Obama administration to explain away our frantic behind-the-scenes rescheduling to slink out of Afghanistan ASAP.  Native populations invariably prefer their identity, however brutal and unsanitary it may appear to us.

All this is particularly self-evident in the Muslim world.  In 1187 the Crusaders took a fatal hammering from the armies of Saladin, and Arab propagandists still hobgoblinize every gesture by the West as the resurgence of the Crusader spirit.  We do keep trying, though.  In The Old Boys I track the maneuvering of the early CIA as its ace in the Middle East, Kermit Roosevelt, installed Nasser, and then  a more compliant government in Syria, and finally subverted a working democracy in Iran to reinstate the Shah in a series of maneuvers intended primarily to benefit the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor of British Petroleum.  We turned Iran into our primary base in the Middle East and subsequently lost everything when the Ayatollahs swept into power in 1979.  I interviewed Roosevelt repeatedly; he himself had been a professional historian -- he taught at Harvard as a young man.  I found Roosevelt stricken with a degree of historical remorse that made his last years acutely depressing.  He had turned down the chance to subvert Guatemala in the interests of the United Fruit Company; that, at least, ultimately provided him a measure of solace.

One last comment definitely needs to be recognized.  One of my several Anonymous correspondents points out that warfare today has changed radically, and is characterized now by "vanished battle lines and a 'nobility deficit.'"  Today death can come very quickly and unexpectedly from an IED or a child with a bomb beneath her rags.  Best to machine-gun everybody, assume the natives you are there to rescue hate you and take preventative action.  With reflexes like that it is very hard to build a nation or live with yourself afterwards. Read this response in its entirety among the comments on this blog.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has taken an interest in the predicament of soldiers returning from our hapless wars in the Middle East.  He points out that, along with a heightened suicide rate among soldiers in the battle zones, the number of veterans coming home who ultimately kill themselves is stunning, @6500 a year.  Kristof suspects that this is the result of traumatic brain injuries -- too close to too many roadside bombs, which produces long-term trauma to the tissues of the brain.  This is a terrible add-on  for the luckless handful of Americans who fight our wars to absorb.  Meanwhile, pressure builds on the political right to cut back the facilities available at veterans' hospitals and save more money -- cut taxes -- for its wealthy constituents.

If imperialism has its price, these brain-damaged veterans are dealing with the first round of bills coming due.  The rest of us are certain to confront the worst of them before long.

Cheers, right?

Burton Hersh

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Who Serves IV


Again -- you may have noticed -- the conscription issue.  I do not profess to be a military historian, but I know a number of them.  Military history is so often the rough, scaly  public surface of intelligence history, which slides privately along the slime of the unacknowledged.  I spent the eighties interacting with hundreds of spooks while writing The Old Boys.  Many had put in their time soldiering, and a number are friends to this day.

It might be worthwhile to look at the questions about who winds up in the military through the other end of the telescope, asking ourselves what as a nation we have had to confront over my lifetime and what were the tools that made any sense.  When I was a child isolationism was the creed of the respectable right, and it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to jolt the America Firsters into going to war, which the Axis Powers declared first on us.  By the early fifties, with the British Empire decomposing, demagogues on the right like Joe McCarthy joined the One World visionaries behind the likes of Henry Wallace to support such organizations as NATO, the tactics and strategy of which came straight out of Washington.  Like Hitler, Stalin was a threat.  We fought a war in Korea similar to the engagements nation-states had been fighting for millenia, warm bodies and fixed bayonets.  The machine gun made a difference, but it was still land armies against land armies, with each hemorrhaging blood to overrun the other side's territory. We managed a stand-off -- at best -- in Korea because Eisenhower threatened to take out the industrial cities of Eastern China with the Strategic Air Command unless Mao got reasonable.  Wars like that were now unwinnable.

With the advent of atomic weapons, strategic and tactical, we found ourselves attempting to contend -- unwisely, almost always -- with insurgencies.  You picked a side, and bombed hell out of the upstarts in the jungle.  During most of the Viet Nam War the draft produced the millions of grunts we needed, but it is very hard to subdue a swamp, and even a proxy war in Asia is essentially hopeless.  We got clobbered.

After that the draft army was quietly discontinued, for the first time since 1940, and the military was forced to fall back on the harum-scarum recruitment policies that have led to so many tragedies.  Such back-up entities as the Reserves and the National Guard, where George W. Bush and other genteel scions of his generation were permitted to hide out when the fighting was fierce in Asia, modulated into pools of ready combatants, now that the well placed didn't need such protection when their deferments ran out.  The problem here was that a couple of hours marching on rural parade grounds on Saturday did not prepare several generations of small-town enthusiasts for months at a time, deployment after deployment,  for the baking heat and roadside detonations of a hellhole like Iraq, let alone the anxieties of "nation-building."  Enter post-traumatic stress disorder

The problem was partly the enemy.  After 911, when -- immediately, suspiciously to anybody who understands how slow the intelligence mills normally grind, virtually in the next-day's news cycle --  the culprits were identified as twenty plus or minus mostly young Saudis, names and backgrounds supplied -- the cry went up immediately on the jingoist right for blood, for revenge.  Somebody new to detest, to fear, to crank up the armaments industry and go after. Al Qaeda!

It was quite evident all along that Saddam Hussein, never one to make alliances or share power, was unlikely to be backing as uncontrollable a collection of hotheads and fanatics as Bin Laden's organization.  But the right-wing press -- and for a while the Bush administration -- insisted on the connection.  We invaded Iraq. Everybody I knew at CIA insisted that the weapons of mass destruction charges were bogus, certainly any atomic installations were impossible to hide from satellites.  Joe Wilson wrote bravely in The New York Times that Iraq had not been importing yellow-cake uranium ore from Africa. Nevertheless -- in we went, producing massive civilian casualties, expensive -- for us -- but perfunctory "nation-building," gigantic contractor profits, a crack for our multinationals at Iraq's enormous oil fields, a trillion-dollars-worth of debt to load on our children.

I thought -- and said at the time -- that, if we really wanted to scotch Al Qaeda, instead of rolling the tanks into Baghdad, amputating a huge, important part of the Middle East and then trying withour success to sew it back together, we should practice oncology.  Expend our intelligence assets, perfect our Special Operations Forces, use up some chits, identify the specific organizers and propagandists and promotors and bankers who made this terrorist network possible.  Then take them out.  Drones, defunding, SEALS, assassinations -- whatever it takes.  Pretty much what the Obama administration has been trying to manage, and with signal success.  The truly professional army we will need from now on is coming into view.  I hope we have the judgement to select, nurture, and reimburse the troops.

We ought to stop making war on abstractions, like "Terror."  Attempting to police the world will destroy us ultimately and won't help anybody else much in the long run.  We are a single nation -- limited resources, deep-seated needs and problems of our own.  We are long past due when it comes to subordinating our larger purposes to those of the special interests that drive our politics.  We have sacrificed an unconscionable number of our young people to wars they were never intended to fight.

It is time to reconsider.

Burton Hersh 


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Who Serves III


To the ramparts, again.  I really hadn't intended to go another round with the issue of how we pick our regular military, who gets picked, and what constitutes the fallout from our hit-and-run approach to meeting our requirements.  But this is important.  The way we use our volunteer military reflects a great deal that has gone unattended vis-a-vis the seismic sociological shifts that are collapsing our middle class.

Most of the people who got back to me tended to agree with my overall conclusions.  Several did not.  One friend of many, many years roared back in gigantic block letters, irate that I seemed to have said that "all the blue-collar men and women who enlist in the services are low-life misfits...."  Any reasonable reading of my last blog couldn't really have suggested that I thought anything like that.  What I did say was that a dangerous percentage of today's enlistees come into the services unprepared for the strains of military life -- let alone the acute stresses of combat exposure, often throughout repeated deployments.  Many come from problem families, others are offered the choice between jail and a hitch in the service,  few have the life experience or the sophistication to deal with the recurrent traumas that build up after months spent contending with angry tribesmen and revenge-seeking native trainees.  Profound animosities build up on both sides, passing incidents trigger explosions, and before long the Iraqis are telling us to clear out whatever the risks and the Afghans are refusing to let our trainers "embed" themselves in the native units we are supposed to be preparing to take the country over.

Many of my apprehensions are shared by the senior American military I've known over the years.  If we are going to continue to back ourselves into "nation-building" we had better develop a cadre of seasoned advisors conditioned for the role, not green GIs.  For what it's worth, perhaps I should elaborate here on a few details from my own experience.  After that first winter in Germany as the team chief of a radio unit on the Czech border, I was pulled back into the Civil Affairs Section of the Fourth Armored Division and designated a clerk and translator -- my German was very fluent then after my years as a Fulbright student.  My responsibilities ran from explaining to an outraged Buergermeister why some beered-up GI had tossed a fragmentation grenade into the lounge of the neighboring Gasthaus or driven his tank up the courthouse steps to interpreting at murder trials throughout the Republik to translating top-secret NATO documents.

My point here is that we too had incidents to contend with, but because we were a conscript army there were individuals like me available within the military qualified to work with the local people, smooth things over, keep atrocities in perspective.  My wife and I lived "on the economy," upstairs of a German family with whom we became close friends.  A lot of Germany still lay in rubble, but such informal relationships helped assuage the animosities from the -- then -- quite recent and devastating bombing.

No doubt the sort of work I did then is done today by "contractors," who have been hired at tremendous expense to the American taxpayer to perform touchy services like guarding diplomats and pulling perimeter guard, normally standard military obligations.  These people -- sometimes imports, sometimes retired military -- now serve in numbers that nearly approximate the active-duty personnel in the combat areas and remain utterly sequestered from the native populations, for their own protection.  Where city-size airfields are being built, KBR and other huge contractors bring in their own "blue-collar men and women" and make sure they are adequately secured.  Whether we intend to project ourselves as such or not, we continue to be perceived as occupiers.

As the technology of war advances, and a team in a bunker in Kansas operates a drone in Yemen that takes out a car full of Arabs we are pretty sure support Al Qaeda, it may be time to contemplate deep-seated changes.  If we want a space-age, electronic army we should no doubt stand prepared to support one.  The two-tier model, with a sergeant pulling in $40,000 a year and his contractor counterpart signing on for $200,000, probably ought to be replaced by an integrated organization in which everybody who joins is held to high standards of background and competence, paid accordingly, and sent to war only after both the Congress and the Executive Branch conclude war is the only option.  Everybody would recognize that the stakes are high, the blue-collar/white collar distinction would be meaningless, and everybody would be prepared to pay the price.

Perhaps with his own children.  Perhaps we need a draft again.  My Selective Service Board has my number.  I'm ready.


Burton Hersh 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Who Serves II


Back after it, telling truth to the preoccupied.  Another look this time at who we pick for our military, how we pick them, and how that all comes out.

My first outbreak on this subject brought down a surprising amount of commentary.  Except for one furtive and congenitally truculent New Hampshire connection -- "Anonymous" -- , who seemed to be surprised that I had a life before I began instructing him in the niceties of modern tennis, the remarks were appreciative.  The veteran radio jock Barry Farber e-mailed me at once and we covered a lot of historical ground on his national show for an hour.  Barry felt that I had retained a lot of brain function, for a liberal.

At the heart of my inquiry here was what the so-called "military obligation" has turned into.  The fact is, I no doubt served in the military because I had to.  From 1940 on, young men in the United States automatically became draft-eligible, and, with the Cold War following on immediately after 1945, a sizable percentage of my generation served.  Once Viet Nam closed over us in 1963-1964 the process intensified, although the deferment game gradually became an issue, as I indicated in my last blog.

The draft was so bitterly resented once we had given it up in Southeast Asia that the regular military was professionalized.  There was no ongoing draft.  Instead, the services attempted to recruit individuals their leaderships hoped they could turn into competent personnel.  Watching all this evolve from our homes in New Hampshire and D.C. and, more recently, Florida, on the neighborhood level, it couldn't have been more apparent that a great many of the kids getting enticed into service were volunteering as a last resort.  There were a lot of high-school drop-outs, youngsters otherwise headed to prison and offered a last-minute choice by some municipal judge, knockabouts with drug problems.  Their peers from solider backgrounds were moving on to colleges and graduate schools, law practices, brokerage offices.

For going on two decades this seemed to be working out because whatever military engagements we got caught up in tended to be quick and dirty -- the intervention in Panama,  Desert Storm, the aerial war against Serbia.  In and out, flatten out the heathen, declare victory and return the national focus fast to getting and spending.  The genuine crisis arrived with the invasion of Iraq, which -- like Viet Nam -- started out as a glorified support action and turned quickly into a bona-fide big league donnybrook, a misguided attempt to muscle our preferences out of a full-scale civil war.  Along with our benighted involvement in Afghanistan -- where we pushed in and left and returned and now are desperate to find some excuse to leave again -- the wars of the last ten years unexpectantly turned expensive, touchy, politically unmanageable, both on the battlefield and around our country.  The effort to cook the numbers by bringing in hundreds of thousands of highly paid "contractors" would show up fast enough in our deficit figures.
The perhaps 2 and a half million soldiers who were feeding in and out of these high-stress battlefields, most of them on "multiple deployments," were too often in no way psychologically equipped to undergo this repeated strain. Many of them cracked, too much "dwell time," as the jargon phrases it, and the catch-all term "post-traumatic stress disorder," the successor to "shell shock," was concocted to cover a wide range of fundamentally undiagnosable explosions of violence.  Nobody was willing to face this, but a lot of the misery stemmed from shortcomings of background and class.  You fill an army with the misfits of a generation, and pretty soon a lot of them are pissing on Taliban corpses and staging the festivities at Abu Graib and slipping out on a quiet evening to blow away some extended Afghan family.  Statistics surfaced recently indicating that more GIs have killed themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last year than have died in combat.  An even greater percentage offed themselves stateside.  With these propensities, it's not that hard for the wrong body of enlisted personnel to undo whatever the commanders thought they were accomplishing.

Recently retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked on the way out that any future leader in his position who attempted to send an American land army to the Middle East "ought to have his head examined." Not that his opinion has slowed down the likes of Senator McCain, who has been pumping all winter to get those boots onto the ground in Syria.  Hilary Clinton pushed for American troops to lead the charge into Libya. We are historically slow learners.

Send in the boys! The problem is always:  Whose boys?  Which boys and girls are we supposed to send next time, and in whose interests?  If we would think this through the next time we find ourselves tempted to jump, we might survive a few more years as an empire.

Cheerful, no?

Burton Hersh 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Who Serves


At last, we have begun to move along.  This week I want to throw out a few thoughts dealing with our people in the military.  Once, when things seemed a lot simpler than they do today, I was one of them.  From 1957 to 1959 I soldiered as a Private First Class in the Fourth Armored Division, part of the Seventh Army, on station in what was then West Germany.
Service in the military came naturally in my family:  my mother's older brother had been a battle surgeon in a sort of MASH unit in the trenches of the Marne during World War I, a hectic butcher-shop operation that taught him enough about the physiology of the heart to inaugurate a great career as a coronary pioneer.  My father's kid brother was the bombadier and navigator who trained the crew of the Enola Gay.  My mother ran the Home Service Division of the Red Cross in Minneapolis throughout World War II.  We stepped up.

My turn came along when the Cold War was chilliest. The draft was universal.  I got through college, and even a couple of years in Central Europe, initially as a Fulbright Student, but the inevitable Greetings caught up with me in Southern Spain.  I underwent Basic Training at Fort Hood, Texas.  Throughout the following winter I served in Germany as the team chief of an Angry 26, a rolling trip-wire communications unit mounted on the back of a standard deuce-and-a-half truck and camouflaged  in the woodlands on the edge of the Grafenwohr Training Grounds along the Czech border.  We could listen to the artillery of the Red Army, just across the frontier.  As an Acting Sergeant I was in charge of a squad of smart but incorrigible reprobates, a headstrong Mexican-American telegrapher, a street-smart Puerto-Rican interested mostly in running a numbers game back at the post, and a teenaged black pickpocket from Detroit.  The trick was getting them back to base with nobody landing in the stockade.

After two years I got my discharge in Europe and settled down in the Austrian Alps to try and write a book.  In early 1961 I returned to the United States just as the Kennedy administration was settling in.  By the time JFK got shot we were already knee-deep in Viet Nam.  My wife and I found a cheap -- rent-controlled -- apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

Once Lyndon Johnson took over, the American commitment to the war deepened:  at one point 600,000 of our troops were bogged down there, draftees mostly.  I myself gradually became aware that the deferment pattern among the generation at risk, always skewed to favor the ownership classes -- whose children stayed in graduate school or had big families early to avoid service -- was turning into an unreported scandal. One of the first pieces I got published was an essay for the liberal New Leader entitled "Our Unlucky Minority Army."  Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, a man of vision and conviction and an opponent of LBJ, gave me a lot of help.

 A disproportionate number of blacks were among the casualties. My wife and I had resettled into a crossroads village in New Hampshire:  it was painfully evident that the local draft was pulling in the offspring of the working poor, youngsters with no recourse and no connections to keep them out.  They returned badly damaged in most cases.  I remember long sessions with one youngster who had worked for me from time to time, put in his years as a platoon leader in the Vietnamese jungles, and returned with a roaring heroin habit.  I spent many evenings weaning him back onto Bourbon.  He got a sort of job, in the end, along with a life-long disability payment.

By then I was interested in -- writing about -- the early career of Edward Kennedy.  I detail all this in  Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography.  Tossed out of Harvard for cheating, Kennedy had tried to make amends by serving in the Army in France.  He too recognized that the system was increasingly unfair, that combat exposure was turning into a matter of who you were, who you knew.  Typically, Kennedy didn't attempt to butt heads with the administration directly -- he was already sabotaging the poll tax laws and putting together immigration  reform boilerplate for the president behind the scenes.  But he was successful in getting a great many of the draft exemptions and eligibility requirements eliminated and/or redefined.  Pretty soon the children  of the Country Club Crowd were getting their draft notices.  A few started getting shot up; some actually got killed.  Society activists like Silver Star winner John Kerry started speaking at veterans' rallies against the war itself.  Richard Nixon found himself forced to "Vietnamize" the struggle, cut way back on troop deployments, in the end simply cut and run.  Combat was much too dangerous for the propertied classes, the major political contributors wouldn't put up with it.

At unacknowledged policy levels, one revelation that had been hanging there since the First World War was that modern full-scale mass warfare, with entire populations involved, was ultimately ruinous to established societies.  Whole graduating classes from Oxford and Cambridge had been blown to pieces in the trenches of World War I; the effective collapse of the British Empire during subsequent decades was privately  attributed to the destruction of that leadership generation.  The loss of a generation of educated leaders in Germany no doubt led immediately to the barbarism of Nazism.  With weaponry more sophisticated every decade, all these apprehensions converged in the behind-the-scenes decision to "professionalize" the military.  The answer would be a volunteer army, small but superbly trained, available to jump in and fight any battles the politicians might decide to undertake. 

That made it easer, of course, to invade and bomb and authorize a "police action" just short of technical war.  Or go to war itself, if under another name.  Easier to get in.

But harder, it would develop, to get out.  The habitual projection of power is numbing, hallucinogenic.  We cruise on fantasies.

All this led directly to the tragedy of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who shot up 16 Afghan civilians and may well have ended our longest war.  Next time, what that really means.


Burton Hersh