June 18, 2024

JFK and McNamara

The victory of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960 over Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge (who would later serve as the U.S. ambassador in South Vietnam for Kennedy) was by a narrow margin. The role played by Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago in securing a victory in Illinois that had sealed the win for John F. Kennedy was regarded with some suspicion – a reflection of the fact that when it came to political goals, the Kennedy family and their operatives knew hardball.

But as the appointments to the White House staff and the cabinet went forward leading up to the January inauguration, the choices were considered notable for their distinction and personal dignity. Dean Rusk, a former Rhodes Scholar who was president of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, was named secretary of state. Douglas Dillon, a patrician investment banker, was the new secretary of the treasury, and McGeorge Bundy, who had been named Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard at age thirty-four, was to be the national security adviser.

Robert S. McNamara had been educated at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard Business School, and had served under General Curtis LeMay as one of the men who planned bombing raids over Japan, which were in time responsible for hundreds of thousands of Japanese dead, the majority of whom were civilians. 

In Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War, McNamara quoted LeMay as saying later, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” McNamara then observed, “And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

LeMay’s bombast was instinctive. As a bomb spotter in World War II, McNamara had been a technocrat.

 In the immediate postwar years, any personal reflections of McNamara’s role in the war were doubtless submerged beneath the surface as he focused on his career and the family he started with his beloved wife, Marg. After his military service he had joined the Ford Motor Company as one of the “Whiz Kids,” with a mandate to modernize the automaker, rising to the position of president of the company in late October 1960. Then, on December 8, only weeks later, McNamara was approached by Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law, who said he was authorized to offer him the position of secretary of defense.

“This is absurd!” McNamara replied. “I’m not qualified.”

Two people had recommended McNamara to the president-elect. John Kenneth Galbraith, the famed Harvard economics professor, and Robert Lovett, a senior figure in the group of former officials who came to be known as “The Wise Men” because of their stature and national security experience. Significantly, these men had all been shaped by their experiences in World War II and the Soviet-American power clash, with the potential of a nuclear war that in the 1950s was a permanent threat. Also, there had been a communist takeover in China, followed by the war in Korea, which had ended in stalemate.

When McNamara told Kennedy that he was not qualified by experience to be secretary of defense, Kennedy replied, “Who is?” There were no schools for defense secretaries, Kennedy observed, “and no schools for presidents either.”

For all his management success at Ford and reputation for effectiveness, McNamara had this private worry:

“What do I know about the application of force and what do I know about the strategy required to defend the West against what was a generally accepted threat…[and] the force structure necessary to effectively counter the threat?”

Personal doubt as a senior government official – a recognition of limitations — then or thereafter were not meant to be worthy of serious consideration in policy debates. Once named, a secretary of defense was assumed to be qualified.

When McNamara agreed to take the job, Kennedy immediately announced it, and the televised images were of these two vigorous men in their early forties, showing none of whatever qualms they may have had about the jobs they were assuming.

McNamara’s primary challenge, as it had been at Ford, was to oversee the management and operations of a vast infrastructure that needed to be modernized. To achieve this, McNamara had insisted as a condition of taking the job that Kennedy let him make all appointments on his own.

This led to a particular disagreement over the post of secretary of the navy. McNamara read an article in The New York Times that reported that Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. was to be named to the post.

In our editorial session transcript, McNamara recalled:

McNamara: I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t realize that was [Kennedy’s] desire, and somebody leaked it and it was a done deal. I go along, couple of weeks, and I’m appointing people, and the president’s approving them all, and he says, “Bob, you are making wonderful progress, but you haven’t recommended anyone for secretary of the navy.”

I said, “Mr. President, I just can’t find the right person.”

“Well,” he said, “have you thought of Franklin Roosevelt?”

“Well,” I said, “Hell, he’s a drunken womanizer.”

And he said, “Well, have you met him?”

And I said, “No, I haven’t.”

“Well, he said, “don’t you think you ought to meet him before you make a decision?”

I said, “Sure, I’ll be happy to. Where in the hell is this guy?”

“Well, he’s a Fiat dealer.”

So, I got the Yellow Pages out, looked down. I found the Fiat place in Washington, got him there and I….

I don’t know that they ever met. Ultimately, Roosevelt was named undersecretary of commerce. McNamara’s choice for the navy position was John Connally of Texas, who had been LBJ’s campaign manager at the Democratic convention, which meant that Kennedy was well aware of him and might well have been suspicious of his loyalty. Connally got the job and served until he resigned to run for governor in 1962. (And in 1963, he was in Kennedy’s car on the day the president was killed. He was wounded himself and nearly died.) Connally later switched parties became a powerful figure in the Republican Party, and he ran, unsuccessfully, in 1980 for its presidential nomination.

McNamara: I was right on Franklin Roosevelt, and I was right on Connally. Connally was one of the loyalest people in town for Kennedy…[The president] knew he had made a deal with me. He knew he was going to lose a secretary of defense if he didn’t go along this way, and he would have…

And that’s one of the things that bonded us. You know, I loved the guy. But I had certain standards. I had certain requirements. He understood them and he knew God-damned well I was going to do them.

McNamara was using this episode as a way of framing his relationship with JFK, and the savvy management of political issues as they arose, working around the problem together rather than turning stubbornness into a damaging confrontation.

In The Fog of War, Errol Morris asked McNamara how far he would go in challenging presidential authority, the role he might have played as Vietnam moved to the center of LBJ’s years in office, and whether he might have held his ground when there were policy issues on which he and the president disagreed. This answer, repeated in various formats over the ensuing years, would be McNamara’s explanation: He was an appointed adviser to the person with the election mandate to decide.

“Morris: To what extent did you feel that you were the author of stuff, or that you were an instrument of things outside your control?

“McNamara: Well, I don’t think I felt either. I just felt that I was serving at the request of the president, who had been elected by the American people. And it was my responsibility to try to help him carry out the office as he believed was in the interest of our people.”

When it came to Vietnam, this was not a challenge for McNamara in dealing with Kennedy, as it was later to become with Lyndon Johnson. In October 1963, Kennedy and McNamara were making contingency plans to start withdrawing the 16,000 military advisers the U.S. then had in Vietnam.  It was Kennedy’s strong opinion that the war was South Vietnam’s to fight and win – and should not be America’s responsibility.

Having just returned from a survey trip to Vietnam that fall, McNamara knew that the situation there – militarily across the country and in Saigon, where the political scene was increasingly chaotic and getting worse. That reality then and thereafter was what McNamara knew to be the case – but was not what he would say in his many public opportunities to do so.

And then Kennedy was assassinated. The signoff on an American withdrawal was tabled. What JFK would have done in 1964, 1965, and beyond will never be known.

**************************

The thousand days of the Kennedy presidency were, on the whole, a period in which the American domestic situation was, by historic standards, relatively stable. The civil rights confrontations in the South were increasing – as when Kennedy had to call out the National Guard to accompany James Meredith in 1962 as he sought to become the first Black student at the University of Mississippi.

Congressional action was stymied by the nature of the Democratic majority, which consisted of labor activists and liberals in the North and segregationists in the South, including some of the most powerful politicians of that era. The Republican Party was beginning its long-term evolution from Eastern establishment figures like Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York to conservatives like Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who was to become the party’s firebrand pro-war candidate for president in 1964.

In foreign policy, to the extent that there was a bipartisan position, it was based on developments in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The question was not whether to accept the Soviets as a great power and recognize Mao Zedong’s Communist China, but how far to go in taking them on for global influence and power. In the McCarthy period of the early 1950s, anyone who could be tainted with a hint of subversive activity or thoughts was persecuted, blacklisted, or jailed — and that included leading State Department experts on China.

The Korean War, which had ended in a stalemate in 1953, had resulted in an unequivocal and potentially dangerous U.S. role on the peninsula. And in Europe, a divided Berlin was the proverbial flashpoint for war. When the Berlin Wall was erected in the summer of 1961, Soviet intentions were deemed hostile to the extreme. The possibility of an all-out nuclear exchange reached its apogee the following year, when Soviet missiles were placed in Cuba, putting much of the United States within range.

Two episodes in particular would shape Kennedy’s approach to dealing with Vietnam, which at the time seemed a distant and not especially urgent problem. An International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos at the end of a sixteen-nation conference in Geneva in 1962 essentially removed one of the Indochina states from the center of Cold War disputes. Settling the Laos issue was in itself not terribly significant, but it did mean that under the right circumstances, a negotiated outcome to conflict in Asia was possible.

But more prominent in Kennedy’s mind was the Bay of Pigs debacle. In April 1961, a group of Cuban exiles with CIA backing and Pentagon support were demolished just days after their invasion of the island, with the goal of wresting it away from Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. This was a searing early lesson in failure for JFK, though it received short narrative shrift in the early pages of McNamara’s memoirs and in our discussions.

The Eisenhower administration had authorized the CIA to organize a brigade of 1,400 Cuban exiles as an invasion force to overthrow Castro, who had seized power in 1959 and had since become an avowed supporter of Soviet-style communism. The new Kennedy administration had allowed preparations for the invasion to carry on. “For three months after President Kennedy’s inauguration,” McNamara writes in In Retrospect, “we felt as though we were on a roll. But only a few days after he presented the defense blueprint to Congress, we faced a decision that showed our judgment – and our luck — had severe limitations.”

Kennedy, McNamara writes, gathered about twenty of his advisers to a State Department meeting to make a final decision on whether to proceed. Only one person, Senator William Fulbright, dissented “vigorously.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed the plan, as did Secretary of State Dean Rusk and McGeorge Bundy. McNamara concurred as well, “although not enthusiastic.”

The invasion launched on April 17, 1961, and McNamara quotes a historian who called it “a perfect failure.” It ended in days, with the invaders killed, wounded, or captured. Watching JFK on national television taking “full responsibility” was a “bitter lesson” for McNamara:

“I had entered the Pentagon with a limited grasp of military affairs and even less grasp of covert operations. This lack of understanding, coupled with my preoccupation with other matters and my deference to the CIA on what I considered an agency operation, led me to accept the plan uncritically. I had listened to the briefings…I had even passed along to the president, without comment, an ambiguous assessment by the Joint Chiefs that the invasion would probably contribute to Castro’s overthrow even if it did not succeed right away. The truth is I did not understand the plan very well and did not know the facts. I had let myself become a passive bystander.”

When he met with Kennedy and offered to take his measure of the blame, the president said that this was unnecessary. “I did not have to do what of all you recommended,” Kennedy said. “I did it. I am responsible and I will not try to put part of the blame on you, or Eisenhower, or anyone else.”

McNamara adds: “I admired him for that, and the incident brought us closer. I made up my mind not to let him down again.”

McGeorge Bundy never completed his version of a memoir although he worked with the historian Gordon M. Goldstein in preparing one. Goldstein published his own book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, based on their discussions and on those parts of the book Bundy had drafted before he died.

Lesson one for Bundy, Goldstein writes, grew out of the Bay of Pigs experience. That lesson was: “Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide.”

This straightforward summary explains why, after the Bay of Pigs and as American escalation in Vietnam grew through the Johnson years, the president sought advice but only he, LBJ, could make the final decisions. And Johnson’s decisions were always made with politics uppermost in his mind. Beneath the surface, and not visible to others, were his doubts and confusions about the choices he was making.

Next Week; Part Four: Early Decisions

Sources and Acknowledgements and the audio of McNamara wirking with his editors can be found at www.platformbooksllc.net

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June 11, 2024

Air Mail Features…

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets soldiers during a surprise visit to an American base in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, in October 1966.

INSIDE STORY

Five O’Clock Follies

Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara knew the war in Vietnam could not be won—and waged it anyway

BY PETER OSNOS

JUNE 8, 2024

Of all those considered responsible for the outcome of America’s Vietnam debacle, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara usually get the most blame.

It was they who turned a commitment of roughly 15,000 U.S. military advisers into a force of more than 500,000 combatants that proved unable to hold off the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, leaving behind a unified nation aligned with the global Communist bloc.

As a correspondent in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for The Washington Post between 1970 and 1973, and as the editor and publisher of major memoirs and histories on the subject, I have been immersed in the events of that era for a half-century.

This experience is what is contained in LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail, a serial that is running over 18 weekly installments on Peter Osnos PLATFORM, my newsletter on Substack. This amounts to a book delivered in a digital-word format for storytelling, the way podcasts do with audio.

Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara explains why he is sending 20,000 additional troops to South Vietnam, June 1965.

Among the works I edited, the most significant was Robert McNamara’s memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, which, when published in 1995, renewed the sense that he, Lyndon Johnson, and their administration waged a war that Americans came to believe was an immoral display of superpower hubris.

In the memoir, the former secretary of defense acknowledged as much. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” McNamara wrote. “We owe it to future generations to explain why.… We made an error not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities,” a formulation he devised as we concluded two years of extensive work together on the narrative.

Even so, McNamara’s words fell short of an outright apology, and thus there was never a chance that he would be forgiven for what happened. But the book and, later, Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War, based on his filmed interviews with McNamara, established an account of the collective mistakes and misleading statements of progress that made, and continue to make, Americans so skeptical of what the U.S. government says and does in shaping foreign policy.

There were hundreds of pages of transcripts from my extensive editorial sessions in McNamara’s Washington office, where I was accompanied by my editorial colleague Geoff Shandler and McNamara’s historian collaborator, Brian VanDeMark. When I reviewed these transcripts and listened to the tapes from which they were created, I realized that they were illuminating beyond what appeared in the memoir.

“We were wrong, terribly wrong,” McNamara wrote. “We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

To help others understand that process, I have posted a two-hour edited version of the audio at platformbooksllc.net, in which the four of us, at times laboriously, find exactly the best possible description of events—including some details that were considered too personal for the book, regarding individuals who have since died.

I was also the editor of the memoirs of Clark Clifford, who was a formidable unofficial adviser to Johnson and McNamara’s successor at the Pentagon, and the memoirs of Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, who provided the Kremlin’s view of the war.

Lady Bird Johnson’s White House diaries were especially striking about Lyndon Johnson’s growing awareness that he was in a war that could not be won in any conventional sense—and his resulting despair. Similarly revealing was the unfinished memoir of National-Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, who left the administration in 1966 and was never vilified the way L.B.J. and McNamara would be.

Demonstrators at a huge anti–Vietnam War protest at the Pentagon in 1967.

Most important as a resource were Lyndon Johnson’s tapes—his copious recordings of himself in conversation, including with McNamara. Johnson’s tapes reflect how his surpassing ambitions and his legacy in domestic matters were undermined by Vietnam.

I also benefited from Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Johnson, the fifth volume of which (currently in progress) will deal more deeply with Vietnam.

These resources, and with the work and support of VanDeMark, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Robert Brigham, a distinguished Vietnam historian at Vassar College, enabled me to present a portrait of L.B.J. and McNamara that shows—conclusively, because so much of it is in their own words—that from the day Johnson took over from the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963, until McNamara’s last day as secretary of defense, on February 29, 1968 (when he became so overcome with emotion at a White House ceremony that he could not speak), both men were aware that they faced a challenge in Vietnam that they could not meet.

But they went ahead, accepting the reassurances they received from generals, intelligence operatives, and diplomats that headway was being made—even when those pronouncements conflicted with the facts in the war zone itself.

The reality is that a great power cannot prevail in a conflict where the strategies are flawed. McNamara hoped that the lessons of In Retrospect might guide future administrations. All this happened in the 1960s, decades before the United States followed many of the same trajectories in its 21st-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail is available to read in chapters on the Platform Books Web site starting this mont

The Overview

This series begins with the presidency of John F. Kennedy and continues year by year through the term of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Parts Three, Four, and Five cover 1961-63, the Kennedy years, during which the Cold War with the Soviet Union was at its height, but the tense and perilous face-offs in Berlin and Cuba did not lead to the conflagrations that were feared. The movement for civil rights featured nonviolent protest, conveying a sense of dignified determination to defy racism, even as those resistant to racial integration often employed violent means themselves.

Overall, the mood in the country seemed to be lifted by the dynamic, glamorous presence of Kennedy, his family, and his cohort. The period has been romanticized and sentimentalized by its violent climax. There is resonance in what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said to his friend, the columnist Mary McGrory, after Kennedy was killed and she commented: “We’ll never laugh again.”

“We’ll laugh again,” Moynihan replied, “but we’ll never be young again.”

While the outcome of the Vietnam conflict is indisputable, the looming and unanswerable question is what John F. Kennedy would have done if he had lived. The record of the Kennedy years shows that the humiliation of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in his first year in office, when the young president concluded that he had been misled by the CIA and the military, followed in 1962 by the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy overruled those who favored a military solution, likely would have meant that he would adhere to his belief that the war in Vietnam was up to the Vietnamese to wage – and not to be the object of American intervention on a vast scale.

Historians now generally agree that Kennedy was killed before he had made a conclusive decision about whether the U.S. would be out of Vietnam by 1965. Decades after the fact, McNamara was certain that this would have been Kennedy’s goal, but he never publicly went as far in his public statements as he did in sessions with his editors.

McNamara’s selection as secretary of defense was itself not predictable. He had only recently been named president of the Ford Motor Company in the fall of 1960, and did not know John Kennedy personally. When the president-elect offered him the job – on the recommendation of the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith and former Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett, who admired McNamara’s demonstrated management skills and personality – McNamara said he was not qualified. But within days, the appointment was announced on the snowy steps of Kennedy’s residence in Georgetown.

Like Kennedy, McNamara was young, just forty-four when he took the reins at the Pentagon. He had no particular political affiliation (at the time of his appointment he was a registered Republican), but his manner exuded competence and confidence without arrogance – though, ironically, arrogance would later be considered his defining personality trait.

McNamara was not from the establishment elite, as was McGeorge Bundy, the new national security adviser. Though he had been to Harvard for graduate study, he spent his college years at the University of California at Berkeley. But over time McNamara grew so close to the Kennedy family that he was asked to be at Andrews Air Force Base when the president’s casket arrived from Dallas on the night of the assassination.

Parts Six Seven, and Eight cover the events of 1964 and the accession of Lyndon Johnson, who called himself “an accidental president.” Once powerful as the Senate majority leader, Johnson as vice president had been degraded politically and personally to the extent that he had intended to remove himself from the Kennedy ticket in 1964.

Yet suddenly he had the position and the power that he had sought for so long. From all accounts, he was resolved to be elected for a term in his own right in 1964 and use the power of the presidency to pursue what he called the “Great Society” – government programs that would make America the nation of its unfulfilled founding principles. McNamara and most of JFK’s senior leadership team made the transition to Johnson knowing that continuity was important after the shattering impact of Kennedy’s death.

One of McNamara’s strengths of character which had made him successful at Ford was understanding hierarchy and whose voice mattered most. So, as Johnson settled in McNamara made himself valuable, even in Johnson’s terms, indispensable.

On Vietnam, with the benefit of hindsight, 1964 was the year Johnson kept all the issues unresolved as he ran for president. And McNamara, knowing how badly things were going on the war front, went along with Johnson’s indecision, regardless of what he might have thought otherwise. Events in Vietnam — the successes of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese combined with the political fracas in Saigon, where coups and juntas prevailed — was a distraction that was to be minimized at all costs during Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign against Senator Barry Goldwater, who was an all-out war hawk.

The Tonkin Gulf dustups in August 1964, in which there was a flareup of naval exchanges and bombing raids followed by a congressional resolution authorizing Johnson to go to war as he saw fit, did not move the president off his insistence on maintaining the “status quo” for U.S. involvement in the conflict during the campaign.

Johnson’s landslide victory over Goldwater was a triumph of domestic politics and meant that the situation in Vietnam had to be confronted at last.

Parts Nine, Ten, and Eleven move on to the pivotal year of 1965, when the United States made a full commitment to the war in Vietnam, deploying combat forces and initiating a major bombing campaign. Between January and July, escalation proceeded apace, inextricably shifting the strategy from a war to be fought by the Vietnamese to the “American war.” While a complete victory over Hanoi would have been the desired triumph, the formula that had held on the divided Korean peninsula, with “a free and independent South Vietnam,” would likely have been acceptable as well.

Only days after Johnson’s inaugural, McNamara and Bundy submitted a memo to the president captioned “Fork in the Road.” The opening sentence was blunt: “Both of us are now pretty well convinced that our current policy can only lead to disastrous defeat.” A month later, the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign was underway, intended to stop North Vietnamese supplies to its Vietcong allies in the south and to bolster the South Vietnamese military morale. The bombing would continue with little letup until October 31, 1968.

On March 8, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade arrived in Danang, the first deployment of a U.S. ground combat unit to Vietnam. In the months to follow, their mission was changed from base security to offensive operations.

All that spring and summer, there were meetings of national security officials and Pentagon leaders making plans and ultimately decisions to fundamentally alter the dynamic of the war, making it the “American war,” to be conducted with the partnership of South Vietnamese troops who were never really respected by their U.S. counterparts.

What was in Lyndon Johnson’s mind during those months seems contradictory and confusing. On February 11, Lady Bird recorded in her diary hearing the president say to his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, that he did not believe himself to be “qualified” to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

In late July, at Camp David, McNamara — now considered an advocate of escalation even though he was skeptical about the bombing strategy — was tasked by Johnson to debate with Clark Clifford, a presidential senior adviser without portfolio, on the plan submitted by General William Westmoreland in Saigon, for the deployment of 185,000 American troops by the end of the year.

McNamara argued in favor, Clifford against. Johnson’s aide Jack Valenti kept notes.

Privately, McGeorge Bundy concluded years later for his unfinished memoir that Johnson had already agreed to move forward with the added forces. The debates, Bundy said, were more of a political exercise than a strategic one.

And what was in McNamara’s mind?

McNamara had come to accept where the process was headed and was by instinct a supporter of the president’s prerogative to decide. He, like other senior advisers, accepted the proposition that withdrawal would lead to communist domination of Southeast Asia. It was the height of the Cold War, only fifteen years after the People’s Republic of China had intervened on behalf of communist North Korea during the Korean War, and so the concept of the U.S. giving up in Vietnam was inconceivable. It was also an era when national security thinking was centered on the “domino theory,” which asserted that the fall of any one country to communism would lead to a communist takeover of neighboring countries. This was the view of many of the so called “Wise Men” of venerable former foreign officials and of former President Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero whose expertise was thought beyond challenge.

While a negotiated settlement might emerge, the North Vietnamese, it came to be believed, had to be persuaded that the United States would use whatever force was necessary to persuade them to concede. The U.S. military even considered the possibility of nuclear weapons.

Parts Twelve and Thirteen take the story to 1966, the year of reckoning. A thirty-seven-day bombing pause, starting in December 1965 at McNamara’s instigation, had not had any results that would suggest negotiations with North Vietnam were possible.

The U.S. military was now deployed in force in Vietnam. McGeorge Bundy gave up his role at the National Security Council, recognizing that he no longer could work effectively with Johnson. He became president of the Ford Foundation and was never really held in judgment for his White House role. He was replaced by his deputy, Walt Rostow, who was a staunch advocate of waging all-out war.

The events of the year did not reverse the negative trends, despite the Johnson administration’s persistence in releasing misleading reports that claimed the war was going well. As the difference between upbeat official assessments and field reporting by journalists took hold in the public, what was called the “credibility gap” arose, which over the years would harden into a general public skepticism toward government pronouncements.  

LBJ’s legislative strengths on the domestic policy front, collectively known as the Great Society, were as formidable as his management of the war continued to be challenged by the enemy and on the home front. Senator William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held nationally televised hearings that featured policy experts critical of the war. Questions began to be asked: How far could Johnson go in expanding the war further? How should the administration handle the growing anti-war movement?

The conflict became known as “McNamara’s war,” and the secretary of defense said that he had no problem with that. But he continued to believe at some level that despite the massive American commitment, the military and political weaknesses of the South Vietnamese were likely to prevent anything like a conventional battlefield victory.

Parts Fourteen, Fifteen, and Sixteen recount the events of 1967, when McNamara came to terms with the prospect of failure. He could no longer make the case that more troops would ever be enough. The possibility of a negotiated settlement was considered, and some forays were made without results. In April of that year, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon at Riverside Church in New York opposing the war, complicating the relationship that he and others had developed with Johnson on civil rights.

By the end of the year, McNamara had decided to resign. His own relations with LBJ were now tense.

While the taped record is not clear, a complicating issue was McNamara’s closeness to the Kennedy family. Robert Kennedy and Johnson detested each other for a number of reasons, political and personal. McNamara was also close to Jackie Kennedy, a true friendship as distinct from Johnson’s fawning efforts to reach out to her. And she was deeply opposed to the war.

Johnson devised the means to have McNamara appointed president of the World Bank, a move so deft that the secretary of defense could always maintain that he never really knew if he had been fired or if he had quit.

As Part Sventeen shows, by 1968 Johnson was finished with McNamara, calling him a “screwball” in a call with a reporter. He named Clark Clifford as McNamara’s successor, finally persuading the reluctant counselor to put his impeccable reputation to the test in policy. Clifford had the extraordinary ability to smooth talk in all situations, including dealing with Johnson’s belief that Robert Kennedy, now in the Senate, was intent on driving him from office and restoring the Kennedy name to the presidency.

Clifford’s own views on the war had evolved from his initial skepticism, and he was now considered a supporter of whatever was necessary. As soon as taking office, however, Clifford understood just how badly things were trending. His advice to Johnson soon became very much the same as McNamara’s had been.

The word in Washington was that McNamara was at his wit’s end, near a breakdown. When he was emotionally overcome at his retirement ceremony and unable to speak, that perception was widely accepted.

McNamara insisted that this was not the case. His tendency to weep when he was under certain forms of stress or after he had been drinking a bit was a behavioral tic that enabled his critics, ultimately, to mock his statements of regret about the war three decades later.

After setbacks in Vietnam, most notably the Tet offensive, and with Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy announcing their candidacies for the Democratic presidential nomination, LBJ realized that he could not continue his reelection campaign.

And so, on March 31, he announced to a stunned nation that he would not run. Despite having committed himself to a search for peace, Johnson did not make any significant changes in strategy that might have led to negotiations – either in the bombing campaign or troop tactics. Violence soon convulsed America at home as well. On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated, followed by nationwide riots. And on June 5, Kennedy was shot; he died the next day.

After leaving the Pentagon, McNamara went on a vacation trip to Colorado with his wife before starting at the World Bank. Johnson was now a lame duck with a crushed morale. Their failed partnership was now complete.

And as Part Eighteen relates, the war would go on. The devastation of Vietnam and the bombing of the North would wreak havoc, but not submission. The war would spread into Cambodia and, largely unnoticed continue in Laos. A great many more American soldiers would be killed, wounded, or captured. The Pentagon Papers, initiated by McNamara, would reveal the scale of ignorance and duplicity that were so much a factor in the way the conflict unfolded on the battlefield and on American public attitudes.

Johnson’s will was broken, and he died on January 22, 1973, the week his successor, Richard Nixon, was claiming that United States had achieved “peace with honor” in Vietnam, in the words of his aide Henry Kissinger. The last American GIs and prisoners of war would leave the country in a matter of weeks.

One of the eternal debates in history is whether individuals shape events or whether it is the events that define the people involved in them.

The LBJ-McNamara relationship between 1963 and 1968 demonstrates how the personalities and character of these two men delivered an outcome neither of them actually wanted.

The tragedy was traceable to errors of judgment – choices in matters tactical, strategic, and practical.

But above all neither Johnson nor McNamara seemed to accept the moral implications of the conflict, that killing so many people because of a perceived need to defeat an ideology in a country they did not know or understand would defame them forever in history.

Johnson was destroyed by his failure – and by the consequences for his noble intentions on civil rights and poverty.

McNamara was doing his duty to the presidency as he saw it. But throughout his seven years as secretary of defense and for decades after, the way he carried himself – his slicked-back hair and his declaratory manner of speech – obscured the emotion beneath. And when it did show, it came across as self-pity.

They were not by nature evil men, but even though they knew and recognized that the mission in Vietnam encompassed evil, they were unable to end it. Robert McNamara did his best at explaining what had gone wrong. It would never be seen as enough.

Next Week Part Three: When Everything Changed

Sources and Acknowedgements and the audio of McNamara working with his editors can be found at www.platformbooksllc.net.

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June 4, 2024

Origins

LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail is the result of more than fifty years of engagement with the subject of conflicts in Indochina, particularly the one that came to be captioned the “American war” in Vietnam from the early 1960s until 1975.

As an assistant to I. F. Stone at his weekly newsletter when escalation began in 1965, as a correspondent based in Saigon for The Washington Post between 1970 and 1973, and then through decades of publishing books on the topic, by journalists, veterans, scholars, and most significantly, Robert McNamara’s explanatory memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, I was immersed in the history, the reality as I witnessed it, and the consequences of this twentieth-century war – a ground, air, and propaganda battle that differed from the global conflicts of  World Wars I and II.

 As an editor at Random House and its imprint Times Books, I also published the memoirs of Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President, and Anatoly Dobrynin’s In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents. Those books and my experience working with the authors are also reflected in the narrative. The historian Brian VanDeMark worked closely with both McNamara and Clifford as well as with me on their respective memoirs; his own book Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent into Vietnam was invaluable as a resource.

Robert Brigham, the Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar College and the author of several highly regarded books on the Vietnam war and its aftermath, shared documentary material from his extraordinary archive of research and fact-checked this narrative. Brigham also worked with McNamara on other Vietnam-related projects and provided essential perspective on how the policy debates evolved and how the personalities of those involved had an impact.

Although I was the editor and publisher of McNamara, Clifford, and Dobrynin, my role was also as a journalist, eliciting their detailed account of events and where possible their personal and emotional responses on how they felt the impact.

It was McNamara for whom a memoir carried the greatest burden. He was so closely identified with the war and subject to so much criticism that he recognized his book would receive intense scrutiny and public judgment of its contents.

In the course of drafting the manuscript, McNamara sat down for a series of recorded discussions to elicit deeper responses to the central questions of his time as Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense. Also participating in these conversations were my editorial colleague Geoff Shandler and McNamara’s coauthor, Brian VanDeMark.

Quotations from those sessions appear in the text in italics, and audio from these discussions is available at www.platformbooksllc.net.

In one of these first extended sessions in 1993, McNamara said to me:

“I want you to know this – you don’t have to act on it – but I have said if, when I finish this, I don’t think it’s going to be what I call constructive – which means non-self-serving, non-whitewashed, contributing to – I’ll call it healing the wounds – I’m going to tear up the contract. I’ll pay back the advance and I won’t publish. But that’s exactly…”

To which I replied:  “I respect that. I don’t think that will happen.”

The book’s publication in the spring of 1995 was a major national news story, and the coverage of McNamara’s reflections was harsh. A New York Times editorial on April 12, was scathing:

“Perhaps the only value of “In Retrospect” is to remind us never to forget that these were men who in the full hubristic glow of their power would not listen to logical warning or ethical appeal….[McNamara’s] regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers…Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”

It was of course too late to change or amend McNamara’s book with further justifications. Despite the reception, it became a number-one national bestseller. I never heard from McNamara then or ever that he was sorry he had written the book.

As I have reread the reviews after so many years, I see that they all concentrated on what McNamara might have said or done decades earlier, rather than his explanations, a missed opportunity for drawing historical lessons. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were replete with blunders that were recognizable..

*************************

As the United States approached the fiftieth anniversary of the withdrawal of the last American combat forces from Vietnam, I began to focus on what I have come to believe was a decisive factor in what was, ultimately, an American defeat: the relationship, personalities, and characters of the two men most closely identified with the misbegotten policies, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Robert Strange McNamara.

My work with McNamara, beginning in 1993 and culminating in the publication of In Retrospect in 1995 involved scores of conversations that enabled him to confront what went so badly wrong. The hundreds of pages of transcripts, I now realized, were more candid and therefore revealing than what McNamara would allow himself to say in the book.

The release of hundreds of hours of audio recordings from Johnson’s presidency, many dealing with Vietnam; the assessment of LBJ prior to the height of the Vietnam war in Robert Caro’s monumental biography; and a library of relevant books by others have provided me with the narrative to make the point that the Johnson-McNamara partnership, so crucial to the war, was from the outset destined to end in failure.

And based on their own words, the two men knew that they would certainly not prevail, almost from the moment they began working together on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

This series describes what happened in the years between 1963 and McNamara’s last day as secretary of defense in February 1968, only weeks before Johnson himself would announce that he would not run for reelection that fall. Johnson returned to Texas by any measure a broken man, and McNamara spent the rest of his life, privately and eventually publicly, coming to terms with the debacle.

This series is an account of how this happened and, to the extent possible, why.

***********

History is based on events interpreted by chroniclers, scholars, journalists, novelists, poets, and participants. But as Robert McNamara told his editors at an early discussion session, commentators tend to oversimplify history. “History isn’t that simple,” he said. “It’s messy.”

The facts of America’s engagement with Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the 1960s and ’70s are well known. By 1975 the United States had withdrawn support for its allies in the region, leaving Indochina in the hands of regimes that called themselves communist but were actually an amalgam of autocratic identities.

The American experience in Vietnam, known there always as the “American war,” ended in 1973 when the last U.S. combat troops left the country. The war has been portrayed in scores of studies like the Pentagon Papers, as well as in innumerable books, documentaries, and movies. The net is always the same: Whatever good intentions led to the U.S. involvement in the civil war between North and South Vietnam, the end was a failure, defeat, a debacle, or a tragedy, depending on who is describing the outcome.

There are many explanations for what happened, a result that has shaped the nation’s political, cultural, and social norms. When we now say “Vietnam,” we are going beyond a war to summarize the consequences of that effort in lives, treasure and our national sense of pride and patriotism.

David Halberstam framed forever those responsible as “the best and the brightest,” the title of his epic 1972 book and his ironic shorthand for the men of public stature who collectively devised and drove a policy that was to prove untenable. They were unable to preserve one-half of Vietnam from the spread of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in Asia in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution, all with the possibility of nuclear war hanging overhead.

This series is not meant to reconsider what is already known about Vietnam. It has a different objective: to describe as nearly as possible why the personalities and character of two men in particular were the central factors in the decision to escalate a commitment of fewer than 20,000 advisers in 1963 to a force of more than 536,000 American troops in 1968, when it was already clear to both of them that victory in the conventional sense was an impossible goal.

These men were President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert Strange McNamara.

Once Johnson and McNamara were gone from office, the conflict went on for another four years, with a casualty rate among U.S. forces climbing to 58,000 dead, hundreds of thousands of wounded, and colossal Vietnamese devastation. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, and his chief adviser, Henry Kissinger, redefined the U.S. objective as – in the parlance of realpolitik — “the decent interval” between the end of American involvement in the war and the now-presumed North Vietnamese triumph.

But it was Johnson and McNamara whose names and reputations were to be most closely connected to so profound a failure. They did not connive to produce policies. They were collaborators with others in devising them. But the depth, detail, and frequency of their contacts inevitably became a partnership of choices and, up to the point of their break, judgments. 

Many others had important roles during the Vietnam era, including President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert; McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and a cadre of White House and State Department officials; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General William Westmoreland, and other military commanders; Ambassadors Henry Cabot Lodge, Maxwell Taylor, and Ellsworth Bunker; and Clark Clifford, a counselor to presidents from Harry S. Truman to Lyndon B. Johnson and McNamara’s successor as secretary of defense as peace negotiations began in Paris.

There were no women among the policy makers to be held accountable, but there were two women who were part of the saga in their own way. The first was Jacqueline Kennedy, not as first lady but for her influence as a widow on Johnson, McNamara, and her brother-in-law Robert. And second was Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, who more than anyone else monitored her husband’s descent into despair over a battle he waged with public determination and private anguish. She watched how his extraordinary efforts on behalf of civil rights and social reform were upended emotionally by recognition of his confusion and frustration over Vietnam.

*********************

For more than ten years I worked with Robert McNamara on three books: his war memoir, In Retrospect: The Lessons and Tragedy of Vietnam; Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy; and Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century. I came to know him as an interlocutor, an editor, a publisher, and a person he could trust as he went through the process of coming to terms with what Vietnam had wrought to the country, his family, and the way so many Americans held him in contempt for his responsibility in what happened.

I did not know Lyndon Johnson personally, but because of the hundreds of hours of secret tapes made by him and now released, the extraordinary depth of Robert Caro’s biographical portrait so far, and Lady Bird’s amazing perceptiveness of his torment as recorded in her diaries, Johnson is revealed in a way that it is fair to conclude no other American president has been.

From all the available material in the library of biographies, histories and analyses of the period, the decades of my own involvement in the subject as a reporter and later as an editor, as well as access to the torrent of words in transcripts of my time with McNamara and the Johnson tapes, a picture of the men emerges that I intend to examine in the installments that follow, with this conclusion:

If John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated on November 22, 1963, and if Robert McNamara had been a man who was as politically astute as he was believed to be accomplished as a manager, and if Lyndon Johnson had been less a captive of insecurities eroding his judgment and spirit, then the misbegotten escalation in Vietnam might well have been avoided.

The United States of America was a superpower in those years in so many ways that the saga of Vietnam would seem to be inconceivable, except that it happened.

Next Week Part Two: The Overview

Sources and Acknowedgements and the audio of McNamara working with his editors can be found at www.platformbooksllc.net.

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May 28, 2024

And One More Time…

This was always going to be a tumultuous year, with U.S. national elections and wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. The first half of 2024 has exceeded expectations. Here, briefly, are reflections on what has been happening.

1 — Trump, Putin, and Bibi. These three men have their constituencies in thrall and the world at risk. The demise of Iran’s president in a helicopter crash shows how fast things can change. Trump is in criminal and civil courts. Putin and Bibi are being accused of war crimes by international prosecutors. More certainly to come.

2 — The Biden shrug. I am an admirer of Joe Biden’s presidency. But the Biden shrug is still prevalent, if not dominant, according to pollsters. We have had experiences this century with political shrugs. Al Gore lost by Supreme Court fiat in 2000, and the war in Iraq was a result – and by the way, Iraq is now an ally of Iran. Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016 were instrumental in delivering us Trump and the chaotic era that followed.

3 — Civilization is tribal. We are divided by gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality, among other identities. Bias, prejudice, and antagonisms evolve. Antisemitism, an ancient strain that combines elements of all this, has been resurgent this year. Israel’s policies in Gaza are ostensibly the reason, though it’s clear that something deeper is at work. It was striking that this Passover Jewish students at American universities were considered so vulnerable that police had to be involved in their protection.

4 — The American public’s mood is terrible. That’s what I read and am told on pervasive media. I am not in a position to judge so broad an issue. But I do think that the belief that things are going badly on many fronts — the economy, crime, inequality — has a tendency to result in self-fulfilling outcomes, at least when it comes to the national frame of mind.

****************************

The serialization of LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail will begin next week, June 4, and will appear on a weekly basis through the summer. The posts will be on Peter Osnos’ Platform on Substack. Sources, acknowledgments, and comments will be at platformbooksllc.net, along with audio of Robert McNamara working with his editors on his memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

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May 21, 2024

Who, What, Where, When and Why

The first installment of LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail will appear as a Substack post on Tuesday, June 4. Substacks are sent only to subscribers, who have signed up for them, which indicates a measure of interest in their contents. Some subscribers share them with friends.

To explain: The Substack enterprise which hosts these newsletters solicits paid subscriptions offering a range of options in addition to a free plan, which is what an overwhelming percentage of people choose. There are now thousands of Substacks available and some said to reach a vast audience in paid and free subscriptions. Peter Osnos’ Platform donates the revenue it receives — after the commission to Substack — to two NGOs, CIVIC (Center for Civilians in Conflict) (l and BSF (Barth Syndrome Foundation).

Why would a writer “give away” work? I can’t really answer that question without a self-serving explanation. I value the opportunity to write about what interests me and hopefully readers — a value sufficient to make the effort worthwhile.

I have been writing regularly in online formats for almost twenty years. Along the way I have also posted these pieces on social media sites, to understand how this increasingly important means of communicating information and entertainment actually functions.

TikTok, Instagram, and their counterparts are exceptionally powerful, but they seem unlikely to connect me to readers inclined toward my choice of topics. I did post on Facebook and Twitter (before it became X). As the Facebook algorithm shifted away from journalism and personal columns, my “views” (apparently people who were chosen to receive them) dwindled to a very few, despite the fact that technically I had accrued more than 1,500 “friends.” And X is now controlled by Elon Musk, and I can’t fathom much of what he publicly says and does. I have joined Linked In.

The reach of Peter Osnos’ Platform is largely limited, therefore, to subscribers and those who get it from people who are.

My objective in writing LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail is to draw on my decades of experience with the Vietnam war as a reporter, editor, and publisher of material about this era in history, which has had so great an impact on our country — especially for my generation, who came of age as it was happening and as it became a major factor in American life, and in our politics and culture ever since.

Each of what we expect to be eighteen installments in this series will remain on this site and will be accessible through www. platformbooksllc.net. Also on that site will be the source notes and acknowlegdments for the project and a link to a two-hour edited audio of McNamara working with editors and his historian assistant for his memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. The audio is unique in being able to hear how what became the contents of the book were formulated — the effort by McNamara to explain why it was that America’s engagement in Vietnam ended the way it did and his role and responsibility for that outcome.

Choosing to release this narrative as a digital serial does not reflect any loss of belief in the classic book in print, as an ebook or audio. Having spent so long on the subject of Vietnam the opportunity to offer the result of my experience and the research and reflections of others — outside the traditional marketplace — proved to be, for me, at least irresistible.

Best,

Peter

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May 14, 2024

Covering Russia

caption…A Russian delivering the news. That was then…

Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal and Alsu Kurmasheva of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are in Russian jails awaiting almost certain conviction at trials yet to be scheduled — and maybe, only then, a trade. Much of the Western press no longer feels able to live inside Russia. The best Russian publications and journalists are in exile. There are laws making reporting a serious crime.

To use an old Kremlin term (being deployed elsewhere) Vladimir Putin sees journalism as “an enemy of the people.”

Even in Joseph Stalin’s time, there were foreign journalists based in Moscow, harassed and censored, and later, under his successors, mainly just harassed.

Yet somehow, over the years, vivid descriptions of Soviet life were written and widely read in the West, and small groups of dissidents drew international attention to KGB abuses and other downsides of the USSR’s authoritarian regime. In the glasnost era of Mikhail Gorbachev and the post-Soviet years of Boris Yeltsin, standards of journalism were established that had recognizable integrity and influence.

So, what now?

Recently I went to lunch with Neil MacFarquhar, one of The New York Times’s stellar Russia experts, winner of a Pulitzer and a former Moscow bureau chief now covering Russia from New York. I was intending to commiserate with him on the limitations of covering wartime Russia from a distance.

Neil is not the bragging sort, but by the end of lunch I had a different view of the situation.

Because of the internet, the prevalence of cellphones in the distant reaches of a vast landmass, and the ways computers and phones can be used now (VPNs to get around what used to be called jamming, for instance), MacFarquhar and his colleagues are providing a range of stories that for the most part those of us embedded in Moscow during the Soviet era could not – the idea of placing a call to a family in Siberia, for example, was farfetched.

The Times now has five staff correspondents on the beat – four based in Berlin, Neil in New York, and a retinue of contract reporters and translators posted elsewhere.  One of the correspondents, Valerie Hopkins, a fluent Russian speaker, seems to be the one designated to travel to Russia, and she has written “mood of Moscow” pieces that I have found especially revealing.

Is she really safe? I certainly hope so.

(The Ukraine war has its own staffing, with a bureau in Kyiv.)

The rest of the extensive Russia coverage, usually including the input of several reporters, appears mostly without datelines, now an accepted practice for international coverage. Neil’s daily routine is hours spent online scrolling stories by publications operating in exile and working the phone to reach sources across the country. In one case, he explained, he and a colleague found seven land lines in one city and tried them all until reaching the person they were looking for.

I asked for a selection of headlines that have appeared in the Times, and Neil sent me this with links:

He Heeded Russia’s Call to Enlist. Five Months Later, He Was Dead.

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/06/world/europe/russia-soldier-casualties.html

How Russia Depicts Wounded Soldiers: As Heroes, or Not at All

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/15/world/europe/russia-soldiers-ukraine-war.html

What You Can Still Complain About in Russia: A Cat Thrown From a Train

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/02/world/asia/russia-pet-cat-train.html

They Refused to Fight for Russia. The Law Did Not Treat Them Kindly.

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/05/world/europe/they-refused-to-fight-for-russia-the-law-did-not-treat-them-kindly.html

One Year Into War, Putin Is Crafting the Russia He Craves

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/19/world/europe/ukraine-war-russia-putin.html 

I was surprised to learn that there are regional newspapers — all digital — that provide war reports with more detail than the national media, which is monitored and controlled by the Kremlin. Various independent Russian news agencies provide robust coverage, such as a joint effort by a news organization called Mediazona and the Russian language service of the BBC to count the named dead.

The Times has clearly decided to spend what is necessary to cover Russia and the war. I can’t really judge the rest of the major international media, which I don’t follow as closely. The Washington Post’s bureau chief, Robyn Dixon, is based in Riga, but with a Moscow dateline she launched a substantial series on Putin’s Russia, timed to his inauguration to a fifth term as president last week and billed as the result of extensive reporting over months. Another Post reporter, Francesca Ebel, a British citizen, periodically reports from inside Russia as well.

Lucy Papachristou, a brilliant young Russian speaking graduate of the Newmark Journalism School at City University in New York, is based in London for Reuters to cover Russia. Many other reporters also write from afar – reminiscent of a time long ago when China was covered from Hong Kong.

The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg has remained in Moscow, apparently navigating around the Kremlin obstacles, and has earned a reputation for sophisticated analysis, making his points in accessible language. Bravo, Steve!

So, what is missing?

It is harder to recreate from a distance the sights and sounds of people in restaurants and other gathering places than it would be sitting at the next table. When there are protests against the war, the footage usually shows the police breaking them up, which, alas, doesn’t look all that different from what we’ve been seeing on American campuses this spring. And it is hard to calibrate how interviews on the phone and in texts are influenced by the possibility of official monitoring.

Most of all, at least for me, is the question of how the Russian people — the masses – have accustomed themselves to a society that has become a twenty-first-century version of the repressive Soviet years. In the decades since the implosion of the USSR, a great deal had to have changed in experience and expectations for what would be two generations of Russians.

There seems to be a sense of stoicism and even majority support for Putin and his objectives. Classic Russian history defines a society of acceptance that made it possible as far back as Napoleon and as recently as World War II for the people to withstand the pressures of conflict.  

Sometimes in modern Russian history, events move slowly and then all at once. Think of the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader in 1964. Or the literal end of the USSR on December 25, 1991, a fact that would have seemed inconceivable through the decades of superpower tensions in the Cold War.

The best of journalism – and tipping my hat to The New York Times and others now covering Russia from everywhere but there – is a representation of what is happening. And there is an imbalance in the coverage of this war, in which the Ukraine side is so visible from the front and the Russian side much less so.

Be impressed with what we have and, as always, wish there could be more.

****************************

      Starting in June as an exclusive serial to run weekly on Peter Osnos’ Platform     

            

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May 7, 2024

Next Week: Covering Russia: Never Harder And Maybe, Never Better

Starting in June as an exclusive serial on Peter Osnos’ Platform

“Utilizing his unprecedented access to the record, Peter Osnos has excavated the complex relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert S. McNamara. Osnos expertly pulls back the curtain, revealing the central role that the character and personalities of these two complicated men played in the decision to escalate the war. We learn something new on almost every page.”

Robert K. Brigham, Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations, Vassar College, and author of Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam

“LBJ and McNamara is a perceptive treatment of the complex but crucial relationship at the heart of U.S. decision making on Vietnam. Peter Osnos vividly conveys how tragedy defined not just the Vietnam war in popular memory but the relationship between two historic figures of twentieth-century America.”

Brian VanDeMark, Professor of History, United States Naval Academy, and author of Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent into Vietnam.

Peter Osnos PLATFORM is a reader-supported publication.

May 1, 2024

An Announcement!

info@platformbooksllc.net

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April 30, 2024

The Wall!

Tijuana, where crowds cross into the U. S. many of whom are going to work..

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

Robert Frost, Mending Wall

There is China’s Great Wall; the Berlin Wall of the Cold War era; the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a sacred site in Judaism; the concrete slab of a wall that separates Israelis from Palestinians on the West Bank. And there are walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico border that now measure some 741 miles.

Walls are symbols of division. For more than fifty years, each presidential administration has added to the barriers along the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico frontier, mostly without controversy.

With the belligerent launch of his presidential campaign in June 2015, Donald Trump turned immigration and the wall into a core component of his candidacy, denouncing immigrants and pledging to construct a “big, beautiful” wall that Mexico would pay for.

In many polls about the 2024 election, immigration has emerged as the top issue for voters ahead of all others, such as the economy and national security.

Amid the uproar, disputes in Congress over immigration held up funding for Ukraine’s war against Russia and Israel’s conflict in Gaza for months. Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, was improbably impeached over his supposedly lax enforcement of immigration laws (and immediately acquitted). A New York Times headline declared, “Who Could Sway the Outcome of the U.S.President Election? Mexico’s, as though the U.S. contest will be determined by whether President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is committed to using whatever means he had to turn migrants away from the border.

So, a visit to the southernmost corner of California and the imposing border station at Tijuana, where upwards of 150,000 people cross each day, including tens of thousands of Mexicans who work in the San Diego area and line up before dawn each morning, is startling.

Coming from New York, a visitor’s expectation has been shaped by the imagery of desperation with streams of families arriving to face unknown consequences after an arduous and dangerous journey. Walls are meant to have grandeur, menace, or social impact on both sides. The reality is more complicated.

There is no doubt that the massive stream of migrants – the Custom and Border Protection number of encounters in 2023 were more than 2.4 million – pose a profound challenge with drug smuggling, human trafficking and economic stress on cities is a serious problem.

Tijuana, a city of more than two million people, is and always has been notable for urban disarray, violence, corruption, and as a gateway to Baja California, where tourists travel for the vineyards and sunny recreation. The daily melee at the border has long lines of legal migrants waiting to cross into the United States, few of whom seem to qualify for the SENTRI pass, which would enable speedy entry.

Barely more than a half mile inside the United States – and a stone’s throw from Tijuana’s frenetic vibe – is the Camino Real district, a vast array of retail outlets – that symbolizes how close the migrants can get to their vision of a better life in America.  

Then there is the strip of wall at San Judas, a short distance away, where as recently as February hundreds of people a day lifted the coils over the steel stanchions and entered the United States illegally. That scene was vividly described in another New York Times story headlined “A Makeshift Camp for Weary Migrants.”

The wall at San Judas is in scrub land among the hills, the landscape littered with the detritus of migrants awaiting the Immigration and Customs Enforcement vans that collect them. ICE processes them over two days or so and then drops them at bus stations in San Diego, where they will make their way to destinations across the country to await asylum hearings or simply to blend into the population of about eleven million undocumented people now in the country.

But a close-up glimpse of the issue, especially at what became known as the San Judas break and was featured on 60 Minutes this winter, reduces the scale to something much smaller. On the day we were there, the arrivals were a cluster of Chinese, mainly young men who had traveled seven thousand miles by air and land to squeeze around the steel slats. Indians, Afghans, and Central Asians also come to the place, encouraged, we were told, by TikTok videos.

The daily numbers are way down now because a small contingent of Mexican National Guard have been posted there, after the break in the wall appeared on prime-time television. Peering through the steel, the soldiers seemed to be doing what bored soldiers do everywhere – very little.

Three Californians — Sam Schultz; his wife, Gabrielle; and their son John — are the organizers of a volunteer effort to provide basic necessities to the migrants as they await the arrival of the border vans. In the nearby village of Jacumba Hot Springs, they have a ramshackle warehouse of staples to share. They make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a symbol for the migrants of arriving in a very different place from where they started.

Schultz, who is sixty-eight, spent years in Indonesia with his family and is experienced in aid work and assistance and now lives in the area. He defies easy characterization. He says his journalism idol was Hunter S. Thompson. The chaos of the immigration issue and its place in American politics is “bonkers,” he says. He just wants the arrivals at San Judas to know they are welcome.

The United States in 2024 is overwhelmed in so many ways by our divisions – red, blue, Black, white, pro-and anti-vaxxers, pro-Palestinians and supporters of Israel. There is a sense that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are destined to battle to a finish that will be decided by a fraction of the electorate, even if there is a criminal conviction of the former president.

No matter what happens with the scale of the border wall, the fences, and the mighty Rio Grande, they will not stop migrants willing to risk all for the journey. There is no dispute that the immigration situation is a mess.

At the San Diego International Airport, returning to New York, we saw some young Chinese men, perhaps the same ones who had made it through on the day of our visit to San Judas. They were holding boarding passes and clutching backpacks. I considered asking them their plans and decided they’d been through enough.

My guess is they just want to get on with their lives.

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