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LISTEN: A Decent Interval

nixon-and-troops Despite agreement among Richard Nixon and his advisors by 1971 that the Vietnam War was a lost cause, the president took the advice of his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and decided to leave American troops in Asia until he had won reelection. The inevitable fall of Saigon—so the thinking went—must not happen in an election year. And so thousands more American soldiers lost their lives in a military action that their president had lost faith in. This disturbing story is part of Ken Hughes‘ findings for his new book, Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection. There is, unfortunately, even more to the story.

A researcher at the Miller Center and an expert on the White House tapes (“Ken Hughes is one of America’s foremost experts on secret presidential recordings.”—Bob Woodward), Hughes explains how the decision to prolong American involvement in Vietnam to help ensure a second term for Nixon opened the door for a second, equally reprehensible, decision. If South Vietnam were to fall to the North too soon after American troops were finally removed, it might reflect badly on the president. Kissinger felt there needed to be a “decent interval” between these two events, and so he secretly met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (along with the Soviet Union, China was one of the two largest suppliers of military aid to the North Vietnamese) to ask him to use his influence in Hanoi to delay an invasion of South Vietnam. What could Kissinger offer in return? A clear path to the South, with no American intervention. What would constitute a decent interval? Eighteen months, said Kissinger. Give us eighteen months.

The conversations surrounding these historic, largely secret, events are available on a dedicated web site as transcripts and audio files, so readers may hear for themselves. On October 6, 1972, months after Kissinger’s confidential meeting with Zhou, he and the president reflected on the inevitable fall of South Vietnam, which they had in effect set up. As Kissinger acknowledges, the deal they have negotiated would “collapse the South Vietnamese.” What are the odds Saigon will prevail? “I think there is one chance in four,” Kissinger admits. “Well” says Nixon, “if they’re that collapsible, maybe they just have to be collapsed. That’s another way to look at it, too.” You may listen to the entire conversation here.

Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection is available now.

Posted in History and Political Science, Main, Rotunda

LISTEN: “To Put It Brutally…”

NixononCambodia On this, the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War seems like a distant dream and America’s actions during that long tragedy are as inscrutable as ever. As early as 1971, one would have said President Nixon should remove American troops from Vietnam for political reasons alone. After all, nearly three-fourths of Americans favored a withdrawal. And yet, the troops remained. This would seem to jibe with the view, cultivated by Nixon himself, that he wanted to win the war but that Congress tied his hands. As Ken Hughes reveals in his latest book, however, Nixon and his advisors privately agreed the war could not be won.

In Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection, Hughes investigates many remarkable conversations from the Oval Office to show, among other revelations, how national security advisor Henry Kissinger convinced the president that maintaining a presence in Vietnam was in the best interest of his reelection hopes. Were South Vietnam to fall before the election, he reasoned, it could have a negative impact on the campaign. If this sounds like a paltry, not to say shocking, reason to persist in a war, you’ll understand the urgency of Hughes’ findings.

Nixon and Kissinger express their feelings about a withdrawal’s impact on the campaign quite openly in a conversation from March 19, 1971. You may listen to it, and read the full transcript, here. Nixon is negotiating for the release of POWs and considers the North Vietnamese demand of complete pull-out of American troops. Kissinger reminds the president that such a withdrawal would result in the “knocking over” of Saigon—that is, its untimely capture by the enemy.

Kissinger: Our problem is that if we get out after all the suffering we’ve gone through—
President Nixon: And then have it knocked over. Oh, I think—
Kissinger: We can’t have it knocked over—brutally—to put it brutally—before the election.
President Nixon: That’s right.

This view would prevail and guide the president’s course in his decisions on Vietnam. And so American involvement in the war continued, and thousands more lost their lives in what even the president privately agreed was a lost cause.

Like its predecessor, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate—a book the Washington Post called “the best account yet of Nixon’s devious interference with Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam War negotiations”—Fatal Politics is based on Hughes’ unparalleled knowledge of the secret White House tapes and offers the most penetrating look yet at the inner workings of Nixon’s Oval Office.

For more of Ken Hughes on Nixon and Vietnam, read his current pieces for Salon and for the History News Network. Hughes will be appearing at the 92nd Street Y in  New York on Wednesday, May 7. Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection is available now.

Posted in History and Political Science, Main, Rotunda

Meet Martha Washington

Martha_Washington_1 Although she famously burned all but two of the letters from her husband George, Martha Custis Washington amassed a correspondence that is sizable, articulate, and—as it reached out to numerous people in Virginia and beyond—a fascinating window on colonial America and the post-Revolutionary republic. As the Washington Post reports, Martha’s letters will now be added to the ongoing Papers of George Washington project. The University of Virginia Press will publish the letterpress editions, and the content will ultimately go into the digital edition of the Washington Papers, published by our electronic imprint, Rotunda.

The letters will reveal a shrewd and engaged woman who, owing to her husband’s frequent absences, was often the true head of the complex operation that was Mount Vernon. Martha had one of the largest personal fortunes in Virginia, and her wealth played a crucial role in the estate’s many activities. Martha’s papers will be joined by those of other members of the Custis and Washington families, as well as George Washington’s Barbados Diary, which covers his sole trip outside of America and which historians have long needed an accessible edition of. UVA Today has published an excellent overview of this exciting new addition to the Washington Papers.

Posted in History and Political Science, Press News, Rotunda

Glad We Could Help

IMG_3160 Awhile back we got an unusual request for temporary access to The Dolley Madison Digital Edition. This is one of the databases in our American Founding Era collection, published by our electronic imprint, Rotunda. Usually such requests come from large research libraries wanting to trial a resource before acquiring it. In this case, however, the users would be three sixth-grade students in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We set them up, went back to the usual business of running a scholarly press, and, to be honest, forgot about it.

Last week we received an email that the students—Mahtaab Sadeghi, Citlalli Gomez, and Zoe Gomory—had created a performance piece based on their research of Dolley Madison and had taken their project to the state-level competition for National History Day. They ended up winning first place in the Performance category for the Junior Division, as well as winning the Women’s History Special Prize. Now the sky’s the limit: the girls will travel to Washington D.C. in June to present their project at the national competition. We wish them the best of luck—and ask that, should any of them grow up to be a famous historian, they give us first dibs on their book.

Posted in Featured, History and Political Science, Rotunda

Tadjo at World Voices Festival

Véronique Tadjo, author of Far From My Father, will be taking part in PEN America’s World Voices Festival in New York City on May 7. Tickets are free, but you must reserve a spot. Details are here.

Posted in Caribbean and African Studies, Literary and Cultural Studies, Press News

All Things to All People

TJ crop No Founding Father has as a greater public following than Thomas Jefferson. Embraced for over two centuries by everyone from abolitionists to laissez-faire capitalists, from atheists to evangelicals, Jefferson speaks to people in a way that somehow transcends class or race or political affiliation. But when the agendas of his followers range so widely, is it inevitable that many must be misinterpreting his beliefs? Jefferson scholar Andrew Burstein shares the long history of appropriating Jefferson, a practice that even presidents are not above, in his new book, Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All While Being Dead. Professor Burstein agreed to answer some of our questions about his provocative book and what it reveals about both the third president and the generations that have followed him.

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Q: You are known as one of the top scholars on Thomas Jefferson, but the subject of your latest book—while centered on Jefferson’s thought—takes you into a distinctly modern discussion. What drew you to this line of inquiry, and what are the challenges in such a project for a historian who has spent his career studying the early republic?

A: For several years now, I have been contributing history-accented pieces to the online journal of contemporary politics and culture salon.com. In the course of writing about the historical antecedents of today’s partisan debates for Salon, I found many extraordinary misreadings of America’s past in the statements of prominent public figures. The Congressional Record alone reveals a good many Jefferson quotes dredged up to promote bills before the House or Senate, and an awful lot of these have either miscast the historical Jefferson or invented quotes from him that “sound like” something he might have said. Because the Left and the Right both seem to think they best represent Jefferson’s political principles, I wanted to investigate just how that mindset arose.

Q: Democracy’s Muse shows how Jefferson is appropriated by groups with conflicting beliefs and agendas. He must be the greatest example of being all things to all people. But we can’t all be right, so does this indicate a terrible misreading of his life and work by many of his admirers? Or is there something peculiar to Jefferson—some ambiguity or elusiveness—that invites multiple, plausible interpretations?

A: It’s right there in Jefferson’s exceptionally eloquent First Inaugural Address, March 1801: he expresses FDR crop both liberal humanist sentiments and a small-government advocacy. “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things” makes him sound like a conscientious liberal, seeking to remove social injustice. He says we should “unite in common efforts for the common good.” But then, he also calls for “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” That’s Reaganomics, and indeed, Ronald Reagan loved this particular quote. Franklin D. Roosevelt adored Jefferson for being the first, after the Revolution, to stand up for the “little man,” the laboring citizen. FDR believed that the New Deal was a most Jeffersonian policy prescription. So, yes, there is no one quite so malleable as the quotable Thomas Jefferson.

Q: Presidents on both the left and the right have admired Jefferson. Do you think this partly reflects a common ground all people who have held the office feel with each other? One thinks of George Bush the first invoking, of all people, Harry Truman when he ran for reelection in 1992. What role do you think simple presidential “camaraderie” plays in so many presidents’ reverence for Jefferson?

RR crop A: The portraiture that graces the White House Cabinet Room may or may not mean a lot, but presidents do decide which of their predecessors to hang in this stately location. The one president every chief executive from Reagan through Obama has seen fit to feature here is Thomas Jefferson. He has been used in multiple State of the Union addresses, and the Jefferson Memorial has been the backdrop for many presidential announcements. The “camaraderie” modern presidents feel probably relates to two things: Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence—the nation’s “long form” birth certificate—and Jefferson as the emotive proponent of the moral principles that have come to define the American national identity.

Q: Unlike Europe, the U.S. does not have a long history of celebrating its public intellectuals, and yet Jefferson’s appeal is extremely broad, reaching all strata of society. Do you find this unusual for a man prized for his mind at least as much for his actions—and can you shed any light on why this might be?

A: As a famous bibliophile, as an expressive letter writer whose body or correspondence has been published in large, accessible volumes, Jefferson exhibits an amazing curiosity about such areas of human endeavor as architecture, botany, classical thought, and the history of language. He was global in his concerns, asking knowledgeable others about a Siberian expedition or owning a copy of the Koran. So, it is not surprising that he should continue to draw international scholars as well as political thinkers to the body of his work and his descriptions of the world around him. In Democracy’s Muse, I write about how Mikhail Gorbachev said that a college text he had held onto, which explained Jefferson’s political principles, affected him deeply as he contemplated reform in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Jefferson’s appeal is his ability to combine a concern with the human spirit with a belief in the power of the educated individual.

Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All While Being Dead is available now.

Posted in History and Political Science, Main, Virginiana

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