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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

10 Questions with Larry Berman

The Academic Senate this month named political science professor Larry Berman its 2010 Faculty Research Lecturer.

Berman, who has been at UC Davis since earning his doctorate in 1977, has served as department chair, founding director of the University of California Washington Center and is currently completing his final term as director of the UC Davis Washington Program. He has written or co-authored 12 books, including Planning a Tragedy; Lyndon Johnson’s War; No Peace, No Honor; and most recently, Perfect Spy: The Incredible Life of Xuan Pham An.

Berman will give the spring Faculty Research Lecture at 4:30 p.m. on May 26 in ARC Ballroom A. The lecture, “The Past Has Another Pattern: Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan,” is free and open to the public.

1. What does it take to receive the Faculty Research Award?

The Faculty Research Lecture Award is the highest honor the Davis Division of the Academic Senate accords its members. Each year, the Academic Senate selects a Faculty Research Lecturer, who gives a public lecture under the auspices of the Chancellor and the Chair of the Davis Division. Since a single award is made for the entire Davis faculty, nominees are outstanding scholars and researchers, recognized as leaders in their respective discipline, both nationally and internationally. Candidates for the award should have been at Davis for at least 10 years. The recipient also receives $1000.

2. What have been the most rewarding classes for you as a professor, and which do you feel like students enjoy the most?

On the Davis campus I teach POL 106, The Presidency; POL 5, Problems in American Government, and POL 1, Intro to American Government. In Washington, I teach POL 193W, which is the research seminar in our Washington D.C. program. I also regularly teach freshman seminars on contemporary topics relating to the presidency. This quarter I’m teaching one on “The Obama Presidency at Year One.”

I most enjoy teaching my presidency class as well as mentoring students on their research papers in Washington. I believe that students most enjoy my presidency class, especially when taught in Washington, where many of our seminars meet on location in order to enhance the learning experience.

3. It seems like the Vietnam War has been a primary focus of your career. What is it about Vietnam that intrigues you?

The war was a tragic and polarizing experience. I was an undergraduate in Washington during a period of great political and social upheaval. The war expanded into Cambodia and Laos. We were sent home after the killings at Kent State. Nixon had promised “peace with honor” but there was nothing honorable about the way the war ended and, of course, there would be a long interval before peace came to Vietnam.

When I arrived in graduate school at Princeton, I was able to focus my studies on presidents and their advisory processes. I began by asking questions about the options presented to Lyndon Johnson in the spring and summer of 1965, culminating with the July 28 decision to Americanize the war.

My initial work focused on the American side of things, but I quickly learned that I needed to incorporate the Vietnamese perspective, that is, to see the American war through their eyes. I’ve now had the opportunity to take veterans back for their own personal reconciliation and I’ve developed wonderful friendships with Vietnamese on both sides of the Pacific. In many respects my work has helped younger Vietnamese understand the war, especially my two books that have been translated into Vietnamese; No Peace, No Honor and Perfect Spy, which continues to be a best seller in Vietnam.

4. What was it about your relationship with Pham Xuan An, the subject of your latest book, that precluded such revelatory information?

When I first met An, I was finishing my book No Peace No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam. He became a source for that book, providing me with valuable information. A few years later I told him I wanted to write his story, using his life as a window for understanding the complexities of the war. He said no, but our conversations continued. Shortly thereafter An was hospitalized with emphysema and had a large part of his lung removed. When he returned home, the prognosis was not good.

I beseeched An to recognize that his story needed to be told by a scholar like myself and not just by journalists in Vietnam. To my delight, An said okay because he respected my previous work and he hoped that young people in America and Vietnam could learn from his life about the war, patriotism, nationalism and freedom. An thought he had only a few months left, but he lived another two years, during which I made over a dozen trips to visit him for extensive interviews and documents. Take a look at larrybermanperfectspy.com.

5. Can you explain the lawsuit you filed under the Freedom of Information Act – were there precursors to that kind of legal action?

I’ve made use of the Freedom of Information Act and mandatory declassification requests since starting my research in the early 1980s. The lawsuit against the CIA pertained to the release of what are known as Presidential Daily Briefs (PDBs), the so-called crown jewel of intelligence. Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I requested disclosure of PDBs from August 6, 1965, August 8, 1965, March 31, 1968 and April 2, 1968. After being turned down in the formal request and appeal process, I brought suit against the CIA, joined by prominent academic groups, including the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association as well as former Press Secretary Bill Moyers. I was very fortunate to be represented pro bono by the San Francisco law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine and by the National Security Archive. I lost the case on Appeal in the Ninth Circuit, but established precedent for the next generation of scholars to get access to these records.

6. If you could interview, unfettered, any figure in history, who would it be and why?

As it relates to the corpus of my research, I would want to interview the enigmatic Ho Chi Minh. There are so many things I would want to ask him about the Vietnamese revolution of 1945, his travels in the U.S., his contacts with the Office of Strategic Services, the wars against the French and Americans, the negotiations, his aspirations, vision and dreams for the Vietnamese revolution and his relationships with allies and adversaries.

7. You are the longest serving member of the UCD Political Science Department – what is it about Davis that has kept you here for over three decades?

Funny, it doesn’t feel that long. I’ve enjoyed the community, the friends I’ve made, the support I received as a junior member of the department from my senior colleagues and, of course, my students, many of whom I have stayed in touch with all these years. I’ve also played on some terrific intramural basketball and softball teams. Until the recent budget crisis, this really was the California dream for someone like myself who grew up in the Bronx, went to college in Washington, D.C. and attended graduate school in New Jersey. I still remember leaving Newark Airport for my Davis job interview in 1977. It was a blizzard-like day when I departed and when I arrived in Davis it was a beautiful, sunny day. I saw this wave of bikes and people wearing shorts and said to myself, “Don’t blow this interview.” The rest really is history.

8. Regarding your May 26 lecture – what kind of parallels do you see between Vietnam and the wars America is involved in today?

Despite the passage of time, America’s war in Vietnam remains an enigma: certainly a metaphor for defeat but also an experience from which curious lessons have been drawn for subsequent military interventions in distant lands. As analogy, the role of America’s war in Vietnam has permeated military and political thinking since April 30, 1975.

Even today, it is difficult to fathom the level of death and destruction, the maimed and wounded, in a country half the size of California. Most recently, President Obama rejected the Vietnam analogy, saying, “You have to learn lessons from history. On the other hand, each historical moment is different. You never step into the same historical river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.”

In my talk, I want to focus on this idea of having the experience of intervention but missing its meaning. The United States is hoping to achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan what it failed to do in Vietnam, and I fear that Afghanistan will become Obama’s War, just as Vietnam became Johnson’s War.

9. If you could give advice to the student wondering if history is a relevant pursuit for him or her, what would it be?

I always tell students that they need to study history because there is much wisdom in George Santayana’s words that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat in.” History helps us understand other cultures and peoples and makes us better prepared for a life of intellectual engagement. I have tried to build a bridge from the walls of academia to the world of politics, people and events that shape history.

10. What are your goals for the future?

I cannot imagine retiring. There’s another George Santayana quote that I am fond of: “There is no cure for birth or death, save to enjoy the interval.” Being a professor has always been a dream job, living in a world of ideas and discovery and sharing it every day with students. And I’m working on a major new book that is already under contract with HarperCollins/Smithsonian, tentatively titled Big Z: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell Zumwalt, Jr. I’m already working through the Zumwalt papers and well into my interviews.

BRIAN GERSON can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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