The Luncheon Society—Manhattan/Larry Berman on life of Navy CNO Elmo Zumwalt and the US Navy/March 21, 2013/Bar Americain

Larry BermanLarry Berman returned to The Luncheon Society with another new book on the Vietnam era. He joined us in Manhattan on his new biography on Elmo Zumwalt, the youngest Chief of Naval Operation is history and who is chiefly responsible for modernizing the US Navy.  From 1970 until 1974, his management style lessened the racial tensions, raised morale as the Vietnam War wore down, and dragged the service into the 20th century.

ZumwaltLarry Berman is also an old professor of mine when I was an undergraduate at UC-Davis.  There he wrote three well-regarded policy books of Vietnam, including Planning a Tragedy-The Americanization of the war in Vietnam,” which made the case that Lyndon Johnson knew that he was going to escalate in South Vietnam but craved a consensus position that would create unity from within his government.  He found out the hard way that what works for domestic political consensus failed him in foreign affairs. Lyndon-Johnson’s War/The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam, takes us to 1968, when the failure of the decision-making process in July 1965 (from Berman’s first book) is fully observed as a train wreck in policy and politics.  The third book, No Peace, No Honor/Nixon, Kissinger, and the Betrayal of South Vietnam, Berman looks at the last years of the American involvement in South Vietnam, as the war winding down. Both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger never expected the North Vietnamese to honor the terms of the agreement and once the terms were broken, they would be able to resume bombing runs over various North Vietnamese targets.

For me, as an undergraduate and a student of Larry Berman, I found myself reviewing what few saw at that time, recently declassified documents of the Johnson White House, notes which led up to the decision to escalate American troops.  I felt like a fly on the wall and the arguments between McNamara, Rusk, George Ball, and others came alive throughout the rooms in the White House.  It was like watching a play and seeing the plot unfold when you already know the ending will be tragic for all involved.

Berman’s next book, his book Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent, was well-received both here and in Vietnam. The book told the story of Phạm Xuân Ẩn, served as a North Vietnamese spy while he served as the only accredited Vietnamese reporter for Time Magazine in Saigon. An was also friendly with Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, who served a South Vietnam’s Military chief, Prime Minister and later its Vice President under Nguyễn Van Thieu—An trained Ky’s German Shepards.  He was brought into the Communist Party by Le Duc Tho, (who would later negotiate the Paris Peace A cords with Henry Kissinger) who sent him to California to learn about America because Hanoi was convinced that after the French left, the Americans would be next. Interestingly enough, An had the chance to leave as Saigon fell but hung around and even helped the Chief of South Vietnam’s Internal Security Forces escape communist capture.

An enrolled in what became Orange Community College and has the dubious distinction as the first Vietnamese national to live in Orange County. He remained in the States with a number of grants from organizations that supported South Vietnam (the ironies continues), ended up at the UN before returning to South Vietnam as a reporter. At our past lunch, which also included Peter Shaplan, the son of Robert Shaplan of The New York Times, Dan Ellsberg of The Pentagon Papers Fame, and Nguyễn Thai, who published the only English language paper in Saigon.

Life after the fall of South Vietnam had additional ironies for An. Because members of North Vietnam’s ruling cliques felt that An had been poisoned by living in a capitalist world, he was sent to a reeducation camp and spend many years under house arrest. A heavy smoker, An died in 2006 of lung cancer.

Here is the synopsis of Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr, from the book jacket.

Elmo Zumwalt“Admiral Elmo Russell Zumwalt, the charismatic Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and “the Navy’s most popular leader since WWII” (Time) was a man who embodied honor, courage, and commitment to those under his command. In a naval career spanning forty years, he rose to the top echelon of the US Navy, as a commander of all Navy forces in Vietnam and then as CNO (1970-1974). His tenure came at a time of scandal and tumult, from the Soviet’s challenge to U.S. naval supremacy and a duplicitous endgame in Vietnam to Watergate and an admirals’ spy ring.

Unlike many other senior naval officers, Zumwalt successfully enacted radical change, including the integration of the most racist branch of the military—an achievement that made him the target of bitter personal recriminations. His fight to modernize a technologically obsolete fleet pitted him against such formidable adversaries as Henry Kissinger and Hyman Rickover. Ultimately, Zumwalt created a more egalitarian Navy as well as a smaller and modernized fleet better prepared to cope with a changing world—a policy that has helped keep the navy a modern and relevant fighting force.

But Zumwalt’s professional success was marred by personal loss, including the unwitting role he played in his son’s death from Agent Orange. Retiring from the service in 1974, Zumwalt spearheaded a citizen education and mobilization effort to successfully help others in securing reparations for thousands of Vietnam veterans and their children. That activism earned him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by Bill Clinton in 1998. Today, his tombstone at the U.S. Naval Academy is inscribed with one word: Reformer. Admiring yet even-handed, Larry Berman’s moving biography reminds us what leadership is and pays tribute to a man whose life reflected the best of America itself.”

The USS Zumwalt, the next generation series of guided missile destroyers was launched in October 2013.

To purchase a signed copy of book please contact me at

Bio: Larry Berman has written four previous books on the war in Vietnam: Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam; Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road To Stalemate in Vietnam; No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam and Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent. He has been featured on C-SPAN Book TV, Bill Moyers’ The Public Mind and David McCullough’s American Experience. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He received the Bernath Lecture Prize for contributions to our understanding of foreign relations and the Department of the Navy Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper Research Grant. Berman is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis and Founding Dean of the Honors College at Georgia State University. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

luncheon-logo-fcThe Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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