How Erskine Childers Became My Friend

I met Erskine Childers, a former officer of the National Student Association and a distinguished United Nations official, long after he died. If that seems impossible, let me explain. I came to know the young Erskine Childers through letters left behind in the United States National Student Association (NSA) archive at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In the late 1940s, as an undergraduate at Stanford, Erskine had been active in NSA and was subsequently elected an officer in 1949. I was captivated by his voice. His letters were full of passion, sometimes lyrical and poetic, especially if he was missing Ireland; at other times, they were filled with angst as he wrestled with his obligations to Irish history, the legacy of his martyred grandfather, and the question of American citizenship.

Gradually, I realized Erskine Childers’ importance to my research on the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert relationship with the NSA. Cold Warriors frequently argue that “everyone” in the late 1940s and 1950s would have cooperated with the CIA to fight international communism as they had secretly done. They condemn those who criticize them by claiming that such critics are applying contemporary standards and values retrospectively, and incorrectly, to an earlier historical period. Yet, here was “my” Erskine, fighting to preserve democratic principles, and resisting the idea of government intrusion into a student organization. His example is the best refutation of the argument that a younger generation, had they understood the temper of the times, would have embraced the CIA and its Cold War objectives. He was a contemporary, and he actively fought to keep NSA independent.

Erskine’s battle began in August 1949, when he joined more than 600 students from around the country for the NSA Congress, held that year at the University of Illinois. By then, fellow delegates had recognized his leadership talent, his unusual grasp of politics, and his interest in foreign affairs, and encouraged him to run for NSA office. He decided in the affirmative, but not before agonizing over the question of his family’s legacy. In 1922, during the Irish Civil War, the British had executed his grandfather, Robert Erskine Childers, after whom he was named. His father, Erskine Hamilton Childers, the son of the martyred patriot, had already entered Irish politics, although not yet elected President of the Republic. By taking out American citizenship, he asked himself if he was abandoning his country and his family.

Erskine ran for International Affairs Vice Presidency, unaware that this position was critical to the CIA’s agenda. Years later, I discovered agents had sought an alternative candidate. At the time, Erskine encountered electoral tactics that appalled him. He wrote to a friend. “The tricks, the deliberate attempts to distort and to confuse, the foul personal talk behind hands and doors—all this in an effort to have NSA tell the world that we had forgotten the most fundamental of inspirations….hope and faith in men and their destiny!” He explained his determination to fight in spite of these tactics by invoking his previous experience in Ireland; as a small child, he had survived being “kicked by English boys” and called “a traitor.”

At issue in the election was the question of whether NSA would cooperate with the International Union of Students based in Prague, in which communist student unions were heavily represented. Anti-communists within NSA pushed for a pro-West international alternative. Erskine did not want to foster an East-West division. In an early demonstration of his commitment to peace and diplomacy, he explained: “I do not believe for one moment that the strategy to use with communism is either to back away from it, or to present so adamantly converse a front as to make any working relationship almost impossible.” The vote was close but he won.

During his first weeks in office, Erskine was asked by the U.S. Department of State to report on NSA international activities. He declined, telling the NSA President, Robert Kelley, who was based in Madison, Wisconsin, far away from the international office near Harvard University: “I am reluctant to the point of refusing to write my personal resume of the events.” He didn’t mind sending in “official or printed literature, but I will be adamant about expenditure of especial efforts to secure information for the State Department about suspect groups or radical elements in the student community.” Even a small precedent might make NSA into “an extension division for information on the tainted few.” Kelley, by contrast, fully cooperated with U.S. government requests.

Throughout his year in office, Erskine faced and fought many such battles. He was sometimes badly treated by those who were determined to use NSA to fight international communism. In August 1950, just before his term ended, President Kelley ordered Erskine home from a European trip, denying him the opportunity to travel to Prague and personally evaluate charges of Soviet control over the International Union of Students. He reluctantly complied, but remained discreet about his upset, mindful that to make his fight public could harm the fledging student association, then only a few years old.

By the time his NSA term ended, and the number of archival letters dwindled, I had come to admire his unique blend of instinct, temperament, and commitment to democracy. It enabled him to stand for principle, even when it was an unpopular thing to do.

Getting to know someone from his or her archival letters is an oddly intimate experience. One communes — laughs, frowns, tears up, or nods in agreement. For years, I kept expecting Erskine Childers to step out of the pages I was reading and introduce himself. For one wild moment in 2015, I thought the impossible had happened, when I received an email from Erskine Childers and learned that he had a namesake son. I’m so grateful that our acquaintance has resulted in an opportunity to write about the Erskine I knew and the unusual way we met. More importantly, it has given me a chance to honor his father’s principled resistance to turning NSA into a Cold War organization.

— Karen M. Paget, originally published  in Yale Books Unbound, March 31, 2017

Reconciliation in Vietnam

As I prepared for my trip to Vietnam this January, I found it surreal to put the words “tourist” and “Vietnam” in the same sentence.  I had the psyche of an anti-war activist, steeped in ten interminable years of marches and resolutions, outrage over official lies, and the general horror of bloodshed. Just the thought of being in Hanoi felt mildly illicit, since traveling to North Vietnam was once considered tantamount to treason.

In Hanoi, our tour group stayed at the legendary Metropole Hotel, now owned by Sofitel.  Built in 1901, it has been the scene of foreign intrigue for over a century, through two wars (France and the United States). It has been home to embassies and consulates, international peace delegations, including the infamous Jane Fonda visit, and even bombings, most sensationally in its courtyard during Christmas 1972. An old photograph shows a long row of one-person bomb shelters on the sidewalk in front of the block-long hotel, entered through a manhole size cover. A recently rediscovered underground bunker, where singer Joan Baez once fled during the 1972 Christmas bombings, was too jam-packed with tourists for us to visit. And, it was here at the Metropole that Graham Greene began to write The Quiet American, first published in 1955, that exposed the less savory ambitions of American aid to the French before their defeat.

Hanoi by rickshaw

The reality of Hanoi quickly pulled me out of my reminiscent mode. The second night, we were to be driven individually by bicycle-powered rickshaws to attend an evening cultural event. Although it was the dry season, it was pouring rain. Rickshaw drivers, like the owners of the three million motorbikes that clog Hanoi streets, are not deterred by rain, although whoever owns the plastic poncho franchise must be very wealthy.  My driver kept stopping to adjust the plastic sheets meant to protect me from the rain but whose sagging edges funneled the rain inside.  As a result, my driver lost the rest of the tour group, his only English word apparently okay, which in context I took to mean oh-oh. He pumped up and down narrow streets, weaving in and out of cars, bikes, buses, pedestrians, and other rickshaws, sometimes going with the one-way traffic, other times going directly against it.  The carbon monoxide fumes were so bad at times that I had to keep my mouth covered with my scarf. A half-dozen cell phone calls later –made while trying to steer the rickshaw and as dangerous as driving and texting — he reached someone in charge and we reached our destination. This was no longer the Hanoi of my imagination.  This was Hanoi at rush hour.

Our regular Vietnamese guides were fluent in English.  Most were born after the war ended in 1975, and they were fond of reminding us that Vietnam is not a war but a country.

Paradoxically, the tour’s agenda emphasizes war-related excursions, whether in Hanoi, along the Mekong River or in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We visited the “Hanoi Hilton,” for example, where Senator John McCain had been held a prisoner of war.  Exhibits feature pictures of his capture, his Navy uniform and helmet hang in a special display case, and videos play excerpts of him and his fellow pilots.  There is nothing Hilton-ish about this long-time torture chamber: the Centrale Maison, its real name, once served the prison needs of colonial France. In one dank cell, no longer than 15 feet, two dozen or so life-size bronze sculptures depict Vietnamese held in chains and lined up cheek by jowl. In the gloom of the cell, the sculptures look eerily human and beseeching.

The day our group left Hanoi, the Metropole staff was abuzz: Secretary of State John Kerry and his entourage were arriving for a last diplomatic visit before Obama left office. Why I wondered?  Tension in the South China Sea?  Trade discussions?  I put it out of my mind. We were on our way to Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin to sleep overnight in a (modern) Junk.  The bay turned out to be even more beautiful than pictures can convey, with its 18,000 islands and imposing rock formations.  To wake up in the early morning mist, anchored in the middle of the bay, and watch these formations go by is simply put, magical.

Ha Long Bay

Several days later I read that Kerry made an unscheduled visit to the Mekong Delta, a visit that turned out to haunt me throughout the trip. It seems that Kerry couldn’t sleep that first night in the Hanoi Metropole, so he spent time on a Google Earth search, trying to pinpoint the location of his 1968 Swift Boat battle, the one in which he shot an enemy combatant, saved his crew, and for which he received a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.  He conferred with a former crewmember who thought he had the right location.

Along the Mekong

He subsequently came to the Mekong Delta and took a boat up the Bay Hap River. He met with a former Viet Cong soldier who survived the battle, and learned – for the first time – the name and age of the person he had killed.  I was riveted. How did it feel to revisit an experience that must have included the terror of battle, the relief of survival, the guilt of taking a life, and a stew of emotions I couldn’t begin to fathom?  I thought about the battle’s long term effect on Kerry’s life, how it must have shaped his views as leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the damage done to his 2004 presidential campaign when an attack ad used his medals against him, a phenomenon now known as “swift boating” your opponent.  In an especially vicious claim, attackers said Kerry had shot a teenager, implying a kind of recklessness.  Now he learned for sure that he did not; the soldier, armed with a rocket launcher, was twenty-four.  The battle itself began, according to the survivor, Bo Van Tam, when the Vietnamese communists deliberately tried to lure the Americans into the rocket’s range.

A few days later, we made our own riverboat excursion down the Mekong River. Gradually a new picture of Vietnam was forming in my mind, one that combined the old and the new in unexpected ways. One day, while anchored in the middle of the Mekong, we boarded a smaller boat to visit a Vietnamese village. In order to reach it, we stopped alongside a riverbank and climbed up makeshift dirt-packed steps. We then followed a rutted path through the village, passed jumbled huts and houses and rice paddies, and stopped to visit an old woman selling fish and vegetables. We jumped aside for motorbikes that bumped their way over tree roots and ruts, transporting everything from produce to spare tires. As we exchanged greetings with local Vietnamese, young children followed us pied piper style, driven by both curiosity and the possibility of candy.  I tried to imagine an American soldier tasked with identifying Viet Cong sympathizers among such close-knit villagers.  Just impossible, I thought.

On another occasion, we took small boats that puttered passed floating villages on the Mekong where Vietnamese families live on houseboats clustered together and fish to make a living.  “Poor but not starving” our guide offered.  Here, Vietnam seemed a timeless country. Yet, we were surprised to find a smattering of modern solar panels mounted on the tin roofs of some of the poorest, most ramshackle boats.  Evenings, by contrast, returned us to the ageless culture of Vietnam as performers entertained us with traditional dances and musical instruments.

Village on the Mekong

The last leg of our tour took us to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as everyone still calls it), a thriving modern city of skyscrapers and high-rise apartments. In the old Post Office, a large Ho Chi Minh portrait hovers over visitors.  Outside in the plaza Vietnamese models parade in traditional Vietnamese dresses, ao dai, in dazzling colors of magenta, gold, and emerald green.  A few blocks away, high-end stores, Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, compete for customers. Tourist books advise visitors to use dong while in Vietnam but everywhere we went, American dollars were snapped up.  We encountered not a whiff of hostility toward Americans–the first question I am usually asked.

War Museum

Perhaps, inevitably, since we were in Saigon, the daytime trips returned to war themes. I chose to forego the chance to crawl through a typical Viet Cong tunnel in Cu Chi. In preparation for a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, we were not so subtly reminded that we would learn about the American War, as it is known among the Vietnamese. With the exception of a few obvious editorial comments, such as the term henchman, the exhibit texts seemed largely factual.

One panel features a quote from former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the war’s architects: “We were wrong, terribly wrong about the war. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”   My traveling companion, who doesn’t share my political background, gasped upon reading the quote, and whispered, is that true?  Yes, I whispered back, grateful once again that McNamara had lived to write his memoir and put his mea culpa on the record. Later, I realized the question was revelatory: there must be scores of people in the U.S. and elsewhere unaware of McNamara’s damning conclusion. So much for learning the lessons of Vietnam.

It wasn’t until I had returned home that I understood why the Kerry encounter continued to haunt me. I have long been fascinated by the interplay of history and memory, and especially by the experience of revisiting history and its effect on memory. I found myself wondering if Kerry had experienced any kind of reconciliation. In the moment, he told the press the experience was “weird” and “surreal.”  Once the word reconciliation jumped into my mind, I knew it aptly summed up my own struggle, albeit on a far less dramatic, far smaller scale.  Throughout the trip I had been engaged in trying to reconcile my experience of Vietnam then and now.  I had come to Vietnam with the psyche of an anti-war activist, but I returned home with the recognition that, as the guides had averred, Vietnam is a country, not just a war.

— Karen M Paget

Rogue No More

When the request from Shawn Fettig came to write about what the post-election future holds for the LBGTQ community, my first thought was to say that I had hung up my predictor hat, having been, like so many others, wrong about the 2016 election.  Or to respond that Trump himself is not predictable: he doesn’t seem to remember his position on any given day or even five minutes before.  Did anyone expect him to say during his 60 Minutes interview that he was “okay” with same-sex marriage? Will that stick? I concluded that my only response to Shawn about the future could be “who knows?”

But, as it happens, I’ve spent the last month sorting through old files from the last fifty-five years of my life, and had just finished with folders labeled “sexual preference fight, 1973,” and “recall election, 1974.”   I was one of the five Boulder city council members who voted to amend the local Human Rights Ordinance to ban discrimination in employment based on sexual preference, a term of art at the time, now archaic and even offensive. As I read through constituent letters from more than forty years ago, I was stunned.  I had forgotten just how viciously people had reacted to the vote, the referendum that overturned the council’s vote by more than two to one, and the recall that broke the council’s progressive majority. The vitriol, the screed, the threats of retribution, much of it apparently sent by the divine, reminded me that in the early 1970s, a majority of liberal Boulderites thought we were simply out of our minds.

And, forty years ago, no one, but no one, uttered the phrase same-sex marriage or marriage equality.  Thus, while I have little to say about the future – except organize – I am passionate about history and what it teaches us. Without sounding (hopefully) like a Pollyanna, and recognizing the pain and struggle of the LBGTQ community over the past decades, the change in attitudes has been astounding. The latest Pew Foundation poll shows strong majorities in favor of same-sex marriage and other LBGTQ rights. By contrast, consider that the women’s movement was never able to achieve its goal of passing an Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923.   What the Pew polls highlight is that LBGTQ activists are winning the hardest, most important, political battle of all – hearts and minds.

But, of course, history never marches forward in a straight line.  Electoral politics can occasionally leapfrog cultural change but, more commonly, it reflects cultural and social change. San Francisco Mayor, Gavin Newsome, for example, used his liberal base to leap into the future on Valentine’s day, 2004, by defying state law and issuing more than 4,000 same sex marriage licenses.  Initially overturned, just four years later, the California Supreme Court found the prohibition unconstitutional. More recently, who would have imagined that a conservative lawyer and a liberal lawyer would team up to win a similar victory in the U.S. Supreme Court?  Or, that by 2015, three dozen states had already made same-sex marriage legal.

Reviewing the last forty years, I think that the LBGTQ community has been particularly brilliant in its organizing strategies and alliances, forming support networks like PFLAG or Boulder’s Open Door.   In 2015, I attended the Open Door banquet that honored my daughter-in-law, Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall, who issued same-sex marriage licenses in defiance of Colorado law. (For the record, we never conferred ahead of time: she knew what was right and did it.) A few of us at the banquet, veterans of the old sexual preference fights/losses, watched as the Chamber of Commerce Director emceed the awards.  Oh how symbolic of the changed attitudes, we marveled, for at one time the Chamber had been an archenemy of gay rights. If this sounds celebratory, it is mean to be.  The confidence, strength, and strategic ingenuity of the LBGTQ community is an enormous asset for the future, and may offer lessons to other groups who are currently under attack, fearful of what lies ahead, and who are not so strong.

Still, the fight ahead will not be easy, the rhetoric alone is abhorrent, even though, historically, it is more difficult to take rights away than to win them.  I hope that those of us who live in liberal enclaves or in deep blue states can find ways to support activists in rural and red states.  For example, using the abortion rights fight as a parallel, tithing a monthly donation to a Planned Parenthood Clinic based in a rural area is one way to reach out.  We have “sister cities” in foreign countries; perhaps the principle could apply to cities and states where activists still feel very much alone, still rogue, and where the hearts and minds fight has yet to be won.

— Karen M. Paget, originally published at, November 2016.

Lessons Not Learned: Covert Operations since the Cold War

While writing Patriotic Betrayal, which chronicles a major Cold War covert operation with the U.S. National Student Association, I began a file in which I collected evidence of renewed covert activities in the late 1990s. The newspaper clips came from different parts of the globe in little media bursts of charges and denials, like seeing a whale breach and knowing a pod is just beneath the surface. The question arises: did we learn any lessons from twenty years of Cold War covert operations?

Patriotic Betrayal concluded with an assessment by CIA-knowledgeable (witting) participants of the stratagems used to win friends and punish enemies. Their judgment? Few actually worked.  This was true whether the witting students created phony foreign student unions, known as ghosts, that collapsed as soon as their purpose had been served, or aided the CIA overthrow of Iraqi ruler Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1963, that instead paved the way for the rise of Saddam Hussein, or backed Algerian revolutionaries in the hope of a gaining friendly post-colonial Algeria in 1962, hopes that were dashed when Algerian President Ben Bella allied with Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

By the mid-1960s, ideas for covert projects had grown more creative or more absurd, depending on your point of view. For example, the NSA-CIA team considered obtaining a worn out Soviet tanker and creating an oil spill off the coast of Algeria during the 1965 World Youth Festival in Algiers. To what end? The worn out tanker would signify a failed Soviet economy, and the oil spill a lack of environmental sensitivity. In this case, events overtook the scheme. President Ben Bella was overthrown, the festival cancelled, and the oil spill never materialized.

In the wake of 9/11, my collection of clippings grew. Articles, newspaper columns, and reports advocated a return to Cold War-style covert operations. Titles such as “Covert Operations: Now More than Ever,” or an International Herald Tribune op-ed by Richard Holbrooke that subtly signaled his backing for new CIA action, or a 2007 Rand Corporation report, “Building Moderate Muslim Networks,” that made the historical analogy explicit, albeit using sanitized language. The U.S. Government officials should build “parallel structures” and give them “benign guidance.”  Did the authors know anything about Cold War operations, I wondered? I dubbed my growing clip file, The Golden Age.

The tongue-in-cheek title didn’t mean that I wasn’t concerned. I was. Take the phony Twitter account in Cuba established secretly in 2010 with funds from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), called ZunZuneo, apparently Spanish slang for a Humingbird’s chirp. Yes, this phony twitter account, designed to build a base of freedom-seeking Cubans, had as its ultimate goal the creation of  “smart mobs” that would create a Cuban Spring and finally—once and for all—overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime. ZunZuneo was a textbook case of covert action, a project designed to disguise the hand of the U.S.  Government. USAID funds went to two private U.S. Companies, Creative Associates and Mobile Accord. As usual, one big secret requires lots of little ones. In this case, additional front companies were needed to disguise the publicly recognizable ones, and therefore the U.S. origins of the Twitter account. ZunZuneo’s “creative” entrepreneurs met secretly in Spain and other foreign capitals; like many Cold Warriors, they enjoyed a little foreign travel on the taxpayer’s dime while they plotted.

Not only did the project fail to overthrow Castro but, according to Catherine A. Traywick in Foreign Policy, its net effect was to supply intelligence to the Castro government on 40,000 twitter participants. It seems the covert operators overlooked the fact that the Cuban government owned the internet infrastructure.

Yet, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee examined the failed project at a televised hearing on April 8, 2014, I listened in disbelief as the debate turned on whether ZunZuneo was a “discreet” or a “covert” project. The Democratic Chair, Robert Menendez from New Jersey, a fierce anti-Castro Senator, stubbornly insisted it was discreet. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, made perhaps the most cogent remark, saying, in effect, you can call it covert, you can call it discreet, I call it silly.  His remarks were echoed by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who called it “dumb, dumb, dumb.” Leahy also pointed to how the Twitter project endangered USAID employees around the world, some of whom had contacted his office.

The Obama White House echoed the “discreet” defense, and pointed its finger toward Congress, since it had appropriated USAID funds. No one in Congress or the White House worried, at least openly, about the information newly amassed by the Cuban government. Did officials grasp what the exposure of the Cuban caper meant for dissidents throughout the world who are using social networks to organize, and who are often urged on by the U.S. Department of State? Was there a faster way to sow distrust of social media? Of course, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures, we know the answer is yes—through massive electronic surveillance.

But the ZunZuneo project is also an example of something I found characteristic of covert Cold War student operations: large and unrealistic hopes were often attached to covert projects. A friendly Algeria, for example, was to have enhanced U.S. prestige across all of North Africa, and even the Middle East. Support for anti-Batista Cuban revolutionaries was to demonstrate that the U.S. didn’t just support Latin American dictators. Not only does most covert meddling in politics fail, but the fallout or blowback, should the operations become public, and they usually do, is often the opposite of what was intended. Changing the adjective from covert to discreet suggests that we have a long way to go before we learn the lessons of the Cold War.

— Karen M. Paget

(This post appeared on the Yale Books Unbound blog on April 15, 2015)