Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Nixon’

The Post *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st January, 2018

The PostThe Pentagon Papers (at least some of them) were published by the New York Times and Washington Post in the summer of 1971, just before I set off — for the second time — for Vietnam, to cover President Nguyen Van Thieu’s re-election (he was the only candidate; he won). Though the explosion caused by the publication of details of how successive US Presidents had lied to the American people about the “success” of the War was not quite as huge in Britain as it was over the other side of the Atlantic, it meant that Saigon was a pretty febrile place by the time I got there. Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, opens with scenes of US soldiers in Vietnam — very much as I remembered them — but most of the movie’s action takes place in Washington, in the Washington Post’s editorial office and at the printing presses, as well as the mansion of proprietor Katherine Graham and grand residences of her friends, including the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (for whom actor Bruce Greenwood is made up to be a disconcertingly spitting image). As the title of the film suggests, it is essentially about the newspaper and the way that Kay Graham learned fast how to behave as its owner and to guarantee its bright future in the face of legal challenges launched by the Nixon administration. Authenticity is added by the detailed recreation of the atmosphere of early 1970s newsrooms and the workings of linotype printing, as well as some key realtime tape recordings of Richard Nixon talking to Henry Kissinger and others over the phone from the Oval Office. Meryl Streep is such a consummate actor that one expects her to be brilliant, and she does not disappoint. But the real star, without a doubt, is Tom Hanks, who just is the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee — utterly convincing both in his professional and domestic personae. Not all Spielberg’s films are unalloyed triumphs, but this one undoubtedly is. I can almost hear it hooverng up the Oscars already…

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Remembering Vietnam

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th October, 2017

Vietnam War helicopterRecently I’ve been watching the stupendous 10-part series of one-hour films on the Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, screened on BBC4 but also available through BBCiPlayer. The project took ten years to put together, from contemporary news footage, home videos, interviews with survivors or families of those killed, Vietnamese North and South as well as American. There are also extremely telling tapes of US presidents J F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon talking to top advisors, hoping to believe that everything was going well, whereas it became increasingly obvious that victory against the Communists — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, against the Vietnamese people — was impossible. Tonight I watched Episode 6, covering the first half of 1968, which had some iconic moments, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the US as well as the Tet offensive, when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops spirited into the South, hoping their assaults on major cities would lead to an uprising by the South Vietnamese, who would overthrow the corrupt regime of Nguyen Van Thieu and welcome them with open arms. That did not happen, though casualties on all sides were horrendous and the old imperial capital of Hue was largely destroyed. US propaganda portrayed the Tet Offensive as a failure for the Communists, arguing that the 510,000 US troops now in South Vietnam fighting alongside the South Vietnamese forces (as well as troops from Australia and South Korea, notably) were sure of victory. But many of the people really in the know, including Robert McNamara, who had recently stepped down as Defense Secretary, were aware that the cause would inevitably be lost, sooner or later. Anti-War protests were by now rampant on both sides of the Atlantic at it was at that moment, in the summer of 1968, that I decided that when I left school after taking the Oxbridge entrance exams, I would head out to Vietnam to see the truth for myself — as recounted in the second half of my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes.

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Obama in Cuba

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st March, 2016

Obama CubaBarack Obama’s visit to Cuba will probably go down in history as a seminal moment, such as Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. I was in Taipei then, taking a year abroad from my Chinese course at Oxford, and I was struck how terrified my host family was. They feared that the United States would then give the green light to Beijing to take over the island, but of course that never happened. But Nixon’s visit did open the door for China to re-enter the global community where, 44 years later, it is firmly in second place in world rankings. The potential rewards for Cuba following President Obama’s visit are unlikely to be so spectacular, but it should put an end to the shameful history of economic sanctions against Cuba by America, which Washington tried to force other countries to abide by too. There will also presumably be an influx of American tourists to the island, which will bring in much needed dollars but may not otherwise be totally beneficial. For all its shortcomings and illiberalism, the Cuban form of socialism did help create a society that had several very positive elements, including good education, plentiful qualified doctors and a remarkably low crime rate. It would be a shame if  the genuine solidarity among Cuban people were to be pushed aside in a headlong rush for modernisation and Americanisation. I went to Cuba seven times in the 1990s, culminating in my making a BBC radio documentary pegged to the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. It is a beautiful country that ought to have been quite prosperous had the Castros not stifled free enterprise. Of course, the American embargo made things worse and enabled the government in Havana to promote a siege mentality. Those days are now over and I can only hope that it won’t just be a well-connected few who will benefit from the inevitable changes, as happened in Russia and other parts of the CIS.

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Communist China’s 60th Anniversary

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st October, 2009

Mao ZedongOn 1 October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was declared. I wasn’t yet born, but I remember vividly at my primary school in Eccles in the late 1950s the headmaster standing in front of a world map (the British Empire still reassuring coloured pink) explaining how ‘we’ (the Western world) were going to liberate China from the murderous Reds, by backing Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists on the island of Taiwan. Thank God the man was only in charge of a school, not the country. But something about that lesson stuck in my mind, so that by the time I was in secondary school, I was doodling Chinese characters (some real, most imagined); for some strange reason, ideograms fascinated me. The fact that ‘Red China’ had by then cut itself off from the world and was entering what would turn into the long nightmare of the Cultural Revolution only made it more mysterious, more alluring.

Great Wall of ChinaTo cut a long story short, I ended up reading Chinese at university and was in Taiwan, doing my year abroad, when Richard Nixon went to China. The family I was lodging with near Taipei were frozen on the spot with fear as we listened to the broadcasts on the radio. They couldn’t believe that their great ally, the United States, had defected to the other side. Nixon was a class act. He was taken to the Great Wall and declared, ‘Gee, this is a great wall!’ Little did I realise that only two years later I would be asked to write a book about it (the Wall, that is). At last I got to go to the People’s Republic, to see things for myself. Beijing was all bicycles, seemingly millions of them, and most people still wandered round in Mao suits.

Zhou EnlaiSixty years on from the day that the Great Helmsman stood before the cheering masses in Tiananmen Square, China is one of the most materialist societies on earth. Skyscrapers shoot up in every city, while the streets are clogged with cars. People’s life expectancy has doubled since 1949 and for most people — not all — the quality of life has improved exponentially. China is now poised to make the 21st century its own. Should this be something we in the West celebrate or fear? As the late Prime Minister Zhou Enlai said when asked what he thought about the French Revolution, ‘it’s too soon to tell.’

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