James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Vietnam

  • Two Stories to Read Today

    An account from 1966, and one from 2011, tell the same story about America's longest wars

    1) "Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy," by David Cloud, in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.  This is the most vivid recent rendering of a truth that in our bones we all understand: that the most technologically advanced, complex, and "sophisticated" new U.S. combat tools are ill-matched to the realities of a mountainous, pre-modern society with no obvious battle lines or clear distinctions between friend and foe. Read this story before your next discussion on whether American strategy can "succeed" in Afghanistan. Read and weep.

    Illustration from the LAT site:
    Thumbnail image for LATimesIllustration.png

    Esquire.png2) "M," by John Sack, published in Esquire forty-five years ago with the cover line, "Oh My God -- We Hit a Little Girl!" Bonus question/current-events IQ test: See if you can guess why I am suggesting reading these two stories back to back.

    This John Sack article, which I remember seeing as a teenager, is part of a wonderful Esquire project of putting "The 7 Greatest Stories in the History of Esquire Magazine" on line, in their entirety. Congrats to Esquire's Tim Heffernan for this effort, and to the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf for the tip to it, via his The Best of Journalism site.
    Can't say it often enough: by far the best way to read these long online essays is with Instapaper, which sends beautifully and readably formatted versions to your iPad, Kindle, portable computer, etc. More about it here.

  • News from Inhabitant Public Radio®

    "I'm contemptible to listen about your loss"

    Read a little bit of this. Explanation after the jump. Bleak but funny.

    Police examine genocide of longtime troops adviser

    Copyright © 2011 Inhabitant Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial operate only. See Terms of Use. For alternative uses, before accede required.

    MELISSA BLOCK, host:

    John Wheeler was a invulnerability expert, a former tip central in a Air Force, a West Indicate connoisseur as good as Vietnam maestro who worked tough to get a Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall built upon a Inhabitant Mall here in Washington.

    On Friday, John Wheeler's physique was detected in a landfill in Delaware. Authorities have been questioning a homicide. A bard James Fallows was a long-time crony of John Wheeler, as good as he joins me right away to speak about his hold up as good as his work.

    Jim, I'm contemptible to listen to about your loss.

    Mr. JAMES FALLOWS( Bard, A Atlantic Monthly) : we positively magnify my wishes to John Wheeler's family, yet I'm blissful to have a possibility to speak about his hold up as good as achievements.

    BLOCK: How did we come to know John Wheeler? This was behind in a early 1980s.

    Mr. FALLOWS: Yes, in 1981, we published a book called "National Invulnerability, "


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  • John P Wheeler III

    A shocking loss of an important post-Vietnam War figure

    I was stunned to learn tonight that my long-time friend Jack Wheeler has been murdered in Delaware. He was last seen getting off an Amtrak train from Washington at the Wilmington, DE, station this past Tuesday night; then, as a gruesome and cryptic local story recounts, his body was found nearby in a landfill on New Year's Eve.

    Here is Jack in the early 1980s, when I first got to know him. Below, a more recent picture.


    pic-jack-150.jpgIf you read Rick Atkinson's book The Long Gray Line, about the West Point Class of 1966, you will know something of Wheeler's  story. Generations-long military-officer heritage; West Point '66 grad; service in Vietnam; then Harvard Business School and Yale Law School; and a rest-of-his-life effort to address what he called the "40 year open wound" of Vietnam-era soldiers being spurned by the society that sent them to war.

    I worked with Jack on a book called Touched With Fire, about the post-war experiences of people who were in uniform during Vietnam and people who (like me) were actively opposing the war. He was chairman of the committee that got the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built. That is now taken as a great, triumphant icon of commemorative architecture, but at the time the "black gash of shame" was bitterly controversial, and Jack Wheeler was in the middle of the controversy -- raising money, getting approvals, collecting allies and placating critics until the wall was built. A few days before it opened he called to invite me to be one of the readers who would, over a long stretch of hours, take turns saying aloud the names of every person recorded on the wall.

    He was a complicated man of very intense (and sometimes changeable) friendships, passions, and causes. His most recent crusade was to bring ROTC back to elite campuses, as noted here. That is what I was corresponding with him about  in recent months. To be within email range of Jack was to look forward to frequent, lengthy, often urgent-sounding and often overwrought dispatches on the state of the struggle. Late at night on Christmas Day, I was surprised to see this simple note from him:
    >>Jim, Merry Christmas, Old Friend. Onward and upward.

    I replied -- thank goodness!, I now think -- and assumed I would hear more from him soon on the ROTC struggle.

    I have no idea what kind of trouble he may have encountered. As a lawyer quoted in the Delaware Online story said, "This is just not the kind of guy that gets murdered." I feel terrible for his family and hope they will eventually find comfort in knowing how many important things he achieved.
  • On the AfPak / Wikileaks Documents

    The similarities and differences between Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers, and between Afghanistan and Vietnam

    I have just started to look at some of these documents; more on the substance later. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder and Alexis Madrigal have immediate reactions on the military and the media-ecology implications of this development.

    The interaction between "traditional" and "new" media is the most immediately arresting "process" aspect of this event. It's structurally similar in one sense to the Pentagon Papers case nearly 40 years ago. Back  then, Daniel Ellsberg worked with the New York Times to publicize the documents. Otherwise, how could he have gotten them out? This time, Wikileaks worked with the Times -- and the Guardian and Der Spiegel -- to organize, make sense of, and presumably vet the data. Wikileaks could have simply posted the raw info even without the news organizations' help. At first glance this is a very sophisticated illustration of how newly evolving media continually change the way we get information, but don't totally replace existing systems. The collaboration of three of the world's leading "traditional" news brands makes a difference in the way this news is received.

    A word of historical comparison. Unlike Marc Ambinder or Alexis Madrigal, neither of whom was alive at the time, I remember when the Pentagon Papers came out. By that point American involvement in Vietnam was "ending" -- even though it would be another four years before U.S. troops left the country after the fall of Saigon, and even though many, many  American, Vietnamese, and other people were still to die in the "wind-down" phase. The major effect of the Papers was to reveal that for many years officials closest to the action had understood that the war could not really be "won," at least under the real-world political circumstances the U.S. faced. Of course the U.S. could have waged all-out unlimited war, and prevailed -- but it wasn't going to do that. Perhaps the most shocking single document in the papers was the famed "McNaughton Memo" of 1965, which assessed American reasons for staying in Vietnam this way:

    1. US aims:
    70%--To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).

    20%--To keep SVN [South Vietnam] (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.

    10%--To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. Also-To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used. Not--To "help a friend," although it would be hard to stay if asked out.

    In retrospect, that seems an amazingly prescient assessment of why the U.S. stayed in Vietnam for a full decade after the memo was written. But it is not how the case for war was presented at the time.

    Which brings us back to Wikileaks and AfPak. The Obama Administration policy I most disagree with was his decision late last year to double-down in Afghanistan. Although I am not an expert on Afghanistan, I opposed this choice because everything I have learned about the world makes me doubt its central logic. That logic is: if we bear down for a limited time, in a limited way, that will make enough difference that we can then begin to leave -- rather than simply preparing to leave now. At first glance, these documents cast severe doubt on the idea that staying for another 18 months -- who knows, perhaps another 18 years -- would truly "make the difference" in transforming Afghanistan.

    The argument for bearing down is that the dangers of withdrawal are too great to allow any other option -- which of course was also the argument about Vietnam. As a matter of logic, we can recognize two extremes. Some causes are so vital that, even if they seem hopeless, there is no choice but to persevere. Eg: the RAF during the Battle of Britain. On the other extreme, some efforts are so hopeless that, even if they seem vital, there is no choice but to quit. Eg: the Confederacy at Appomattox, the Japanese emperor after the atomic bombs. At any point in between, it's a matter of balancing the hopes of success against the stakes. If "can we do it?" were no concern, it would obviously be better to keep the Taliban out of power and remove one possible base of Al Qaeda operation. But it's not obvious that the answer to "can we do it?" is yes. Indeed most recent news points the other way.

    That's what I'll be looking for in the Wikileaks documents: evidence that the project we're now committed to in Afghanistan could ever have worked, or might still work now. And I wonder how a contemporary McNaughton would apportion the reasons for America's staying in Afghanistan.

  • Karl Marlantes on C-Span

    A good interview about a very good book

    I've mentioned several times my enthusiasm for Matterhorn, a novel of Vietnam by my long-ago grad-school friend Karl Marlantes. I caught him on CSpan just now, in an hour-long interview you can see here. I don't think the interviewer (Ralph Peters) is likely to replace, say, Terry Gross as an interlocutor  -- Larry King, maybe! --  but Karl Marlantes himself is impressive and charming. Worth watching. (Screen shot below; no embedded video available.)


  • Catching Up: Richard Blumenthal, Facebook

    Atlantic items on the Connecticut senate race and Facebook's privacy travails.

    Because of travel and related chaos, have been behind the news on both these topics. But two recent Atlantic posts provide handy shortcuts to points I meant to make.

    Blumenthal: This story is simply strange. On the one hand, men of that generation do not easily forget whether they were "in" Vietnam. On the other, if a public official gives hundreds and hundreds of speeches over the decades, it's possible that, innocently or not, he could say the wrong, self-serving thing several times. Without knowing how the story would finally shake out, something about the initial NY Times stories struck me as trying too hard and pushing the evidence beyond its natural limits. (Disclosure: I don't know Richard Blumenthal, but his younger brother, David Blumenthal MD, has been a friend for many years.)

    This Atlantic item, by Richard Blumenthal's long-time friend Ben Heineman Jr., seems to me to do the fairest job of weighing the overall evidence pro and con. To me it's a more convincing presentation that that of the NYT's ombudsman Clark Hoyt, whom I generally agree with and admire but who in this case seemed (to me) defensive on the paper's behalf. We'll see how the evidence emerges.

    Facebook: This has become a cliche, but I really hate the way Facebook runs its business and deals with its customers. I've been through round after round of trying to keep one step ahead of its ever-changing "privacy" settings by removing info from public view. As I mentioned a few months ago, I made a mistake early on by mixing actual friends -- family, people I "know" -- with "contacts" in the professional sense. But something changed for me a few weeks ago when I was at the Washington Post site and saw, unbidden, the list of my "friends" who were also reading the Post and emailing articles from it. So if I'm seeing what they are doing, then they are seeing....

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  • Three About DADT, ROTC, and the Ivies

    What was really behind the Ivy League ROTC ban?

    In response to this item, late last night, arguing that the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" could and should mean the end of ROTC's exclusion from a number of elite university campus, these responses:

    Reader Konstantin Doren challenges the basic premise of my argument:

    I just (about a month ago) found my heavily underlined and dog eared copy of "National Defense" on my bookshelf. I thought I had lost it. The writer of that book, of all people, should know how inextricably intertwined, or closely knit, our military already is to our society and economy. At least the ivy ROTC bans keep one group of students at arm's length from the claws of the military recruiters.

    The only reason the people who fought for the ROTC ban during the Vietnam era would not have urged or imaged that the policy still be in place today is because they did not believe they could be so successful. They thought then it was a bad idea for Americans to be killing Vietnamese and, in their heart of hearts, know it is a bad idea for Americans to be killing Muslims today.

    As it happens, I am familiar with what the author of National Defense said then and would say now on the subject. When that book came out, nearly 30 years ago, he argued that the increasing estrangement of the professionalized military from the rest of society was dangerous for democracy in the long run. There's a longer argument back and forth on this question, but for now my point is: if we are going to be a world military power, it is (in my view) better in the long run if the military includes and reflects as many strands of society as possible.

    Reader Steven Corneliussen challenges my assertion that the Vietnam-era push to get ROTC off elite campuses was mainly about Vietnam, rather than mainly being about the military:

    As someone who wore an ROTC uniform during Vietnam at Duke [in the Vietnam era], I'm not so sure that late-60s opponents of ROTC envisioned only a temporary banishment. Then and now, I thought that whatever was to be made of Vietnam, respect for military service needed to be conserved for the long term -- and I also believed that many around me explicitly, in fact energetically, disagreed. My perception was that many wanted ROTC not just gone, but gone forever.

    That is consistent with the argument made by John Wheeler (mentioned yesterday) over the years, that the ban on ROTC was in effect a stigmatizing, "blame the soldier" policy. He, like Corneliussen, is in a better position to judge those effects than I am. Speaking for myself, I viewed this as always having been about Vietnam.

    Another reader writes to add:

    There has been an organized effort to bring ROTC back to Harvard for decades (I'm a member of the group) and Stanford University already has Army ROTC.

    Yes, these efforts have a long history. But the point of raising the matter now is that, with the pending elimination of DADT, the main stated objection to ROTC's full return has been removed. If the programs don't come back now, then there really is something else at work.

  • A Book to Buy: Matterhorn (updated)

    A universally-praised new book about Vietnam, nearly a lifetime in the making.

    A look just now at the preview of Sebastian Junger's rave review in this Sunday's NYT Book Review filled me with happiness, comradely pride, anticipation, and a note of chagrin. The review is of Matterhorn, a new novel of the Vietnam war, by Karl Marlantes (below), which Mark Bowden of the Atlantic had also extolled in a special Amazon commentary. ("There are passages in this book that are as good as anything I have ever read," etc.) Junger's version is that the book may be "one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam -- or any war."  The author:


    The book:


    Happiness, because of the appearance of what is by all reports a great new book. Comradely pride that a project now more than 40 years in gestation has come to such a successful conclusion. Marlantes, who was from a tiny coastal town in Oregon, had gone to Yale in the mid-60s and then to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, in the class just before Bill Clinton's. He left to join the Marines and saw intense combat in Vietnam. His citation for the Navy Cross is here. He then went back to Oxford in the early 1970s. I met him there, where he tried to explain what he had seen to those of us who hadn't - and had mainly opposed the war. He said he knew he would have to write the story out. Eight* U.S. presidents have come and gone, socialist Vietnam is increasingly hard to tell from a capitalist bazaar; and now Karl Marlantes has finished and apparently perfected his book. This kind of long-run saga does not always turn out so well.

    My anticipation is of course to see what is in the book. The note of chagrin? I actually have a copy of the book at home but had not yet started reading it -- and didn't bring it with me on a current long trip. Drat. But -- ahah! -- I see that it's available on Kindle! [Thirty seconds later:] I see the first page now.

    UPDATE: A good interview of Marlantes with Steve Scher of KUOW in Seattle, here. Among other things it clearly conveys his affability and good humor.
    * OK, we're on our eighth US president during Marlantes' time with the book, from Nixon through Obama. But since one of them is still in place, it's not quite right that eight have come and gone. Still, it's been a long time. Also, pending the time that our "category" feature is revived and I can link to others in the "Book List" series, I'll give a gentle reminder for this book.

  • Veterans' Day (and, my interview with Donald Rumsfeld...)

    ...back in 1993.

    By my local China time it is now the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. This is November 11, which means variously, Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, or Poppy Day among countries on the Allied side of World War I, and of course Veterans' Day in the United States.

    Originally this was a moment for looking backwards, to honor those who had served in the Great War and mourn those who had died. Its retrospective purpose remains. But for Americans right now it should also be a moment to honor the men and women who continue to serve and sacrifice and be injured and die -- and to reflect on the fact that, for the first time in our modern history, they do so with absolutely no shared sacrifice or service from the public at large. Everyone knows this and avoids thinking much about it. Today it's worth at least remembering.

    Also it is worth looking at several articles the Atlantic has brought up from the archives and made available free, for now. They're about Vietnam, not Iraq or Afghanistan (or Iran), but several are significant in their own right in addition to shedding indirect light on our current and continuing wars. Let me emphasize two:

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  • Wolfowitz = McNamara, chapter 402

    From John Cassidy's (very good) profile of Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank, in the New Yorker:

    Wolfowitz refused to talk about Iraq specifically, but he told me that he still believes in the vision of a moderate, democratic Middle East.

    Jeez louise. How much inner peace does it suggest about a person -- the most famed intellectual in the Bush administration -- if he refuses to talk about the event for which he will always be principally known? ("John Hinckley refused to talk about shooting President Reagan specifically, but he told me that he still believes in his vision of a happy future with Jodie Foster.")

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  • Archival note: M-16 article

    Magazine articles published before the early 1990s are available digitally in only hit-or-miss fashion. Republication rights were still being worked out then; Nexis coverage from that time is erratic; some material has been scanned in and much has not. I am aware of this spotty coverage mainly as it affects two Atlantic articles I did in this period: "A Damaged Culture," about the Philippines; and "M-16: A Bureaucratic Horror Story," about how internal bureaucratic squabbling left American troops in Vietnam with defective, jam-prone weapons. I frequently receive requests for copies of these articles.

    I have finally found, and earlier posted, a digital version of the Philippine article, which appeared in expanded form in Looking at the Sun. I am not aware of a digital version of the M-16 article. For those who ask (and I write this because I've gotten another round of requests), it too appeared in expanded book form, in National Defense. That book was published in 1981 and has recently gone out of print, but used copies are easily and cheaply available on Amazon. That is where to look if you are interested.

  • Vietnam as resort

    Domestic travel within Vietnam is hard, slow, inconvenient, and, well, hard. It is not as difficult as it was twenty years ago (to say nothing of eras before that), but it still is a chore. Yesterday's edition of the Viet Nam News contained the mournful disclosure that international visits to the country had risen only 3 per cent during 2006, even though this was the country's National Year of Tourism.

    But simply as landscape much of the country is beautiful. Completely apart from its historic, political, and now economic interest, sooner or later it will be a sought-after resort site. During the 1980s, the tourists we saw at the beaches were Bulgarians, Russians, and East Germans. Now they're mainly Europeans -- and here are two places they, and we, found worth the effort to reach:

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