Georgia State introduced its Honors College in January 2012. Founding Dean Larry Berman and other Georgia State planners dreamed into being an institution that would directly expose bright, talented undergrads to experiences that transform them into citizens who can make a difference.
So far, the program brings ringing endorsements from student scholars.
“It’s hard to fathom the full impact of the Honors College on my academic career,” says Shelby Lohr, a senior on her way to a post-graduate scholarship at the University of Chicago. (Last year, Lohr became Georgia State’s first finalist for a prestigious Marshall Scholarship.) “I look at my resume, and I see more than half of what’s there is due to the Honors College.”
Sophomore Hannah Basta set a lofty goal: She wants to be a Rhodes Scholar. She feels the Honors College could pave her path to Oxford.
“People in the Honors College are seen as distinguished students,” she said. “I really wanted to be part of that, to be with really driven, motivated fellow students.”
Berman guides hundreds of honors students, Georgia State’s best and brightest, its stars. He can barely contain his enthusiasm for the college and its ambitions.
“We want to become a national model for a public university Honors College,” he says. “We want to develop undergraduate scholars into global citizens. And we want their accomplishments to be recognized with prestigious fellowships, scholarships and awards throughout their lives.”
Berman understands at a personal level the rewards of such accomplishments. His own studies and works have given him a remarkable life.
Berman started college in turbulent 1969 at American University in Washington, D.C. The Vietnam War dominated American discourse then, and society seemed engaged in a great collective nervous breakdown, trust and values called into question, protesters in the streets.
He went to Princeton for a Ph.D. The Vietnam War and its howling side-effects especially intrigued him.
It became his life’s work.
In 1977, Berman joined University of California, Davis, to teach political science and carry on research. For the next three decades, Berman would seek answers for why America sent more than half a million soldiers to a small Asian country, losing nearly 60,000 lives without ever achieving its political or military goals. Berman also wanted to understand the war from the Vietnamese perspective. His search required years of research, countless interviews with political, military and cultural figures, and more than a little self-discovery.
In 1982, Berman wrote his first book on Vietnam — still in print and in classrooms — based on previously classified documents from the National Security Council. “Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam” established Berman as a scholar, historian, political scientist and writer.
He kept at it, taking risks. To gain access to the classified wartime briefs of President Lyndon Johnson, Berman brought suit under the Freedom of Information Act against the CIA. Though he lost his case on appeal in California’s 9th Circuit Court, his insistence on the right to read these important documents would eventually open the way for his own research and the work of many others.
He’s proud of his work’s relevance.
“A lot of political science digs down into the science … sometimes a little too much,” he says. “It makes little contribution to the real world. I think of myself as a cross-over scholar, a political historian. I’m dealing with policies, personalities and decisions that make a difference.”
America’s Vietnam-era leaders, most notably President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ascribed to a strategy of containment and a belief in the domino theory. It held that if Vietnam fell to the communists, all the other small nations in Southeast Asia would tumble too, one by one, like dominoes in a row.
Vietnam did fall, but Southeast Asia didn’t turn out as predicted. Vietnam today is an increasingly important strategic and bilateral partner with the United States. Americans trade in and tour the region.
A kind of domino theory, however, did affect Berman’s own career. It happened with his books.
If “Planning a Tragedy” put him on the map, the publication in 1989 of “Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam” stretched the map borders. In 2002, “No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam” brought Berman’s research into the national dialogue.
Then, like a tipped domino, “No Peace, No Honor” led directly to two more important Berman volumes. These biographies concern two figures from the Vietnam era, one high and one low, one who served in secretive shadows, another who served under the brightest spotlights.
Berman began writing “No Peace, No Honor” as a 1998-‘99 fellow-in-residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. His year of research and work there brought him into contact with Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the charismatic former chief of naval operations during the Vietnam War, and the man dubbed Father of the Modern Navy for social and technological reforms he championed in that branch of the service.
While Berman worked, cable TV channel C-SPAN selected him as subject for a “Book TV” segment on the process a nonfiction writer uses to create a book. For an entire year, as Berman researched and wrote, the camera followed him. It accompanied him to the National Archives and Library of Congress.
C-SPAN wanted Berman to interview a prominent political or military figure for the TV special. Berman asked Zumwalt, formerly chief of naval operations and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The two men bonded. Their meetings became more frequent. Berman felt a biography taking form in his head, a next book about leadership.
But another domino fell first.
On a visit to Southeast Asia in summer 2000, Berman found himself at dinner on his last night in Saigon in a crowded seafood restaurant. Only one seat remained empty, directly across the table.
A man entered the restaurant. Every Vietnamese person in the room rose.
“It was like a great dignitary had walked in,” Berman says. “He came to my table and sat down. He spoke to my colleagues in English, and I introduced myself…and we didn’t stop talking for four hours.”
The thin, intelligent, aging man at the table turned out to be Pham Xuan An, a legendary spy for the North Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh’s government sent An to the U.S. in 1957-‘59, where he enrolled at Costa Mesa College in California to study journalism. Ironically, his sponsor, Edward Geary Lansdale, would serve in the Office of Strategic Services and the Central Intelligence Agency and became legendary as one of the most ardent anti-communists of the era. (In 1957, Lansdale headed the Saigon Military Mission.)
Lansdale mentored An, never suspecting that his eager young charge had been preselected by the Viet Minh, the government in Hanoi, to infiltrate Lansdale’s shop. With amazing foresight, the communists in the north positioned An so he could get sponsorship — and political cover — and make his way to the U.S. to study journalism. All of it was a cover for his real mission — to learn about the character and soul of the Americans, whom the Vietnamese foresaw as their next invader.
An eventually became a Vietnam War reporter for Time magazine where he worked as a spy for North Vietnam. A brilliant spy, with access to the highest-ranking American and South Vietnamese officials during the conflict, and claiming as his friends and confidants the most respected American journalists of the day.
After the war, Vietnam recognized An as one of the great war heroes of his nation.
At that Saigon dinner, Berman told An he was writing a book about the secret Paris negotiations between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese diplomat who eventually brokered a cease-fire that would allow America to exit the war. An, with a sly smile, told Berman he knew a lot about the topic, and he offered to speak with Berman the next day.
After the meal, Berman learned An’s history from a friend. Stunned at the potential scholarly value of a relationship with this unusual, significant source, Berman returned to his hotel that evening.
He faced a choice.
If he followed his plan, Berman would be on a flight to Cambodia the next morning to sight-see at the famous ruins at Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. He would either be on that flight or sipping coffee with the most important spy of the Vietnam era, a man almost forgotten in the West.
“That night, I couldn’t sleep,” Berman says. “I tossed and turned. I just…had a hunch. I could be a tourist some other time. I went with my heart.”
He stayed and met An.
Eventually, Berman found himself having discussions in the An home, poring over documents and materials. The two men corresponded, and their friendship deepened. Sensing a great biography in the making, Berman endlessly beseeched his friend, but An would not commit to authorize a writing of his life story.
At one point, An grew gravely ill, cigarettes finally doing what American bullets never could. (“An smoked five packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years,” Berman says, “and because he was very superstitious, he chose Lucky Strikes, feeling they would help keep him alive.”) Berman wrote his friend a personal goodbye note and “mailed it to An’s house,” he says.
An didn’t die that time. It took several more years for the Lucky Strikes to lose their luck. In the last two, An finally granted Berman the story of his life. Literally. Berman heard the exclusive, exhaustive, nearly unbelievable tale of one of the great spies in the history of espionage.
In 2007, “Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter & Vietnamese Communist Agent” revealed the experiences of this remarkable Vietnamese version of James Bond. The book topped the best-seller list in Vietnam, and now is in development there as a lengthy television miniseries. Berman holds out hope it will be developed as a major motion picture in the U.S., as well.
And then a second domino fell.
“A professor always has to write another book,” says Berman.
After “Perfect Spy,” Berman learned certain classified papers from Zumwalt’s service had been released through the “byzantine declassification process,” as he puts it. This was an important win for Berman who, just as with the Johnson briefs and the Freedom of Information Act proceedings against the CIA years before, had sued for the documents. This time, on appeal to the military’s legal organ, the Judge Advocate General, or JAG, he won the right to see them.
He began assiduously piecing together the life story of a very different kind of hero. Zumwalt rose as high as a soldier can go, and courageously fought for principles that kept him in headlines and often in political dire straits.
Berman learned that Zumwalt’s accomplishments as a sailor, for all the medals and glory, felt hollow. In a tragic irony, Zumwalt’s son, who commanded a swift boat patrolling the rivers in Vietnam during the war, grew ill soon after his service and died. The culprit? Agent Orange, a defoliant used widely over areas of Vietnam to restrict hiding places for unfriendly Vietnamese guerrillas. In one of the war’s great scandals, revelations after the conflict showed chemical companies knew full well from laboratory tests the chemical could cause deadly cancers and other serious physical problems.
Zumwalt himself, after asking all the right questions and hearing the assurances of the prevaricators, approved the use of Agent Orange. The commander believed the lies of chemical companies and issued fatal orders for its use.
The chemical killed his own son. It killed and sickened tens of thousands of other Americans exposed to it, as well as their unborn children. It killed or robbed the health of uncountable numbers of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
Zumwalt spent his final years finding out the truth about Agent Orange and using his reputation, influence and many powerful connections to bring restitutions, medical treatments and settlements to those affected by the deadly chemical.
That honorable work earned Zumwalt the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Bill Clinton, for tireless efforts on behalf of his sailors and their families. Zumwalt never stopped caring for those under his command. It was a lifetime commitment.
Berman’s 2012 biography, “Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt Jr.,” arrived as the first major biography of a man with a single word on his gravestone: Reformer. Berman’s book jacket boasts endorsements from former President Clinton, son of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall Jr. and the 17th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.
A highpoint of Berman’s scholarly career came in April of this year. He attended the christening ceremony for a new ultramodern Navy guided missile destroyer, USS Zumwalt, in Bath, Maine. Zumwalt’s surviving son, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Zumwalt, spoke at the christening. He singled out Berman, of 6,000 people in attendance, for the biographer’s portrayal of his father.
“He said he felt I’d really captured the soul of the man. I really felt like I’d written a book that mattered,” Berman says.
Bill Moyers included Berman on the PBS series, “The Public Mind,” in a notable episode, “The Truth About Lies.” David McCullough used Berman’s work to ballast a television special, “American Experience.” Stanley Karnow made Berman part of “Vietnam: A Televised History.”
There’s more. Berman appears on C-SPAN and History Channel, lectures internationally and does high-level advisory work with veterans groups, most notably the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s new Education Center at the Wall.
The distinguished work has brought Berman distinguished awards.
A Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. An American Council for Learned Societies fellowship. The Faculty Research Lecturer Award, the highest recognition bestowed on a faculty member at UC Davis. He earned a teaching award — the Outstanding Mentor of Women in Political Science Award — from the Women’s Caucus for Political Science. He received the Navy’s Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper award. Berman held the position as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and another as scholar-in-residence at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Center in Bellagio, Italy.
All the accolades and achievements merely whetted Berman’s appetite for something more. A career capstone. A legacy.
A role as founding dean of an Honors College.
The colossal task of founding an Honor’s College after 40 years of research, writing, teaching and mentoring might not be the end-game dream of every scholar. Berman could easily retire to a cabin in the Sierras, enjoy doting on his two grandchildren and write books for the rest of his life.
But the man isn’t finished. He has miles to go before he sleeps. (These lines of Frost’s poetry front Berman’s Facebook page, along with a Tennyson quote from “Ulysses.”)
He simply loves a challenge. Berman is the type who gets away from it all by hiking into the wilderness with little more in hand than a pack, tent, and trout-fishing rod. (“If I don’t catch fish, I don’t eat,” he says.) He swims each morning when the Georgia State pool opens at 6 a.m. to prepare for a top bucket-list item — a 1.25 mile open-water swim from Alcatraz Island to the foot of the Hyde St. Pier in San Francisco.
One of Berman’s first initiatives has been to hire a National Scholarship and Fellowship Director to help students through the labyrinthine processes of positioning themselves to compete with students at other universities for prestigious awards, fellowships, and recognition.
Winning highly competitive awards will bring prestige to Georgia State and to the Honors College. The recognition will attract students, grow the university.
Even more importantly, recognition can open doors for students. Shelby Lohr, for example, stood toe-to-toe with contenders from the Ivy League and fine West Coast schools and rose to become a finalist for a coveted Marshall. More than 100 other students now find themselves “in the pipeline,” as Berman phrases it, to compete for major awards.
As an undergrad, Berman discovered great value in an internship with a New York congressman. (He later served as founding director of the University of California Washington, D.C. Center, providing internship experiences to hundreds of UC students.)
He brought those lessons to the Honors College, immediately setting up undergrad internship programs in Washington, D.C. and in London. (Asian internships may soon follow.) Hannah Basta, for example, worked the past two summers with U.S. congressmen in D.C. This May, she’s away to London for three months.
Such relevant experience — and the connections it creates — simply cannot be matched in a classroom, no matter how skilled the teacher.
“We are dedicated to creating an environment where students can imagine a future they once thought was unattainable,” Berman says. “As students engage in the Honors experience, they gain essential credentials and tools to achieve their career goals and leave a positive mark in the world.”
The blueprint for what’s possible at the Honors College sprawls far into the future.
Berman has a recruitment plan in place to cherry-pick high school stars. (Students can also “walk on,” as he puts it, joining the program once they’re enrolled, already into their studies.) A new, energetic alumni outreach keeps the program alive for students already in their careers, already making a difference in the world. Berman envisions every student in the Honors College undertaking a global experience. He has now focused his energies on raising scholarship dollars to make the dream a reality.
Pending partnerships with other schools at Georgia State promise even more — and more fascinating — interdisciplinary classes. The Honors College offers a new track on leadership studies. Beautifully designed Centennial Hall houses the Honors College and Berman’s offices. The complex bustles with youthful energy.
Berman seems everywhere at once — Asia today, London or D.C. tomorrow. He somehow remains accessible, mentoring, familiar to students.
The door to his office stays wide open.
Berman’s open-door policy evokes a line from the writings of William Blake.
“In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors.”
Berman’s lasting legacy, Georgia State’s Honors College, will open many doors, to many souls and many good works.
Charles McNair is the author of the novels “Pickett’s Charge” and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Land O’ Goshen” and has been books editor at Paste Magazine since 2005.