Mervyn Edwin Roberts (The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968) Q & A

Mervyn Edwin Roberts’ first book, The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960–1968, for the first time fully explores the most sustained, intensive use of psychological operations (PSYOP) in American history. In PSYOP, US military personnel use a variety of tactics—mostly audio and visual messages—to influence individuals and groups to behave in ways that favor US objectives. Informed by the author’s firsthand experience of such operations elsewhere, this account of the battle for “hearts and minds” in Vietnam offers rare insight into the art and science of propaganda as a military tool in the twentieth century.


1. When did you first have the idea to write Psychological War for Vietnam?

After returning from my first tour in Afghanistan, I realized I needed to understand psychological operations better. I began working on an MA degree in history to help with that. I came across the fantastic Texas Tech Vietnam War online archive and found a treasure trove of PSYOP related documents. That discovery set me on the path to understand that war so I could apply the lessons. Since no overarching history of the use of psychological operations in the war existed, I saw a niche that needed to be filled. With my background in the arcane field of PSYOP, and an interest in objectively understanding the effects of those operations, I felt I could write it.

2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?

My process is not one I would recommend to others due to the laborious nature. I find every document related to the topic, paste all pertinent extracts in chronological order, edit that down to a readable draft, them go back to analyze, as I continually polish the writing. The analysis emerges from the facts, rather than by starting with a thesis and then assembling the facts to fit. I have tried to follow the facts as they emerged, and can honestly say, The Psychological War for Vietnam reflects a very different view than the one I started with.

This book consumed the better part of ten years, starting with my MA thesis and later dissertation, as well as extensive research and re-analysis afterwards. It required travel to numerous archives: U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle, PA, the US Army Special Operations Command Archives, the Nixon and LBJ libraries, and Texas Tech, among others. I also combed the internet for every digital archive with documents related to the use of propaganda in the Vietnam War. Writing the book also required learning to use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software, and then converting data from obsolete formats to map the war and provide new insights for analysis. I also had to review hundreds of pages of Foreign Broadcast Information Service transcripts. After compiling this raw data into a coherent chronological sequence, the writing and analysis began.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?

A couple of PSYOP-related books covering short periods of the war had been written, but no overarching framework for understanding the effects. Without a solid base narrative, incorporating the varied sources into an effective timeline and story to even begin the analysis was a challenge for me. PSYOP can take years to produce an effect, which requires a long view. So, in effect, I had to write the history before I could effectively analyze the information at hand. Doing this while in the midst of deployments added to the challenge.

4. The Psychological War for Vietnam is the first book to fully explore the intensive use of psychological operations in the Vietnam War. Why do you think the study of it took so long?

This was a daunting process, as described above. Additionally, the necessary information and technology, such as the GIS data, recently declassified documents and the Combined Document Exploitation Center files, has only recently become available. To write a history of the propaganda war, also required a person knowledgeable in the field yet with an unbiased interest in understanding the outcomes. I actually was not concerned with a specific outcome. I just wanted to understand what happened. Some might view The Psychological War for Vietnam as a ‘revisionist’ history due to some of the conclusions drawn. I would argue, however, the history of the war is only now being written.

5. How do you think public opinion about the Vietnam War and battle methods used has evolved since 1968?

The contentious nature of the Vietnam War has unfortunately caused many scholars to hold positions rather than follow the facts. This has harmed the ability to honestly inform the public. I believe that as a result, the ‘Hollywood’ view of the war has prevailed for the general public and opinion is often based on clichés and misunderstandings about the war and about PSYOP. I believe that has begun to change with more recent histories.

6. What is the major change to Psychological Warfare since the Vietnam War?

Technological improvements since the war have been immense. Along with that, research into communication theory has advanced considerably since 1968. However, because no history of the psychological war in Vietnam was written in the aftermath, operational lessons were not captured. As a result, those experiences were often painfully repeated in later wars. Despite doctrinal improvements, based communications theory research and on recent operations, many of the lessons of the Vietnam War were not heeded. I hope that this book will provide a useful first step in correcting this.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Due to the nature of this book, I believe there are actually two groups who will benefit from reading The Psychological War for Vietnam. The general populace interested in understanding the Vietnam War will benefit from an overarching history of the war up to the Tet Offensive and an understanding, from an academic standpoint, of a facet of the war that much misunderstood. Those people involved with psychological operations will benefit from the lessons to be learned.

8. What are you reading now?

To recharge after finishing The Psychological War for Vietnam, I have pivoted to my other area of historical interest, the Persian world since 1500. Two tours in Afghanistan gave me a fascination with understanding the region. I just finished reading Homa Katouzian’s very good history-The Persians, and re-read Oliver Roy’s The New Central Asia.

This summer I intend to shift back to Vietnam to start on part two of the history of the psychological war, covering the period from the Tet Offensive to the fall of Saigon. Much of the research for that is complete.

Mervyn Edwin Roberts III is a professor of history at Central Texas College and a reserve instructor at the Joint Special Operations University at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

From the Backlist: Inside the Pentagon Papers

President Trump’s incessant threats to limit freedom of the press and the timely release of the Steven Spielberg-directed movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks (The Post) has shown a bright light on the past legal battles between the press and the president. In 2004, UPK published Inside the Pentagon Papers which addressed legal and moral issues that resonate today as debates continue over government secrecy and democracy’s requisite demand for truthfully informed citizens. In the process, the book also illustrated how a closer study of this signal event can illuminate questions of government responsibility in any era.

When Daniel Ellsberg leaked a secret government study about the Vietnam War to the press in 1971, he set off a chain of events that culminated in one of the most important First Amendment decisions in American legal history. That affair is now part of history, but the story behind the case has much to tell us about government secrecy and the public’s right to know.

Commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, “the Pentagon Papers” were assembled by a team of analysts who investigated every aspect of the war. Ellsberg, a member of the team, was horrified by the government’s public lies about the war-discrepancies with reality that were revealed by the report’s secret findings. His leak of the report to the New York Times and Washington Post triggered the Nixon administration’s heavy-handed attempt to halt publication of their stories, which in turn led to the Supreme Court’s ruling that Nixon’s actions violated the Constitution’s free speech guarantees.

Inside the Pentagon Papers reexamines what happened, why it mattered, and why it still has relevance today. Focusing on the “back story” of the Pentagon Papers and the resulting court cases, it draws upon a wealth of oral history and previously classified documents to show the consequences of leak and litigation both for the Vietnam War and for American history.

“ A wonderful and significant story. . . . The issues raised by the Pentagon Papers—presidential power, the role of the courts and the press, government secrecy—are all still with us,” Anthony Lewis wrote. “And this book throws fresh and important light on those issues.”

Included for the first time are transcripts of previously secret White House telephone tapes revealing the Nixon administration’s repressive strategies, as well as the government’s formal charges against the newspapers presented by Solicitor General Erwin Griswold to the Supreme Court. Coeditor John Prados’s point-by-point analysis of these charges demonstrates just how weak the government’s case was-and how they reflected Nixon’s paranoia more than legitimate national security issues.

Following the 2018 Election – A Preview

by Betty O’Shaughnessy and Dick Simpson, authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century.

Two major events of January 20 set the stage for the 2018 election: the massive second Women’s March represented a nationwide upwelling of grassroots activism; and the partial government shutdown affirmed a dysfunctional government in Washington. Both portend a showdown at the polls in 2018.

The 2018 party primary elections begin in March. As set forth in our University Press of Kansas book, Winning Elections in the 21st Century, the first key to the outcome of any election, including these primaries, is money. The 2018 election will be the most expensive off-year elections in American history. Already billionaire candidates for Illinois governor are on track to spend over $50 million each. All congressional candidates will have to raise more than $2 million to be competitive.

Although money is most important, what candidates do with it and how they campaign is also vital. Contenders must have a message that resonates with voters, and a well-organized campaign successfully using both traditional and tech-savvy methods to find and contact potential supporters in person and get them to the polls on Election Day.

U.S. Senate:

The election of a Democrat, Doug Jones from Alabama in a special election victory has already realigned the balance of power in the Senate. Republicans now hold a 51-49 majority; John McCain’s illness makes the margin even closer. With 26 Democratic senators up for re-election and only eight Republicans, the Democrats would have to retain all their seats and pick up Republican seats in Nevada and Arizona. It is unlikely that they can achieve that unless there is truly a massive “anti-Trump” groundswell.

U.S. House:

As with most midterm elections, pundits are predicting that the party out of power (this year the Democratic) is likely to gain seats in Congress. At present, House Republicans have a 241-194 majority in the House, which means that the Democrats need to gain 24 seats to retake the Speakership. Open seats are the easiest to capture, and as of late January, there are 14 Democratic House seats and 27 Republican seats in which the incumbent is not running (not including three vacant or soon-to-be-vacant Republican seats).

Races to Watch in March:

During March, only Texas and Illinois are holding primaries. Some key congressional races in both states will shed light on possible trends in the rest of the country in November.


A true “battleground” district in Texas is the 23rd. In 2016, Republican Will Hurd narrowly defeated Democrat Peter Gallego. At present, five democratic candidates are running in the primary. Of these, Jay Hulings and Gina Jones have the largest campaign chests and are considered strong candidates to defeat Hurd in November.

Although at present the 7th Texas Congressional District race is considered “likely Republican,” The Hill, Mother Jones, Politico and several news outlets consider this election as one of the top 10 House races to watch; Republican incumbent John Culberson was reelected in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried his district. The Hill identifies Alex Triantaphyllis and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher as the top Democratic contenders.

There are seven open House seats in Texas, five of which are “red.” Only the 21st District seems vulnerable to Democrats. Both parties are running a field of candidates here, with businessman and Army veteran Democrat Joe Kopser and former US Congressman Republican Francisco Canseco raising the most money.

Because Texas has been such a strong Republican state, the ability of viable Democratic candidates to win their primaries and knock out some Texas Republican Congressmen in the 2018 November general election will be a harbinger of whether or not the grassroots groundswell of support will change the balance of power in Washington.


Illinois is the opposite of Texas. Despite having a Republican governor who is up for reelection, it is a “blue” state. Several districts currently held by Republicans face strong challenges from Democrats and none of the currently Democratic seats seem likely to be lost.

The Illinois 6th District is marked by Politico as a “race to watch.” Democrats like to say that suburban DuPage County, long considered a stronghold of Republican politics, is turning “blue.” Despite changing public opinion in parts of his district, Republican Peter Roskam generally voted Trump’s position and could be facing a serious challenge. Among the many Democrats running in the primary, the top contenders, fund-wise, are Emily’s List-endorsed Kelly Mazeski and environmental scientist and businessman Sean Casten. If the Democrats elect a strong candidate in the primary, they may defeat Roskam in an upset.

Many observers believe Southern Illinois’ 12th District is the most likely to flip from “red” to “blue.”  St. Clair County State’s Attorney and Navy veteran Brendan Kelly is challenging Republican incumbent Mike Bost and has outraised him by $100,000 for the first quarter. Although President Trump won the district by 58% of the vote in 2016, Democrats see this race as winnable, as U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth won by 8% and Obama won this district twice.

Yet in the end, these critical races and the control of Congress depend on turnout. In off-year elections like 2018, turnout is generally only 25-30%, with Millennials voting even less. To defeat enough Republicans to regain Congress, the anti-Trump voters will have to turn out in much higher numbers. The primary elections will provide the first indication of whether that will happen.

Dick Simpson is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the co-editor with Dennis Judd of The City, Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York.

Betty O’Shaughnessy is a visiting lecturer in political science, University of Illinois at Chicago and coauthor of The Struggle for Power and Influence in Cities and States.

Author Events Calendar

Upcoming events for UPK authors…

01/29/18 – C.J. Janovy celebrates Kansas Day by discussing No Place Like Home at the Lawrence Public Library. 7:00 pm More info…

01/29/18 – George Frazier (The Last Wild Places of Kansas) is the featured presenter at the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies’ Annual Kansas Day Lecture. 2:00 PM More info…

01/30/18 – Mark Harvey (Celebrity Influence) presents “Politics of the Rich and Famous: The Influence of Celebrities on Politics” at Johnson County Community College. 7:00 pm More info…

02/08/18 – Charles Calhoun (The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant) discusses Grant’s endeavors in a variety of areas, including Reconstruction and civil rights, economic policy, the Peace Policy for Native Americans, foreign affairs, and civil service reform. 6:45 pm at The Smithsonian. More info…

02/10/18 – George Frazier (The Last Wild Places of Kansas) visits the Breidenthal Woods south of Lawrence, KS at the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center. 1:00 pm More info…

02/19/18 – Robert Rebein (Headlights on the Prairie) visits the Lawrence Public Library to discuss his memoir about growing up in Dodge City, Kansas. 7:00 pm More info…

02/21/18 – Robert Rebein (Headlights on the Prairie) stops by the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library to discuss his memoir about growing up in Dodge City, Kansas. 6:30 pm More info…

02/22/18 – Robert Rebein (Headlights on the Prairie) is a featured speaker at the 2018 the Kansas Author Dinner in Wichita, Kansas. 5:45 pm More info…

Gary Vogler (Iraq and the Politics of Oil) Q & A

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” John Adams.

During the Iraq War, Gary Vogler spent more time in Iraq than nearly any non-military American. Was the war really about oil? As a senior oil advisor for the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) and briefly as minister of oil, Vogler thought he knew. But while doing research for a book about his experience in Iraq, Vogler discovered that what he knew was not the whole story—or even the true story. The Iraq war did have an oil agenda underlying it, one that Vogler had previously denied. Iraq and the Politics of Oil is Vogler’s attempt to set the record straight.

“Gary Vogler spent 72 months in Iraq after the invasion in 2003 working on oil infrastructure,” Gordon Rudd, author of Reconstructing Iraq; Regime Change, Jay Garner, and the ORHA Story. “I know no other person better qualified to write this story. And the management of oil in Iraq over this period is an important story.”

1. When did you first have the idea to write Iraq and the Politics of Oil?

I always felt like I needed to write something for my family. They never understood why I kept volunteering to return to Iraq. I knew that a manuscript or some form of written document was needed to help them understand. My wife read each chapter after completion and we discussed the contents. She now has a much better understanding.

Several people told me that if I did not write the Iraq oil story then it would never be told. Ambassador Bremer asked me to join him and Meghan O’Sullivan on the Rachel Maddow Show in 2013. Maddow was doing a documentary on the role of oil in the decision to go to war. Maddow’s producers interviewed me in the summer of 2013 and the show aired in early March 2014. After seeing their documentary, I realized that I needed to write a factual account of the US involvement in the Iraq oil sector.

2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?

I had never written a book. I have written many business reports and I wrote the Iraq oil Lessons Learned report for the US army in 2006, currently available on Kindle. I did not know the first thing about writing a book. A friend of mine introduced me to Don Phillips, a professional writer who has written many books. Don gave me some great advice. He told me to go home and make a list of all the stories that should be told about the oil sector, no matter how short or long. Then place those stories in the specific chapter where they belong. So, I tell over thirty stories within the twenty chapters in the book. He also advised me to write in the mornings when a person is most creative and to research in the afternoons. I researched and wrote for over a year. My first manuscript was shared with several colleagues who provided excellent feedback for my revised manuscript. The revision was sent to Kansas in mid 2016 and we signed a scholarly publication contract in January 2017.

3. Iraq and the Politics of Oilserves as an about face from your previous stance that the war in Iraq was not about oil. At what moment did you change your mind?

I denied any serious oil agenda until 2014. I risked my life in Iraq for seventy-five months and I firmly believed that myself and all Americans sent to Iraq were originally sent for noble reasons, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). I went on the Rachel Maddow Show with Ambassador Bremer in 2013 and denied an oil agenda. My mind was changed when I started reading articles in the foreign press and on-line news services. It was difficult to change my previous position, especially after being on national television. I hit a tipping point in late 2014 and early 2015. I did not sleep at night. My health suffered. My anger kept me awake many many nights. I read quotes in the foreign press that were made by Israeli government officials, a retired CIA agent and Doug Feith’s Law partner. They were real eye openers. The things I experienced in 2002 and 2003 that did not make sense to me at the time suddenly made perfect sense once I recognized and accepted the oil agenda.

4. Has there been any negative response from your colleagues in the oil industry?

It is still early. The book has not been available very long. The responses have all been positive so far from oil industry colleagues. In fact, there is a favorable review on Amazon by a person from the oil industry.

5. How do you anticipate the future of oil exports from the Middle East to change in the next 15 years?

Forecasting anything about the oil industry over one year is difficult. Doing it for 15 years is impossible. However, it is safe to say that Iraq will be a bigger player in Middle East oil exports going forward. The largest oil auction in history took place in Baghdad during 2009. The potential production volumes identified from the contracts signed after those auctions highlight the important role that Iraq oil production will play for decades into the future.

6. What do you view as the biggest issue facing the oil industry in relation to US foreign relations?

There is an excellent book that was recently written by Meghan O’Sullivan entitled Windfall. It does a good job identifying the increased power the US has achieved in the last ten years because of technological advances in the US oil industry. I have not yet finished her book, but she articulates the issues better than what I have previously read. Meghan worked with me in Iraq during the CPA era and eventually became President Bush’s principal advisor for Iraq.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

LTG H. R. McMaster, head of the National Security Council. He wrote a book in 2011 about Vietnam called Dereliction of Duty. McMaster stressed two elements in his discussion of America’s failure in Vietnam: the hubris of President Johnson and his advisors, and the weakness of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. My book highlights the hubris of President Bush’s advisors to think that they could successfully install a puppet leader in Iraq, Dr. Ahmed Chalabi, to open an Iraqi oil pipeline to Israel. Today, I am witnessing the same group of political ideologues, the Neocons, beating the same war drums for Iran that they beat before Iraq. My fear is that we have learned little about the folly of those who pushed us into Iraq. We may someday find ourselves in a war with Iran, but God help us if we allow the same group of Neocons to push us into such a war for similar reasons.

8. What are you reading now?

Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power   by Meghan O’Sullivan


C.J. Janovy (No Place Like Home) Q & A

This week we will publish C.J. Janovy’s first book, No Place Like Home; Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Her beautiful, powerful book tells the epic story of how a few disorganized and politically naïve Kansans, realizing they were unfairly under attack, rolled up their sleeves, went looking for fights, and ended up making friends in one of the country’s most hostile states. Janovy, along with guest, will celebrate her book at 7pm on Kansas Day (01/29/2018) at the Lawrence Public Library.

We spoke to C.J. about her journey with No Place Like Home

1.When did you first have the idea to write No Place Like Home?

I explain this a bit in the intro. It was June 26, 2013, the day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s ban on gay marriage, respectively. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote that the crowd’s jubilation outside the courthouse that morning was so loud it floated through marble: “A muffled cheer pierced the quiet in the Supreme Court chamber.” News from out in San Francisco was that people danced all night on Castro Street.

I went to a rally in downtown Kansas City with a couple hundred people, but it felt so weird to be celebrating historic rulings that didn’t change anything in states other than California that had banned same-sex marriage. A decade earlier, I’d covered the marriage-amendment politics in Kansas, and as I stood there at the rally that day, I wondered what had become of the Kansans who had fought it back then.

2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the publication?

From that rally in June 2013 until I turned in the final, edited and revised manuscript was almost four years. I have a great full-time job, so I’d get up at 5 in the morning to write for a couple of hours before work, and usually put in at least one full day of writing on the weekends. I made several reporting trips around Kansas, and those beautiful drives around the state were the best parts, meeting and interviewing people and going to Pride celebrations and other events. I did a lot of phone interviews, looked at a lot of legislation, watched city hall testimonies archived on public-access TV channels, and read a lot of newspaper archives, including on microfilm at libraries.

3. What is one thing you were most surprised to learn while working on the book?

I was most surprised to learn that Charlie Snook, a transgender man from Newton, and LuAnn Kahl, a transgender woman who worked on farms in Haven and Kalvesta, appeared on an episode of a short-lived reality-TV series called “Sex Change Hospital” back in 2007. It was set in Trinidad, Colorado, where there was a surgeon famous for performing thousands of gender-confirmation surgeries (this I already knew). Alas, the episode is no longer on YouTube.

4. How did you identify the activists featured in the book?

The first person I contacted was Tom Witt of Equality Kansas, a statewide organization that works to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, who connected me with several other people. Like Tom, many of the activists I profiled were public figures – I’d seen them leading rallies or giving speeches or I’d read newspaper stories quoting them. When I interviewed them, they told me stories about other people who’d been involved, so I contacted those folks too. I sent emails and Facebook messages introducing myself to strangers, and many of them wrote back. Others clearly didn’t want to talk, a choice I respect.

5. You’ve lived on both coasts and have made a home in Kansas City. Can you describe the cultural differences or challenges LGBT citizens face in the middle of the country?

That’d be a whole other book(s) — and I hope dissertations are being written on the subject as we speak. But for starters, I’d say the biggest challenges are the smaller dating pool, and limited access to a large and diverse community of peers and allies  and the resources and services such communities can provide.

6. What do you view as the biggest issue facing the LGBT community in Kansas in 2018?

I think it’s the same biggest issue facing all of America in 2018: Saving our endangered democracy.

During the legislative session last year, Equality Kansas held one of its annual rallies on the steps of the Capitol. I was surprised, as were others, by how young the crowd was – mostly college and even high school kids. During his speech, Tom Witt gave them instructions (he’s good at that): “When you go home,” he yelled, “start looking outside your LGBT community and your Gay Straight Alliance and your usual church groups. Our country is in a horrible mess, but we have to resist. As a queer community, we already know how to resist and resist and resist. Take what you know about fighting bad ideas and say, ‘I’m in this fight with you.’ Unite with other progressive organizations around Kansas.” He’s right. We need to take our experiences and the hard lessons we’ve learned fighting for our own causes and put them to use in service of our country.

7. Your book is dedicated to Matthew Shepard. Has his death served as motivation for you to advocate for LGBT rights in conservative regions?

I wouldn’t identify myself as an advocate, though I’ve obviously written advocacy journalism; as a journalist, I consider myself a witness. But I know that witnessing is a political act, and that being present and recording these stories makes me a participant. I also know that being part of the community I’m writing about gives me access and understanding that outsiders might not have, and I feel a profound responsibility to my sources and their stories.

Matthew Shepard’s murder wasn’t what inspired me to start this project, but by the end of it I’d spent a lot of time on lonely roads. LGBT people – especially trans people – are still in danger. But in general, these days the world – yes, even Kansas – is a much better place for 21-year-old LGBT people. I want us to remember those who helped create it but didn’t live to see it.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

I’m going to resist the urge to name one politician or the other who I hope reads the book so they’ll know their rhetoric doesn’t speak for all of Kansas. Instead, I’ll say I hope these stories reach individuals out there who might feel isolated, who want to make the world a better place but don’t know how, who need to know they’re not alone.

9. What are you reading now?

Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives, the University of Texas Press’s collection of personal essays by women music writers, edited by Holly Gleason.


C. J. Janovy is an arts reporter and editor for KCUR (Public Radio Kansas City, MO) and former editor of The Pitch.

From the Backlist: Libel Laws and the Free Press

Each Thursday we will look at backlist titles that remain or have become relevant. In response to President Trump’s recent pledge to examine libel laws, we revisit two tiles in our Landmark Law Cases and American Society series that helped define defamation law and libel.

In 2011’s The Free Press Crisis of 1800; Thomas Cooper’s Trial for Seditious Libel Peter Charles Hoffer offers a nuanced view of the Sedition Act, often regarded as an extreme measure motivated by partisan malice, that weighs all the arguments and fairly considers the position of each side in historical and legal context.

The far-reaching Sedition Act of 1798 was introduced by Federalists to suppress Republican support of French revolutionaries and imposed fines and imprisonment “if any person shall write, print, utter or publish . . . scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” Such a broadly and loosely defined offense challenged the freedom of the American press and gave the government the power to drag offending newspaper editors into court. The trial of Thomas Cooper in particular became an important showcase for debating the dangers and limits of the new law, one with great implications for both the new republic and federal constitutional law.

“A terrific piece of work by one of our very best historians,” Peter S. Onuf said. “Written with verve and authority, it provides a masterful account of a little-known story with powerful implications for the subsequent history of free speech.”

Hoffer’s book is an authoritative review of this landmark case and a vital touchstone for anyone concerned about the role of government and the place of dissent in times of national emergency.

When the New York Times published an advertisement in 1960 that accused Alabama officials of willfully abusing civil rights activists, Montgomery police commissioner Lester Sullivan filed suit for defamation. Alabama courts, citing factual errors in the ad, ordered the Times to pay half a million dollars in damages. The Times appealed to the Supreme Court, which had previously deferred to the states on libel issues. The justices, recognizing that Alabama’s application of libel law threatened both the nation’s free press and equal rights for African Americans, unanimously sided with the Times.

In New York Times v. Sullivan; Civil Rights, Libel Law, and the Free Press, Kermit L. Hall & Melvin I. Urofsky provide a compact and highly readable updating of one of the most memorable decisions in the Supreme Court’s canon.

“By connecting what most commentators have seen as a controversial freedom of press case to the contentious civil rights movement that produced it, Hall and Urofsky have provided new insights into both legal and political history,” Steven F. Lawson said. “An excellent and accessible book about an important moment in American history.”

Char Miller (Where There’s Smoke) Q & A

Later this month we will publish Char Miller’s new book Where There’s Smoke; The Environmental Science, Public Policy, and Politics of Marijuana. This first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary anthology draws on the insights of scientists, researchers, and activists and ranges across the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences to explore the troubling environmental consequences of illegal marijuana production on public, private, and tribal lands.

We spoke to Char about his timely work.

1. When did you first have the idea to write Where There’s Smoke?

Like all book projects, Where There’s Smoke has been collaborative in all its stages. I had been writing about marijuana’s impact on the national forests, as a result of talking to Forest Service employees frustrated by the environmental despoliation illegal trespass grows caused; and by threats to their lives as they tried to manage the beautiful California forests. As luck would have it, UPK editor Kim Hogeland spotted my columns, we arranged to meet at a conference, and then had a fabulous conversation about some of the dimensions such an anthology might contain. Although the book morphed in the subsequent months while I was commissioning its chapters, Kim remained a guiding force throughout the process as were the many contributors to Where There’s Smoke.

 2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the publication?

This was such a fun project precisely because its contributors were experts in their varied fields—ecology, sociology, history, grassroots organizing, public policy, politics, and law enforcement—and thus brought a wealth of knowledge, experience, and insight to their work. I learned so much from reading their chapters and then working with the authors to clarify and strengthen their arguments. For me, Where There’s Smoke was like an intense and rigorous seminar that lasted for roughly 18 months. I loved every moment of it.

 3. What is one thing you were most surprised to learn while working on the book?

I had started out with a pretty simple notion: that if marijuana was legalized, the damage that illegal grows were having on tribal and public lands might decrease. Many of the book’s contributors challenged that assumption and so Where There’s Smoke comes with its own internal debate—a very healthy thing. I was also surprised by the striking differences between the various legalization campaigns reported in the book—Colorado’s successful initiative was different from Oregon’s, which was different from the District of Columbia’s, which was quite different from California’s. Put another way, local politics shape local policy in particular and peculiar ways, yet each was a reflection of democracy in action.

4. How did you identify the major impacts marijuana has had on the physical and political landscape?

Identifying these issues depended on a lot of reading across an interdisciplinary array of scholarship and popular writing; tracking the legalization campaigns from one jurisdiction to another; and asking a lot of questions. It was exciting to reach out to potential contributors and tap into their networks to determine some of the key concepts and those who might best discuss them in Where There’s Smoke. My hope is that readers will discover, as I did, that there are some really sharp folks thinking about the complicated contexts in which we talk about marijuana, and now in several states, how we are regulating its presence in the public arena.

5. How do you anticipate the recent legalization of recreational marijuana will have on the challenged water tables in California?

Illegal marijuana growing has actually dewatered streams in northern California, and the hope is that legalization—and the related environmental regulations—that will now govern the legitimate producers will have a beneficial outcome on currently strapped watersheds. But it will take a couple of years before we’ll know if that hope has turned into a reality. Another aspiration is that those species, like the Pacific fisher, that have suffered from the wickedly toxic brew of chemicals that illegal growers routinely deploy to protect their grows, may rebound as a result of legalization. But again, it is too early to know.

6. What do you view as the biggest issue facing the legalization of marijuana on a federal and state level in 2018?

Because marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug—akin to heroin, according to the federal government—that means that state legalization is remains iffy. Legitimate growers cannot place their money in federally insured banks; the threat that the Department of Justice might crackdown on those states that have already legalized recreational and medical marijuana, makes for an uneasy marketplace. But states are willing to gamble because so much money is in play: every state that has legalized has found that the economic kickback—tax revenues—has grown much more rapidly than estimated, a boon to local coffers. California—the Golden State—expects to reap one billion dollars annually. So it is no wonder that neighboring Nevada legalized it recently. Or that Massachusetts did, too. Or that the rest of New England, not wanting the Bay State to “steal” their potential revenue, is seriously considering legalization. If this state-by-state pattern continues unabated, the federal government will have little-to-no leverage. Legalization is becoming mainstream; the Nixon Era War on (this) Drug is over.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Where There’s Smoke will give him a much-needed refresher course on civics and a much-better understanding of the science, policy, and politics of marijuana in the 21st Century. The irony of AG Sessions’ assertion of federal power to regulate the sale and recreational use of marijuana is not lost on anyone who recalls Session’s states-rights rhetoric about civil rights, voter suppression, and segregation. The federal courts, and Congress, not the DOJ, will be the final arbiter.

8. What are you reading now?

Lots! My wife and I hiked in Ireland recently and we have been reading a number of Irish mystery writers, including Adrian McKinty, Tana French, and Caimh McDonnell. Given my interest in all things environmental—and because I’m on sabbatical!—just  completed Peter Wolleben, The Hidden Lives of Trees and Robert Moor’s On Trails.


Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and the author and editor of many books on environmental history and public lands, including, as author, Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream; America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands (with photographer Tim Palmer); and Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot. He also edited American Forests: Nature, Culture, and Politics, published by Kansas.