Tag Archives: Marc Selverstone

Marc Selverstone: Presidential Scholar Looks Back, And Ahead

Our country is deeply divided. We’ll remain so for some time.

The Biden administration will move quickly to get things done. It only has a year to do so, before the mid-term elections move into high gear.

We’ll continue to reel from assaults on both truth and an array of institutions vital to the maintenance of a healthy democracy.

Those are not novel concepts. But they — and others, much more in depth and nuanced — have particular resonance, on this inauguration day.

They come from Marc Selverstone. The 1980 Staples High School graduate is an associate professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s famed Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Marc Selverstone

With a doctorate in American history, he also chairs the center’s Presidential Recordings Program; teaches courses on foreign relations, and consults with filmmakers, authors and educators.

Over the last 4 years, Selverstone says, it’s been a challenge to figure out how to avoid using the word “unprecedented.”

Beyond trying to understand policy choices, he’s tried to understand President Trump’s appeal to “a durable segment of the population, and an extraordinary percentage of the Republican Party.”

“His most dramatic departures had less to do with policy than with his approach to norms and conventions, to personnel and institutions and, most consequentially, to truth and fact-based reality,” the scholar says.

Selverstone calls the Biden transition “one of the most professional in memory. That augurs well for a country reeling from intersecting health and economic crises, and against the backdrop of really seismic and fundamental challenges in our politics, in social and race relations, and with respect to the environment.

“Whether or not the Capitol insurrection functions as a modern-day Beer Hall Putsch remains to be seen,” he adds. “1923 is a far cry from 1933, let alone what came after. But reporting seems to indicate that the assault has galvanized groups of well-armed violent extremists who are fanatically loyal to the outgoing president and all he represents.”

Until January 6, the Confederate flag had never been paraded through the US Capitol.

Selverstone’s looks ahead are informed by his study of the past. The Recordings Program transcribes and analyzes White House tapes that 6 consecutive presidents of both parties — from Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 to Richard Nixon in 1973 — made in secret.

Most of the work focuses on the period between 1962 and ’73. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were the most active in taping aides, journalists, cabinet officials, legislators, family members and private individuals.

In 2005, Selverstone was part of a Brown University-led oral history research project, exploring the Kennedy/Johnson transition and its impact on Vietnam policy.

Intrigued, Selverstone began exploring Kennedy’s thoughts on withdrawal planning (“real and extensive”), and his Vietnam policy overall — cut short, of course, by his assassination.

President John F. Kennedy and the primary architect of his Vietnam policy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

That led to a book, due to his publisher March 1: “The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam.”

Selverstone has become impressed with how much the president was souring on the war. He had always been wary of deep involvement, the professor says, though he went to Dallas still committed to fighting it.

The question of withdrawal deadlines — at least, their public announcements – is relevant today. “Calendars factored into the Bush , Obama and Trump policies toward Iraq and Afghanistan,” Selverstone says.

Such deadlines “don’t have a very good track record,” he notes. “They rarely served the political or military objectives they were designed to achieve.”

Meanwhile, Selverstone, the Miller Center and the US prepare for a new administration.

He’ll continue to work on the presidential tapes, then undertake new projects beyond the election of 1964 and Vietnam.

“With the Kennedy book in the rear view mirror,” he says, “I’ll join my colleagues in thinking about what this turbulent era of American public life means for us, as well as what it means in the stream of time.”

Ken Burns’ Vietnam: The Westport Connections

Ken Burns’ epic, 10-part PBS series “The Vietnam War” shines a spotlight on one of the most consequential, divisive and controversial events in American history.

Like all of Burns’ masterful works it combines visual images, music and 1st-person accounts, plus the insights of experts with a wide array of perspectives.

One of those contributors has Westport roots.

Marc Selverstone

Marc Selverstone adds his wisdom, as chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The project produces scholarly transcripts of secret White House tapes, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.

The 1980 Staples High School graduate — who earned a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in history from Ohio University — also serves as an associate professor at UVa.

His contribution began 6 years ago, with a call from co-producer Sarah Botstein. Selverstone sorted through “countless” Vietnam-related transcripts, and forwarded them on. It was an arduous — but crucial — process.

The next phase of collaboration began in the fall of 2015. Selverstone and Ken Hughes — the Miller Center’s Nixon expert — spent 4 days watching the entire series at WNET in New York, with Burns and the full Florentine Films team.

Also in attendance were key figures who appear in the film: Tim O’Brien, Les Gelb, Hal Kushner and many more.

“To hear their stories on film, then speak to them — because they’re sitting right next to you — was a profound and immersive experience,” Selverstone says. “It offered access to the war, and its era, that’s hard to come by.”

Born in 1962, he remembers the assassinations 6 years later of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. He recalls too the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium protest — he was there with his father, then-Staples guidance counselor Bob Selverstone — but as an adult he’s studied Vietnam as a scholar.

“I did not have a lot of contact with people who shared so much of themselves, and the way they’d been affected by the war,” he notes.

Though the film was nearly finished, Selverstone offered feedback. He was impressed that Burns’ team was “really concerned about getting it ‘right.'”

Selverstone then worked closely with co-producer Lynn Novick on post-production, and on an Atlantic story she and Burns published last week called “How Americans Lost Faith in the Presidency.”

Now, Selverstone is writing a chapter on President Kennedy, for the upcoming “Cambridge History of the Vietnam War.” He met with Burns, Novick and the 15 other scholars involved in that book, prior to a public presentation for 1,000 people at Dartmouth College.

Selverstone has been involved in a few recent events surrounding the film too. Last week he was at the Kennedy Center with John McCain, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.

He’ll be at a special screening of the final episode in Washington on September 28. The next day he’s a panelist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In November he’ll join Novick for a Q-and-A at the Virginia Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Selverstone is busy building the Miller Center’s pages to provide more content to visitors to the PBS “Vietnam” website.

Selverstone is glad for the buzz around the film. “I hope it provides an opportunity for the country to think about its past, about those who suffered and sacrificed, and about us as a collective,” he says.

“Ken talks about how frequently we focus on the ‘pluribus’ at the expense of the ‘unum.’ If these 2 weeks and their extension into the fall allow us to take comfort through a moment of national uplift — to watch this film together, as a people, and celebrate those who endured — then it might have a tonic effect on a country sorely in need of one.”

Burns’ film has another Westport connection. Christian Appy — who graduated from Staples 8 years before Selverstone, and is now a University of Massachusetts history professor and Vietnam expert — is writing 7 articles about the film for the Organization of American Historians.

Christian Appy, and his book.

Appy — the author of “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity” — says that Burns’ film will reach more people than any book ever written about the war. It could rival audiences for films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.”

Thus, Appy says, it is critical that “history teachers of all kinds — not just Vietnam War specialists — give this documentary serious attention.”

Of course, he and Marc Selverstone already have.