Muckraking writer, chips away at U.S. icons
he once served
Latest book will try to link Sept. 11 with foreign
By J. Patrick Coolican Seattle Times Staff reporter: Nov. 30, 2003
Roger Morris was on duty one weekend in the spring of 1969, his boss, Henry
Kissinger, away in New York, when he received a package from FBI Director J.
It was a memo for Kissinger, then national-security
adviser. Attached was a thick dossier on the late Martin Luther King Jr., as
Morris tells the story, filled with surveillance records, bugging transcripts,
charges of sexual adventure and communist ties, all written in a racist cant.
The Nixon White House wanted to use the file to smear the civil-rights movement,
"It was like banana-republic stuff. I mean, the director
of the FBI? The president of the United States? " recalls the Seattle historian
and writer, laughing incredulously his arms outstretched.
incredulous more than 30 years later, not just at the memory of Nixon's tapes
and bugs and plumbers, but about Americans' willingness to forget the lessons of
Nixon and Vietnam, he said recently in his Queen Anne apartment.
serving as foreign-policy adviser to Presidents Johnson and Nixon, Morris has
become a muckraker and prolific author, writing a string of books, including
investigations of the Clintons, the deadly 1980 New Mexico prison riot, and Las
Vegas and its relationship to organized crime. His favorite targets, though, are
the men he served and the political system that put them in power.
Having witnessed firsthand Johnson's and then Nixon's deceptions in Southeast
Asia, Morris views his literary career as an investigative historian as an
atonement, a way to pay off a moral debt.
Morris, a Russian linguist,
moved to Seattle in 2001 to spend time with his son - one of three - who is a TV
producer here. He also planned to sift through the University of Washington's
extensive Russian archives, hoping to write a parallel history of the Soviet
Union and the United States.
A day after moving into his apartment, he
watched New York's Twin Towers slouch toward oblivion.
thinking of America's role in Afghanistan. As is often the case with Morris, he
smells American culpability.
In his new book, "Shadows of the Eagle"
(Alfred A. Knopf), due out next year, he asserts that the families of those who
died on Sept. 11, 2001, can blame, to a large de-gree, failed American
He accuses policymakers as far back as Eisenhower of
supporting repressive regimes, hawking arms, engaging in covert and overt
meddling in the Middle East and South Asia, and blindly supporting
"This is one more battle in an ongoing war in which many more
have been killed around the world than the 3,000 here," he says, referring to
the Sept. 11 death toll.
With such provocative willingness to blame
America and its presidents, Morris has attracted enemies on both the left and
"Prone to conspiracy theory," says Slate contributor David
"Rampagingly ignorant," insists The Weekly Standard's Reuel
Morris likes having such enemies.
Now 64, he looks
much younger, his skin tight and ruddy, seemingly burnished by every new box of
documents he finds, by every former intelligence operative willing to talk about
covert American aid to Saddam Hussein or the former Shah of Iran.
Morris argues such discoveries are the reality of American politics: A
malignancy is coursing through the entire body politic, one of greed, corruption
and an ignorance and apathy about the rest of the world.
He says he's
seen so much of all of it, he can't help but smile, even laugh at
In Johnson's White House
In the spring of 1966,
the State Department made Morris an aide to Dean Acheson, then an adviser to
President Johnson. His first official meeting was in the Oval Office. He was 28,
a Harvard-educated idealist.
Morris describes Johnson as a giant
physical presence, shoeless and vulgar, obsessed with news coverage of Vietnam.
His Oval Office was festooned with televisions and news tickers.
Morris remembers Johnson ripping a sheet from a ticker and bellowing at Acheson:
"Dean! Dean! Ho Chi Minh is killing me in the polls - even the
After Nixon's 1968 election, Kissinger offered Morris a spot
on his staff, as an adviser on Third World politics and development. In 1969,
Kissinger assigned Morris and Anthony Lake (later President Clinton's
national--security adviser) to prepare for secret peace negotiations to end the
Vietnam War. Upon the secret invasion and bombing of Cambodia, Morris says, he
quit the Nixon administration in disgust. He says his home was burglarized and
that Lawrence Eagleburger, a fellow Kissinger staffer and briefly secretary of
state under the first President Bush, warned him that his phone was probably
The noose had closed around Morris' idealism.
would leave Washington for Santa Fe, N.M., and begin vivisecting the very people
he had worked with just a few years before.
In his 1982 biography of
Alexander Haig, "Haig: The General's Progress" (Playboy Press), Morris ties
Watergate and other domestic scandals to Nixon's foreign policymaking.
"So vast was to be the ruin of the regime in Watergate, so anxious then were
critics and defenders alike to find some consolation in its diplomacy, in the
remnant glamour of Henry Kissinger, that few Americans saw how much of the
squalor that bred scandal had been there in the inner politics of foreign policy
from the beginning."
In his 1,000-page biography, "Richard Milhous
Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician" (Henry Holt), Morris sees ominous
signs of the future in Nixon's early career.
Fellow historian Douglas
Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the
University of New Orleans, calls the Nixon work "monumental" and
"extraordinary"; an "amazing piece of work," says Yale historian David
Digging into the pasts of Nixon and later the Clintons in
the scathing "Partners in Power" (Owl Publishing), Morris discovered the
often-unseemly sources of cash he says have always helped pay for American
political campaigns and careers.
That led to "The Money and the Power:
The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America" (Vintage), a book he co-wrote
with his ex-wife and one-time investigative partner Sally Denton.
posit that Las Vegas is not an aberrant American city, but rather, a kind of
shadow capital. Backed by 60 pages of footnotes, they connect skimmed gambling
profits to powerful figures like John Kennedy and Nixon.
critique of American politics has become more fundamental - and widened to
include liberals who were once intellectual bedfellows - his list of critics has
After praising the Nixon biography, Greenberg, the Slate
contributor and Yale historian, says Morris' recent work has a "lurid
"I was disappointed in what I found to be lack of scholarly
rigor and its willingness to embrace conspiracy theory that seem to be
farfetched," he says of "The Money and the Power."
disagrees. "His up-close view of the twisted ego of Nixon has brought him to
look at power with a great deal of suspicion. He's a whistle-blower. He
understands that behind every headline is something murkier. People surrounded
by Nixonian tactics realized how dark things can get. Call it a '60s syndrome if
you like, and it can lead to conjecture, but it's important," he says.
Condemning Nixon and, Kissinger is one thing, but blaming America for the
terrorism inflicted upon it is quite another. Morris is about to face a fresh
round of criticism, given his argument -in "Shadows of the Eagle."
had seen American foreign policy as at war with the world in a way that would
shock Americans, so this was just another artillery volley," he says of the
Sept. 11 attacks, adding, "I don't know if Americans know how long we've been
mucking around in that part of the world, carelessly, recklessly.”
United States has been intervening in Afghanistan since the 1940s, using it for
its own purposes, Morris contends. As for Iraq, without CIA help, the Baathists
would never have assumed power, Morris Will argue in "Shadows." CIA cash
financed the Baathist coup that put Saddam. Hussein in power, and it was with
President Carter's blessing that Saddam invaded Iran, Morris says.
"American kids in Iraq are cleaning up the mess made by the regime backed by the
CIA," he says. Morris will also examine the roles of Pakistani and Saudi
intelligence, allies of America but with their own agendas, Morris
Gerecht, a former CIA operative in the region and now a fellow
at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says while it's true that
America's support of repressive regimes has been destructive, Morris' assertion
of American blame "has no merit."
"It's a thin, left-wing
understanding of history," he says.
Morris loves that kind of
criti-cism. He smiles broadly, defiantly
"I'm proud of my
J. Patrick Coolican 206-464-3315 or