James G Lowenstein Whose Reports Questioned Vietnam War Dies At 95

His deeply researched studies, drawing on extensive reporting in Southeast Asia, helped undermine President Nixon’s war plans.

James G. Lowenstein, who as one half of a globe-trotting investigative duo wrote a series of scathing reports for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 1970s that undermined President Richard M. Nixon’s strategy in the Vietnam War, died on Jan. 3 at his home in Washington. He was 95.

His daughter, Laurinda Douglas, said the cause was complications from a fall down a flight of stairs the day before his death.

President Nixon had won the White House in 1968 with the promise of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, and in his first year he adopted a policy that he called Vietnamization, which would train and equip South Vietnamese forces so that the United States could rapidly draw down its commitment there.

Senator William J. Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was immediately suspicious. In 1969, he sent Mr. Lowenstein and Richard M. Moose, both former Foreign Service officers, to South Vietnam to investigate.

They interviewed all the major figures — Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Gen. Creighton Abrams, Vietnamese politicians — but also midlevel officers. They read volumes of field reports and traveled the length of South Vietnam, meeting with village elders.

Their report, released in a redacted version to the public in early 1970, was a bombshell. The administration’s plans, they wrote, “seem to rest on far more ambiguous, confusing and contradictory evidence than pronouncements from Washington and Saigon indicate.”

The war, they concluded, “appears to be not only far from won but far from over.”

The unredacted version was even more scathing. It contained some of the first reports of widespread “fragging,” in which disgruntled American soldiers tried, sometimes successfully, to kill their superior officers, often with hand grenades.

Mr. Lowenstein and Mr. Moose returned to the region several times, coming back with more damaging revelations. In Cambodia, they discovered that the United States was secretly expanding its support for the country’s military against Communist forces, raising fear of a spillover conflict. And in Laos, they found a secret, long-running effort by the C.I.A. to train pro-American guerrillas.

The researchers occasionally went beyond Southeast Asia. A trip to Greece, which was then under the control of a military junta, revealed that the U.S. ambassador in Athens was biased in favor of the junta and had been sending misleadingly rosy reports to Washington.

Taken together, the Lowenstein-Moose reports represented an early instance of the attempt by the Senate throughout the 1970s to reassert influence over foreign policy, which had been long dominated by the White House. They set the precedent for later Senate inquiries, like the 1975 investigation by Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, that exposed C.I.A. malfeasance, and legislation like the 1973 War Powers Act, which was intended to limit a president’s ability to take the country to war without congressional approval.

James Gordon Lowenstein was born on Aug. 6, 1927, in Long Branch, N.J., and grew up in nearby Shrewsbury and, later, Scarsdale, N.Y. His father, Melvyn Lowenstein, was a prominent estate attorney in Manhattan whose clients included Babe Ruth. His mother, Katherine (Goldsmith) Lowenstein, was a homemaker.

Jim studied international relations at Yale and graduated in 1949. He went to Paris, where he worked for the Economic Cooperation Administration, which oversaw the Marshall Plan for European recovery after World War II. He served in the Navy from 1952 to 1955, after which he entered Harvard Law School.

His legal career was cut short, however, by a bout with bulbar polio, which left part of his face paralyzed. By the time he recovered, he was far behind his classmates, and he left school after a year to enter the Foreign Service.

He received his commission in early 1957. He worked in Washington, Sri Lanka and Yugoslavia, where he served under George F. Kennan, the American diplomat and Cold War strategist.

Though he had a clear and promising State Department career ahead of him, Mr. Lowenstein grew restless, and in 1965 took a leave of absence from the department to work for Senator Fulbright and the Foreign Relations Committee.

With his diplomatic background, he soon became a valued member of the committee’s core staff, accompanying senators on their own fact-finding trips abroad.

In 1967, he went with Senator Philip Hart, Democrat of Illinois, to South Vietnam, where he met up with an old friend, the reporter Charles Bracelen Flood.

The two took an overnight trip to a supposedly safe village in the Mekong Delta, in the country’s south. They awoke the next morning to learn that three men had been assassinated in a neighboring village, in the home of the village chief.

“I began to wonder that if this was a safe village, what was it like in the rest of the villages that weren’t considered safe,” Mr. Lowenstein said in a 1994 oral history interview

When he returned to Washington, he conveyed his impressions to Mr. Fulbright, who just weeks later came out forcefully against the war. The senator also decided that he needed his own source information from the field, independent of the administration’s reports — and put Mr. Lowenstein and Mr. Moose on the case.

Their investigations made national headlines and for a while made them something close to household names. Reporters were particularly taken with their reporting — the correspondent Stanley Karnow said their work “would have earned them Pulitzer Prizes had they been newsmen.”

After returning to the State Department in 1974, Mr. Lowenstein served as the ambassador to Luxembourg from 1977 to 1981. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1982. He later worked as a consultant and election monitor and was vice chairman of the French-American Foundation, which he co-founded in 1976 to improve relations between the two countries.

Mr. Lowenstein was married twice, with both marriages ending in divorce. Along with his daughter, he is survived by his son, Price; his brother, Peter; his longtime partner, Audrey Wolfe; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Moose died in 2015 at 83.

During his 1967 trip to South Vietnam, Mr. Lowenstein met Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst with the RAND Corporation. Two years later, Mr. Ellsberg contacted him about a top-secret report that he had helped write that showed how the Defense Department had repeatedly covered up its own doubts about the war.

Mr. Lowenstein arranged for Mr. Ellsberg to meet with Mr. Fulbright. Mr. Ellsberg arrived with a suitcase stuffed with a copy of the report and showed them a sample. He refused to give them the whole thing, though, and instead urged them to demand that the Pentagon release it.

Mr. Lowenstein encouraged the senator to follow through on Mr. Ellsberg’s suggestion, but Mr. Fulbright decided it was politically too risky. Two years later, Mr. Ellsberg leaked the study to The New York Times and later to The Washington Post. It became known as the Pentagon Papers.

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