The Campaign to Impeach Justice William O. Douglas by Joshua E. Kastenberg

9780700628483

One of the most powerful politicians in the United States. One with a sordid personal life replete with multiple marriages and affairs and questionable financial dealings. One who regularly violated the norms and mores of his office with his outspokenness. One abhorred by his critics, but loved by his followers. One brought before the House of Representatives in a strictly partisan manner on impeachment charges.

Donald Trump? No—in this case, it’s the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. And the impeachment attempt came in 1970 during the Vietnam War.

Joshua Kastenberg, a retired Air Force officer and professor of law at the University of New Mexico, explores the 1970 Justice Douglas impeachment attempt in The Campaign to Impeach Justice William O. Douglas: Nixon, Vietnam, and the Conservative Attack on Judicial Independence (University Press of Kansas, 336 pp., $42.50, hardcover and e book). This well-researched and accessible book is the first in-depth account of this episode. In it, Kastenberg proffers a timely reflection on the political and constitutional implications of impeachment.

In the spring of 1970, Michigan Republican Rep. Gerald Ford, at the behest of the Nixon White House, called an impeachment investigation into Justice Douglas based on allegations of financial impropriety, the undermining of national security, and violations of judicial ethics. The House embarked on a six-month investigation that ultimately cleared Douglas.

A vote was never taken, and the proceedings never captured the public’s imagination. Tepid news coverage faulted Douglas for undermining his credibility, but also criticized Ford and Nixon for an unnecessarily malicious attack on his the justice’s integrity.

Kastenberg expertly details the players, the alliances, and the political machinations that compromised these events. In 1969, at risk of impeachment due to his financial ties to a dubious foundation, Douglas protégé Justice Abe Fortas resigned from the Court. The Senate rejected two Nixon picks to fill the Fortas seat, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harold Carswell, both Southerners with troubling Civil Rights records. Conservatives in Congress turned their enmity to a Douglas, a liberal, unconventional, and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War whom they had previously threatened with impeachment three times.

Kastenberg’s thesis rests on the context of the impeachment allegation. Two weeks after Ford’s allegations, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops moved into neutral Cambodia, sparking outage and protests. Kastenberg posits that the Douglas impeachment was meant to be a public distraction from the invasion. If the incursion went poorly, Douglas would be an ideal scapegoat. Further, Kastenberg writes that Ford’s allegations were a “threat to the efficacy of the nation’s constitutional institutions,” mainly the sanctity of judicial independence.

But Kastenberg does not adequately proved a direct link existed between the impeachment and the Cambodian incursion. He also describes the other reasons for the impeachment as nefarious, but they may be best categorized as politically distasteful: conservatives’ abhorrence of Douglas, a desire to reverse the changes of the Warren Court, and a need to protect Nixon’s policies.

Kastenberg does show that Douglas was in many ways his own worst enemy, providing his opponents with multiple reasons to impugn him. The Constitution does not explicitly state that federal judges serve for life, but that “they shall hold their offices during good Behavior.” While Ford was incorrect when he stated that impeachment is solely a political—not constitutional—process, the two are not, as Alexander Hamilton pointed out, mutually exclusive.

Impeachment is the only mechanism in which the powerful can be held to account. Kastenberg misses the irony that Douglas, at times contemptuous of stare decisis, relied on the history and rarity of judicial impeachment as his primary defense.

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Prof. Kastenberg

In the end, Kastenberg’s charges of Ford and Nixon endangering constitutional institutions and American democracy itself are hyperbolic because the system worked, and the case was quietly dismissed.

Nevertheless, this is an important, provocative, and meticulous book, a welcome addition to the history of the Court—and of contemporary America.

Daniel R. Hart

21 Months, 24 Days by Richard Udden

Richard Udden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969 for two years. Not long after a tour in Vietnam, he got an early out, hence the title of his war memoir: 21 Months, 24 Days (CreateSpace, 304 pp., $14.95, paper). I read it. I enjoyed it.

“I did not want to write one of those typical war stories about battles won and lost,”  Udeen says. Instead, he recalls his military career by relating the stories behind photographs he took in Nam as an infantryman.  “I took my pictures between firefights,” he says, “not during them.” The book contains about a hundred pictures.

Udden served in the 2/12th of the 1st Cavalry Division, operating from Fire Support Base Button. His company carried out search and destroy missions along the Cambodian border. Many started with a helicopter assault. He describes them as “like hunting a mountain lion that was lying in wait for you.”

Initially, Udden writes in the innocent voice of the twenty-year-old he was in 1970. He easily accommodated to the rigors of Army training by paying attention and following orders. Proud of becoming a soldier, he knew that he had distanced himself from civilians forever. But the Vietnam War was a mysterious world that constantly presented new problems, physically and psychologically.

As Udden tells his story, the innocence in his voice takes on an overlay of resignation and then self-preservation. To escape the hardship of jungle fighting, Udden volunteered to become helicopter door gunner, but promotion to sergeant (with only ten months of total service) disqualified him for the job.

The frequency, intensity, and duration of firefights greatly increased during his company’s incursion into Cambodia in May and June of 1970. After a booby trap wounded him and killed a close friend, all innocence vanished. Udden simply wanted out of the war. Yet when his wounds healed, Udden did not object to returning to the jungle.

1st Cav troops during the 1970 Cambodian incursion

Like many Vietnam War memoirs, this one contains a large amount of material that will be familiar to readers of military literature. Udden details the use of rifles, Claymore mines, fragmentation and smoke grenades, uniforms, backpacks, C-rations, the P-38, LRP rations, heat tabs, C-4, and other equipment. Once long ago, these objects were wondrous to him; now, he wants the reader to understand their importance to his survival.

He makes a case for smoking marijuana based on the familiar declaration that, among lower ranks, smoking “ganja” was acceptable, but never in the field. A first-time smoker in Vietnam, he eventually learned to roll his own.

The oldest of six children in a blue-collar family, Richard Udden did not get along with his father. Self-reliant practically from birth, he “began work as a young kid” and paid his way through his childhood and teens. He joined the Army partially to leave home. A draft deferment had allowed him to complete a two-year machinist course following high school, and he expected to use that skill in the Army. Manpower needs assigned him to the infantry, which made him feel cheated, but he did not complain.

Again, like many Vietnam War memoirs, this book offers little that is new about humping through the jungle. But a good war memoir’s message is a matter of perspective. In other words, the progression of an author’s actions and feelings about the world before, during, and after exposure to combat often is the most interesting aspect of a war story. I partially judge autobiographies based on how much soul a writer is willing to bare. In this respect, Udden scores high.

He closes on an off-beat note. Back in the States, rather than being despised by the antiwar crowd or looked-down-upon by war hawks, he encountered indifference. Udden had completed the most dramatic period of his life and was “standing tall and feeling good” about himself. But no one seemed to notice or care.

“It was as if I was invisible,” he says.

Wait, wait, Richard. Our parade should be along any moment now.

The author’s website is www.21months24days.com/our-story.html

—Henry Zeybel

Company of Heroes by Eric Poole

During the first five months of 1970, wherever the men of Bravo Company (3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) operated, NVA troops seemed to be waiting for them. That was a time of what became know as Vietnamization when the South Vietnamese Army was supposed to be able to defend itself. Yet Bravo’s men found themselves in combat almost every day.

Bravo Company participated in three big operations during early 1970. Its first assignment was to drive the 7th Battalion, 22nd NVA Regiment, 3rd Division off Hill 474, a Central Highlands stronghold. The hill lacked tactical significance beyond the one thousand enemy soldiers quartered there.

In an initial sweep of the hill, four of Bravo’s men were killed instantly in an ambush. Bravo followed a routine of search and destroy tactics, battling the enemy, withdrawing, and starting over. Its encounters were grim and swift. By mid-March, hunting the enemy yielded diminishing returns as the NVA exfiltrated what had become a siege site.

Reassigned to the Crow’s Foot, southeast of Pleiku, Bravo continued search and destroy operations. Enemy booby traps frequently supplemented ambushes. In one encounter, “Of the first ten men in line, [Richard] Clanton was the only one not wounded,” Eric Poole writes in Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 296 pp., $24.95). Again, firefights were short and costly to both sides.

Bravo’s next assignment was to support the incursion into Cambodia to cut trails that fed NVA supplies into South Vietnam. In Cambodia, Bravo found itself undermanned, outnumbered, and without air or artillery support. Nevertheless, in four days, Bravo found and destroyed an NVA  field hospital, more than forty other buildings, tons of rice, and livestock. On the fifth afternoon, NVA soldiers trapped Bravo’s Second and Third Platoons in an open clearing, killing eight men and wounding twenty-eight others.

During this encounter, Spec 4 Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. died in action nearly single-handedly fighting off a large enemy attack. That feat of valor earned him the Medal of Honor, but it was not awarded until 2012. The long delay resulted from the fact that the only account of Sabo’s heroism had been misplaced among his military records.

Eric Poole

The medal set the stage for this book. Author Eric Poole is a newspaper reporter from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, Sabo’s hometown. Having never served in the military, Poole heavily relied on stories told to him by dozens of Bravo Company members who fought alongside Sabo. He conducted interviews from 2007-14.

The book centers on Austrian-born Sabo and his family, detailing both civilian and military life. The story of Sabo’s family contains twists and surprises thanks to Poole’s excellent investigative skills. And Poole does the same with the men he interviewed.

He weaves episodes from their pre-war civilian lives with what they experienced in Vietnam. Like Sabo, Bravo’s infantrymen were primarily draftees. Poole also recounts the stories of the eighteen Bravo Company members killed in action. He unobtrusively explains the history behind the war in general and gives details of battles, summoning comparisons from earlier conflicts.

To close the circle, the book explains the effort related to rescuing Sabo’s paperwork. It also details the PTSD, divorces, and other emotional turmoil that combat gave to many of Bravo’s soldiers, their wives, and their widows after the war. More than two dozen of Sabo’s comrades attended the presentation of his Medal of Honor by President Obama.


I believe that too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honors they earned. That is why books such as Company of Heroes are important.  They chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing.

A researcher on Sabo’s case said, “The guy got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t care for that.” He added: “That company got the shit kicked out of it for a while. That seemed not to be right.”

Along with Sabo’s medal, Poole’s book gives full voice to the exploits of Bravo Company, which have been overlooked for far too long.

—Henry Zeybel