Don Ober­dor­fer, 84, re­ported on the bat­tles of the Viet­nam War and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­

Don Ober­dor­fer, a for­mer Washington Post diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dent who chron­i­cled in­ter­na­tional news from the Viet­nam War to the fall of the Soviet Union, earn­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most in­sight­ful, fair-minded re­porters on his globe-span­ning beat, died July 23 in Washington. He was 84.

He had Alzheimer’s dis­ease, said his wife, Laura Ober­dor­fer.

Mr. Ober­dor­fer spent 25 years with The Post, be­gin­ning in 1968, when he was hired away from the Knight news­pa­per chain by Ben­jamin C. Bradlee. Bradlee, named ex­ec­u­tive editor that year, would later write in his memoir, “A Good Life,” that Mr. Ober­dor­fer was “a mor­tal lock to be­come what he be­came, a for­eign af­fairs ex­pert who could and did peg even with the very best for­eign af­fairs ex­perts.”

Mr. Ober­dor­fer’s years of re­portage filled an un­counted num­ber of broad­sheet pages and half a dozen books that made him known par­tic­u­larly as an ex­pert in Asian af­fairs.

Af­ter re­tir­ing from The Post in 1993, he taught at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity’s Paul H. Nitze School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies and chaired its U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute. His 1997 book, “The Two Koreas: A Con­tem­po­rary History,” later up­dated with scholar Robert Car­lin, was re­garded as a sem­i­nal work on the Korean Penin­sula.

Mr. Ober­dor­fer be­gan his ca­reer at The Post as a White House cor­re­spon­dent and was north­east Asia cor­re­spon­dent, based in Tokyo, in the early 1970s. He was most rec­og­nized, how­ever, as The Post’s cor­re­spon­dent for U.S. diplo­macy, an as­sign­ment that took him to more than 50 coun­tries.

“He was the kind of re­porter who was so ac­cu­rate and so fair that other re­porters al­ways read him, and so did the peo­ple in the gov­ern­ment,” Les­lie H. Gelb, pres­i­dent emer­i­tus of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, said in an in­ter­view. “I don’t think there was any bet­ter-read re­porter . . . in the for­eign-pol­icy busi­ness than Don Ober­dor­fer.”

Dur­ing the Viet­nam War, Mr. Ober­dor­fer, along with re­porter Neil Shee­han, was “one of the stan­dards,” Gelb said. In ad­di­tion to his daily jour­nal­ism, Mr. Ober­dor­fer wrote the book “Tet!,” a chron­i­cle of the 1968 com­mu­nist of­fen­sive that was a mil­i­tary vic­tory for U.S. and South Viet­namese forces but nonethe­less turned many Amer­i­cans against the war.

The vol­ume — pub­lished in 1971, be­fore the end of the con­flict — was a fi­nal­ist for a Na­tional Book Award and dis­played Mr. Ober­dor­fer’s com­fort with com­plex­ity.

“By ev­ery stan­dard and al­most ev­ery ac­count, the Tet Of­fen­sive was among the great events of the 1960s and pos­si­bly one of the great events of our times,” he wrote in The Post on the 10th an­niver­sary of the of­fen­sive.

“It is also among the most para­dox­i­cal and seem­ingly in­ex­pli­ca­ble,” he con­tin­ued. “How . . . could Tet have been both a de­feat for the at­tacker abroad and a de­feat for the gov­ern­ment at home?” He con­cluded his 1978 story, a prob­ing ac­count that ran five pages, with the ob­ser­va­tion that the Tet Of­fen­sive, “the first in­ter­na­tional Big Event, via tele­vi­sion, re­mains one for his­to­ri­ans to pon­der.”

As diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dent, Mr. Ober­dor­fer cov­ered events that in­cluded the re­turn of Ja­pan as a global power, the Cold War, and the Cold War’s end. He had the for­eign cor­re­spon­dent’s knack of pluck­ing mem­o­rable de­tails to con­vey a sense of place — the deluxe meal in Seoul, where he “grimly chewed and hur­riedly swal­lowed a wrig­gling piece of live squid wrapped in a let­tuce leaf ” or “the iden­ti­cal bam­boo fans fin­gered in iden­ti­cal fash­ion by the new prime min­is­ter and for­eign min­is­ter of Ja­pan in their sep­a­rate of­fices in Tokyo.”

With those touches, he blended ex­pert anal­y­sis and his in­ter­views with pol­i­cy­mak­ers. He sat through the daily State Depart­ment media brief­ings that were “al­most al­ways bor­ing,” said Gelb, then would “cor­ral the briefer af­ter­wards and pick up in­for­ma­tion.”

Mr. Ober­dor­fer cov­ered sec­re­taries of state un­der five U.S. pres­i­dents. Henry Kissinger, who served un­der Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, “pre­ferred close rap­port with key mem­bers of the State Depart­ment press corps,” he once re­called. “But af­ter I wrote a front-page story sharply ques­tion­ing his han­dling of his per­sonal pa­pers, be­ing too close was no longer a prob­lem.”

De­scrib­ing Ge­orge P. Shultz, who served un­der Ron­ald Rea­gan and who later be­came a friend, Mr. Ober­dor­fer re­called that many re­porters “called him ‘ the Sphinx’ be­cause of our in­abil­ity to dis­cern what he was think­ing be­yond es­tab­lished pol­icy lines.”

In daily news­pa­per­ing, Mr. Ober­dor­fer wrote in The Post, re­porters “are able to ex­am­ine only the tip of the ice­berg of im­por­tant events they cover” and “must rely heav­ily on in­stinct and in­tu­ition.”

“Their job, given the lim­i­ta­tions of time and in­hi­bi­tions of sources in the heat of bat­tle,” he ob­served, “is to go as far be­low the wa­ter line as pos­si­ble, but they un­der­stand in most cases that the pen­e­tra­tion is shal­low.”

He re­turned to many of his sources, on both sides of the At­lantic, for his book “The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era; the United States and the Soviet Union, 1983-1990” (1991). Yale Univer­sity his­to­rian John Lewis Gad­dis wrote in The Post that it was “the best ac­count yet of how this as­ton­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tion in Soviet-Amer­i­can re­la­tions came about.” Gad­dis wrote that Mr. Ober­dor­fer pos­sessed a forth­right un­der­stand­ing, some­times lack­ing among jour­nal­ists, that “events are not al­ways what they seemed at the time.”

Don­ald Ober­dor­fer Jr. was born in At­lanta on May 28, 1931. He was a 1952 grad­u­ate of Prince­ton Univer­sity, where he stud­ied po­lit­i­cal science and led the cam­pus news­pa­per. He served with the Army in Korea shortly af­ter the ar­mistice end­ing the Korean War and used his mus­ter­ing-out pay to take a trip around the world, in­clud­ing to Pak­istan, where he con­tracted po­lio.

He be­gan his jour­nal­ism ca­reer at the Char­lotte Ob­server and be­came the pa­per’s Washington cor­re­spon­dent. He was a Washington editor of the Satur­day Evening Post mag­a­zine be­fore join­ing the Knight News­pa­pers chain, where he be­gan his cov­er­age of the Viet­nam War.

In an oral history for Bates Col­lege in Maine, Mr. Ober­dor­fer ex­plained why Bradlee hired him.

“He wanted some­body who was not bi­ased. And there were sev­eral re­porters on The Washington Post, na­tional po­lit­i­cal re­porters, who couldn’t stand Richard Nixon,” he said. “Bradlee did not like the idea of as­sign­ing a cor­re­spon­dent to lead the cov­er­age of a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, or any­body else, who right off the bat couldn’t stand the can­di­date.”

Bradlee in­quired how he felt about var­i­ous politi­cians, in­clud­ing Nixon, and to each name Mr. Ober­dor­fer re­sponded, “Fine.”

“That’s what he wanted to hear,” Mr. Ober­dor­fer said.

Nixon, who had hos­tile re­la­tions with The Post even be­fore the Water­gate scan­dal that ended his pres­i­dency, wrote in a 1970 memo that “no one on the White House staff is to see any­body from the Washington Post or re­turn any calls to them.” But in the memo, printed in for­mer pub­lisher Katharine Graham’s memoir, “Per­sonal History,” Nixon had to ac­knowl­edge “the ar­gu­ment that . . . Ober­dor­fer one time out of ten gives us a good story.”

Mr. Ober­dor­fer par­tic­i­pated in The Post’s han­dling in 1971 of the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, a se­cret gov­ern­ment history of the Viet­nam War pre­vi­ously ob­tained and par­tially pub­lished by the New York Times. He was at Bradlee’s home when The Post’s top brass made the de­ci­sion to print the ma­te­ri­als af­ter the Times had been en­joined from con­tin­u­ing its pub­li­ca­tion.

Mr. Ober­dor­fer’s other books in­cluded a history of his alma mater, “Prince­ton Univer­sity: The First 250 Years” (1995) and “Sen­a­tor Mans­field” (2003), a bi­og­ra­phy of Mike Mans­field (D-Mont.), the one­time Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader and diplo­mat.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife of 60 years, the for­mer Laura Klein of Washington; two chil­dren, Daniel Ober­dor­fer of Ply­mouth, Minn., and Karen Ober­dor­fer of Oak­land, Calif.; and a brother.

In an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in The Post’s Out­look sec­tion at the time of his re­tire­ment, Mr. Ober­dor­fer re­flected on the evo­lu­tion of the U.S. media from an era when many re­porters were “trust­ing and un­crit­i­cal of the ways of gov­ern­ment” to a time when re­porters as­sumed that “nearly ev­ery of­fi­cial state­ment is a lie or half-truth un­til proven oth­er­wise,” and on the dan­ger­ously fast news cy­cle.

One of his most prom­i­nent mem­o­ries of cov­er­ing for­eign af­fairs, he said, was the im­age of Iowa corn farmer Roswell Garst toss­ing “stink­ing fod­der” at re­porters hov­er­ing over — in his opin­ion interfering with— Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev dur­ing his 1959 visit to the United States.

“Khrushchev was amused and more tol­er­ant,” Mr. Ober­dor­fer wrote. “He knew, as the farmer did not, that jour­nal­ists’ words and pic­tures were pow­er­ful tools of diplo­macy. As in the case of Roswell Garst, many oth­ers have learned that vent­ing ire against the press will not make it go away. For bet­ter or worse, we are part of history, and the events that make it.”


Don Ober­dor­fer at a Saigon ho­tel in 1980. The long­timeWash­ing­ton Post cor­re­spon­dent spe­cial­ized in Asian af­fairs and wrote a book about the 1968 Tet Of­fen­sive against U.S. and South Viet­namese forces.


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