The charismatic former professor vanished from sight after resigning from the University of North Carolina Wilmington in the spring of 1998, after two authors challenged his claims to have been a commissioned Marine officer and a Vietnam combat veteran. Cable’s two books are out of print, although copies are still available from Amazon.com. Former students, colleagues and local acquaintances, haven’t heard from him in more than a decade, and he has left no trace of himself on the Internet.
Larry E. Cable, who would be 66 in 2009, joined the UNCW faculty in 1987 as an assistant professor of history; in 1992, he was promoted to associate professor and granted tenure. By any standard, his resume was impressive: He had earned a master’s degree in history in 1981 from Western Michigan University, and a Ph.D. in 1984 from the University of Houston, where he had taught before moving to Wilmington. Cable had also served as a visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati.
He was an authority on military history and the Vietnam conflict. In 1985, New York University Press published his “Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War.” While at UNCW, Cable published “Unholy Grail: The U.S. and the Wars in Vietnam, 1965-1968,” a close study of internal Pentagon documents, released by Routledge in 1991. Both books were well-reviewed and were widely cited by other authors. Cable also built a substantial bibliography of journal articles and reviews. In 1993, he won a Chancellor’s Award for excellence in teaching.
Cable’s reputation quickly grew off the UNCW campus as well. For several years in the 1990s, he was invited to lecture on counterinsurgency at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the Marine Corps War College, both in Quantico, Va., where he earned high marks from all students, according to Joe Strange, then a professor of strategic studies at the War College. He also lectured at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.
“From Day 1, Larry Cable began to attract students like a pied piper,” said Larry Usilton, a professor who chaired the UNCW history department at the time of the controversy.
With waist-length, graying hair and a wardrobe that ran to jeans, work shirts and quantities of turquoise, Cable looked more like a rock musician than an ex-Marine. Even detractors agreed that Cable was a gripping, entertaining lecturer, with an encyclopedic command of historical detail and a dark, dry sense of humor.
Cable’s office hours were described as erratic at best, but he reached out to students in coffee shops, bars and billiard parlors, spinning details of his years, first as an enlisted Marine and as an officer, working with Hmong tribesmen in the Vietnamese highlands. Occasionally, he would allude, cryptically, to involvement in the Phoenix program, a controversial operation by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Special Forces and South Vietnamese security personnel to “neutralize” the NLF (Viet Cong) insurgency through infiltration, capture, terrorism and assassination.
I personally took an evening extension course Cable taught at UNCW in the 1980s; I interviewed him several times and, like most people who met him, I was enthralled. In retrospect, however, I heard sour notes that should have raised questions. Some of his stories were entirely TOO good. His R&R breaks in California just happened to give him the chance to attend early concerts by Jim Morrison and the Doors in San Francisco and experience a good chunk of the ’60s counterculture. (With a Marine buzz cut?) Strange, at Quantico, thought it was peculiar that Cable never alluded to his personal experiences in lectures before a Marine audience. I thought it was odd he never cited his frontline, firsthand experiences in “Unholy Grail.”
In 1996, a student complained that Cable frequently missed his “Evolution of Warfare” class, substituting videotapes of his lectures for his actual presence. (“It’s the same lecture as if I were there,” Cable said in the spring of 1996.) Usilton, as department chairman, emailed a stern warning to Cable, urging him to limit off-campus activities — drawing a protest delegation of about 40 students, who defended Cable as a “dedicated and stimulating teacher,” according to a Star-News report.
Then, in the fall of 1997, Cable drew fire from two sources. B.G. “Jug” Burkett — a Dallas stockbroker, Vietnam veteran and co-author of a book “Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History” — wrote to UNCW Chancellor James Leutze, charging that Cable had never served in the U.S. Marine Corps, nor in any branch of the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, in November 1997, the U.S. Naval Institute Press published “Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: The CIA’s Secret Campaign to Destroy the Viet Cong,” by Mark Moyar, a Harvard-trained historian. In the book, Moyar challenged Cable’s claims that he had served with the Phoenix program in South Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province. Moyar interviwed several former CIA officers and U.S. intelligence officials who had served in Quang Ngai. None remembered Cable.
Burkett — who devoted himself to exposing fake Vietnam veterans — and Moyar both noted that they could not locate a DD-214 form for Cable — a document issued to almost all Vietnam veterans, including those advising or serving with top-secret units — and that Cable had refused to supply them with a copy.
A search at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, the repository for armed forces records, failed to locate any file for Larry E. Cable. Strange, at the Marine Corps War College, confirmed he had checked with Marine headquarters, which had no record of Cable’s service, either; after that, Cable was no longer invited to lecture at Quantico.
Details grew curiouser and curiouser. Cable said he graduated from Shimer College, a tiny liberal arts school in Mount Carroll, Ill. (In the early 1960s, a Time magazine article identified Shimer as a center of the burgeoning counterculture.) Records at Shimer, however, indicated that Cable had attended the school from 1960 to 1962 but had never earned a bachelor’s degree. Cable claimed his records had been lost when the college declared bankruptcy and moved from Mount Carroll to Waukegan, Ill, in 1979. A subsequent inquiry by UNCW officials uncovered an authenticated copy of Cable’s undergraduate records at Shimer, which indicated that he graduated in 1978 — 16 years after his previous attendance.
The authenticity of Cable’s master’s and doctoral degrees was never questioned.
Confronted with the evidence, Cable submitted his resignation in the spring of 1998, to take effect July 1. In April 1998, however, after learning that Star-News reporters were working on a story about his case, Cable announced he was resigning immediately.
“I am to old, too tired, and have paid too many dues, physical, intellectual, emotional and spirtiual to fight now,” Cable wrote in a long, rabmling fax to the Star-News.
In the fax, Cable said he received a letter in 1962, inviting him to Chicago to discuss “confidential work” and “overseas travel” for the U.S. government.
“This led incrementally to a world defined by ever darker shades of black and incorporating legends without end, paper trails inserted and abstracted from relevant files, and the reality that identifies present or past are not necessarily real or fixed,” Cable wrote.
Cable said he remained under an oath of secrecy not to discuss details of his U.S. government service — details so sensitive that he did not reveal them to his wife until after they had been together for 15 years. (Who finally gave him permission to tell her was not revealed.) He strongly implied that he was the victim of a conspiracy, and he accused the Star-News of “succumbing to a siren song and achieving the last goal of the individuals who stand in the shadows manipulating this effort.”
(Both Burkett and Moyar defended the U.S. role in Vietnam; Cable was a critic of U.S. involvement and accused the regime of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu of manipulating the Phoenix program to wipe out non-Communist opponents.)
Melton McLaurin, a UNCW history professor who was vice chancellor for academic affairs at the time, went to Cable’s downtown house and persuaded him to postpone his resignation to the end of the spring semester, to finish teaching his classes and to complete work with two graduate students who were completing master’s theses under Cable’s supervision.
Cable and his wife left town quietly that summer. In his fax, Cable promised to produce a novel that would put forward his case fictionally, under a pseudonym. If he ever published it, we missed it.
McLaurin maintained it was just possible that Cable was telling the truth about some kind of involvement in U.S. covert operations. He also noted that Cable had been in ill health for some time by 1998. (Cable claimed to the Star-News that he had suffered wounds that left shrapnel in his back and a bullet lodged in his hip that set up airport metal detectors. He did not elaborate on how these wounds were inflicted.) Faculty colleagues continued to defend the caliber of his scholarship, even if his claims of a Marine career were false.
Date posted: July 9, 2009