John Prados Obituary, John Prados has passed away unexpectedly
- by Michael Agba
John Prados Obituary, Death – We are profoundly saddened to report the demise yesterday of Dr. John Prados, senior fellow at the National Security Archive and a renowned military and intelligence historian who is regarded as one of the Archive’s founders. His zeal to share the document gems he had discovered in the early 1980s supported the notion that it was important to establish an institutional memory for U.S. national security materials, which was first advanced by journalists Scott Armstrong and Ray Bonner. John organized the SI-TK-BYEMAN group with Jeffrey Richelson and a small group of other spy watchers at a time when the codewords were so top-secret that any government employee with a clearance had to leave the room when John mentioned the group’s name.
John was a prolific writer and researcher who leaves behind a vast library of expertly researched books covering military and intelligence history from the battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II through Dien Bien Phu, the entirety of the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, and much more. He also assembled an avant-garde collection of presidential recordings from Roosevelt through Nixon on CDs. John also edited several well-liked, comprehensive document collections for our own Digital National Security Archive series, with a focus on the history of the CIA and Vietnam. His biography of William Colby, which contends that the CIA director’s accommodating approach to congressional investigations of Agency wrongdoing in the 1970s actually saved the CIA, stands out among his 27 books, several of which were translated into French.
This is in stark contrast to the CIA veteran community, which has been harshly critical of Colby for giving away the “family jewels.” Even while John claimed Colby didn’t go nearly far enough, he also asserted that preserving the CIA wasn’t always beneficial to democracy. John, who identified as a “guy of the 60s,” swam against a lot of currents. He practically created the term “independent scholar,” not least because, at various points in his career, he made more money designing wargames than he did writing or instructing—another sign of his broad interests and a reflection of his intense fascination with reliving history—games of strategy that supported his scholarly conclusions about agency and contingency.
The course that events took was not required. Human decision mattered, but external factors frequently had the final say. John was skilled at coming up with effective ways to deliver that message. John could always be counted on to give factual and analytical correctives that were totally indisputable at public events including famous former leaders from the Vietnam era, such as Robert McNamara, to calmly fend off any temptations to color the historical record. Among his innumerable public speeches, he played a significant role as a scholar at the historic conference that Brown University sponsored in Hanoi in 1997, where McNamara and a number of other former senior American and North Vietnamese decision-makers gathered to discuss the lessons learned from the American War.
Coworkers who are historians have already started to mourn the passing of one of their most productive colleagues. His seminal book The Soviet Estimate, which first appeared in the 1980s, was hailed by The George Washington University’s James Hershberg as “one of a kind” and a major influence. He was “a historian’s historian” who “could appear intimidating at the lectern (and from the floor in the Q&A), but underneath was a warm man with a ready smile and a hearty laugh,” according to Fred Logevall of Harvard. John was the perfect combination of personal and professional skills. As many of us at the Archive are aware, he frequently provided many younger writers with selfless assistance while always tempering his critical eye with lots of encouragement.
Despite a grueling schedule of writing, teaching, speaking, and other commitments, he was a willing and helpful in-person participant at every staff meeting, working group, and happy hour as an Archive fellow even in the age of telecommuting. There is still “gold in them thar hills,” as John, ever the irrepressible archivist, recently remarked in reference to the archival treasures that are still stashed away in U.S. presidential libraries. John’s contributions to the field of national security scholarship, the gaming industry, and his role as many people’s friend and mentor will be remembered as the ultimate prospector in the gullies of the documentary gold rush. His legacy will endure for years to come.
John’s longtime partner Ellen Pinzur, a member of the Archive family, and John’s cherished daughters Danielle and Natasha are recipients of the condolences of the entire Archive staff and Board.
John Prados Obituary, Death – We are profoundly saddened to report the demise yesterday of Dr. John Prados, senior fellow at the National Security Archive and a renowned military and intelligence historian who is regarded as one of the Archive’s founders. His zeal to share the document gems he had discovered in the early 1980s…