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2 INTERVIEW Memoirs of a 20th-century
American William Stearman
shot raccoons as a cowboy, fought imperial Japan,
outfoxed the KGB in Vienna, predicted the rise of
the Berlin Wall, warned Henry Kissinger against
unwise concessions to Hanoi - and lived in a
haunted Washington house. He recalls the
highlights of his storied career as a US foreign
service officer and national security council
member in this exclusive interview with Asia Times
Online contributor Victor Fic based on his recent
memoir, An American Adventure: From Early
Years Through Three Wars to the White House.
experience includes part-time service as professor
of international relations, faculty of law,
University of Saigon, Vietnam (1965-1967) and
adjunct professor of international affairs at
Georgetown University, Washington, DC (1977-1993).
He became a Foreign Service officer after serving
the navy during World War II
and was stationed in Austria, Germany and Vietnam.
Stearman joined the National Security Council
Staff in February 1981 after serving as a member
of governor Ronald Reagan's foreign policy
Victor Fic: Why do
you assert that your dad "quite rightly" is in the
aviation hall of fame?
William Stearman: He
designed and guided production of the US's first
production-line civilian aircraft, the Swallow. He
founded the Stearman Aircraft Company that became
Boeing Wichita and there designed, among other
planes, the prototype of the primary trainer that
most US Army Air Force, US Navy and Royal Navy
pilots learned to fly in during World War II.
Hundreds still fly today. He was the first
president of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, now
Lockheed Martin, one of the world's largest
defense contractors, and basically designed, with
considerable input from others, the Electra 10
A version that became the
Hudson Bomber sold in considerable numbers to the
Royal Air Force early in World War II. He was
later the principal designer of the
Stearman-Hammond plane which was no doubt the
safest aircraft in history. Thousands flew it with
little or no previous training, including an
11-year-old boy who had never been in an airplane
before. At the end of his career, he did space
re-entry vehicles and short takeoff and landing
aircraft. He was clearly an air-space genius.
VF: His feats mean
that he met some famous pilots - recall them. WS: His meetings with
Charles Lindbergh usually took place in remote
greasy spoon cafes because even in the 1930s, fans
would pull off his buttons as souvenirs. Howard
Hughes was extremely eccentric. He hated to be
touched and would show up for board meetings in
dirty pants and never wore a coat or tie. He did
business from a phone booth. He later became
totally out of it before he died.
VF: You were also a
"professional cowboy" - why not remain one? WS: I was a full time
cowboy in California in 1940 when I was 18 years
old - not just a vacation or part-time one. I
loved to ride all the time. But it turned out not
to be so great and convinced me to go to college
and make something of myself.
VF: During World War
II, you were in the first wave of attacks against
the Japanese - was it dangerous?
WS: We were in the
first assault wave in nine landings in the
Philippines and Borneo. My outstanding experience
was the January 9, 1945 landing at Lingayen Gulf -
the "Normandy" of the Pacific War. We landed on
the hottest beach of the operation where we came
very close to being blown to pieces.
VF: You were then one of the
navy's youngest captains - what happened in the
WS: My ship
was in such bad shape and hard to handle that the
canal pilot walked off the bridge. I may be the
only captain in history to sail the canal without
VF: What was your big
story as a stringer in Europe?
WS: I covered the
Soviet-instigated take over of Czechoslovakia and
Hungary for the Mutual Broadcasting System. Stalin
started the Cold War in 1946 with a hostile and
threatening February 9 speech. Liberal supreme
court justice William O Douglas termed it "a
declaration of World War III". [President Harry]
Truman defended Western Europe against a Soviet
takeover. His main "weapon" was the enormously
successful Marshal Plan of economic aid to Europe.
In 1947, he offered it to the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe as well as Western Europe. Instead,
Stalin declared war on this plan and did his best
to thwart it, thus the Cold War heated up.
VF: For sure there is
a pretty girl in these Hollywood style yarns...who
WS: Eva was my
Austrian-born fiancee who lived in the Soviet Zone
near Vienna. I visited her disguised as a Swiss
correspondent. Once in church, we exchanged a few
words in English that an informer working for the
Soviets overheard. He concluded that she was an
American spy. Fortunately, she was in Vienna to go
to a ball with me when the Soviets came to arrest
her. We then got married six months earlier than
planned so I could protect her- she could not
safely go anywhere without me. I carried a pistol
under my jacket in case the Soviets tried to
abduct her, which was commonplace in Vienna. She
became a US citizen five years after we married.
VF: Tell us how you
joined the foreign service and the disaster
averted in Berlin.
WS: Ever since the
end of World War II, I intended to join the US
foreign service and so attended graduate school.
The GI Bill of Rights let me get to graduate
school in Geneva Switzerland in 1946 at the
Graduate Institute of International Studies, a
life-changing move. I earned the equivalent of an
MA and PhD. I joined the service in 1950. At the
1959 Geneva Foreign Ministers Conference on
Germany and Berlin, we came close to fatally
endangering the Western position in Berlin by
making concessions that substantially weakend us.
It was based on our belief in "the missile gap" -
Soviet strategic weapons superiority. Fortunately,
we discovered it was false and we withdrew our
potentially disastrous sell out. I discovered that
strategic nuclear weapons were the most valued
"blue chips" in the poker game of diplomacy with
VF: What is your
inside account of the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit?
WS: The June 1961
Vienna summit meeting between President Kennedy
and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was a
disaster. Kennedy made a weak and indecisive
impression on Khrushchev who was acting the bully.
I was privy to the meetings in that I was with our
delegation in Vienna. When I started to teach
students of international relations at Georgetown
University in 1977, I characterized it as "Little
Boy Blue meets [gangster] Al Capone." I am
convinced that Khrushchev's assessment of Kennedy
led him to install missiles in Cuba in 1962, thus
bringing us to the brink of World War III. The
lesson is summit meetings with hostile leaders can
be dangerous or counter productive. But during the
Cuban crisis, JFK showed considerable skill in
resolving it peacefully.
VF: How were you a
brave "lone wolf" on the Berlin Wall?
WS: Everybody on our
side realized that East Germany backed by the
Soviet Union would have to stop the serious flow
of thousands of refugees to West Berlin and West
Germany. Everybody believed East Germany would
seal off all Berlin from the rest of Germany. To
me his made little sense because this would still
allow a million and a quarter East Berliners to
escape and would cut off East Germany from its
capital city, namely East Berlin. I was the only
person I knew of in the US government or British
foreign office who believed this. On August 13,
1961 I was proven right in predicting that Berlin
would instead be divided right down the middle
between the Soviet and the Western Allied Sectors.
I had even accurately predicted the use of big
rolls of concertina or barbed wire.