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     Feb 28, 2012

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Memoirs of a 20th-century man

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.

Stearman's academic 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 in


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 advisory team.

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 airliner.

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 Panama Canal?

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 a pilot

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 is yours?

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 hostile countries.

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. 

Continued 1 2 

Lessons of the Soviet experience
(Nov 14, '09)

A Chinese vision begins to emerge

2. What is Iran's Supreme Leader's game?

3. Saudis embrace China in new polygamy

4. Moscow stirs itself on Syria

5. The cadence behind Iran's atomic block

6. BRIC by brick to the future

7. China under fire over North Korean defectors

8. 'Memogate' claims spymaster's head

9. US must drop the donkey policy

10. Scoring the 'war on terror'

(Feb 23-26, 2012)



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