- Historic Sites
Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
If the Strait of Malacca had been in the Mediterranean, Maxwell Davenport Taylor might well have become a famous—and habitually seasick—American admiral. That three-thousand-mile error on the entrance examination to Annapolis launched Taylor instead on a brilliant career as an Army officer, in both World War II and Korea, and later as a statesman, diplomat, and presidential adviser. He was born August 26,1901, in Keytesville, Missouri, and spent many childhood hours listening to the Civil War memories of his maternal grandfather, a one-armed former Confederate sergeant. Geography betrayed him on his Annapolis exam, but he did splendidly at West Point, graduating fourth in a class of 102, in 1922. He received his diploma from Superintendent Douglas MacArthur, who had made the cadet a lifelong nonsmoker by legalizing tobacco at the academy, which “took the fun out of the game.” The new second lieutenant of engineers served in a drab, unexhilarating Army that was supposed to have been rendered obsolete by the war to end all wars. Promotion was strictly by seniority—a stagnating condition that led many promising young officers to resign: Taylor spent thirteen long years before receiving his captain’s bars. Tours as a student at the Engineer School at Camp Humphreys, the Artillery School at Fort Sill, and the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth were interspersed with a five-year assignment on the faculty at West Point, where he taught French and Spanish. His linguistic skills brought him, in 1935, a coveted appointment as a language officer in japan, part of a rotating exchange program between the two potentially hostile nations. Arriving in Yokohama that October with his wife, the former Lydia Happer, and their two sons, Jack and Tom, Taylor devoted himself to mastering the complexities of Kanji, the Chinese characters with which Japanese is written. After eighteen months of study, the young officer was attached to a Japanese artillery regiment on firing maneuvers at the foot of Mount Fuji. That fascinating assignment was abruptly terminated when he was summoned ta Peking to interpret for Colonel “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, then an American military attaché observing the Japanese invasion of North China. Taylor returned to Washington in June, 1939, to become a member of the last class at the Army War College before World War II. The following spring, he was sent to Central and South America to assess hemispheric defense needs against the Nazis. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Major Taylor was a member of the military secretariat serving the Army chief of staff, George C. Marshall.
During World War II Taylor served with high distinction, first as chief of staff of the 82nd Airborne Division, in North Africa and Sicily, later as commanding general of the 101st Airborne. He led the famed “Screaming Eagles” into battle at Normandy on D-Day and in subsequent actions in the Arnhem operation in Holland and in the defense of Bastogne during the latter days of the Bulge. After the war he served as superintendent of West Point and as the commander of the American military government and Army forces in Berlin. He commanded the U.S. 8th Army during battles immediately preceding the 1953 armistice in Korea, and later believed he had ended his military career as the Army chief of staff during the second term of President Dwight D. Elsenhower, his friend and wartime commander.
Retiring as a four-star general, Taylor became the chairman of the board of the Mexican Light and Power Company in Mexico City in 1959. He lost that position the following year when the Mexican government purchased the utility, and he returned to New York as the president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Meanwhile he had eloquently argued, in his first book, The Uncertain Trumpet, for a flexible military response to replace the strategy of massive retaliation advocated under Eisenhower. Taylor’s views were favorably received by the new President, John F. Kennedy, who summoned him to Washington after the Bay of Pigs invasion and asked him to head up a special committee to investigate and analyze the ill-fated invasion of Cuba. His work with the Cuba Study Group, which included Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, resulted in his appointment on July 1, 1961, as military representative to the President and, from 1962 to 1964, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Lyndon Johnson appointed Taylor ambassador to South Vietnam in 1964. He returned the next year as a special consultant to the President, as well as head of the Institute for Defense Analyses. He again retired in 1969. Taylor has written two other books on national defense, Responsibility and Response (1967) and Precarious Security (1976), and an autobiography, Swords and Plowshares (1972). Despite problems with arthritis, he maintains a busy schedule of activities, including frequent lectures at the War College. Recently he sat on the sunporch of his Washington apartment facing the Japanese embassy next door and discussed aspects of his life and career with AMERICAN HERITAGE:
General, weren’t you one of the Allied Commanders accused of coddling Nazi leaders at the end of World War II?