- Historic Sites
Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
You’re referring to the incident involving Field Marshall [Albert] Kesselring. Our division had pushed up to Berchtesgaden, and among the bigwigs we captured was Kesselring, who had been Hitler’s last commander in chief in the west. After he surrendered, we put him up in a hotel for safekeeping, and the press began demanding an interview with him. Army headquarters approved the press conference, which I set up in the hotel lounge. Kesselring sat at one end of a long table, the press at the other end. The one stipulation was that no photographs were to be taken. But someone took an unauthorized picture showing Kesselring flanked by me and another American general. In front of us in the picture were a pile of glasses and wine bottles, which were actually down in front of the reporters. The photo was published in London a few days later with the caption “Another back-slapping party with the Nazis.”
Did this get you in trouble with Army headquarters?
It was a quite sensitive issue, as you can imagine. Fortunately, I had strong proof of my innocence and was able to explain what had happened. A neighboring division commander was not so lucky. Hermann Goering had walked up to him and abruptly stuck out his hand. The commander made the gross mistake of taking it. That photograph set off a tremendous outcry back home, which sort of proved the truth of the old saying that “war hath no fury like a noncombatant. ” Well, although anybody ought to know not to shake hands with Goering, I never had any feelings of animosity toward German soldiers. They were fighting for their cause and were doing the best they could, and we were doing our best to destroy them. There’s a certain international camaraderie among soldiers. It’s historical. But the public reaction to these incidents was, in a way, just part of the “hate-the-brass” postwar period when the senior officers get charged with everything that happened except the final victory.
Have you any idea why we turn on our heroes so quickly?
I don’t know if we turn on the individual heroes, as such. Wars are just not pleasant, even when all agree the war is indispensable and victory is achieved, as was the case in World War II. The country was simply fed up with it. Lots of young men had been in very disagreeable and sometimes very dangerous places, and they were damn tired of just the sight of the uniform. When I was superintendent of West Point right after the war, I visited a lot of college campuses and received boos from many of the students. They weren’t really mad at me, and it didn’t hurt my feelings. I could understand that my uniform reminded them of a very unpleasant experience. Later, the older veterans become very sentimental about their wartime associates and change their attitudes completely. That kind of reaction is fairly understandable, I think, in any democracy.
In your autobiography and other writings, you seem quite critical of what you consider biased reporting, not just against the military but against government in general.
Yes, but let me make this distinction. During World War II, I would say that relations with the press on the Western front were very good. I think Ike showed good judgment in taking members of the press into his confidence on some things and never got really burned. You had the feeling the press was with you. They recognized it was their war just as much as it was ours. In Vietnam, that changed, though. That’s where my complaints were.
You’ve referred to the reporters in Vietnam as a different breed.
We had some who were over there not to report what was going on but rather to try to make events happen. In the good old days “all the news that’s fit to print” meant what it said. Reporters didn’t show personal bias on the news pages, or were not supposed to, and generally didn’t. Then, on the editorial page, the newspaper used its power to influence opinions and events. That is thoroughly reputable, thoroughly understandable, thoroughly defensible. But now almost every reporter feels he has to be an investigative reporter uncovering the skulduggery of officials, and he’s against them.
Doesn’t the press have a legal obligation to serve as an unofficial watchdog on government?
I don’t know that that’s in the Constitution. I think that the exposure of rascals and incompetents is one of the results that should come out of good reporting. If we get the man who is involved in misdeeds, that’s an aspect of the truth that should come out. The factual reporting of events also allows the public to judge the quality of their elected or appointed officials. You can’t argue those points. But in the case of Vietnam, it was really a question of motivation. There were reporters in Saigon who boasted openly that they were going to get [General Paul] Harkins, for instance. They were opposed to the way he carried out government policy. I often said when I was U.S. ambassador there that I was fighting on four fronts: one against the Viet Cong, one against Hanoi, one against Washington, and the fourth against the media.
Were there really open hostilities with the press at times?
Very much so. It wasn’t that bad while I was ambassador, but when the American troops got there, then the press really came to Vietnam in great numbers, and every day something had to get back home for publication. Sometimes they reported what happened, and sometimes they didn’t. There is no question but that a lot of it was very biased.