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Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
Never. That’s just not my bacon. Nevertheless, I would say that the greatest need in the country today is good men who are willing to get into politics. A great weakness today is that the best of America won’t seek public service.
Well, there’s a bad aroma currently associated with government of all sorts. It’s a very difficult life you obviously lead here in Washington. There’s the high cost of divesting financial interests.Then there is the fear of being pilloried publicly as the result of leaks to the press or exposure by means of the Freedom of Information Act. There are many reasons.
The Pentagon Papers were not the results of the Freedom of Information Act. How did you feel when they were published?
Highly indignant. I heard about them during their preparation under Dr. Leslie GeIb in the Pentagon. Bob McNamara assured me that the project was just to establish a clear record of the participation of the Defense Department in the Vietnam War. But it worried me that none of Gelb’s researchers were allowed to interview the principal officials involved. Also, the identity of Gelb’s researchers was concealed.
Then, after Dr. [Daniel] Ellsberg had acquired a set of Gelb’s studies, The New York Times got hold of them and turned them over to Neil Sheehan for further selective editing. So when you read the Pentagon Papers today, you don’t know who the author is—GeIb, one of his researchers, or Sheehan. Further, you don’t know how much of history has been omitted along the way.
Do you think the publication of the Pentagon Papers jeopardized the national security?
It jeopardized national security by providing a very unreliable record to confuse further the history of the Vietnam War. Also, the unauthorized publication of top-secret papers without punishment of the perpetrators is a very dangerous precedent.
One consequence of Vietnam that is still in the news is the shift to an all-volunteer service.
The Joint Chiefs never concurred in it. It reached the military in the Pentagon as a closed decision. Their part was only to implement it. From the first it had and still has a fatal flaw. You can’t support active operations solely by volunteers. Long casualty lists have a way of turning away volunteers.
Having devoted practically your entire life to the service of your country, do you sometimes have trouble believing what has happened to the United States since World War 11?
The whole termination of the Vietnam War was and still is incredible—the fact that our Congress was willing to order us off the battlefield and leave an ally fighting there, an ally that five other administrations had guaranteed to support. Having seen that, I could believe anything.
So you’re still optimistic about the nation’s future?
I’m optimistic because we have the means, we have the resources, we have the people, if we can get them in the right place with the right motivation. I do think our political system is getting more and more vulnerable, at least in terms of its inability to handle very complex problems. We don’t talk much about it, but Congress is the most changed institution that affects our governmental activity. The domineering old dictators who ran committees are gone. Sure they were arrogant, but they did maintain order and they did get results. If you could get six or seven of those old congressional leaders together in the White House and they agreed on something, the President knew that he could speak with confidence. He can’t anymore.
Are you saying the revolt against discipline has extended to Capitol Hill?
Very much so, although there are signs of a return to order.
Do you ever wonder whether democracy might be becoming obsolete?
As a form of government it is certainly declining in numbers about the world. But as a concept and goal it will never become truly obsolete as long as men seek maximum personal freedom.
You’ve had a tremendously varied career as a soldier, statesman,-diplomat, presidential adviser. How would you like to be best remembered?
I have no ready answer for that one. But I’d be satisfied to be known, like President Truman, as one who “always did his damndest. ”