Profile Of A Soldier: Matthew B. Ridgway

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Ridgway received a heavy volume of letters following his retirement and the publication of his message to Wilson. One letter, addressed to “Dear Matt,” was early-vintage Dean Rusk, who in 1950-51 had been Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. He wrote: “The historian will one day record how your personal leadership built a great army in Korea and saved your country from the humiliation of defeat through loss of morale in high places. Those few of us who know the full story will be forever grateful.” Walter Lippman wrote: “You are among the few of whom one can say that they were among the first in war and among also the first in peace.” The Washington Post said it felt “a twinge of sadness” at the retirement:

Throughout his career he had shown a rugged integrity. … [He] also may have supplied the questioning, the skepticism about the easy theories of immaculate war that forestalled rash American action at Dien Bien Phu. … Perhaps because he knows what the army would face, he also has spoken for world peace in insisting that new commitments be weighed against the cost. … Americans owe him a continued debt of gratitude.

He took the position of chairman and chief executive officer of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in Pittsburgh. In 1956, in collaboration with the writer-editor Harold H. Martin, he produced Soldier , one of the best and most readable of the many volumes of memoirs by Allied generals. He retired again in 1960, at age sixty-five. He watched with dismay as President Kennedy, young and with new advisers, drifted aimlessly into deeper and deeper involvement in Vietnam, and then as President Johnson compounded that blunder. Robert Asprey, author of War in the Shadows: The History of Guerilla Warfare , wonders whether the Joint Chiefs and the President’s advisers were ignorant of the 1954 Ridgway Report or simply ignored it. Whichever the case, he says, Ridgway’s stubborn voice of caution and dissent was missing, and they did not use a study that might have saved them from what John Kenneth Galbraith has called “a massive miscalculation, perhaps the worst miscalculation in our history.”

Ridgway wrote a second book, The Korean War , in 1967, a soldier’s account of that action, and closed it with a sober expression of doubt that the country’s political objectives in Southeast Asia harmonized with its real national interests. In articles in Look magazine (1966) and Foreign Affairs (1971) he called for a phased withdrawal from Vietnam. He did the same as one of a group of “Wise Men” at a “Crisis of Conscience” conference in March, 1968, called —and so named—by President Johnson.

After his second retirement, in 1960, Ridgway was able to devote more time to his family, and especially to his son Matty—he who had been born in Panama, learned to walk in Japan, and learned to talk in France. The family spent weeks together camping in the national forests, and under his father’s fond tutelage Matty became a skilled woodsman. He was a handsome young man and did well in school, both as an athlete and in his studies.

Matty was graduated from Bucknell in June, 1971, and received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve the same month. Then he left for a canoe camp at Lake Timagami in Ontario, where he was to act as a guide nd counselor for teen-age boys on an eight-week canoe trip. During an early portage they were walking along a railroad track, Matt in the lead, a canoe over his head in Indian fashion, when a train came speeding down the track. The boys scrambled up an embankment to safety, but the train struck an end of Matty’s canoe, knocked it around, and broke his neck.

The stunned parents flew to Canada. After a time they boarded a private plane that took them over the Lake of the Woods. With them they had Chaplain Gordon Mercer of the Canadian Armed Forces. As they neared the northern end of the lake the flare chute was opened, and, kneeling on the lurching floor of the plane, they shared a two-minute prayer. Then they committed the ashes of their son to the beautiful Canadian lake and forest country he had loved so dearly.

There is no consolation for such a tragedy, but General Ridgway and his wife have endured their sorrow with not unexpected courage. They take at least one long trip each year: in 1972 a photographic safari among the big-game herds in Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda; in 1973 a summer exploration cruise to the edge of the ice pack a thousand miles above Spitsbergen; in 1974 a return to Holland as guests of the Netherlands government at the thirtieth anniversary of the Eindhoven-Arnhem airdrop.

The general has a large library and reads a great deal—usually for an hour each day before an early breakfast—mostly history, some biography, no fiction, often a book in Spanish, his second language. One volume on his shelves is that definitive work on the evolution of the Vietnam disaster, The Best and the Brightest (1974) by David HaIberstam. On the flyleaf the author, whom Ridgway has never met, has written: “For General Matthew Ridgway, the one hero of this book. …”