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Vernon A. Walters (January 3, 1917 – February 10, 2002) was a United States Army officer and a diplomat. Most notably, he served from 1972 to 1976 as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, from 1985 to 1989 as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations and from 1989 to 1991 as Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany during the decisive phase of German Reunification. Walters rose to the rank of lieutenant general in the U.S. Army and is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
Walters was born in New York City. His father was a British immigrant and insurance salesman. From age 6, Walters lived in Britain and France with his family. At 16, he returned to the United States and worked for his father as an insurance claims adjuster and investigator.
His formal education beyond elementary school consisted entirely of boarding school instruction at Stonyhurst College, a 400-year-old Jesuit school in Lancashire, England. He did not attend a university. In later years, he seemed to enjoy reflecting on the fact that he had risen fairly high and accomplished much despite a near-total lack of formal academic training.
He spoke six Western European languages fluently, and knew the basics of several others. He was also fluent in Chinese and Russian. His simultaneous translation of a speech by United States President Richard Nixon in France prompted President Charles de Gaulle to say to the president, "You gave a magnificent speech, but your interpreter was eloquent."
1940s and 50s
Walters joined the Army in 1941 and was soon commissioned. He served in Africa and Italy during World War II He served as Link Official Between the commands of Brazilian Expeditionary Force and U.S. Fifth Army, earning medals for distinguished military and intelligence achievements.
His served as an aide and interpreter for several Presidents. He was at President Harry S. Truman's side as an interpreter in key meetings with America’s Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin American allies. His language skills helped him win Truman's confidence, and he accompanied the President to the Pacific in the early 1950s, serving as a key aide in Truman's unsuccessful effort to reach a reconciliation with an insubordinate General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander of United Nations forces in Korea.
In Europe in the 1950s, Walters served President Dwight Eisenhower and other top US officials as a translator and aide at a series of NATO summit conferences. He also worked in Paris at Marshall Plan headquarters and helped set up the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe. He was with then-Vice President Nixon in 1958 when an anti-American crowd stoned their car in Caracas, Venezuela. Walters suffered facial cuts from flying glass. The Vice President avoided injury.
In the 1960s, Walters served as a U.S. military attaché in France, Italy, and Brazil. Two decades later he was a high-profile U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. From April 1989 until August 1991, during German Reunification, he was Ambassador to West Germany. He also served as a roving ambassador, performing sensitive diplomatic missions that included talks in Cuba, Syria, and elsewhere. He was sent to Morocco to meet discreetly with PLO officials and warn them against any repetition of the 1973 murders of two American diplomats in the region. (In a much earlier visit to Morocco, he had given a ride on a tank to a young boy who later became King Hassan II.)
While serving as a military attaché in Paris from 1967 to 1972, Walters played a role in secret peace talks with North Vietnam. He arranged to smuggle National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger into France for secret meetings with a senior North Vietnamese official, and then smuggle him out again. He accomplished this by borrowing a private airplane from an old friend, French President Georges Pompidou.
President Nixon appointed Walters as Deputy Director for Central Intelligence (DDCI) in 1972. (Walters also served as Acting DCI for two months in mid-1973.) During his four years as DDCI, he worked closely with four successive Directors as the Agency—and the nation—confronted such major international developments as the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the subsequent oil crisis, the turbulent end of the Vietnam conflict, and the Chilean military coup against the Allende government. According to a close colleague, Walters also "averted a looming catastrophe" for the CIA in connection with the Watergate scandal:
Despite numerous importunings from on high, [Walters] flatly refused to...cast a cloak of national security over the guilty parties. At the critical moment, he... refused to involve the Agency, and bluntly informed the highest levels of the executive [branch] that further insistence from that quarter would result in his immediate resignation. And the rest is history.
Walters himself reflected on those challenging days in his 1978 autobiography, Silent Missions:
I told [President Nixon’s White House counsel] that on the day I went to work at the CIA I had hung on the wall of my office a color photograph showing the view through the window of my home in Florida…When people asked me what it was, I told them [this] was what was waiting [for me] if anyone squeezed me too hard.
Distinguished Intelligence Medal
Intelligence Commendation Medal
Beginning in 1981, Walters served under Ronald Reagan as roving ambassador. He was then United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 1985 to 1989 and ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany from 1989 to 1991. Here he was responsible for the preparations of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany.
Retirement and death
During the 1990s, when he was no longer a public servant, Walters worked as a business consultant and was active on the lecture circuit. He wrote another book, The Mighty and the Meek (published in 2001), which profiled famous people with whom he had worked during his life. In 2001, he gave an interview (in French language) in the mockumentary Dark side of the Moon by William Karel. On November 18, 1991, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush. Walters died in 2002. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
In popular culture
Walters was portrayed by Garrick Hagon in the 2002 BBC production of Ian Curteis's controversial The Falklands Play.
Entered U.S. Army 1941
Service in European Theater 1941-1945
Army Attaché to Brazil 1945-1948
Military Attaché-at-Large, Paris 1948-1950
Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE),
Western Europe, Executive Officer 1950-1955
Pentagon/White House Staff Assistant/Interpreter 1955-1960
Army Attaché, Rome 1960-1962
Army Attaché, Rio de Janeiro 1962-1967
Defense Attaché, Paris 1967-1972
Deputy Director of Central Intelligence 1972-1976
Retired from U.S. Army 1976
Private Consultant and Lecturer 1977-1981
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large, Reagan Administration 1981-1985
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations 1985-1988
U.S. Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany 1989-1991
Private Consultant and Lecturer 1991-2002
Buried in Arlington National Cemetery 2002
Vernon A. Walters was nominated as United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations by President Ronald Reagan on February 8, 1985 and was sworn in on May 22, 1985 after being unanimously confirmed by the Senate. As chief United States Representative to the United Nations, he also serves as a member of President Reagan's Cabinet.
Prior to his appointment to the United States Mission to the United Nations, Ambassador Walters served as Senior Adviser to Secretary of State Alexander Haig, until his nomination by the President to serve as Ambassador-at-Large, a position he held from July 1981 to By 1985. In this capacity, he traveled to over 108 countries covering a million and a half miles as the
Reagan Administration's chief diplomatic trouble-shooter.
Ambassador Walters served in the United States Army from 1941 to 1976 when he retired with the rank of Lieutenant General. In the course of his military career, he served as special aide and interpreter to a number of U.S. general officers, senior diplomats, and presidents. Following tours in Italy, Brazil, Vietnam, and France, during which time he also served as special aide and interpreter for Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon on their foreign travels, General Walters was named Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1972. The four and a half years in which he served the Agency included a five month period as Acting Director. From 1976 to 1981, he was a consultant, lecturer and author.
After his retirement, General Walters wrote his memoirs, Silent Missions, an autobiography which was published by Doubleday in 1978. His writings include Sunset at Saigon and The Mighty and the Meek. He has also written many articles and book reviews.
Born in New York City on January 3, 1917, Ambassador Walters lived there until 1923 when he went to Europe with his parents. He remained in Europe for more than ten years, attending St. Louis Gonzaga School in Paris, France and Stonyhurst College in Great Britain. He has received honorary degrees from several universities.
Ambassador Walters is fluent in seven foreign languages: French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, and Russian. He is also the recipient of many honors and distinguished service awards: the U. S. National Security Medal; the Distinguished Service Federal (two oak leaf clusters); the Legion of Merit (oak leaf cluster); the Bronze Star; the Air Medal; the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and many campaign medals. He has been decorated by the Governments of France (Legion of Honor), Italy, Brazil, Vietnam, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Peru.
Living and attending school in Europe, he managed to speak four languages by the time he was eighteen. Back in the United States, as we heard earlier, he was working in his father’s insurance company as an insurance adjuster and said that the principal thing that World War II did was to get him out of the insurance business. When he enlisted he noted that he spoke four languages and that he was familiar with several others, and he believed certainly that the Army would take a look at this and immediately put him into the intelligence corps. Not only that, but he assumed that since he spoke more than one language, he would be made a senior officer right off. Considering his skills and demonstrated talents, the Army put him where he could do the most good—he was sent to be a truck driver at Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont.
Soon, after a rather illustrious career as truck driver, the Army did notice his leadership qualities and sent him to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. At the time young Lt.Walters was commissioned, he lacked the requirements to be inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps, a fledgling organization which had been put together quickly at the start of World War II. The Military Intelligence Corps of l942 required that one have a college degree, that one speak at least one foreign language, and that one had lived for some time overseas. Although he passed two of those tests with flying colors, he lacked the college degree. So, rather than being commissioned as a Military Intelligence Officer, he was commissioned as an Infantry Officer, 2nd Lieutenant, and sent to the 338th Infantry of the 85th Infantry Division at beautiful Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He was assigned as platoon leader, but when the battalion needed an S2 he was assigned to that position. The only proviso was that he had to do both jobs. In August l942 he was ordered to the newly established Military Intelligence Training Center, which had been set up at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, in the beautiful Catoctin Mountains. There, the eight-week core course taught the students the basics of military intelligence operations. They spent time on map reading and terrain appreciation. They also spent time on staff procedures, counterintelligence, enemy order of battle, and as part of signal communications training they learned the uses of pigeons. In physical training they were taught judo and unarmed combat. Following general instruction, the class was broken down into smaller groups for two more weeks of intensive training, either as interrogators, photo interpreters, interpreter/translators, or counterintelligence officers. Within the interpreter/translator and interrogator fields, they were further broken down into smaller groups based on language.
Lieutenant Walters was placed in a French language group, where many of the other
students were either originally French or French Canadians, and spoke French as a first
language. Unbeknownst to Lt. Walters and his fellow students, there were informants who
were also assigned to the school. In each group of students there were two to five Counter
Intelligence Corps (CIC) agents who were posing as students. In reality they were
observing the other students and reporting on signs of disloyalty, disaffection or the
possibility that they were enemy agents who had infiltrated the Military Intelligence
Training Center. The Army doctrine at the time called for teams of interrogators and interpreter/translators to be trained at Camp Ritchie and then to be held there until they were needed. Following graduation, the students would continue to practice their language with each other and they would form a cadre which would train the incoming students. The plan called for Camp Ritchie to eventually assemble thirty teams of interrogators and thirty teams of interpreter/translators. Each team was to consist of two officers and between four and ten enlisted men. Before class number two had reached graduation day, students— Walters among them—received secret orders sending them to Fort Bragg. In this era virtually everything to do with military intelligence personnel—their travel, their training, any identification at all, was all covered in classified orders, which made things difficult. Walters and his fellow students were told that their training would be curtailed and they would leave immediately. Married men were told they couldn’t tell their wives that they were leaving and Walters was faced with the fact that he had to leave his car at Camp Ritchie. At Newport News he embarked on the USS Lyons, which was to be his home for the next few weeks. Troops did not know where they were going. However, the ship sailed up the Chesapeake, and they participated in an amphibious operation on Solomon’s Island, so they all had a pretty good idea they were going to invade something.
After they were at sea for about two weeks they were given word that they were going
to assault North Africa in November of l942. In the assault, Walters’ team was supposed to support the 3rd Battalion of 47th Infantry. His orders called for him and his team to debark at H+10, but on the night before the assault the battalion commander explained to Walters that he needed a French linguist with him in the first wave and asked Walters if he would volunteer along with his team to go ashore. Walters agreed, and this was certainly a feather in his cap because it showed to the combat commander that this intelligence officer was willing to put his life on the line with the troops. In
Silent Missions, however, Walters notes that the battalion commander had asked other interrogation teams and they had demurred and stuck to their orders of arriving at H+10. Walters said he volunteered because he lacked the temerity to say no to a major.
Once ashore, Walters was in command of a small group of interrogators supporting the
Allied landings at Safi in Morocco. He set up his interrogation shop in an abandoned
warehouse and began his efforts at gaining useful information. The efforts of his
interrogators proved to be virtually the only intelligence available to the commanders—
first to the battalion commander, then to the regimental commander, and then to the
division commander—all of whom were hanging around his interrogation cell. Walters
was able to provide information he had obtained directly to the commander who then
immediately acted upon it. Beyond what he had learned at the Military Intelligence Training Center about “search, segregate and silence,” he also developed a kind of triage to determine very quickly that there were basically three categories of prisoners who were being brought to him. Those who knew something, and who could be convinced to share it; those who knew something and would not share it; and those who knew nothing. He used this model to separate prisoners and to obtain as much information as possible from the first category before evacuating them to the rear for higher echelon interrogators. At one point in his operation his small team of six had over 300 prisoners in its custody. For his efforts, the division commander did recognize the contribution that Walters and his interrogation unit had made and recommended him for the Legion of Merit. The citation reads in part:That no other information was received during the operations at Safi save for that which was provided by the interrogations of prisoners of war by Walters’ team and that their efforts allowed the ground commander to head off French reinforcements before they could get close enough to Safi and become a threat to the invasion.
As the invasion progressed Walters and his team were moved to other units in contact
to interrogate prisoners of war, and his team was virtually the only source of information
for the troops on the line.By the middle of December Walters had the distinction of having conducted interrogations in three different languages—French, German and Italian—and this experience would be most valuable for the development of training back at Camp Ritchie. Before the year was out he was ordered back to Camp Ritchie and in a convoluted trip to the United States, which involved stopping at Gibraltar and Britain, he rode in an airplane with the French general who would eventually become the head of the French Military Mission in Washington and who would later figure into Walters’ career advancement. He arrived back at Camp Ritchie on New Year’s Eve l942 and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. He was put in charge of the Italian section of the interrogators at Camp Ritchie. In April of l943 his language ability was brought to the attention of the Army Foreign Liaison Office. The Government of Portugal had sent a large contingent of Army, Navy and Air Force officers to the United States to observe military training and to get a firsthand look at U.S. military equipment. Portugal was at this time a neutral nation but the United States wanted its cooperation to allow us to use the Azores as a place where we could refuel submarines to better combat German submarines. The U.S. Army and the Navy had assigned officers to the delegation but there was no Army Air Corps
representative. This duty fell to Walters. He did not know Portuguese, so he immediately
started scrounging up every Portuguese magazine and piece of reading material he could
find at Camp Ritchie in an effort to learn the language, and he found that he could
understand the written word generally as it was very similar to Spanish and Italian but he
was confounded by the spoken language. To his great relief the officers on the trip all
spoke French very well and in the course of the trip while he was traveling with them he
was indeed able to develop his skill in Portuguese. About ten days into the trip Walters received a telegram that he had been given a temporary promotion to captain. Once the mission was all over he would revert to his original grade. At a reception in Washington Walters was speaking with his boss, General Béthouart, who was the French Military Mission leader whom he had met in the airplane flying out of North Africa, and with the head of the Portuguese Air Force entourage. General Béthouart asked in French how Walters had done in Portuguese. The Portuguese general answered in French that Walters spoke Portuguese like a Portuguese. The French general added that Walters speaks French like a Frenchman. And Walters noted in a letter home that such accolades were certainly not wasted on his boss. At the completion of this mission he had to remove the captain’s bars and put on 1st lieutenant bars. He also had to develop a canned speech to explain that no, he hadn’t screwed up in the midst of this escort duty. It was just that he had only been promoted temporarily: “Oh yes, yes, sure, sure. What did you do wrong?” Well, eventually the Army corrected itself and in June it rescinded the portion of the order that rescinded the promotion and backdated his promotion to April 20, l943. Now you may not have been paying attention to the passage of time, but that means he went from private to captain in less than a year—a pretty meteoric rise.
Later in l942 he was again called upon to escort other groups of Portuguese-speaking
officers. In these escort missions, Walters showed his ability to understand not only the
language but also to fathom the people with whom he was dealing. It is also interesting to
note that, among those he had been chosen to escort over this period of time, two later
became Presidents of Brazil and Portugal, Ministers of Defense, Commanding Generals of the Army and Commander of the Air Force. It is clear from his later dealings with them
that they all recall this trip and the splendid manner in which he had handled the job of
escort officer. When Brazil entered World War II, he was again selected to be an escort officer, this time to go with Brazilian officers to the European Theater of Operations. The hope was that the Brazilians would provide three divisions to combat the Axis, but this was not to be so. However, they did offer the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. In late l943 Walters was sent to the Embassy to start coordinating the movement of that force. Later he was made liaison officer to the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, where he served in combat in the Italian campaign. What I have recounted in the past few minutes is part of a rather extensive history and a rather significant career. It is interesting that all of this happened to one man in the space of less than 24 months. To review, a young lieutenant who happened to be gifted with languages attended only the second Military Intelligence Training Course that the Army ever taught. He was ordered to accompany troops launching an assault on North Africa and in the course of his three weeks on the ground he personally interrogated hundreds of prisoners of war in Italian, French and German, and provided actionable information for a field commander.
This same lieutenant, through force of character and his ability to understand the language, convinced a French colonel to surrender his entire command, thus eliminating an enemy force that U.S. troops would have had to face. Ordered back to the United States, he happens to ride in a plane with the French general who would eventually become Chief of the Military Mission in Washington and who would remember him. On his return to Camp Ritchie, he is told to escort and serve as interpreter for groups of high-ranking officers in a language he does not speak. He performs splendidly and the people he meets on the trip are to be future national leaders of Portugal. He repeats the same feat with a group of Brazilian officers, some of whom become heads of state and significant military leaders. Thus, in less than two years on active duty, this young officer had already set the stage for his future career of extraordinary service to his country. He served first as Assistant Military Attaché to Brazil from 1945 to 1948; he then served as Military Attaché-at-Large in Paris from l948 to 1950. He served as the Army Attaché to Italy from l960 to 1962, the Army Attaché to Brazil from l962 to l965, and then continued on as the Defense Attaché to Brazil from 1965 to 1967. Finally, he was Defense Attaché to France from l967 to l971. That’s a total of 16 years in a 34-year career in the Army or about half of his career.