Vernon Walters--Renaissance Man
Vernon Walters—Renaissance Man
Lieutenant General Vernon A. Walters—a bluff, jovial, astonishingly talented man who served from 1972 to 1976 as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DDCI)—died in Florida on 10 February 2002 at the age of 85. Walters’ multi-faceted professional life included several interrelated careers. He was a fast-rising military officer; a respected intelligence expert; a savvy US ambassador; a globe-trotting presidential envoy; and an accomplished author. Walters was also a gifted linguist and translator, talents that played an important role in his rise to prominence. And his friends knew him as a highly entertaining mimic and raconteur.
Early Years: Vernon Walters was born in New York City on 3 January 1917. His father was a British immigrant and insurance salesman. From age 6, young Vernon 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.
Education, Language Prowess: The future general’s formal education beyond elementary school consisted entirely of a few years at Stonyhurst College, a 400-year-old Jesuit secondary 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 quite a bit despite a near-total lack of formal academic training.
Among his most remarkable achievements were mastering some six West European languages, learning the basics of several others, and later becoming fluent in Chinese and Russian. Throughout his professional life, Gen. Walters enjoyed drawing a crowd by engaging in impromptu cocktail-party linguistic "battles of wits" with other multi-lingual people. In one version, a person would engage two others in conversation. Each time a participant’s turn came to respond, he or she had to speak in a different language. Apparently the game went on until only one of the participants had an unused language left in which to converse. Walters no doubt fared well in such encounters.
Military and Civilian Achievements: Walters joined the Army in 1941 and was soon commissioned. He served in Africa and Italy during World War II, earning medals for distinguished military and intelligence achievements. His linguistic skills helped him obtain prized post-war assignments as an aide and interpreter for several Presidents:
Diplomat and Special Envoy: In the 1960s, Gen. Walters served as a US military attaché in France, Italy, and Brazil. Two decades later he was a high-profile US Ambassador to the UN and then 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 Adviser 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.
Senior Intelligence Official: President Nixon appointed Gen. Walters as DDCI in 1972. (The General 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, Gen. Walters also "averted a looming catastrophe" for the CIA in connection with the Watergate scandal:
Gen. Walters himself reflected on those challenging days in his 1978 autobiography, Silent Missions:
Later Life: During the 1990s, when he was no longer a public servant, Gen. Walters worked as a business consultant and was active on the lecture circuit. He wrote another notable book, The Mighty and the Meek (published in 2001), which profiled famous people with whom he had worked during his eventful life.
This tribute was drafted by Henry R. Appelbaum, an editor at the Center for the Study of Intelligence. He drew on a conversation he had with Gen. Walters in 2001; the recollections of an associate of Walters; a debriefing after one of the General’s sensitive diplomatic missions in the 1980s; and open-source US government and media reports.