A veteran's
story

An excerpt from ‘Fighting the Cold War:
A Soldier’s Memoir’ by Gen. John R. Galvin

John Galvin was good with his hands. As a boy growing up in small-town Massachusetts during the Great Depression, he learned bricklaying and plastering from his father.

He satisfied a creative streak by drawing cartoons for his high school newspaper. He imagined a life as a professional cartoonist, or an architect or a journalist, traveling the country and writing stories about people.

In 1948, he joined the National Guard in hopes of getting an education and, to his own amazement, passed the two-day entrance exam to West Point the following year, which put him on his way to becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college.

West Point launched Galvin on an Army career that spanned two tours in Vietnam, three continents and four decades of service. It also put him face to face with a who’s who of world leaders in the 20th century.

In South and Central America, he dealt with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, El Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte and Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.

Galvin met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, Margaret Thatcher in London and Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.

At the time of his retirement in 1992, the Washington Post called the four-star general “without peer among living generals.” President George H.W. Bush called Galvin “one of the greatest soldiers the country ever had.”

Though he did not become a cartoonist, Galvin earned a master’s degree in English from Columbia University and wrote four books, including two on the American Revolution.

His fourth and final book, “Fighting the Cold War: A Soldier’s Memoir,” was published this year.

The following excerpts cover the crowning achievement of Galvin’s military career, when he served as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and helped the United States and its allies negotiate the arms treaties with the Soviet Union that led to the end of the Cold War.

The passages reveal Galvin’s private encounters with four world leaders — U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev — during the tense, sometimes light moments that led to the historic thaw in relations with the former East bloc.

After 20 moves with the U.S. Army, Galvin retired to Jonesboro in 2000 and died there Sept. 25 at the age of 86 due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.

In May, four months before he died, Galvin received a visit from men who served under his command in Vietnam. His daughter, Beth Galvin, a reporter for Fox 5 in Atlanta, recorded what the visit meant to him.

“We all think alike. We serve, to help our existence in a beautiful world, but a very dangerous one... This is what it’s all about, what I have lived for. I had times that were very difficult, and some that were beautiful. So, we were a team. Spread all over the place. We can say to ourselves, 'They called us to duty. We answered the call.’... And it would be hard to find a more satisfying understanding.”

Galvin will be buried beneath a simple white headstone at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors next year.

Ken Foskett, Senior Editor

President Reagan,
Aug. 11, 1987

Four-star Gen. John R. Galvin earned respect from those below and above his command. He met with President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

At a quarter of two we arrived at the White House. In the oval office, President Reagan glanced at my shoulder patch.
“That’s the 1st Cavalry Division, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I always feel confident when I see that patch.”

Again, the president had found a way to put me at ease; in his face I saw friendly interest and anticipation. Besides secretary of defense Weinberger and Admiral Crowe, we were joined by Vice President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz, and National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci. In the opening part of my briefing, I talked about my peacetime missions, one of which was as custodian for nuclear warheads, the number of which silenced the group and led into my commenting on NATO oversight of “direct defense, deliberate escalations, and general nuclear response.” I followed this with the dynamics of nuclear release, and then with a comparison between our warheads and those of the Soviet Union.

As I anticipated, what had been presented to me as a plan to “meet the President and brief him on your mission and structure” turned into an in-depth exchange on nuclear weapons, using charts that displayed the range arcs of missiles and aircraft from their likely launch bases. I spoke about my mission responsibilities first, then reviewed the structure and deployment of NATO and Warsaw Pact missile forces. These points were more or less routine reminders that provided the basis for a comparison of nuclear weaponry on both sides of the line in Europe — but the range arcs were not routine for the president. I then showed him a set of “before and after” maps of Europe on which I had superimposed the range arcs of missiles available to the Warsaw Pact and those available to the West prior to the planned reductions, and another set conveying the same information as it would be when the expected reductions by both sides had taken place. I said that the West would stand to lose its newest and best intermediate-range nuclear weapons, but the Soviets would give up four missiles for every one of ours. This would not only be advantageous to us in terms of numbers; it would set a precedent of reductions to parity or to zero by class, something that would benefit our side in just about every situation, nuclear and conventional, in the future, since the Warsaw Pact was a great deal bigger than NATO in both respects.

Secretary Weinberger commented that we needed to know whether our ability to deter war would be called into question as we reduced the numbers and types of these weapons. I responded that the planned reductions left no gaps in coverage, and the other side would be aware of that.

The president said he recognized the need to reduce conventional (non-nuclear) forces as well, but he said that his highest interest was to move quickly on nuclear warheads, “the faster the better.” He asked about the time needed to cut back under the existing plan. I referred to envisioning the overall timing in years, and he was displeased with that. “Too slow,” he said, “and the Soviets would be slow if we were slow.” He added that if we brought any new nuclear weapons into Europe, the Soviets would do the same. Secretary Weinberger said he would have to agree, since that is what had been going on for two decades.

I saw how the president looked at my charts illustrating the range arcs: the area covered by the radii emanating from the Soviet side, covering all of Western Europe, and the opposing sweep of our own weapons capabilities. I don’t think he had ever seen such a graphic layout. He pointed to my charts and asked, strongly, “When we look at these lines, are we making Europe uninhabitable in the future?” ....

Then I said, “Nothing gets fired without your decision, Mr. President,” and then I corrected myself by mentioning the weapons in the United Kingdom and France.

Vice President Bush brought the discussion back with his first question: “What would the Soviets respond with if we fired?” I answered that they would respond in kind. The president noted that there was the possibility they would go to the strategic level. Another pause.

Reagan seemed to still be thinking of his earlier question. In a soft, wry aside, he said, “I want to be at the ranch.” His gallows humor was a signal to move along. We were all relieved.

President Bush,
Dec. 3, 1989

Gen. Galvin briefed President Bush in Brussels in 1989 on the tense negotiations to reduce conventional weapons and troops in Europe.

I traveled via sedan to Chateau Stuyvenberg in Brussels, the Belgian Blair House, at the request of President Bush, who was arriving that evening from his Malta Summit with Soviet leader (Mikhail) Gorbachev. Earlier in the day I had watched on television as the president rode the wave troughs in a ship’s boat — a U.S. Navy motor launch that carried him on the Mediterranean to a Soviet cruiser off the island, where he was to meet with Gorbachev. It was quite a naval maneuver, given the heavy seas of that day.

The president had indicated he wanted to discuss a special meeting of the heads of state of the (NATO) Alliance. I waited for him in a book-lined corner off to the side of a large room. It was nearing eight o’clock and I knew he would be tired.

I squeezed my notes to a minimum, a single subject: the reduction of conventional forces in Europe (CFE). The May summit report had resulted in promises of action and things had moved along for a short while, but attention to CFE had slipped away — and it needed to remain uppermost. We needed to regain momentum. That would reveal what the Soviet military leaders had in mind. The key to it all would be the word “parity.” If both sides reduced their tanks and other combat vehicles to the same number, that would cost the Warsaw Pact far more than the Atlantic Alliance. If I had my way, I would move right away on this.

As I waited for the president and thought about my susceptibility to seasickness, he wandered into the reception room and said, “Hello, Jack.” Recovering from my surprise, I stood up and we shook hands. I said, “Sir, that was a great display of seamanship today, riding the waves off Malta. Sometimes you disappeared from the TV screen, the sea was so rough.”

He said, “I did? It didn’t seem so rough to me” — the right answer for a sailor. In his typically informal way, Bush had left his retinue behind. I don’t think he had had much uninterrupted sleep on the trip, though he was trying not to show it. He motioned me to a chair, settled into another, and turned right away to the events coming up in the morning, when he would be addressing a special meeting of the North Atlantic Council.

“Well, how are you?” asked the president. “How are things in Allied Command Europe? What’s the atmosphere in NATO?”

“It’s fine, and I’m fine,” I replied. “I’m glad to have this chance to see you. In the command there is much anticipation of the summit, especially concerning conventional forces. This is the first time that you have met with this group since the summit conference last May. The proposal at the May summit made things move — for a while. Now the effort has slowed significantly. We need to regain momentum. We need to get an agreement on conventional forces as soon as possible, and we have to insist on parity of numbers as we go down.”

“The U.S. won’t move unilaterally,” Bush replied. “We’ve got to get the agreement on conventional forces, then move to the nuclear. How do the Soviets see this?” While we continued, the president took out his speech cards and shuffled through them. His cards were bigger than mine, 5x8 inches. He penciled a note and shuffled the cards again.

“I think we can add helicopters and aircraft into the negotiations without any real disadvantage to ourselves,” I answered. “In both areas the Soviets and the rest of the Warsaw Pact outnumber us by a long shot, and the drop to parity would be big.”

“What about the personnel cut?” the president asked. “How do you see that?”

That was the most important issue, as far as I was concerned. “If we can get the other side to come down from 600,000 to 275,000, we certainly ought to be ready to do that ourselves,” I replied. “That means a drop of 30,000 for us and more than ten times as much for them.

“I don’t know anybody in the military who will not fall into line behind this proposal,” I continued. “It gives us the initiative and puts us strongly into the negotiations — together — at Vienna.” He smiled at my quick response, and our talk continued.

Prime Minister Thatcher,
July 5, 1990

Galvin escorts British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in February 1988. “Her style was to go directly to the issue,” Galvin writes.

At 10 Downing Street, we found ourselves in Mrs. Thatcher’s office without a wait and, as usual, got right into the business at hand. Mrs. Thatcher greeted us in her hearty way, and in the process told me, as she always did, that the primary responsibility of political leaders is the security of the nation. Following the plan that (Thatcher Chief of Staff) John Fieldhouse and I had concocted, I waited until things had gotten around to a point when a comment on the budget seemed logical. The prime minister and I talked of various things as I tried to work my way around to the budget, but it is hard to work your way anywhere when you’re talking to Margaret Thatcher. Her style was to go directly to the issue and hold forth with a short, sharp declamation (in a style of elocution that certain British politicians and military leaders tend to use). She had her own way of speaking. She underscored her diction with a regular cadence, falling heavily on every third or fourth word — or more often on two or three successive words — in a way that gave an exaggerated sense of importance to her comments. It was mesmerizing.

“It seems to us, Prime Minister,” I said, “that unless something is done, the British defense budget is going to suffer more than it should; I don’t see how it is going to be more than flat, and I’m afraid it will be even less than flat.”

Her response was sharp. “I must say that I agree with something that you said earlier, which is the danger that the Germans are not going to hold steady on their force structure. I am most appreciative of your making me aware of this very worrisome matter, and we all certainly need to communicate to the Germans and to our other allies our deep concerns with the damage which this could cause to us all, especially since the Soviets have not shown any sign of being serious about reducing their continuing superiority of forces.”

We did not manage, John and I, to get the prime minister back on the subject of the United Kingdom’s defense budget. Soon after, when she came to visit my headquarters with John Fieldhouse, we decided I should try again. But a try was as far as I got. This time she did not talk about the Germans or anyone else. Her answer was, as usual, quick and strong. I felt as if I were being sandblasted. The problem, she said, was not the budget.

“Let me tell you something about the management of the British defense budget,” she said, looking hard at John Fieldhouse. “It has been terribly wasteful. The British taxpayer has had his hard-earned money put into projects that were poorly thought out, poorly planned, poorly executed, to the extent that literally millions of pounds have been completely lost with nothing to show for it.” She named some of the military production programs that were in trouble in the UK. “That,” she concluded, “was poor fiscal performance. The losses have been such that if we were to take all the funds that have been needlessly spent on abortive projects and ineffective programs, and if we add this to the current defense budget, we have a line that is not flat at all but soaring upward!”

John glanced at me, and I had no trouble reading his mind.

President Gorbachev,
Nov. 13, 1990

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited Atlanta in 2001, nine years after Galvin met him at the Kremlin. He's pictured here with a group of University of Georgia students at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead. Galvin writes Gorbachev looked “tired, worn, frustrated.”

After a session with the ambassadors to Moscow from the NATO countries and an interview with Red Star, (NATO Military Committee Chairman Vigleik) Eide and I went back to the Kremlin to meet with President Gorbachev. He was waiting at the end of a long, narrow office that was lined with cameras. After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, the president waved the scramble of media people out and led us to a table. Eide and I sat facing Gorbachev, with (Soviet Marshal) Yazov and (Soviet Gen.) Moiseyev flanking him. We knew he was coming from a session with the military members of the Congress of Deputies, who had asked to meet with him. He looked tired, worn, frustrated. From the moment he sat down, his right hand drummed the table, his fingers, reflected in the polished tabletop, galloping softly but continuously. He was obviously affected by the experience he had just undergone, and during our conversation, his response to the provocations of the earlier meeting now and then broke through. As we took our seats, Vig Eide said, “Mr. President, as a Norwegian I must congratulate you on being awarded the Nobel Prize... .”

Gorbachev answered quickly, “Yes. Perestroika. When I brought about the changes of 1985-86, everyone applauded, but now the time has come — inevitably — for the sacrifices that these changes make necessary, and no one likes that part. Just now in the Chamber of Deputies meeting, a colonel berated me about the Nobel Prize. A colonel! In the past, he wouldn’t be a colonel by now.” Yazov stirred, but looked straight ahead. Gorbachev turned to us and said, “And you, the USA and the West, with your talk about your great victory over us.” Eide and I both demurred, saying we have consistently held that we’re all on the same road, to peace.

“Yes, things have changed,” Gorbachev replied “We are no longer adversaries. Even Cheney, your defense secretary, says that. Well, we need to move away from those days. We must unite in the effort to prevent conflict — for instance, right now in the Gulf. We need no war with Saddam. The military chiefs should have contact with the Security Council.” I took out my note cards, as always, and he seemed to like that: a general taking notes. He went on, “We need to study the security structure so it can deal with future crises like this.”

Colonel Popov’s skill at translation was as smooth as I’d ever seen. He followed along quietly, just a couple of words behind Gorbachev, as the president ruminated about his worries over the Soviet troops in East Germany. “They are not respected by the local populace. I’ve known [German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl and [Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich] Genscher since 1975. There should be more consideration for our soldiers.” Then, quietly, “We’ve spent billions on Chernobyl, and it’s getting worse. We’ve invited scientists from all over the world, asking them for help. This is what nuclear weapons could do — and a lot worse.” Yazov nodded yes, and Gorbachev continued. “We will continue our support for reduction of nuclear weapons as well as conventional forces in Europe. General Yazov will be going to Vienna. We all need military reform, and” — turning again to Yazov — “we ourselves are well along on this. We will share this information with you. We need better military-to-military contact. We have a large overlap of interests.”

Eide asked, “Sir, what do you think will be the main problems affecting the new military balance?”

Gorbachev was quick to reply. “There are three. First, there has to be a structure for security for the continent of Europe. Second, it requires military structural changes. Third, NATO must become a political organization. There is also a fourth, and that is, we need more contact, more communication. You are lagging in this effort. And there is a fifth: We must proceed with courage.” With both hands on the edge of the table, he was again lightly tapping his fingers, almost as if he were playing a soft tune on a piano. He looked exhausted. He looked grim. I felt awkward taking up his time on this day, when what he needed was rest. “For the first time in this country’s history,” he said, “we have a chance to make this scale of changes without bloodshed. Can we do that? We don’t need white against red. No civil war.”

Then he erupted with exasperation. With lips pressed hard together, he took in a deep breath through his nose. He sat up straight and looked beyond us. “They call me indecisive? I know my society. I ask my critics: Are we not on a track of reform since 1985? Yes! Then leave it to us! You can’t tell us what to do. We know what to do!” He relaxed a little, and said more evenly, “For stability, we need the Union treaty, a transition to a market economy, and a state governed by law. And the military will help. There are people ... there are dangers of separatist elements, pro-fascist elements ...” His eyes shifted away from us, beyond us. He seemed to be inspecting with some curiosity in his own office, but he spoke with deliberation. “The military is a political instrument. We must operate resolutely against the threat to constitutional order. And we will be most resolute.” He sighed. “Let each go crazy in his own way, that’s the way we put it. But we must have orderly government, and the stance of the military will be of great significance. We must safeguard our national security interests, with forces of a size commensurate with the task.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

The president told Eide and me that we needed to get out into the countryside and talk to people, communicate, let them hear from us, and listen to what they had to say. We both said we would do that.

I mentioned that General Eide and I planned to split up: he would go to St. Petersburg, I to Kiev and Sevastopol. There were more amenities; then we took our leave.

On the following day, Vig and I parted company at the airport and went our separate ways.

General John R. Galvin at home in Jonesboro
Galvin with his daughter Erin in Jonesboro.

Gen. John Galvin, seated left, with comrades from his tours in Vietnam at his home in Jonesboro, on May 13, his 86th birthday. Galvin taught and was dean at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University after retirement. He developed a theory of leadership based on self-knowledge, teamwork, good communication and the capacity to recognize change.

We've chronicled the lives of many veterans of our armed forces in past Personal Journeys. Click the links below to read a few of these powerful stories:
The replacement soldier
The liberator's widow
Searching for Uncle Al
The colonel's war
At war with peace
A family fractured

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