Skip to comments.Remembering Roger Hilsman (The Last of the New Frontiersmen)
Posted on 03/27/2014 6:47:44 PM PDT by robowombat
Remembering Roger Hilsman
March 9, 2014 Roger A. Hilsman has passed away. He passed at home, in Ithaca, two weeks ago. Hilsman was a controversial figure during the Kennedy administration. He is remembered mostly for his involvement in President John F. Kennedys Vietnam war decisions, but there was more to Hilsman than that. From World War II through the Johnson administration Roger Hilsman was in some interesting places at key moments. I havent much time today but I wanted to post at least a little bit on him.
Historians of the Vietnam war are divided over Hilsmans role in the South Vietnamese military coup that, with United States support, overthrew the government of Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1, 1963. According to some, Hilsman and a cabal of other U.S. policymakers, actually engineered that American support. Others think differently, that the policy was Jack Kennedys and that Hilsman served merely as a loyal acolyte. (At the National Security Archive website last November, I posted an electronic briefing book which examines the evidence for Hilsmans role much more closely than is possible here.) Whatever his role actually was, I can testify that Hilsman was certainly a Kennedy acolyteI studied with him as an undergraduate student at Columbia, where he taught from 1964 to 1990, participated with him in various functions as a graduate, and we renewed our acquaintance assorted times, most recently I believe in 2005 when we were together at a Canadian forum on intelligence issues. In any case, the stories Hilsman told and the views he expressed left no doubt he was close to the Kennedy clan. It happens that Jack Kennedys brother Bobby numbered among those who insisted Hilsman was one of that Vietnam policy cabal. Bobby had a clear interest in moving responsibility for the Diem coup away from his brother, the president. Roger Hilsman was loyal enough to take the rap while preserving the friendship, though he squirmed under the charge. In 1967, when Bobby was positioning himself for a run for the presidency, Hilsman was among RFKs foreign policy advisers.
Another Vietnam issue where Hilsman had a hand was in the strategic hamlet program, one of the counterinsurgency initiatives that repeatedly failed in that war. This reflected his own experiences. In the Big War, Hilsman had fought in Burma with Merrills Marauders, transferred to the OSS and worked to create partisan bands behind Japanese lines, the Kachin Rangers. He retained a lifelong interest in guerrilla warfare. When Kennedy came to the presidency and sought to spark U.S. government action on counterinsurgency, Hilsman edited a book excerpting writings on the subject, one well-received at the Kennedy White House.
Hilsmans proudest moment came in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At that time he headed the State Departments intelligence unit and helped interpret the evidence on Soviet missiles in Cuba for President Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. He also served as an intermediary in the important backchannel contacts between KGB Colonel Alekandr Fomin and ABC TV correspondent John A. Scali, which began to show a path away from war. In class and in conversations Hilsman would regale his audiences with vignettes from that intense period. Asked about the Cold War for an epic television series that Turner Cable did back around the millennium, Hilsman reflected that theres no war thats inevitable. Hed be remembered more kindly, perhaps, if he had applied that same analysis to Vietnam.
He who once helped move and shake the world ended up writing letters about speeding on the streets of the village he lived in.:
Former Lyme resident Roger Hilsman remembered as author, statesman, with strong local involvement
By Kimberly Drelich
Publication: The Day
Published 03/05/2014 12:00 AMUpdated 03/05/2014 12:05 AM
Lyme - Former Lyme resident Roger Hilsman, an author, professor and assistant secretary of state under President John F. Kennedy, died last week. He was 94.
Hilsman was remembered this week as an active statesman, scholar and community member, as well as a dedicated husband, father and grandfather.
He was director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and then served as assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs under Kennedy. He continued to serve in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration until March 1964.
Before beginning his role in government, Hilsman graduated from West Point and served in Merrill’s Marauders in Burma during World War II. He earned a doctorate in international relations at Yale University.
A former professor of government at Columbia University in New York, Hilsman authored numerous books, including “The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle Over Policy” and “To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy.”
His 1990 memoir, “American Guerrilla: My War Behind Japanese Lines,” includes how he rescued his father, Col. Roger Hilsman, from a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Mukden, China.
Giving lectures in the region and writing commentary in this newspaper and other publications, Hilsman often tackled foreign policy issues. Born in Waco, Texas, he also participated in politics in Connecticut, in Lyme, where he lived, and later in Chester.
In 1972, he ran against incumbent Robert Steele as the Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, but did not win. Amid safety concerns over speeding in Lyme, he initiated among his Hamburg Cove neighbors a letter-writing campaign to state police in the 1990s, according to newspaper archives.
A member of the Democratic Town Committee for more than two decades, he was “instrumental in bringing people together,” said former chairwoman LeRay McFarland. Hilsman helped recruit new members and persuaded McFarland to run for committee chairwoman, a position she held for 17 years. Hilsman also hosted the committee’s annual fundraiser picnic at his house.
“He liked the town very much and helped illuminate what the needs were and how to resolve them,” McFarland said.
Hilsman is survived by his wife, Eleanor, his daughters, Amy and Sarah, his sons, Hoyt and Ashby, and his six grandchildren.
Sarah Hilsman, his youngest daughter, said her father was equally proud to work locally as he was to be involved in international affairs. She said he always wanted to help people and to rectify the injustices he encountered. He encouraged his children to give back to their country, she said.
“He would always tell us to serve our country and citizenry in any way that we could,” she said. The dedication to his “To Move a Nation” reads: “To Eleanor, especially, but also to Hoyt, Amy, Ashby, and even Sarah - none of whom ever had a chance to ask what they could do for their country, but were very quickly told.”
Roger Hilsman also enjoyed life and living in Lyme, she said.
“... We are proud of his service to our nation and his courage in battle and his courage in opposing the escalation of the Vietnam War,” the obituary from his family read.
“He fought in war and served in high office, yet his greatest joy was to be surrounded by our mother, the love of his life, his children and grandchildren, whether driving his tractor, cooking Chinese food or singing old family songs together.”
Technocracy doesn’t work, in foreign policy or in domestic policy.
Yes Hilsman was the real thing. USMA grad, commando in the Big War, super spook, Assistant Sec. of State for East Asia. Whatever can be said for the Kennedy people a lot of them had earned their stones in combat and were a piece of their time. Kennedy's Inaugural Address contains a valedictory on the generation who went from the Depression to the Big War to the Cold War without a break. Hard to remember what it was like back then when the combination of communists and H-Bombs meant things were really being played for keeps.
well said .post of the day imho stay safe !
“back then when the combination of communists and H-Bombs meant things were really being played for keeps.”
Back then, Communists were PROSECUTED, not ELECTED! ;)
I know an 89 yr old lady who really really knew him during his USMA years. Will come back to this PING with the untold facts on Roger.
Another democrat overthrowing a gov’t. Just for the heck of it.
Will find me a copy .... Thank You !
Roger graduated from USMA early in WWII. He joined his family in San Antonio Texas like many Army families. His father was captured by the Japanese in China. Reportedly, as a POW Roger’s father “collaborated with the enemy for preferential treatment”. So says my source who had Roger’s pin. After the war Roger’s parents moved into seclusion in remote California.
As broker later posted, Roger Hilsman’s father collaborated with the Japanese for favorable treatment in the Manchurian POW camp. His family was scorned by WWII Army veterans who knew this story and witnessed his betrayal.
Regarding Hilsman, just another legend in his own mind IMO. His bona fides as a “...Merrill’s Marauder...” are beyond suspect, his insurgent and counterinsurgent experience is vastly over rated. There may be some fans here but I’m not one...
He, like every other senior figure involved in the debacle that was Viet Nam (with the exceptions of Brute Krulak, Matthew Ridgeway and (much as I hate to admit it) Wayne Morse — plus a very few others lower in the food chain...) has much to answer for...
Some more detail on Hilsman, Sr and Jr. Nothing on Hilsman, Sr. as a Guest of the Emperor: Hilsman was born on November 23, 1919, in Waco, Texas the son of Roger Hilsman, Sr., a career officer with the United States Army, and Emma Prendergast Hilsman. He lived in Waco only briefly, growing up on a series of military posts. Hilsman spent part of his childhood in the Philippines, where his father was a company commander and later commandant of cadets at Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit college. His father was a distant figure whom the young Hilsman endeavored to gain the approval of, such as by choosing a military career.
Back in the U.S., Hilsman attended Sacramento High School in Sacramento, California, where he was a leader in a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program and graduated in 1937. After a year at a West Point preparatory school and another traveling around Europe, including a visit to Nazi Germany, Hilsman attended the United States Military Academy and graduated in 1943 as a second lieutenant.
Meanwhile, with the outbreak of U.S. involvement in World War II, his father, a colonel, fought under General Douglas MacArthur during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Two weeks into the conflict, newspaper reports described Colonel Hilsman as still holding Davao on the island of Mindanao; later reports reflected his retreat to Malaybalay after facing overwhelming Japanese forces, followed by another move onto the island of Negros after which he was captured by the Japanese once all the islands were surrendered during 1942.
After graduation, the younger Hilsman was immediately posted to the South-East Asian theatre of World War II and joined the Merrill’s Marauders long-range penetration jungle warfare unit, fighting the Japanese during the Burma Campaign. There he found morale to be poor due to typhus outbreaks and unhappiness with the generals leading the unit. He participated in infantry operations during the battle for Myitkyina in May 1944 and suffered multiple stomach wounds from a Japanese machine gun while on a reconnaissance patrol. After recovering in army field hospitals, Hilsman joined the Office of Strategic Services. By now a captain, he at first served as a liaison officer to the British Army in Burma. Then he volunteered to be put in command of a guerrilla warfare battalion, organized and supplied by OSS Detachment 101, of some three hundred local partisans, mercenaries, and irregulars of varying ethnicities, operating behind the lines of the Japanese in Burma. There he developed an interest in guerrilla tactics and found them personally preferable to being part of infantry assaults. Hilsman’s group made hit-and-run attacks on Japanese forces and kept a Japanese regiment ten times its size occupied far from the front lines, all the while staging their own battle with ever-present leeches, other insects, and various diseases.
Soon after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Hilsman was part of an OSS group that staged a parachute mission into Manchuria to liberate American prisoners held in a Japanese POW camp near Mukden. There found his father, who became one of the first prisoners to be freed. His father asked as they hugged, “What took you so long?” (Decades later, Hilsman related his wartime experiences in his 1990 memoir American Guerrilla: My War Behind Japanese Lines.) Returning from the war, Hilsman served in the OSS as assistant chief of Far East intelligence operations during 194546, and then once the Central Intelligence Agency had been created, served in it in the role of special assistant to executive officer during 194647 (he belonged to the Central Intelligence Group during the interim period between the two organizations).
Hilsman married the former Eleanor Willis Hoyt in 1946. They raised four children together. Sponsored by the Army, Hilsman attended Yale University. There he earning a master’s degree in 1950 and a Ph.D. in political science in 1951. There he studied under noted professor William T. R. Fox. By 1951 Hilsman had risen to the rank of major. He worked on planning for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with the Joint American Military Advance Group in London during 195052 and as part of the International Policies Division of the United States European Command in Germany during 195253. Waiting for the end of hostilities in the Korean War, he resigned from the United States Army in 1953 but kept reserve status.
Lecturer and researcher Hilsman turned to academia, becoming a research associate and lecturer at the Center of International Studies at Princeton University from 195356 and a part-time lecturer with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University from 195761. In 1956 he published the book Strategic Intelligence and National Decisions. Based upon an expanded version of his dissertation, it subsequently became well thought of in government circles. He was a lecturer on international relations at Columbia University during 1958. He was the chief of the foreign affairs division of the Congressional Research Service within the Library of Congress during 195658 and then deputy director for research for them from 195861. There he met Senator John F. Kennedy and other members of Congress who were interested in foreign affairs.
Kennedy administration During staffing of the incoming Kennedy administration, Under Secretary of State-nominee Chester Bowles aggressively sought people from the ranks of academia and the press who would be committed to the ideals of the New Frontier. As part of this, Hilsman was selected to be the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research for the U.S. Department of State, assuming the position in February 1961. There his duty was to analyze foreign events and trends as part of the department’s long-range planning. Hilsman soon became a key planner within the administration’s foreign policy circles.
Like many of the “New Frontiersmen”, he had fought with distinction as a junior officer in World War II, and Hilsman was particularly effective at talking to members of the U.S. Congress because that military background and war record appealed to hard-liners while his academic history and intellectual leanings appealed to those more of that bent. Due to his background in guerrilla warfare, during 1961, Hilsman, together with Walt Rostow, pushed for the U.S. armed forces and the State Department to emphasize counterguerrilla training. Hilsman was involved in the U.S. responses to Soviet actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, including developing informal communications with Soviet officials and the briefing of congressional leaders.
Hilsman became one of the main architects of U.S. policy in Vietnam during the early 1960s and, in January 1962, he presented the plan “A Strategic Concept for South Vietnam”. It stated that the war was primarily a political struggle, and proposed policies that emphasized that the Vietnamese in rural areas were the key to victory. It also recommended that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam start using guerrilla tactics. Out of the report came Kennedy’s approval of U.S. participation in the Strategic Hamlet Program, the relocation of rural peasants into villages consolidated and reshaped to create a defensible, networked perimeter, with the goal of removing population from contact and influence with the Viet Cong. Implementation of the program by the South Vietnamese government became problematic, however, and Hilsman himself later stated that their execution of it constituted a “total misunderstanding of what the [Strategic Hamlet] program should try to do.”
During 1962, reports from American journalists in South Vietnam about the progress of the conflict of the Viet Cong, and the characteristics of the South Vietnamese government under President NgÃ´ ÄÃ¬nh Diá»m that differed from the picture the U.S. military was portraying. President Kennedy became alarmed, and in December 1962, Hilsman, together with Michael Forrestal of the National Security Council staff, were sent by Kennedy on a fact-finding mission to South Vietnam. The resultant HilsmanForrestal Report was delivered to President Kennedy on January 25, 1963. It described weaknesses in the South Vietnamese government; the corruption of Diá»m and his brother NgÃ´ ÄÃ¬nh Nhu and their cohorts; and the increasing isolation of, and lack of support for, the Diá»m regime from the South Vietnamese people. Overall, however, the report came to some optimistic conclusions: “Our overall judgment, in sum, is that we are probably winning, but certainly more slowly than we had hoped. At the rate it is now going the war will last longer than we would like, cost more in terms of both lives and money than we anticipated ...” It thus contributed to the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and to growing doubts in U.S. government circles about the usefulness of the Diá»m regime.
In March 1963, the White House announced that Hilsman would become Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, replacing Averell Harriman, who was promoted to an undersecretary position. Hilsman had risen quickly in the government bureaucracy, partly because Kennedy liked his willingness to challenge the military. Hilsman assumed the new position in May 1963. That same month, the Buddhist crisis began in South Vietnam, which featured a series of repressive acts by the South Vietnamese government and a campaign of civil resistance led mainly by Buddhist monks. Doubts grew further about Diá»m, and within the administration, Hilsman became the most outspoken proponent of a coup against that government.
On August 24, 1963, in the wake of government raids against Buddhist pagodas across the country, Hilsman, along with Forrestal and Harriman, drafted and sent Cable 243, an important message from the State Department to Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. It declared that Washington would no longer tolerate Nhu remaining in a position of power and ordered Lodge to pressure Diá»m to remove his brother, and that if Diá»m refused, the Americans would explore the possibility for alternative leadership in South Vietnam. The cable had the overall effect of giving tacit U.S. approval for a coup against the Diá»m regime. Hilsman was the point man for the cable some contemporaries referred to it as the “Roger Hilsman cable” as it was approved and sent while many higher-ranking officials were out of town, with each of those officials who were called to approve it doing so because they thought some other official had approved it. The events surrounding the sending of the cable led to Kennedy becoming quite upset over the disorganization within his government. They have also long been critiqued as at best an example of a bizarrely poor decision-making process and at worse a case where a small group of secondary, anti-Diá»m figures were able to circumvent normal procedures with a consequent harmful effect on the situation in Vietnam. On November 1, the 1963 South Vietnamese coup came; although conducted by South Vietnamese generals, they had been encouraged by the U.S., which thus shared responsibility. U.S. decision-makers did not want the coup to involve assassination of the current leaders, but by the next day, the arrest and assassination of NgÃ´ ÄÃ¬nh Diá»m and his brother had taken place.
The coup set off a period of political instability in South Vietnam that opened the door to a greater U.S. involvement. Hilsman was one of academics and intellectuals in the Kennedy administration whom author David Halberstam later grouped together in his book as The Best and the Brightest, for the erroneous foreign policy they crafted and the disastrous consequences of those policies in Vietnam. And Hilsman’s role has been variously interpreted. Mark Moyar’s 2006 book Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 19541965 paints Hilsman as one of the key Americans who short-sightedly and arrogantly pushed out Diá»m when, Moyar says, the struggle against the Communists was being won.
Guenter Lewy portrays Hilsman as being “farsighted and correct” in his 1964-going-on perspective, while scholar Howard Jones views the coup against Diá»m that Hilsman acted in favor of as “a tragically misguided move.” Johnson administration Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Hilsman stayed in his position under the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson. But Johnson sought a narrower range of opinion on foreign policy matters than Kennedy had and Hilsman, along with a number of other formerly influential State Department figures, was now not being listened to. Furthermore, by this time, in the words of Halberstam, “[Hilsman] had probably made more enemies than anyone else in the upper levels of government.”
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff disliked Hilsman for his constant questioning of military estimates and forthrightness, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had been angered by Hilsman’s tendency to go circumvent proper channels and by the friction Hilsman caused with the military, and as vice president, Johnson had not liked Hilsman’s brashness or his policies. Kennedy as Hilsman’s protector was gone, and Johnson determined that he wanted Hilsman out. At the same time, Hilsman disagreed with Johnson’s approach to the Vietnam conflict, viewing the new president as primarily seeking a military solution there rather than a political one.
Not liking anyone to quit outright, the president offered the position of U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, but Hilsman declined. And while Hilsman would later say that he had initiated the resignation, Secretary of State Rusk later presented a different picture: “I fired him”. In any case, on February 25, 1964, the White House announced that Hilsman had resigned; the statement was front-page news in The New York Times with Hilsman claiming he had no policy quarrels with the current administration. As his tenure ended, Hilsman argued in favor of continued perseverance in the conflict using a pacification-based counter-insurgency strategy, but against increased military action against North Vietnam, saying that until the counter-insurgency efforts had demonstrated improvement in the South, action against the North would have no effect on the Communists.
His stance lost out within the administration to those who advocated the virtues of air power. Hilsman’s last day in office was March 15, 1964. He was replaced at the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs by William Bundy. Professor and political candidate In his resignation letter, Hilsman had said that he considered university teaching his “basic profession”. Hilsman became a professor of government at Columbia University in 1964. The course he taught there on foreign policy decision-making became known for the anecdotes he told about the famous figures in the Kennedy administration and for the political theory he introduced in explanation. Indeed,
Hilsman became known as one of the expansive “Kennedy network”, and his office at Columbia was adorned with Kennedy-era momentos. He also became part of the university’s Institute of War and Peace Studies, where his former professor William T. R. Fox was director. Hilsman became one of the longest-serving professors in the institute. He also regularly lectured at the various U.S. war colleges.
Hilsman lived in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, but he and his family also became longtime residents of the Hamburg Cove area of Lyme, Connecticut, for weekends and summers. He and his wife later became full-time residents there. Hilsman was also one of the institute’s most prolific book authors.
Of particular note was his 1967 work To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy, which combined a theoretical political science approach with a personal memoir. It was the first book by a U.S. maker of policy to dissent on the course of the Vietnam War. The New York Times Book Review called it a “highly informative study of the internal and external forces that shaped much of American foreign policy” and said that “Hilsman makes many wise and perceptive comments on the politics of policy-making.” To Move a Nation became a National Book Award finalist and has been viewed as influential. His 1971 volume, Politics of Policy Making in Defense and Foreign Affairs: Conceptual Models and Bureaucratic Politics, was used as the textbook for his class and went through three editions.
Hilsman continued to speak publicly, in print and on television, regarding what he thought should be done in Vietnam, such as in Augsut 1964, when he warned against over-militarizing the conflict, and in mid-1967, when he said the war was not politically “winnable” and that the U.S. should scale down its military involvement and stop the on-going bombing campaign against the North. He consistently maintained that had Kennedy lived, he would not have escalated the war the way Johnson did. Hilsman was an ardent supporter of Robert F. Kennedy and his 1968 presidential campaign, serving as one of the experts advising the younger brother.
He was part of a large “brain trust” of advisers to Kennedy during the crucial Democratic California primary in June 1968; that eventual campaign victory ended with another assassination. Hilsman then tried his own hand at electoral politics: In the 1972 Congressional elections, he ran for election to the United States House of Representatives as the Democratic Party nominee for Connecticut’s 2nd congressional district. He secured the Democratic nomination in a race where few Democrats wanted to run or thought the party had much of a chance of winning. He campaigned on domestic issues as well as those of foreign policy, presenting a five-point plan for increasing employment in eastern Connecticut.
He predicted his chances of winning were directly linked to Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern’s performance in the state against Richard Nixon, the incumbent whom Hilsman termed a threat to civil liberties. McGovern lost in a landslide, and Hilsman lost the congressional general election to the Republican Party incumbent, Robert H. Steele, by a wide margin (66 to 34 percent).
Hilsman retired from Columbia in 1990 upon reaching the then-mandatory retirement age of 70. Reflecting upon his life, he said, “I’ve been doing the same thing in the military, on Capital Hill, and at Columbia. The content is the same. ... Of all my careers, I think university teaching is the most satisfying.” He and his course, “The Politics of Policy Making”, were not directly replaced. The variety of careers Hilsman had had led U.S. Senator
Claiborne Pell to compare him to Lawrence of Arabia. Later years In 1994, President Bill Clinton named Hilsman to the National Security Education Board, where he served until his term expired in 1999. Hilsman remained active in local politics, where he was a member of the Democratic Town Committee in Lyme for over two decades. During the 1990s he led a letter-writing campaign to the Connecticut State Police on behalf of safer street speeds in Lyme. He continued to publish books on a variety of subjects into his eighties. He and his wife later lived in Chester, Connecticut, and Ithaca, New York. Through 2014, Hilsman was still listed as a professor emeritus at Columbia. Hilsman died at the age of 94 on February 23, 2014, at his home in Ithaca due to complications from several strokes. Burial is to be at Arlington National Cemetery.
Apparently Hilsman, Sr. was promoted while a POW. zThis book contains some information. He is listed as a Colonel and commander of Phil/American forces on Los Negros and being ill. He acceded to MG Sharp’s direction to surrender to Japanese forces:
Stranded in the Philippines: Professor Bell’s Private War Against the Japanese
By Scott A. Mills
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