Frank Carlucci III is best known for his tenure as Secretary of Defense under the Reagan administration, yet in his 2000 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Carlucci narrates his journey through the Foreign Service, CIA, and prominent defense roles that span the course of the Cold War. Carlucci discusses the Congo’s volatile communist regime under Patrick Lumumba, where soldiers pressed a bayonet against his daughter and where violent crowds stabbed him in the aftermath of a car accident. He revitalizes the morale of the Brazilian people in the midst of extreme communism and transforms the Soviet controlled embassy in Portugal. His previous dealings with the USSR provided the necessary experience for his promotion to the Deputy Director of the CIA, then to President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor and eventually to Secretary of Defense, where he dealt with a myriad of sensitive issues, including arms control with the USSR, budget cuts and base closings. Frank Carlucci’s various government posts coupled with his intuition and personable demeanor ultimately grant him the ability to overcome the heart of the Cold War struggle.
Confusion in the Congo
CARLUCCI: I always had an interest in the Foreign Service. I was in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and had specialized in international studies.…I decided to take the Foreign Service exam and somewhat to my surprise I passed it.…
I arrived [in the Congo in 1960] 15 days before independence. We had a Consul General who was leaving and an ambassador had been designated, Clare Timberlake. The situation was one of considerable confusion. Nobody knew what was going to happen on the day of independence. There was a lot of focus in the consulate general on getting our independence delegation in place, making sure we were appropriately represented. There was a feeling that we did not really know the real African leadership. What was it going to be? Who was it going to be? What did the Belgians let go of at the time of independence? There were just a lot of unanswered questions. Some felt the Belgians had gone too fast. Everybody knew that education-wise the Congolese were not fully prepared for independence so there was anticipation of difficulty.
I’d sit in the bar in the Parliament and go up and shake hands with them and strike up a conversation. I got to know Patrice Lumumba [First Prime Minister to the Democratic Republic of the Congo] under fairly adverse circumstances which is getting ahead of the story a little bit.
But after independence when chaos broke loose — I might as well go into this story, it’s an interesting story. It has to do with Ralph Bunche [Under Secretary for Political Affairs]. He came out just after independence. Prior to that, we had been through the evacuation, the rapes and the pillaging. We were living in the embassy around the clock. He dictated a cable calling on the UN to send in a multinational force from my office. I was standing right beside him when he dictated the cable. When the first planes came in bringing Ghanaian troops, we had a critical situation. The ambassador called me up and said, “There is nobody at the airport, the controllers have fled, the airplanes are in the air, they’re something like an hour from landing, get out there and get them down.”
So I went out to the airport and spent the day acting like [an air traffic] controller, an airline attendant, and what have you.…But we got the airplanes in. Meanwhile the Belgian troops had moved in to take over part of the airport.
Towards the end of the day, Rob McIlvaine, the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], called me and said, “Patrice Lumumba called and wants to go to Stanleyville and would we take him.” And he said, “Frank, he’s coming, he’s on his way out.” I guess that was early afternoon. Well, he didn’t show up until about 5:00 and just drove out onto the tarmac with a big entourage. On the other side, the Belgian forces drove up and confronted him. I was standing in the middle between the two forces with machine guns pointed at each other. Lumumba said, “I’m here to go to Stanleyville and you’re going to take me.”
The aircraft commander came up and said, “We’ve just learned that the controllers in Stanleyville have been killed and all the lights are out. We’re not going.” The Belgian colonel said, “Unless you get these people off the tarmac in five minutes, I’m opening fire.” So I had a dilemma on my hands. I finally grabbed the aircraft commander and I said, “I don’t care if we fly up to Stanleyville. Turn around and fly back. We’re getting in this airplane right now or there is going to be gunfire here.”
He said, “Okay.” So I took Lumumba and [Joseph] Kasavubu, both to Stanleyville.
“I give you the Belgians. It’s a gift”
Lumumba was prime minister and Kasavubu was president at that point. I told him that we had a problem in Stanleyville, but if they insisted on going, I would take them. They said we insist on going. In fact Lumumba had screamed at me. He called me and he said something to the effect that “You Europeans are all hypocrites. You promised me.” And when we got on the airplane, I said, “Why did you scream at me?” He said, “I didn’t realize you were an American. I thought you were European.” They stood in the cockpit the entire flight to Stanleyville. On the way up, I told them that there were Europeans in Stanleyville and I assumed they didn’t have any objection if we took them back on the plane. Lumumba agreed.
Then when we got off the plane, the Europeans came to me and said, “We want to leave but the immigration authorities won’t let us leave.” I said, “Well, that’s your problem. You go work it out with them. I’m not your Consul.” These were basically Belgians. There were about 30 of them. They came back a couple of hours later and said, “It’s really hopeless. They won’t let us leave and they are now treating us in a way that our lives are in danger.”
I said, “Well, I’m not your Consul but I’ll see what I can do.” So I went around to the governor’s house in Stanleyville where Lumumba and Kasavubu were having a cocktail party and talked to Lumumba and said, “You had in effect said I could take them out. We have done you a favor by bringing you up here and I hoped that we could go ahead. You should let these people loose.” And he responded with something like, “These are bad “Flemish” and they shouldn’t be allowed to go.” But then he turned to me — he was tall and I am short and dropped his hand on my shoulder and said, “But I like you. You are my friend. I give you the Belgians. It’s a gift.” I said, “Don’t give it as a gift, but I’m happy to take them.”
“My two-year-old daughter had a bayonet poked right in her face”
The Congo was the focus of world attention. It was at the heart of the Cold War struggle at the time. There was a lot of feeling that Lumumba was a Communist sympathizer. We had Senator Dodd, Tom Dodd [Senator from Connecticut and father of Senator Chris Dodd], who was an active critic of people like Lumumba and Gbenye, the latter being Lumumba’s Interior Minister. Dodd came out and I was his escort officer. I thought he had become convinced that Lumumba and Gbenye, while they may have had some sympathy for the Soviets, didn’t really understand what communism was. But when he went back to the U.S., he called them communists again.
We should remember that Lumumba came to Washington and was rejected before he turned to the Soviets.…On the day of independence I had heard rumors that rioting was occurring at the Parliament building so I grabbed a Lingala-speaking driver and went to the Parliament building where the troops were indeed rioting. I went up to them and through the driver asked what they were rioting about. The answer was interesting. They were upset not so much at the Belgians as at their own leadership, Patrice Lumumba and others, who had suddenly sprouted big cars, big houses, and flashy suits.…
They asked, “What’s in it for us? Everybody else gets something and we get nothing.” Subsequently, Lumumba who was an absolute spellbinder, a very charismatic man…went out to the military camp at Djelo Binza and talked to the soldiers. He managed to turn them against the Belgians. That’s when anti-Belgian rioting started. I went out, I think it was either that day or the next day to the neighborhood where I was living which was past the military camp.
We assembled the Americans and I led a convoy of Americans into the embassy. We were stopped a number of times by soldiers. In fact, my then two-year-old daughter had a bayonet poked right in her face. But we made it to the embassy. People essentially lived in the embassy until they were evacuated. We evacuated as many as we could by ferry but then the ferries… were shut off. On occasion soldiers would come up and point guns at the embassy. I remember going out and confronting one. He was pointing his gun at the embassy. I told him that he had a duty not to attack the embassy but to help me go over and rescue some Americans who were in a hotel. To my surprise he agreed and we went over and got some Americans out of the hotel. But we lived in the embassy for a couple of days.
Timberlake did a marvelous job as ambassador.…He began to feel that the Lumumba regime was increasingly erratic and very difficult to deal with. He was pushing for the UN troops to come in quickly as the only means of saving the situation. Peacekeeping has a somewhat mixed reputation these days but the Congo has to be characterized as a very successful multinational peacekeeping operation. The troops who came in – the Ghanaians, the Moroccans, the Nigerians, Ethiopians, subsequently Indians, Pakistanis – all did a marvelous job. Basically, they restored order after a period of time. The panic with which the Belgians fled was amazing. I went around my neighborhood and remember a houseboy coming out and telling me his employer had said, “Take everything; it’s all yours.…It was a symbol that Lumumba was willing to, if necessary, play the Soviet game and that aroused a great deal of concern.
Lumumba moved further and further to the left. You could argue that he was driven there by the West’s lack of responsiveness. Whether it was that or whether it was his inclination, or whether he was enticed by what the Soviets had to offer, those were all fears. The fact was that he gradually became more critical in his comments toward the West and more erratic in his behavior. I came to fear that he had lost not only our confidence but he was losing the confidence of his own parliament.…It’s common to say that Lumumba was – there was a coup against Lumumba – but in fact he was voted out.…Lumumba was defeated. It was out of that meeting that Adoula became Prime Minister, a much more moderate man.…
“I could see right away that he was dead”
Q: Wasn’t there an instance where you got knifed?
CARLUCCI: Yes. That was during a visit of, I believe it was [Deputy Secretary] Loy Henderson.…He came out [and] we were heading back to the airport. I was in a separate car. I wasn’t part of the entourage. I was in a car that was being driven by the chief warrant officer of the Defense attaché’s office. We had in the car Lieutenant Colonel Dannemiller, who was the Army attaché, and his wife. I was sitting in the front seat.
The car was going too fast. I can remember telling the warrant officer that I thought he was going too fast. A bicyclist was crossing the road — one of these things where neither could guess which way the other was going and eventually we hit him and plowed into a ditch. I could see right away that he was dead. I knew what was going to happen. I told the warrant officer to run and get out of there quickly which he did. The wife of our Army attaché was in a state of shock. We couldn’t get her out of the car, so I did the only thing that could be done at that point. I went over to the body to draw the crowd away from the car. I was successful. He eventually got her out of the car and they got away.
But in the meantime, of course, the crowd surrounded me.… Then the crowd started beating me up. I felt what I thought was a hard blow to my back…It was getting fairly serious when a Congolese bus driver drove his bus right through the crowd and opened his door right at my back and I just stepped into the bus. I didn’t know I had been stabbed until I saw the pool of blood on the floor of the bus. He, in essence, saved my life….
Brazil and the Rebirth of Communism
Q: When you went to Brazil in ’65, what was the situation there?
CARLUCCI: We had some 900 Americans in Brazil. Our influence was pervasive.…But you also had a certain simmering social situation in Brazil which continued to go unresolved, and indeed needs more attention today.…The Brazilians had implemented another institutional act decreed by the government…and the U.S. government had frowned upon that and had suspended aid. After about, I would judge, two or three weeks, the powers that be in AID [Agency for International Development] in the embassy, accompanied by the economic side, the economic counselor and his people, began to urge that aid be reinstituted. This provoked a good deal of concern on the part of the younger officers, myself included, although I was a little older than they were. We protested. It came down to a meeting in the chargé’s office where the chargé went around the table and all the senior people said they favored the resumption of aid and had drafted a cable to this effect.
I didn’t say much at the time and then the cable was passed around. I read it and towards the end of the meeting, I simply said if you send this cable, I request that the following sentence be put on the end. The political counselor dissents from this cable and reserves the right to write his own cable. Those were the days before we had dissent channels. Dissent was not very much in vogue and there was somewhat a startled reaction in the room. But Bill Belton said, “Well, if Frank’s got these reservations, we need to consider them,” and the cable did not go. In essence the embargo on aid programs continued for another month or so. …
[Aid] tended to create a sense of dependency, while we really were trying to encourage Brazilians to do more on their own. Our goal was to try and reduce the numbers and obviously to get the resources down to a manageable level and to try to move the Brazilians to take up more of the slack.…The main objective was to move them toward a fully functioning democracy and get the military to do what they said they were going to do — hold elections, respect those elections, make sure that there was freedom for the press, freedom of association, all the things that constitute a democratic system.…
We had to deal with a certain amount of terrorism. One of our military people in Sao Paulo was assassinated…in front of his family and I as political counselor was the one that had to deal with that. There was increasing terrorist activity. There was certainly a lot of left-wing activity in the church. This was countered by right-wing death squads. I tried to keep in touch as best I could with the left-wing elements. I would have some contact with liberal educators, those kinds of people. There was considerable concern about the rebirth of communism.…Certainly there was a fair degree of anti-Americanism, a feeling that we were responsible for the military government, that we were encouraging the military government, that we were not doing enough to move them to a democratic system.
Portugal – A NATO Member on the Verge of Becoming Communist
Q: I would like to move directly to what I consider one of the more significant episodes in the work of the Foreign Service in the last few decades, and that is the situation you were put into in Portugal where you served as Ambassador from 1975-78. Could you explain what the circumstances were in Portugal before you went there?
CARLUCCI: In retrospect it is quite clear that the president was a communist sympathizer, the prime minister was a communist, the top military structure was controlled by communists, the labor unions were controlled by the communists, most of the government was communist. There was a lot of unrest in Portugal and the feeling was that Portugal might be the first NATO country to go communist. It was quite a tense situation with a lot of demonstrations in the streets. So it was something that needed urgent attention.
Henry Kissinger had been dissatisfied with the previous ambassador, Stewart Nash Scott, and had summarily removed him. I was given very little time to get out there.…Henry didn’t have a lot of faith in the socialists. But he did agree in the outset that we could have some modest aid programs to Portugal. He felt I should have some tools to work with. I gradually became convinced that there were strong forces pushing against the current trend in Portugal.
There were a number of considerations. Portugal was not adjacent to the communist bloc. The ties to the West and NATO were strong. The Church was influential, not in the hierarchical sense but at the village level. The people were by and large conservative and they were interested in protecting their economic interests. I thought the electoral process could serve to undermine the communist control of the country. There were a lot of skeptics about that. That was in essence the nature of the dialogue between Embassy Lisbon and the State Department, with a number of people in the State Department feeling it was probably best to write Lisbon off and teach them a lesson in order to protect the rest of the countries in Europe.…
Frankly it took a number of meetings in June, 1976, with me and Henry Kissinger, for us to reach a meeting of the minds. Henry was coolly critical of what he regarded as my willingness to bet on the democratic parties which he didn’t regard as very strong at that point and he had made a public derogatory comment about me which emerged as headlines in the press. I think it was something along the lines of “Whoever told me Carlucci was a tough guy?” I had a few tense meetings where I told him quite frankly that his statements were pushing Portugal into the arms of the communists and his response was, “Well, if you are so goddamn smart, you make the statements,” to which I said, “Fine, I will.” I had some discussions with the White House as well because I believed I worked for the President, not just the Secretary of State.…
Turning Around a Poor-Performing Embassy
Q: I would like to go back to the beginning of 1975. You arrived out there just about at the turn of the year, didn’t you, from 1974-75?
CARLUCCI: January, 1975. …Larry Eagleburger, who was Under Secretary for Administration at the time, told me it was the worst embassy in the world.…To put it mildly, it was a turnaround situation.…The DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] had left. I am not sure of the circumstances, but I picked my own DCM, Herb Okun, and we, in essence, went out together.
The natural tendency for people like Herb and myself is to do the reporting ourselves, which we did for a couple of weeks because there was no other option. Then I told Herb he had to stop rewriting cables and start sending them back to the drafters and tell them to redraft them and how to redraft them until we got people trained. He had to set schedules, he had to set goals. We had to be very precise as to what we wanted out of the staff. Secondly, I began to work on an AID program. I had a lot of trouble with AID, they wanted to send me flocks of people instead of programs. But we worked that out. I got a good AID director and I started to design AID programs myself.…I had had considerable background in the domestic area and began to design some programs myself in the health area. I started the first emergency medical services program, which is alive and well in Portugal today.…
I designed a package for the military try to re-professionalize the Portuguese military. I worked very closely with David Bruce, Ed Streator and Al Haig on that. In fact, it was rather amusing, I went up to USNATO and participated in the drafting of a cable in the evening at Ed Streator’s house recommending a military aid package for Portugal, and then went back to Portugal and wrote an endorsement of the USNATO cable. Thirdly, I began a rather intensive campaign of getting to know the political figures. I would make it a goal of meeting at least two or three political figures a day. I would just call them up and setup appointments, invite them to lunch, invite them to dinner. So, I became quite well-acquainted. Fourthly, I made myself accessible to the press, too accessible according to Washington. But it had a major impact on public opinion, the fact that I was open.
The fact that I spoke Portuguese helped. To my recollection no previous ambassador had spoken Portuguese. That began to create a positive image [because] there were all kinds of charges about the CIA. The communists put out a book, two inches thick, called “Dossier CARLUCCI: CIA.” There was one press conference where I answered all these charges. The questions were so slanted that even the communist minister of information jumped in at one point and said,
“Now look, you can’t expect the ambassador to constantly answer negatives to prove that he is not part of the CIA.” But the fact that I was open, I think had a major impact. Finally, I quietly established lines with the Church. Not that I ever asked them to do anything, but I would go over and talk with the Archbishop quietly, have lunch with him, and came to understand what the Church’s view was. I regarded the Church as being very important and indeed the so-called counter-revolution did start with the village priests in northern Portugal, so the Church played an important role….
Q: It seems from what you are saying that because of the fact that the Communist Party was somewhat erratic they weren’t as ruthless in taking over as has happened in some other places and therefore were unable to put their hold on as compared to some other countries.
CARLUCCI: A couple of things. One was the communist leader, Alvaro Cunhal, although capable, was a bit of a Western asset because he was a very vain man who had spent so many years in Czechoslovakia that when he returned he behaved in a very non-Portuguese way. The Portuguese are not vain people. But Cunhal was a little imperious, he felt that the job had already been done. So, the communists overplayed their hand. Secondly, there were splinter groups basically to the left of the Communist Party. The MRPP [Portuguese Worker’s Communist Party]…seized the Catholic radio station for which the Communist Party got blamed. So you had the head of the Communist Party, Alvaro Cunhal appearing on television saying that he wasn’t anti-Catholic. Well, nobody believed that. So they committed a number of mistakes and indeed part of my lecture to my Portuguese friends was to allow the communists to make their mistakes….
Security Threats and Coup Attempts
The head of security, Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, who was a general and one of the original revolutionaries, went on television one night and in effect made me a target. There was a coup attempt, I guess it was a right-wing coup attempt, nobody knows much about it, on the 15th of March, 1975. That evening we were all in the embassy and there were demonstrators out in the street. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho went on television and said that the American Ambassador had been behind the coup attempt and that he had no intention of protecting me.
I got him on the telephone and said, “First of all I want to make sure that is what you said,” and he said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, you understand that that is the equivalent of declaring the American Ambassador persona non grata.” He said, “No, I didn’t understand that.” I said, “Well, that is not your job.” He said, “What is my job?” I said, “Your job is to protect the American Ambassador and you made me a virtual target.” We went on in that vein for a while and he finally said, “What should I do?” I said, “Well, you had better protect me.” To my surprise he sent some troops over to my house. I was always nervous as to whether they were there to protect me or for some other purpose. Sure, there were a number of threats and there were demonstrations virtually two or three times a week. At one point they were on the verge of breaking into the embassy and I issued orders to use tear gas. At one point they caught me in my automobile and started rocking it. The State Department sent me a lot of security. We went through all that….
Portugal Moves Toward the Center
Probably if I had to point to one thing that the United States did that helped to turn the situation around, it was the reintegration of the Portuguese military into NATO, the creation of a NATO Brigade, which I worked out together with Al Haig, Ed Streator and David Bruce. I must say Bruce, Streator and Haig couldn’t have been more supportive.
Q: Haig at that point was the head of NATO and Bruce was the ambassador to USNATO.
CARLUCCI: And Ed Streator was his DCM. We functioned as a very effective team, in constant communication. We came up with the idea of creating a special Portuguese brigade for NATO that we would equip. We provided tanks and APCs [armored personnel carriers]. I remember coming back to Washington and trying to sell the idea. The State Department kind of shook their heads and said that was an interesting idea but there was no money for that.
I said, “Fine, I will get the money.” I went to OMB where I had been a deputy director and managed to get their okay to the money if I could get somebody in Congress to sponsor it. So I went to Ed Brook, senator from Massachusetts, who was on the Armed Services Appropriations Committee. He sponsored it and pushed it through. I managed to pick up support from other people who had Portuguese constituents.…If I may say so, it was somewhat unique, an ambassador pushing through his own aid program, but I did. After I designed the program for the army, the air force came in and said they needed a program. So, we designed an aircraft program for them. Finally the navy came in and we ended up designing a frigate program for them which took something like 10 to 15 years to materialize but it came about. We now have a Portuguese frigate that was built as a result of the aid program that started when I was there.
Q: The Portuguese military had started the coup, sort of young officers starting the coup, but had this feeling sort of disintegrated as a military force and more political at that point?
CARLUCCI: It was the rabble in the streets. In fact, I became fairly close to some of the original coup plotters, Melo Antunes and Vitor Alves, even Vasco Lorenzo. I spent a lot of time with them and was convinced that even they were not happy with the turn the events had taken even though they were all on the left side of the spectrum. I think those contacts at least helped to neutralize them, if nothing else. But the military was turning rapidly into an uncontrollable rabble and the idea was to restore a sense of professionalism, get them back into the barracks, get them out of politics and enable the elections to take place and the civilian leadership to take over. And, that in fact is what happened.
There were all kinds of monitors who came for the elections. In fact it was rather an inspiring sight. I went around a lot of the polls myself and you would see Portuguese standing in line for hours on end to wait to vote. The Portuguese people expressed themselves decidedly. The results were indisputable. With the monitoring that was taking place, including monitoring by the press, it was very difficult to tamper too much with the elections, not that there weren’t irregularities, I am sure.…The socialists won, the communists came in second and the other democratic parties a distant third and fourth. Eventually Mario Soares was elected prime minister….
There were strong feelings in Portugal on the subject of Angola and Mozambique. A lot of the Portuguese military who were involved in the coup had served in places like Guinea-Bissau, so there was an historical significance in that sense. Something like 600,000 Portuguese refugees returned from Angola to a country that had a population of 7 or 8 million. This had an enormous impact on the social and economic structure of the country. But it was also politically helpful because these people were by and large conservative, not wanting to have anything to do with communism — the reason they fled Angola. The last thing they wanted to see was a communist government in Portugal. So, it provided strength to the democratic forces….
Q: Did the Soviet Union play any role while you were there?
CARLUCCI: Oh yes. They had a very active ambassador [Mihail Kalinin]. I was a player in a drama and he was too.…Alvaro Cunhal, the Portuguese Communist leader, was a diehard Stalinist who traveled frequently to Moscow. There was no question that Moscow was calling the shots of the Communist Party in Portugal. The book that I mentioned earlier, “Dossier CARLUCCI: CIA” was obviously not produced by the Portuguese, it was produced in Moscow. They had total support. You were never able to identify the exact amount of money given to the Portuguese Communist Party by Moscow but you were never in doubt there was substantial funding to the party from Moscow.
Q: And this was a period when the Soviet Union under the Brezhnev Doctrine and all was felt to be both aggressive and having success around the world.
CARLUCCI: Oh, no question. And Portugal was a major battleground. People tend to forget it today, but it was one of the hearts of the struggle.…Once the Socialists were in power, it became important to support them in their efforts to stabilize the economy and undo the nationalizations. We got some money from the IMF [International Monetary Fund], but not enough. Mario Soares and I conceived of the idea of a “jumbo loan,” a multinational loan of, I believe, about 9 billion. State and Treasury were not enthusiastic. Treasury was particularly difficult. I found a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Paul Boeker, who believed in it and was willing to help. He did an excellent job of pulling together a number of countries….The loan was a great success, not only for the flexibility it gave Soares, but for the symbolic support of so many countries….
Had Portugal not pulled itself out of the communist abyss, Spain would have had a lot more problems in transiting to a democratic society. I think most historians now argue that Portugal had a significant impact on developments in Spain, if not in much of the world, particularly Latin America. I think there are those who are arguing today that what’s a third wave in democracy started in Portugal.
Transition to the CIA and National Security Advisor
I came back [in 1978] as deputy director of Central Intelligence….I was very comfortable with it. I had worked with the Agency throughout my Foreign Service career. I was known as someone who was able to work with the Agency and I had a very good understanding of their activities on the ground. I saw no conflict between the State Department and the CIA although I spent a large portion of my time trying to prove that I was right. Dave Newsom and I tried all kinds of things to build bridges between the State Department and the CIA including starting courses for ambassadors and [senior] CIA [officers] given at a CIA site.
Q: Did you see a different perspective of the Soviet threat from the CIA viewpoint as opposed to what you had been used to in State?
CARLUCCI: I had come in direct contact with the Soviet threat in Portugal…so I was very familiar with the kind of tactics they used. I did not have an in-depth knowledge of the Soviet military establishment but that came very quickly. I certainly had no illusions on their system or what they were up to or what their goals were….
It was probably late November or December of 1986.…It was a Monday at noon and on Sunday night I had received a call from a journalist friend of mine, Arnaud De Borchgrave saying, “Frank do you know anything about becoming National Security Advisor?” I said, “I don’t know what you were talking about.” He said, “Well, I just heard it from a good source.” Actually he’d heard it from Bill Casey. “The President is going to ask you to be National Security Advisor.” I said, “I don’t know anything about it and I don’t think I’d be particularly interested.” I was having lunch the next day at The Willard. I got a call from [Chief of Staff] Don Regan asking me if I could come in to the White House through the Treasury entrance through the basement so I would not be seen by the press. I went in to the basement and there was Don Regan and the President.…
Ronald Reagan made his approach by saying, “I’d like you to be my National Security Advisor because you’re the only person that [Secretary of State] George Shultz and [Secretary of Defense] Cap Weinberger can agree on.” I wasn’t sure if that was a very good qualification. I responded by saying the he ought to understand there were at least two things that I disagreed with. I disagreed with some of the things that were almost done at Reykjavik and I disagreed with Iran-Contra. The President then went through the Iran-Contra drill that everybody later became so familiar with where he starts out saying that it was not a swap – arms for hostages – and ends up convincing you that it was. Then I tried to describe to him what I felt were my strong points and my weak points so he would know what he was getting as a National Security Advisor. After weighing it, I think I went home and discussed it with my wife, I decided it was an obligation that I really should take on. I wasn’t that keen to do it but it was just something that needed to be done, clearly. Besides, I needed a job! ….
Q: What was your sense that there had been no real control in not only the National Security Council but elsewhere in the White House? One does have the feeling that people were bypassing the President all the time and that there wasn’t somebody taking control?
I made it a point of not going into history. Instead I had my hands full looking at the future. So I didn’t try to do any analysis of what went wrong. I just tried to fix the situation so it would be right going forward. It was a very loose management structure. I can’t really speak to Don Regan’s shop and how he managed his shop but certainly the National Security Council, as I found it, was very loosely organized….
Q: You said you had fired 65 people. Why …?
Q: Sixty-five percent. Were these just too much politically oriented or were they doing the job or you were trying to trim down or what was the…?
First of all, I should clarify what firing generally means in terms of the NSC. It means, in many cases, sending them back to their agencies because the NSC [National Security Council] is generally composed of people who are on loan from agencies. In some cases they left the government. They were people that either I or their supervisors felt had either outlived their usefulness or we had some new people that we wanted to bring in. In some cases they were very good people and we hung on to them. Let me give you a case in point. For years, I have been very close to Bob Oakley, who I regard as a very talented individual, who knows the Middle East extremely well. When I brought Bob into the NSC, Dennis Ross was there. I talked to Dennis and I’d heard good things about him and I said, “Dennis would you be willing to work for Bob?” The answer was yes. The result was I had a hell of a strong team on the Middle East because I had Bob Oakley and Dennis Ross as my two leaders.
Q: During this ’86 to ’87 period, this was the post Reykjavik thing but Gorbachev was in charge of the Soviet Union. Did you see a real change in attitude towards the Soviet Union on the part of the President and his team looking to see who we could do business with or not?
CARLUCCI: No question that attitudes began to change. The President had a fascination with the Soviet Union. While the speech writers liked to put in “evil empire” and those kinds of things, he really had a deep interest in two things: freedom of religion in the Soviet Union and human rights. The President also used to carry around with him, names of Soviet dissidents who’d been imprisoned. Where he got them I don’t know. Whenever George Shultz would go over there, he’d give George some names and say, “I’d like you to get this person or that person out.”…
Secretary of Defense — Dealing with the USSR
CARLUCCI: I believe I went over [as Secretary of Defense] in November of 1987 and I left when George Bush took over which was what January of ’89…. I always found the Pentagon pretty responsive. The key is in having good military assistants and using them.
Now I had a big handicap. That was since there was only a little over a year left in the Reagan administration, it was extremely difficult for me to bring in new people and get them confirmed. So I had to really make do with the people who were there and there were some I didn’t think were appropriate….The Pentagon’s morale was heavily impacted by what’s happening on the budget. When I got there, I had to do the first big cut. I took something like $350 billion out of the five-year plan. People began to feel the pain, not nearly as much as they felt it in subsequent years. That always has an impact on attitudes. I felt the institution was working pretty well. After all, it hasn’t been that long since I’ve been there. I spent a lot of time working on internal management when I was Deputy Secretary….So I was quite familiar with the management structure. I’d like to think that after my almost 30 years of government service I knew pretty much where the bodies were buried and where the leaders were.
Q. Admiral Crowe was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs… How did you find working with him?
Terrific. He’s a wonderful man, great sense of humor, very easy to work with, commands a lot of respect from the services. He didn’t have the public flair of Colin Powell but he was a very solid, serious man who did not hesitate to step up to the difficult jobs. I can remember when the USS Vincennes shot down the Iranian Air Bus. Bill Crowe called me in the middle of the night and said, “We’ve shot down an Iranian F-14.” He called me a couple hours later and said, “Well, we’re not sure it’s an F-14.” And I said, “I better come in.” By that time we discovered that it was really an airliner and he notified Colin Powell and I notified the President. One of the things you obviously have to do is go out and tell the press. Bill Crowe immediately volunteered to do that. We all know that initial reports are never accurate and the press takes them as accurate no matter how many times you say they are not going to be accurate. We always get castigated if those reports differ from subsequent reports. That, of course, happened in this case. I probably should have done the press conferences. I cite that as an example of Bill Crowe’s willingness to step forward and take the heat.
Q: It strikes me that Crowe also had a feel for the change of situation in the world. Particularly what used to be the Soviet Union, still Soviet Union at that time that put him ahead of many of the military people.
Crowe’s role in the dismemberment of the Soviet Union was pivotal and it’s really never been told. Indeed the whole role of the military, as I think we’ve said in the previous sessions, has never been told. After I had my initial meetings with Yazov, and we got the Major Nicholson affair settled – you may recall that was the American who was killed by the Soviets in East Germany. He was on a liaison mission. He was brutally shot and left to die in the field. Cap [Weinberger, previous Secretary of Defense] had correctly told the Soviets that we didn’t want to negotiate with them on any kind of military contacts until they had apologized for that. Well, I ended up practically writing the Soviet apology in Minister Yazov’s office. Thus, we got pretty much the apology we needed. We then set up contacts, starting with Bill Crowe and Marshall Akrimayov, former chief of staff. Crowe and Akrimayov hit it off immediately. That relationship reshaped all kinds of attitudes on the part of the Soviet military. It was a very productive kind of personal relationship. Bill Crowe went over there several times. Akrimayoff came over to the United States as Crowe’s guest. It worked very well….
Q: Sometimes a military force almost has to have somebody to build against. During the time you were there, was there the feeling that the Soviets were slipping?
Well first, yes, during negotiations it became clear that they didn’t have the kind of capability that we thought they’d had. They certainly had a lot of weapons. That we always know. But where the weaknesses emerge were the capabilities of their troops. I can remember Akrimayov, the Soviet Chief of Staff, when he came over as Bill Crowe’s guest, called on me before he went back and I said, “Marshall, what did you find to be the most impressive thing during your visit to the United States?” He hesitated a minute and said, “The quality of your non-commissioned officers. We don’t have that kind of quality.” And that’s true. If you look at the then Soviet structure, the Russian structure today, they’ve got officers doing jobs that our noncoms [non-commissioned officers] do. That’s because they’ve got a conscript army and navy. We began to observe those weaknesses. We also began to clarify a lot of misunderstandings. The Soviets were deluding themselves. They were paranoid. That paranoia came through loud and clear….
Budget Cuts and Base Closings
Q: What about budget problems in Congress?
There the principal issue that I faced was the issue that the Pentagon still faces today. That issue is reducing the support infrastructure as much as you take down the fighting forces. When I started the cuts, I said to myself there just has to be a way that I can reduce the [base] infrastructure so that we don’t get the tooth to tail ratio worse than it is. We have not been totally successful in that, because the force structure has come down around 33 percent, whereas the [support] infrastructure has come down about 25 percent. The idea I came up with was the base closing commission. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you the story of the base closing commission? I thought to myself there has to be a way to close bases. I remember the nightmare Elliott Richardson went through when he tried to close some bases. They were all over him and he ended up not closing any. Somebody called to my attention a bill that Congressman Dick Armey had introduced and which set up a congressional commission on closing bases….
I then went to see Ronald Reagan. I’ll never forget the meeting. I said, “Mr. President, I need to tell you that I’m going to close some military bases.” And he just stared at me. I said, “Mr. President, I’m going to do this in a way that’s going to be politically acceptable. I don’t think you are going to have to get involved.” ….He stared me and he finally said, “Alright. If that’s what you want to do.” That was my blessing, my enthusiastic blessing from the President. He knew what this entailed politically, too. The third step was to get the right people to lead it. After considerable effort, I persuaded Abe Ribicoff to be co-chairman along with Jack Edwards. Abe Ribicoff had such a sterling reputation for integrity on the Hill and that was the main reason the first BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] was accepted.
Q. Could you explain to somebody who might not understand what the political sensitivity about base closings?
No community likes to have a base closed because people are put out of work. Now as history tells us, the communities end up doing good things with the base structure after it is closed and in the long run they’re better off. But trying to persuade the community of that fact is very difficult. Congressmen are almost instinctively opposed to any base closure. President Clinton violated the sanctity of the base closure commission’s recommendation by taking out two bases in politically sensitive states, California and Texas, and “privatizing” them in place. The Congress has now understandably said Clinton destroyed the whole process; therefore, we won’t close any more bases. That’s very unhelpful because absent closing basis, you’re going to have to cut back on the fighting forces or the equipment we give our soldiers. We’re going to keep bases open to deal with the “Indian threat” while we deprive our soldiers of the next generation of tanks or aircraft.
Q: You mentioned the problem of trying to disassemble the infrastructure as opposed to the-or at least in proportion to the fighting force. Why is this such a problem?
Because [support] infrastructure means jobs and they’re public sector jobs. The politicians like public sector jobs. In fact, we ought to do more, far more than close bases. We ought to privatize a lot of the logistics activities at the Pentagon, but that becomes difficult.
I’ll tell you another story. When I first became Deputy Secretary, I took a look at some of our bases and said why do we have [government employees] for firefighters and security guards? Why don’t we contract out that function? We could do it cheaper if we contract out. I tried to push contracting those functions out. I think it took two weeks for a bill to go through the Congress preventing us from contracting out firefighters and security guards. If my memory serves me correctly, that bill is still on the books today that statute is still on the books today. That’s the reaction you get on the Hill by doing things that are eminently sensible. Business outsources left and right and saves money doing it. There is no reason the Government shouldn’t outsource as well, except for the political resistance you get on the Hill, and to some extent within DOD [Department of Defense].