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Long Before He Headed the CIA, James Woolsey Challenged Paul Nitze Over the Vietnam War

For a young lieutenant to challenge the number two man in the Department of Defense over Vietnam policy in 1969 took guts. The ensuring argument pitted R. James Woolsey, still in his 20s and later to become Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, against Paul Nitze, Deputy Secretary of Defense and pillar of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  

Woolsey, fresh from Yale Law School, was in the Army, working “figuring out criteria for designing reconnaissance satellites” in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  Nitze was ending his tenure as a senior official in the Johnson administration. Nitze concluded that Woolsey “didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” but didn’t hold a grudge.  When the Nixon administration brought Nitze back for the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) talks, Nitze chose Woolsey to be on this team.

Woolsey also did a stint early in his career as General Counsel to the Senate’s Armed Service Committee.  While at Yale Woolsey campaigned for anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. He expected a negative reaction from the committee chair, Mississippi’s conservative Senator John Stennis.  Instead Stennis shared fond memories of McCarthy’s “wonderful sense of humor.”

Woolsey would go on to serve as Under Secretary of Navy under President Carter and Director of the CIA under President Clinton. (Nitze’s career was equally distinguished.  He served as Secretary of the Navy and Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. He also co-founded Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, now named in his honor.) Woolsey’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on April 24, 2013.

Drafted by Connor Akiyama

Read R. James Woolsey’s oral history HERE.

“I said to my wife I had gotten into a little discussion about the war with Nitze at the party. She said, ‘Yeah, everybody noticed; are you out of your mind? What are you doing?’”

A Lieutenant and a Deputy Secretary: “Well I supported the war for the first several years but by the fall of ’67 my wife and a man named Alan Lowenstein who’s a smart old guy whom I knew at Stanford; he was the assistant dean of men. But he and Sue both persuaded me that the strategy was wrong. Search and destroy wasn’t going to win it.

Well, it was complicated as with everything with Paul. It wasn’t a full straightforward pro- or anti-war thing. As I remember it had to do with tactics and search and destroy and guerilla warfare and so forth. I somehow got in this argument with him the first time I met him at his daughter’s engagement party, black tie in Washington, several hundred people. His daughter had just gotten engaged to a friend of mine from college. At the entry into this very high tone, sit down, black tie dinner engagement party for the Nitze’s daughter, I got into a big argument with him as we came into the party out there in the alcove.

As it developed he was poking at me with his champagne flute and I’m poking him with mine like an upstart challenging d’Artagnan and I essentially retreated back to some windows and we’re both arguing. When we drove home that evening, I said to my wife I had gotten into a little discussion about the war with Nitze at the party. She said, “Yeah, everybody noticed; are you out of your mind? What are you doing?” I said, “Well, it won’t matter. This is January of ’69, he’s leaving in a couple of weeks with a new administration coming in, it doesn’t matter.”

But a few months later, about March or April, he’s back to help negotiate arms control. My boss, Charles Rosati, called and asked if I could come down and see him. I did and he said, “Jim, you know Nitze’s back.” I said, “Yeah, I heard.” He said, “He’s going to go over to Helsinki and Vienna and negotiate with the Soviets about our strategic weapons. He’s going to need an assistant, somebody to draft statements and review intelligence and so forth. You’re working on intelligence stuff now and that might be relevant, and you are a lawyer and there might be a treaty involved. Would you be interested in being his assistant?” I said, “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do as a lieutenant in the Army than go over to Helsinki and Vienna and work with Nitze on arms control agreements. I’ve got to say that I’ve only met him once and it didn’t go real well.” He kind of grinned and said, “Well that must be what he meant.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well I floated your name up to him and he paused for a second and then he kind of grinned and he said ‘Yeah, that’s fine, send Woolsey on up. He may not know what the hell he’s talking about but at least he’ll speak up.’”

That’s how I got into all this by quite inappropriately getting into an argument with the Deputy Secretary of Defense as a lieutenant in the Army at his daughter’s engagement party. He took me as his assistant not in spite of that, but in a lot of ways really because of it. I learned later that Nitze really liked having his staff flag issues for him by arguing about stuff.”

Anti-Vietnam Aide to a Pro-War Senator: “Well I was thrown from my support for the founding of the Yale Citizens for Eugene McCarthy for President to helping Stennis defeat resolutions that would knock out the money for the war . . . I was sitting next to Stennis on the floor of the Senate waiting for a bill to get called up or something. There was a little chair that would sit next to his big chair and if he was running the bill on the floor or something he would be there and I would be there often with him, drafting things and so forth. I was sitting there and I figured a mere four years before I had been running the anti-war campaign at Yale. One time I said to Stennis I said, “Mr. Chairman I’ve never mentioned it to you because it never came up but I thought you might want to know I was a founder and president when I was in law school of the Yale Citizens for Eugene McCarthy for President.” Stennis’ reaction was “Oh, Senator McCarthy? Such a fine man, such a wonderful senator and had a wonderful sense of humor.” And he started telling me some jokes McCarthy had told him. McCarthy was against the war, Stennis supported the war, and McCarthy was his friend and a fellow senator. The fact that I had worked for McCarthy for president when it was an anti-war campaign could not have mattered less to him.”




Education and Career

    BA in History, Stanford University                                                                                                                       1960-1963

    MA in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, Oxford University (Rhodes)                                                   1963-1965

    LL.B., Yale Law School                                                                                                                                             1966-1968

    U.S. Army                                                                                                                                                                    1968-1970

    Advisor to U.S. SALT 1 Delegation                                                                                                                        1969-1970

    General Counsel, Senate Armed Services Committee                                                                                        1970-1973

    Under Secretary of the Navy                                                                                                                                   1983-1986

    Ambassador to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe                                                                        1983-1986

    Director, Central Intelligence Agency                                                                                                                   1993-1995