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Gavin, James Maurice

GAVIN, James Maurice

(b. 22 March 1907 in New York City; d. 23 February 1990 in Baltimore, Maryland), airborne general, business executive, ambassador to France, critic of the military (especially with respect to the Vietnam War), and author.

Orphaned at birth, Gavin became a ward of New York State. It is believed that his mother was Katherine Ryan, but the identity of his father is unknown. Martin and Mary (Terrel) Gavin adopted him when he was two and took him to Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, an anthracite coal–mining town where his adoptive father worked as a miner. His early life was unhappy. He experienced no compassion from his passive father and his mother, who was an abusive alcoholic. Gavin worked odd jobs and did not finish high school. At the age of seventeen, determined not to be a miner, Gavin ran away from home and went back to New York, where he joined the army without parental consent, declaring himself an orphan. He graduated from West Point in 1929 but was humiliated when he washed out of flight training. He married Irma Baulsir on 5 September 1929. They had one daughter and divorced in 1943. In the army Gavin was made first lieutenant in 1934 and captain in 1939, following which he taught tactics at West Point until 1941. On 31 July 1948 he married Jean Emert Duncan. They had three daughters.

Gavin's military career blossomed in World War II. He rose from paratrooper through various command positions and eventually leadership of the forces that invaded Sicily and, then, Italy. Though Gavin became famous for his command brilliance in World War II, it was following the war that he became a creative examiner of American military and foreign policy. A lieutenant general at the age of thirty-seven, he was on the fast track to becoming Army Chief of Staff. In 1958, however, he abruptly resigned from the army following disputes over the development of ballistic missiles. The Arthur D. Little research company in Massachusetts offered him a lucrative salary and a vice presidency, a job that gave him access to a new group of political leaders, such as those surrounding Senator John F. Kennedy, who was running for U.S. president in 1960. Gavin became an adviser to Kennedy's campaign—contributing, significantly, the suggestion for development of a "peace corps" that would allow Americans to use their education and skills throughout the world.

After Kennedy's election, Gavin was asked to serve as ambassador to France, the idea being that a soldier with his credentials would be able to work with Charles de Gaulle, the venerable military commander and then president of France. Relations with France were prickly. The United States was concerned that France would not be amenable to Western cooperation in international affairs. There was considerable evidence that the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in operations that ran counter to French interests; therefore, Gavin's task was difficult. He also had trouble financing his stay in France. He had been made president of Arthur D. Little, and the company graciously offered to pay his salary and finance an eighteen-month leave. Kennedy assured Gavin that appropriations were forthcoming to sustain him and his family.

Gavin's relations with de Gaulle were stiff at first but grew more cordial as a general trust developed. The U.S. State Department, headed by Dean Rusk, was alarmed by Gavin's brash estimates of the French view toward granting Algerian independence and exclusion of Great Britain from the common market. Gavin gained a coup of sorts, however, by helping manage the triumphant visit of President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, to France. He also gained assurances from the president that he had no fear for his job. After eighteen months, however, he knew the State Department had gained the upper hand.

Civil rights demonstrations ripped the nation during the Kennedy administration as black leaders and sympathetic northerners marched on southern states to force access to public institutions. Gavin, who had served in Arizona with black regiments, was not oblivious to the segregation issue. He had insisted that the all-black 555th Regiment, which had not been committed to combat in World War II, march with the Eighty-second Airborne Division in the New York victory parade. He became increasingly engaged in cultural politics and in formulating ideas for foreign aid. He also promoted using the United Nations, creating schools for training of Foreign Service personnel, developing free-trade zones with Latin America, and pushing the Peace Corps as the means of changing international perceptions of the United States.

Gavin saw the Kennedy administration as a vehicle for dramatic change and, personally, as a vehicle for his ideas. Kennedy's assassination was a tragic blow. The rise of Lyndon Johnson was a double blow to Gavin's hopes for change. The escalation of America's role in the Asian war whetted Gavin's appetite for dealing with the issue of keeping "limited" wars contained. He saw immediately that the policies of Johnson and his advisers would enlarge the war until it became unmanageable. He spoke out against saturation bombing, which he felt simply hardened resistance. He suggested the creation of secure enclaves of U.S. troops in strategic areas to support the South Vietnamese, whom, he thought, had to be trained to fight their own war. Withdrawal of U.S. forces was always a consideration to Gavin, and he rejected the notion of domino Communist expansion as a naive perception of Asian politics. He was joined in some of his ideas by the redoubtable General Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded forces during the invasion of Normandy in World War II and later served as Army Chief of Staff.

A new cadre of officers, men bloodied by the Korean experience and by the cold war conflict, were caught up in making their mark in Vietnam. General William West-moreland, once a young friend of the Gavins, was now commanding the military in Vietnam and was an adherent of Washington's policy. Gavin wrote an open letter published in Harper's magazine in November 1966 that called for the end of bombing and consideration of withdrawal from a war that could not be won. The piece caused a sensation, but it did not alter policy. Gavin, spelling out his thinking, testified against the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by J. William Fulbright.

Gavin turned to writing a book, an omnibus of ideas written with the Newsweek feature writer Arthur T. Hadley and published in 1968. Called Crisis Now: Crisis in the Cities; Crisis in Vietnam; and Commitment to Change, it may have been designed as a political campaign vehicle as well, for Gavin was interested in offering himself as a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party nomination. Senator Robert Kennedy's end run on Eugene McCarthy thwarted that idea, but soon Kennedy was assassinated. Gavin was dismayed. He gave little thought to the notion that he was regarded as a gadfly critic determined to keep his face and name before the public. He gave up his own plans and became a sometime adviser to Nelson Rockefeller's campaign for the presidency.

Gavin always clung to the military training and experiences that had given him fame and now fortune. His connection with Arthur D. Little was, despite rationalization, a use of his military connection for private gain. He stayed close to the airborne legend, attending reunions and making appearances at veterans gatherings. His outside activities concerned the Little company, which began to question his leadership and to seek a successor to Gavin. He agreed to a successor and continued writing his World War II memoir as well as collaborating on a biography.

Gavin searched for his natural parents without success through the Catholic Church in New York and Ireland. He found a Katherine Ryan on paper but not in the flesh. Just as with his large efforts to effect change, his attempts to find his heritage were unsuccessful. His health began to fail. He had severe back pain as a result of a parachute jump in Holland during the war, and then Parkinson's disease bent and eventually broke him. Though his home was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the location of some of the finest medical facilities in the world, ever the soldier, Gavin turned to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., for care and treatment. He published his memoir, On to Berlin, in 1978, following his retirement from Arthur D. Little in 1977. He had a second home in Florida, but he passed his final years in Washington and eventually the Keswick Home in Baltimore, Maryland. He was buried with full military honors at West Point.

Gavin challenged conventional government and military thinking in the 1960s and sacrificed his career in defense of his beliefs regarding the direction of defense spending and military intervention in Southeast Asia. Despite his limited early education, he was a creative military and social thinker who used his corporate status to prevail upon government to listen to his ideas concerning effective use of American influence on Europe and on undeveloped nations.

Gavin's Crisis Now (1968) presents a synopsis of his thinking about domestic and world problems, and his War and Peace in the Space Age (1958) displays his early thinking on foreign policy. Gavin's war memoir, On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander, 1943–1946 (1978), provides a useful foundation for understanding his creativity as a commander. His article entitled "A Communication on Vietnam," in Harper's (Feb. 1966), is worth reading. See also his testimony to the Fulbright Committee,"Conflicts Between United States Capabilities and Foreign Commitments" (1967). The final chapters of T. Michael Booth and Duncan Spencer, Paratrooper: The Life of Gen. James M. Gavin (1994), are also useful. An extensive obituary is in the New York Times (25 Feb. 1990).

Jack J. Cardoso

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