Shalikashvili, John

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John Shalikashvili

Born June 27, 1936

Warsaw, Poland

Military leader; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

"The Polish underground occupied our apartment, and shortly after that the Germans bombed it. With our apartment destroyed, we lived by just moving around…. We survived by going from cellar to cellar. Most often the only way to get anyplace was through the sewer lines…. A piece of bread during this period was like a holiday meal."

G eneral John Shalikashvili was the first person born outside the United States to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The chairman of this group of military commanders is the lead advisor to the president. "General Shali," as President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) referred to him when announcing Shalikashvili's appointment, served in the U.S. military for almost forty years. He was commissioned as an officer in 1959, served in the Vietnam War (1954–75), commanded the airlift of food to Kurdish refugees in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War (1991), and played a significant role in peace negotiations among warring factions, or groups, of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. "Only in America," he said upon his retirement as a four-star general in 1997, "could a foreign-born young man with a thick accent and almost unpronounceable last name get drafted into the Army as a private … and leave as the nation's highest-ranking military officer."

From Poland to Peoria

John Malchase David Shalikashvili was born on June 27, 1936, in Warsaw, Poland. He was one of three children of Dimitri Shalikashvili and Maria Ruediger. His mother was the daughter of a general who served the under czar, or emperor, of Russia. Shalikashvili's father was from Georgia, one of the countries ruled by Russia. He received training at a Russian military academy and fought as a cavalry officer in the Russian Civil War (1918–21). After the fall of the czarist armies to communists forces in 1917, Shalikashvili's parents both fled their homes and moved to Warsaw, where they met and were later married.

Shalikashvili's father was serving as a contract, or foreign national, officer in the Polish army when World War II (1939–45) began. Poland was invaded by and surrendered to Germany. Dimitri Shalikashvili joined a military unit composed of Georgian expatriates, or those living in a foreign land, who believed they could free their homeland from the Soviet Union by aligning themselves with Germany. But the unit was transferred to France when the American forces landed there in 1944. Shalikashvili's father was wounded, captured by the British, and moved to a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Italy.

Meanwhile, Shalikashvili's mother and the three children lived in Warsaw, in an area that was relatively peaceful until German soldiers moved in to confront an uprising of Warsaw underground forces, or civilians who work against an occupying army. "It's very difficult to describe the level of misery and destruction in Warsaw in those late summer days of 1944," Shalikashvili later told the Peoria Journal Star newspaper. "The Polish underground occupied our apartment, and shortly after that the Germans bombed it. With our apartment destroyed, we lived by just moving around…. We survived by going from cellar to cellar. Most often the only way to get anyplace was through the sewer lines." He added, "A piece of bread during this period was like a holiday meal." After the uprising was stopped, the Shalikashvilis were among many civilians evacuated to camps along the border between Poland and Germany. Warsaw was the most heavily damaged city in World War II.

Near the end of the war, when Soviet forces moved across Poland toward Germany, the family fled Poland, hiding in a cattle car in a train just ahead of the Soviet army. The train was attacked by planes, and the family had to scatter into nearby woods for protection. They made their way to Pappenheim, Germany, where Maria Shalikashvili had wealthy relatives who provided the family with a place to stay. In 1946, more than a year after the war, the family was reunited with their father, who had been released from a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Italy.

In 1952, the Shalikashvilis immigrated to Peoria, Illinois, where a distant relative lived. The sixteen-year-old Shalikashvili spoke Polish, German, and Russian, and in Peoria he became proficient in English by watching John Wayne (1907–1979) movies at a local theater. He graduated with honors from Peoria High School in 1954. He went on to Bradley University, where he graduated in 1958 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Enjoys army life

In Peoria, Shalikashvili's father worked for Central Illinois Light Company, and his mother was a file clerk at Commercial National Bank. After completing his degree at Bradley, Shalikashvili planned to work for Hyster Lift Truck Company in Peoria. Instead, his draft notice arrived in the mail. Shalikashvili completed basic training and was accepted in Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1959 and assigned to a military base in Alaska. It was there that Shalikashvili realized he enjoyed army life. "I don't want to sound corny, but it was a life that had some kind of meaning. It wasn't just making a buck. You were doing something for your country. For me, that meant twice as much as most, because I feel I owe this country so much."

Shalikashvili decided to make a career in the army. He served as an instructor (1961 to 1963) and a staff officer (1963 to 1964) at the Army Air Defense School and Center in Fort Bliss, Texas, where he was promoted to captain in 1963. He moved to Germany in 1965 to serve with the U.S. Army Air Defense Command from 1965 to 1967, and he was promoted to major. In 1966, he married Joan E. Zimpelman. The couple would have one son.

In January 1968, Shalikashvili began serving in Vietnam. The United States had begun sending military advisors there in 1961 to help South Vietnam withstand a communist takeover from North Vietnam. Beginning in 1965, American troops were sent to Vietnam to fight in the war, and by 1967 more than five hundred thousand American troops were stationed there. Shalikashvili served as senior advisor with the responsibilities of training Vietnamese militia units, or small, civilian fighting groups, and accompany them into combat. He also worked with local officials on such projects as producing and distributing rice and organizing elections. Shalikashvili's units withstood artillery attacks and performed bravely. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor, or bravery, for his service in Vietnam.

After leaving Vietnam in mid-1969, Shalikashvili studied at the Naval War College and at George Washington University, where he was awarded a master's degree in international relations in 1970. Over the next twenty years, he concentrated on strategic planning in the classroom and in a variety of assignments. He was in South Korea in 1971 and 1972, was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1974, and served as commander of the First Battalion, 84th Field Artillery, from 1975 to 1977 at Fort Lewis, Washington. He was at the Army War College from 1977 to 1978 before a two-year stint in Italy, where he was promoted to colonel in 1979. From 1980 to 1981, he commanded the division artillery of the First Armored Division, U.S. Army, Europe, in Germany. In 1983, he was promoted to brigadier general, then to major general in 1986. In between two more tours of duty in Germany, he had duty in the Pentagon as the army's director of strategy, plans, and policy from 1986 to 1987. He returned to Germany in 1989 as deputy commander-in-chief, U.S. Army, Europe.

Shalikashvili was in Germany when the Persian Gulf War began and ended in a matter of weeks in early 1991. An international coalition led by the United States liberated Kuwait, which had been invaded by Iraq. Within Iraq, many people of the Kurdish ethnic group were forced from their home area in the north to harsh mountainous terrain that forms the borders of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. An international relief expedition called Operation Provide Comfort was organized, with Shalikashvili as commander. Military units and medical personnel from the United States and a dozen other countries began entering the area in April 1991. The Operation was a success, providing humanitarian aid and establishing a safe haven for Kurds. Shalikashvili was a model commander,

showing diplomatic skills and military strategy to organize thirty-five thousand men and women from thirteen countries to help Kurdish refugees leave the mountains and resettle in secure zones in Iraq. "We had reports indicating that 1,000 or more of these refugees were dying each night from the weather and other problems," Shalikashvili said. "We set ourselves a goal of getting them out by June," he continued. "And we did it. In the end, we brought home some 700,000…. But we can only guess how many died."

"O.K., then it's you"

After the successful mission in Iraq, Shalikashvili reported to the Pentagon in August 1991 as assistant to General Colin Powell (1937–), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (also known as the "Joint Chiefs") under President George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93). The following June, Shalikashvili became Supreme Allied Commander of Europe (SACEUR) and head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. (Ten European nations, the United States, and Canada formed NATO after World War II to ensure stability in Europe.) Shalikashvili was promoted to four-star general. His mission included preparing NATO for possible operation in Bosnia in the former nation of Yugoslavia, where genocide, or the killing of people based on their ethnic or racial origin, was occurring.

Unassuming Leader

On two occasions, General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended Shalikashvili for promotion. Twice, Shalikashvili tried to turn the jobs down. "I recommended him for SACEUR [supreme allied commander of Europe]," Powell told Peoria Journal Star newspaper. "That's a pre-eminent [most important] job that normally went to a veteran four-star general. Shali was a three-star then. But he was considered the best man for the job. So he was jumped over the other candidates." Shalikashvili would urge then-president George Bush not to consider him. "I thought it was bad precedent," Shalikashvili said. "Never in our history has a three-star general been promoted to a four-star general and his first job be supreme allied commander of NATO. After all, this is the job [General Dwight] Eisenhower had."

Powell would also recommend Shalikashvili to replace him as chairman in 1993. Again, Shalikashvili had to be convinced to take the position. "I felt that I could better serve my country in Europe…. There was a second reason, too. I didn't want to follow Colin Powell. I didn't want to be reading in the papers for four years: 'He's OK, but he's no Colin Powell.'"

President Bill Clinton told Shalikashvili that he would respect his wishes not to be named chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Before Shalikashvili could return to NATO headquarters, the president called him back for a second interview. "So I went back to the White House to again explain why I didn't want the job," Shalikashvili told the Peoria Journal Star. "But there was a point when I told the president that if he really wanted me to do the job, I would give it my best effort. And he said, 'OK, then it's you.'"

General Shalikashvili was in charge of NATO when the decision was made to threaten air strikes in Bosnia. Those threats became reality in late February 1994, marking the first time NATO used force in defense of a country outside NATO membership. Shalikashvili had to transform NATO, which was formed to defend Europe against the Soviet Union, to mobilize quickly against trouble spots, like Bosnia. (The Soviet Union had collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.)

In August 1993, Shalikashvili was chosen to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs by President Bill Clinton. When he was first asked by Clinton, Shalikashvili declined, feeling his mission with NATO was incomplete. During a second discussion with the president, Shalikashvili recalled, "There was a point when I told the president that if he really wanted me to do the job, I would give it my best effort. And he said, 'OK, then it's you.'"

Shalikashvili took the position at a time of realignment in international affairs following the collapse of the Soviet Union and budget cutbacks at home. He was also succeeding General Colin Powell, a popular military leader.

During his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Shalikashvili oversaw the 1994 invasion of Haiti to reinstate the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1953–), and then transferred peacekeeping duties to a United Nations force. During the Dayton Peace Accords to address the war in Bosnia, he ensured that the military would be represented to set clear goals and objectives for a military mission. He continued the simultaneous downsizing and technological upgrading of U.S. military forces begun under General Powell.

Shalikashvili faced many international issues. Nations in Africa collapsed and Americans had to be evacuated. The administration confronted North Korea about its program to develop nuclear weapons. The confrontation was resolved diplomatically when North Korea agreed to disassemble its nuclear reactor. China and Taiwan were in a diplomatic conflict. Meanwhile, Shalikashvili advocated technological upgrading of the armed forces; for maintaining strong alliances throughout the world and enlargement of NATO; and he developed Joint Vision 2010, a conceptual framework in which all U.S. military services would plan together.

Retires from military

As President Clinton planned his second term in office in 1997, Shalikashvili announced his retirement from the military at the age of sixty. Traditionally, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs serves two two-year terms. At his retirement ceremony in 1997 at Fort Myer, Virginia, Secretary of Defense William Cohen (1940–) said that Shalikashvili's four-year tenure as chairman "was the job of responding to threats while shaping the world for the better, bringing more democracy to more nations, more stability to more regions, and thus more security to our nation." Following his retirement, Shalikashvili lectured on international studies at Stanford University. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military citation, by President Clinton in 2000.

—Roger Matuz

For More Information


Dreifus, Claudia. Interview. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.

Shalikashvili, John, and Stanley R. Sloan. NATO, the European Union, and the Atlantic Community. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.


Goldstein, Lyle J. "General John Shalikashvili and the Civil-Military Relations of Peacekeeping." Armed Forces & Society (Fall 2000): pp. 387–411.

Weiner, Tim. "Four-Star Military Mind: John Malchase David Shalikashvili." New York Times (August 12, 1993): p. A22.

Web Sites

"General John Malchase David Shalikashvili." The Army Historical Foundation. (accessed on March 26, 2004).

"Newsmaker Interview with General John Shalikashvili." Online News-Hour. (accessed on March 26, 2004).

"Shalikashvili: A Peorian in the Pentagon." Journal Star Online Special Edition: The Legacy Project. (accessed on March 26, 2004).