By James Mann
The following is an excerpt from The Great Rift by James Mann, a sweeping history of the intertwined careers of Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, whose rivalry and conflicting views of U.S. national security color our political debate to this day.
I would spend nearly twenty years, one way or another, grappling with our experience in this country. And over all that time, Vietnam rarely made much more sense than Captain Hieu’s circular reasoning on that January day in 1963. We’re here because we’re here, because we’re …
I was of the opinion that the combination of Vietnam and Watergate had significant negative impact on the Presidency and in terms of the balance between Congress and the White House.… I thought Congress had infringed on executive prerogatives.
The early lives of Dick Cheney and Colin Powell possess some surprising similarities. Both men began their careers in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War was the preoccupying issue of the day. Both men began their ascent in Washington during the 1970s, as America struggled with the end of that war and its consequences.
As young men, Powell and Cheney gained prominence and were propelled forward not for their ideas or vision, but because of their skills at the less exalted tasks of organization and administration. Before they were political leaders, they were bureaucrats. Each started as an unusually talented staff aide; each proved adept at the basic task of getting things done for his bosses. Because of their fundamental competence, both Cheney and Powell attracted powerful, high-level mentors who would promote their careers in Washington for years to come.
But these similarities go only so far. Powell grew up in America’s biggest city, Cheney in the sparsely populated mountain west. As he started his career, Powell was always trying to build a record for himself, to find ways in which he could stand out. Cheney, by contrast, was trying to overcome his own record, a police record, a legacy of his occasionally raucous youth. Each time Cheney was offered a new, more powerful job, he would feel compelled to confess to his indiscretions as a young man.
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Powell was the older of the two, born in 1937, four years before Cheney. That age difference meant that Powell was old enough to harbor strong childhood memories of World War II, which the United States entered when he was four years old; Cheney could remember only the final year of the war and his father coming home. For Powell, the World War II memories lingered: decades later, he would sometimes be criticized for wanting to avoid small-scale wars and for seeking to conserve American troops for big wars of the sort that Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley had fought.
As a grown man, Powell would be hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, dance with Princess Diana, own expensive Manhattan apartments, and become friends with tycoons such as Walter Annenberg. Yet no one ever questioned his humble origins or accused him of elitism. He was born in Harlem, the son of Jamaican immigrants, both of whom worked in the city’s Garment District. The family eventually moved to the South Bronx, where Powell spent most of his childhood. He chose to go to City College of New York because its tuition was free, whereas New York University, which also accepted him, cost $750 a year.
At the prodding of his mother, Powell tried to major in engineering but quickly found it too hard for him. “A professor said to me, ‘Imagine a plane intersecting a cone in space.’ I said, ‘I cannot imagine a plane intersecting a cone in space. I’m out of here,’” Powell recalled years later. He switched to geology, but soon began devoting most of his energy to another field in which he excelled: the military. He joined the CCNY branch of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, loved it, and eventually became its cadet colonel, commander of the thousand-man regiment. “The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved,” Powell said. “Race, color, background, income meant nothing.”
He entered the army soon after his graduation in 1958. At first, he started down the predictable path of a young officer in peacetime, moving from base to base in the United States and Europe. But peace was not to last. In the mid-1950s, France had departed in defeat from its former colonies in Indochina, leaving behind a divided country in Vietnam. Communist North Vietnamese troops and guerrilla forces in the south sought to topple the pro-Western regime in South Vietnam and reunify the country, attracting support from the Soviet Union and China. The United States intervened to prop up the regime in Saigon, citing its Cold War policy of stopping the spread of communism. In the early 1960s, the administration of President John F. Kennedy began dispatching small numbers of American military advisors to South Vietnam; by the end of the decade, more than 500,000 American combat troops would be fighting there.
Colin Powell spent two tours of duty in Vietnam. The first was in 1962–63, the initial phase of the war, as the total American troop presence in Vietnam was being raised from three thousand to eleven thousand. At the time, ordinary Americans were so little aware of the country that when Powell first got his orders, his family had to look on a map to see where Vietnam was. Captain Powell served as an advisor to a South Vietnamese battalion far out in the jungle of the A Shau Valley, near the border with Laos, amid the insects, leeches, and Vietcong guerrillas. He once went a month without bathing, except for a quick splash in a stream. After six months there, spent largely on his own with the South Vietnamese troops, and frequently under fire, he was wounded when he stepped on a poisoned spike that went straight through his foot. He returned home from that tour with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
Five years later, Powell was sent back, this time at the height of the war, a time when the morale of the American troops was flagging. Powell, now a major, served as executive officer of the U.S. Army’s Americal Division and as its staff officer for operations and planning. During this second tour, a helicopter in which he was riding crashed; he suffered a broken ankle but managed to drag his commanding officer to safety. He was awarded a Legion of Merit.
The war turned out to be far costlier than America could tolerate. Younger Americans whose frame of reference is the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 can scarcely imagine how much greater an impact the Vietnam War had on American lives, society, politics, the armed forces, foreign policy, intellectual life, and culture. More than 58,000 Americans were killed, nearly twelve times as many as in the Iraq War. By 1973, the United States had withdrawn all its forces; two years later, the South Vietnamese regime collapsed.
His Vietnam experience left Powell with a profound, instinctive mistrust of experts, abstractions, and technocratic solutions of the sort that officials in Washington had concocted to justify what turned out to be a futile military action. Powell had experienced the war up close, and he was convinced that the top U.S. political and military leaders in Washington had not understood the reality on the ground in Vietnam. In harboring such sentiments, he was hardly unique; millions of other Americans reacted to the war in the same way. But for Powell, Vietnam also amplified the anti-intellectual tendencies he had already harbored earlier in his life. He belittled “slide-rule prodigies” such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had regularly proclaimed that America was winning the war.
“Deep thinkers … were producing printouts, filling spreadsheets, crunching numbers, and coming out with blinding flashes of the obvious, while an enemy in black pajamas and Firestone flip-flops could put an officer out of the war with a piece of bamboo dripped in manure,” he later wrote. “Experts often produce more data than judgment.”
The war also left Powell with a sense of anger at the injustices of the military draft. Young men from wealthy or middle-class backgrounds received draft deferments while the poorer and less educated were shipped off to Vietnam. (Among the millions who obtained deferments was a young man from Wyoming named Dick Cheney.) Powell disparaged the way America was fighting a war for which it had little enthusiasm. “We were in a war against an enemy who believed in his cause and was willing to pay the price, however high,” he later wrote.
For all these reasons, Powell developed strong views about the ways America should and should not go into battle. The United States should not have gone into a “half-hearted, half-war” in Vietnam, he later wrote. War should be “the politics of last resort,” he argued, and the United States should go to war only with strong public support. But once America did go to war, it should set clear goals, mobilize its resources, and go in to win.
Over the following three decades, Powell would repeatedly find himself confronting these same questions about how and when America should go to war. He would play a role in the creation of new guidelines for American policy makers, seeking to ensure that America never again fought a military conflict the way it had in Vietnam.
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Dick Cheney’s childhood was, if anything, too stable, instilling a desire for movement, upheaval, and disorder. His father’s parents had wandered around the Great Plains, their lives subject to the vicissitudes of drought, recessions, and bank failures. Seeking to avoid a similar fate, his father took a job with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, held it for three decades, settled in Wyoming, and was pleased to retire on a federal pension. Cheney grew up in Casper, where he was an All-State football star at Natrona County High School, served as president of the student council, and began to date his future wife, Lynne Vincent, the state champion baton twirler. “He was very popular, very involved. And smart, but—he’s never been the kind of smart that is flashy,” said Dave Gribben, who went to high school with Cheney and later worked for him.
After graduating from high school in 1959, Cheney began a period of instability, insobriety, and intermittent wildness that lasted for several years. Most of his fellow graduates went on to the University of Wyoming or to nearby Casper College, but a Yale alumnus living in Wyoming had encouraged Cheney to apply to his alma mater. At the time, Yale’s student body was composed mostly of students from the Northeast, often from elite schools. The active recruitment of public high school graduates from states such as Wyoming was part of an effort to expand Yale’s geographical diversity. Cheney won admission and entered Yale, but he soon discovered that he didn’t fit in—except with a small group of friends who, in his own words, “shared my belief that beer was one of the essentials of life.” At the end of his freshman year, the Yale administration asked him to take a year off. He did, but after returning, he continued to receive poor grades and disciplinary warnings and finally dropped out of Yale again, this time permanently.
Returning west, Cheney went to work as a lineman, stringing cable and power lines and operating equipment for construction crews as he moved from job to job in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. He lived in roadside motels and unwound at night in local watering holes, drinking beer, sometimes with shots of bourbon. He was arrested for drunk driving in late 1962 and again less than a year later. On the second occasion, he woke up with a hangover, in jail.
By Cheney’s own account, this was something of a conversion experience. He decided to stay away from the bars and to go back to school. He returned to college at the University of Wyoming, mostly because he was a resident of the state and, thus, the university was obliged to accept him, despite his poor grades. There, he turned into a serious student.
To some extent, the demeanor and affect for which Cheney would be known later in life (the deep voice, the cool assurance, the extreme gravity and sobriety, the aura that everything has been foreseen and is under control) can be viewed as a reaction to this chaotic period in his youth. The arrests for drunk driving became a record he felt compelled to explain at various stages in his life. When he was being considered for a top job in the White House, during the administration of Gerald Ford, Cheney disclosed the arrests, saying he didn’t want the president to be surprised. The issue went to Ford himself, who ordered that Cheney be hired. A quarter century later, when George W. Bush offered him the vice presidency in the summer of 2000, Cheney again felt obliged to confess, to Bush and his political advisor Karl Rove, the drunk-driving episodes of his youth. (At the time, Cheney did not know that Bush was concealing a similar arrest in his own past, one that would become public just before Election Day.)
Cheney finished his undergraduate degree at Wyoming and went off to the University of Wisconsin for graduate school in political science, together with his wife, Lynne, who was also a graduate student. In 1966, they had their first child, Elizabeth. Cheney had received a 2-S student draft deferment while attending college; after his daughter was born, he was given another deferment, as a parent with dependents. Two years later, as the war was reaching its peak, he turned twenty-seven and was no longer eligible for the draft.
Cheney subsequently admitted to an overall sense of detachment from the war and the issues it raised. “As a general proposition, I was supportive in those days, I think, of the Johnson administration policy,” he observed in one interview. “I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.… From my personal standpoint, it wasn’t a traumatic event at the time.” He went on to say, repeatedly, that if he had been called up, he would have gone. (He had been, in fact, briefly classified as 1-A and was thus, theoretically, eligible for the draft in his days of drifting after leaving Yale, but the war was in its earliest stages then, and there were few call-ups.)
Two decades after the war, during his confirmation hearings to become secretary of defense, Cheney told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.” It was a statement that did little to endear him to those serving in the military or to Vietnam veterans, some of whom wrote angry letters to their local newspapers. In the early 2000s, at the time of a new war in Iraq, opponents of the war brought up that Cheney quote again, with renewed anger.
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When Colin Powell returned home from his second tour in Vietnam in 1969, his family urged him to get out of the army. By this time, he already had a family; he had married his wife, Alma Johnson, in 1962, and they already had two young children. Powell overcame his family’s objections by telling them that if he stayed in and made the rank of lieutenant colonel, he could retire at age forty-one with a 50 percent pension. They went along, and he was indeed promoted to lieutenant colonel a year later.
He enrolled in graduate school, itself a traditional stepping-stone for a young military officer. But at the army’s prodding, he took an unusual path, pursuing an MBA at George Washington University, rather than the more typical military path of enrolling in an international relations program to study strategy and policy. “I was more interested in business than in just getting a soft policy degree,” he later explained.
After two years, his master’s degree in hand, Powell was assigned to a staff job at the Pentagon. While working there in late 1971, he was given an opportunity that would become of profound importance to his career. His army superiors handed him a form and instructed him to apply to the White House Fellows program, in which fifteen promising young people from various fields, viewed as future leaders, were assigned to work for a year as special assistants to senior White House staff, Cabinet secretaries, and other top officials. Army leaders were eager to get more military officers into the program. Powell sent in his application, one of fifteen hundred submitted that year, and was chosen as a White House fellow for the year 1972–73.
Powell had to decide where in Washington he would spend his year. He was first sounded out about the FBI, but the idea didn’t appeal to him. He interviewed with the secretary of housing and urban development, George Romney, but that job seemed too limiting. Finally, he went to work for one of the least glamorous agencies in the federal government: the Office of Management and Budget. Once again, his instinct for doing what was practical worked out spectacularly well for him. At the time, the director of OMB was Caspar Weinberger, a California lawyer who had worked for Governor Ronald Reagan and who would later become secretary of defense. Weinberger’s deputy at OMB was Frank Carlucci, himself a future national security advisor and secretary of defense.
Carlucci was especially important for Powell’s career. He had served on the panel that selected Powell as a White House fellow, and he hired Powell to spend his fellowship year at the budget office. Powell was assigned to an office across the hall from Carlucci. Years later, Carlucci would recall that he found Powell to be a quick study, a hard worker, easygoing but forceful when he needed to be. “He had the diplomatic finesse to say no without alienating people,” Carlucci said.
The civilian contacts Powell made during his year as a White House fellow would prove invaluable for him. In the early 1980s, when Weinberger became secretary of defense, Powell would work as his military assistant. A few years later, when President Reagan appointed Carlucci to be his national security advisor, Carlucci would pick Powell to serve as his deputy. After Carlucci moved to the Pentagon to succeed Weinberger as secretary of defense, Powell would rise to become national security advisor. And when Dick Cheney took over from Carlucci at the Pentagon, Carlucci would recommend strongly that Cheney name Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Jim Webb, a future U.S. senator who clashed regularly with Powell when both men served in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, said that he thought Carlucci “created Colin Powell.” That seems more than a little unfair to Powell, whose own extraordinary talents propelled him forward. But Webb’s acid comment says something about the long, close mentor-pupil relationship between Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell.
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Like Powell, Dick Cheney first moved to Washington in the late 1960s. Before long he, too, developed a close working relationship as an aide to a high-level mentor—one who would over time become even more important to Cheney’s career than Carlucci was for Powell’s.
In 1968, while still a graduate student at Wisconsin, Cheney came to the nation’s capital on a fellowship from the American Political Science Association. The fellows were assigned to work for individual members of Congress. Cheney interviewed with a young congressman from Illinois, Donald Rumsfeld, but after a short time, Rumsfeld brusquely dismissed him, saying, “This isn’t going to work.” It was “one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life,” Cheney later recalled. “The truth is I flunked the interview.” Instead, he settled in the office of Wisconsin congressman Bill Steiger.
The following year, President Richard Nixon brought Rumsfeld into his administration, appointing the congressman to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, the antipoverty agency created in the Johnson administration. Rumsfeld asked Steiger for advice about running the agency. Cheney noticed the request for help on Steiger’s desk and spent a weekend writing a memo with thoughts on how to organize and staff OEO. The memo made its way to Rumsfeld, who a few weeks later called Cheney to offer him a job.
Cheney began as the agency’s head of congressional relations but was soon moved to a new position, as Rumsfeld’s special assistant, with a desk outside Rumsfeld’s office. Because Rumsfeld also had a separate title as special assistant to the president, Cheney was given a second office along with Rumsfeld in the West Wing of the White House. When the FBI screened him for the White House job, the two drunk-driving arrests turned up. Rumsfeld asked Cheney about them and then decided to ignore them, winning Cheney’s everlasting gratitude.
It was Rumsfeld’s style to issue orders and to receive information at one remove through his special assistant. Cheney became Rumsfeld’s instrument and gradually began to take on an importance of his own. In these early days of the Nixon administration, Frank Carlucci was serving as Rumsfeld’s deputy at OEO. He later said he learned quickly that the way to get things done at the agency was to go to Cheney, who was discreet and effective. “When you gave something to Dick, it happened. It got done,” Carlucci said.
James Mann is the author of several books on American politics and national security issues, including Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet and The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power. A longtime correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, he is currently a fellow in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He lives in Washington, D.C.