General (R) John W. Vessey, Jr. Receives Thayer Award

Categories: Thayer Award, Events & Awards

As a distinguished soldier, diplomat and advisor to Presidents, John William Vessey, Jr. has rendered a lifetime of outstanding service to the nation and his fellow citizens. In successive positions of increasing responsibility, in and out of uniform, General Vessey has exemplified unparalleled devotion to the principles expressed in the motto of the United States Military Academy, “DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY.”

General Vessey’s extraordinary half-century of service began with his enlistment in the Minnesota National Guard in 1939. During World War II, he fought as an artilleryman with the 34th Infantry Division throughout the North African and Italian campaigns. He rose to the rank of First Sergeant before receiving a battlefield commission on the beaches of Anzio in May 1944.

During the early post-war era, he served with troops in the 4th Infantry and 3d Armored Divisions in Germany.

In Vietnam, he commanded an artillery battalion, where, in an engagement that typified his leadership and courage, he won the Distinguished Service Cross for personally leading his battalion’s defense, manning one of its howitzers, delivering direct fires against assaulting enemy infantry.

As a general officer, he served in Southeast Asia where he coordinated military operations in Thailand and Laos, later commanded the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson and then was selected as the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans.

In 1976, General Vessey received his fourth star and was assigned to Korea as Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command; Commander, United States Forces, Korea; Commanding General, Eighth US Army and two years later, as the first Commander-in-Chief, Republic of Korea – United States Combined Forces Command.

During General Vessey’s tenure of command, the President announced plans to withdraw US ground forces from Korea. In a demonstration of selfless moral courage, General Vessey, in hearings before Congress, publicly stated his personal opposition to the President’s proposed withdrawal.

In 1979 General Vessey returned to Washington as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. Three years later, President Reagan selected General Vessey, whom he called his “Mud Soldier,” as the 10th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As Chairman, General Vessey sought to reduce inter-service rivalry and to streamline the national military command structure. He fought to build the nation’s military capability to deter and, if necessary, to defeat a continuously increasing Soviet military threat. Six years later, the success of his efforts was conspicuously demonstrated in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq.

In 1985, General Vessey retired from active military service, having served with true distinction at every level from Private, cannoneer, to General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Retirement, however, brought no respite from the recurring call of duty. In 1987, President Reagan asked General Vessey to serve as Presidential Emissary to Hanoi for POW/MIA matters. Serving three Presidents in that capacity, he faced perhaps the most difficult challenges of his many years of service. Dealing with an intractable Vietnamese Government in an atmosphere of incessant domestic criticism, he persisted and negotiated procedures for combined search operations to locate and return American military dead. Through his tireless efforts, more than 8,000 former South Vietnamese military officers and government officials were released from detention and over 300,000 separated Vietnamese family members, including thousands of Amerasian children, were permitted to leave Vietnam.

General Vessey is the holder of more than thirty-five United States military and foreign government decorations. In 1986, the Association of the United States Army awarded General Vessey its prestigious George Catlett Marshall Award. In 1992, President Bush, in the name of a grateful nation, presented General Vessey the nation’s highest civilian decoration, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Throughout five decades of incomparable service, General Vessey has set a unique example of selfless devotion to duty and concern for his fellow countrymen. His life and accomplishments reflect extraordinary qualities of courage, dedication and leadership and epitomize the values expressed in the West Point motto. Accordingly, the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy hereby awards the 1996 West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award to John William Vessey, Jr.

Edward C. Meyer
General, USA (Retired)
Chairman, Association of Graduates


Remarks by General (Ret.) John W. Vessey upon receiving the Sylvanus Thayer Award

West Point September 25, 1996

Soldiering in the 21st Century

Thanks! Thanks for the welcome, and thanks for another chance to visit West Point, the best military academy in the world. A very special thanks to the Association of Graduates for the very special honor, and, for giving me, perhaps only momentarily, but nevertheless the very pleasant delusion that my name might somehow deserve to be associated with that of Sylvanus Thayer and with the names of the distinguished Americans who have received the Thayer Award. Thanks!

I want to talk to the Corps, but before I do that I also want to thank all you comrades from former days who came to witness this extraordinary event. I know that respect for this great institution was your major motivation, but perhaps our friendship, even if flavored with a little incredulity, stirred many of you to attend. I wish we had time for me to mention each of you because having the opportunity to work with you and thousands like you is the only reason for me receiving the Thayer Award. Secretary West and General Reimer, you honor us all by being here. My long associations with you, with General Meyer, General Art Brown, General Griffith, General Scott, General Christman, and the rest of you have been wonderful. Ambassador Mac Godley got shot at more in the diplomatic service than many military officers do in an entire career because in good soldierly fashion he took on the tough jobs like The Congo, Laos, and Lebanon. Thanks for coming, Mac, and thanks for the chance to work with you in Laos. Two other very special people I want to cite for taking time to come here today are Sergeant Major Ludwell Brown and retired Master Sergeant Al Doucet. For you cadets, these two epitomize the wonderful corps of non-commissioned officers with whom you will have the great privilege of serving. These two tough, dedicated soldiers willingly took on whatever tasks the Army asked be done. In addition to being tough as nails, both are kind, gentle people who also serve their local communities in very special ways. Both have wonderful wives and families that are a tribute to the Army and the Nation. I had the great, good fortune to serve with both of them for a number of years. Thanks for coming! And thanks, again, to all I didn’t have time to mention.

One of the many privileges—or penalties, as the case may be—of being a Cadet at the United States Military Academy is the opportunity to hear the acceptance talks of as many as four Thayer Award recipients. The First Class Cadets have had the opportunity to hear three truly great Americans, Barbara Jordan, George Bush, and Cyrus Vance, people renowned, not only for their service to the Nation and to humanity at large, but for their facility with the English language. You got to hear erudite views on international relations, national security policy, and educational philosophy. Today, your situation is quite different. For the next few minutes you are stuck with listening to a fellow who, for many years, had the well-earned reputation of being an officer with only three speeches—one on tank maintenance, one on helicopter operation, and the third on reenlistment. I will spare you those today, they are not up-to-date. I do want to talk on something closely allied to those old saws; I’d call it, “Soldiering in the 21st Century.”

I certainly don’t want to try to pass this to you as being the definitive word on 21st Century soldiering, or as any sort of a prediction of what will happen in the next 10 years, to say nothing of the next 100. One of the great contemporary American philosophers, Yogi Berra, who, incidentally, visited West Point many times, was correct when he said, “Predictions are very hard to make, especially about the future.” I would like to use the next few minutes to give you some of the observations of a fellow who looked at soldiers and soldiering for almost 60% of the 20th Century, and for the last 15–17 years has worked on some of the problems involved in moving the U.S. military establishment into the 21st Century.

You are here because the U.S Army wants you to be a second lieutenant, with the prospect of advancing to higher rank and responsibility, with the expectation that most of you will hold positions of great responsibility in the Army of the early 21st Century.

When I was a private and even a corporal, the prospect of speaking to, or worse yet, being spoken to by, a real second lieutenant gave me great concern. In the barracks, as soldiers had for years before us, we jokingly lumped second lieutenants with stale beer, wet toilet paper, and new corporals as the major afflictions of a soldier’s life. On the drill field, in field training exercises, and later in combat, we treated our lieutenant with respect. We tried to help him succeed. He was our link to all the outside support we were going to get. If our team was going to be any good, he had to be an integral part of the team and he had to do his job well. In fact, our very lives depended on his competence. At the same time, we knew he was young, although older than we. Even though he was smarter and better educated than we, we knew he wasn’t omniscient, even though he sometimes tried to appear so. When he had proved his mettle as a team member and a team builder, when he had learned to say, “Troops, I fouled that up, and I need your help to keep from making mistakes like that,” our respect grew to genuine affection, and we would have done just about anything for him. When he was wounded, we wept and worried that he would not come back to us. In that World War II outfit, we were fortunate in having “our lieutenant” eventually become “our captain” and lead us through the remaining years of the war. During the first week of this month, I attended the 48th reunion of that field artillery battery. Only 18 of the 30 remaining vets were able to travel to the reunion. “The captain,” now 83 years old, and long ago retired as a colonel, was one of those unable to travel, but the assembled 18 engaged in an hour-long telephone conversation with “the captain.” The spirits of all were buoyed by the experience.

That aspect of soldiering in the American Army in the 20th Century wasn’t much different from what it was in the 19th Century, and I do not think it will change much in the 21st Century.

However, enormous changes in soldiering did take place in the 20th Century. For example, in only the past 57 years, the space of my observations, we completed the move from horse and foot transport to motorized, then mechanized, and then to air-mobile movement on the battlefield. The infantryman went from bolt-action rifles to semi-automatic, to full-automatic rifles. In communications, we moved from semaphore flags and high frequency continuous wave Morse code, to frequency modulated voice radio, to the routine use of satellites, not only for communications but for surveillance and reconnaissance. We moved from relatively short-range, “to whom it may concern” artillery to the integration of armor movement with long-range air support and the modern use of military rockets, and eventually very accurate, long-range, guided missiles. The destructiveness of the heaviest munitions moved from 250-pound, TNT-filled aerial bombs to multi-megaton thermal-nuclear warheads for inter-continental missiles. Our electronic aids moved from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits to today’s multi-chip modules and parallel processing. As a result, our calculating moved from tabular trigonometric tables and slide rules to mechanical calculators to enormous vacuum tube computers, to the small powerful, integrated circuit computers used in almost every facet of soldiering today.

Perhaps even more important, the technological changes, coupled with our memories of the horrible slaughters on the battlefields of World War II, permitted us—caused us—to move away from treating people as a homogenous quality—like grain in an elevator. The recognition of the intrinsic worth of each soldier grew steadily during the period. One need only look at the declining casualty figures, and particularly the missing in action figures for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm to understand what I’m talking about. We moved from a racially segregated Army to an Army where ability, not skin color, determines the soldier’s opportunities. We moved from an Army in which the only women were nurses to an Army with women in just about every skill position except close combat, and where from time to time, one will lead the graduating class at West Point. We moved from an Army wherein half the soldiers were not high school graduates to one where almost everyone is at least a high school graduate, and many have university degrees. We moved from an Army in which men of my stature were above average height to one in which we have become the runts.

Great changes in the geo-political world had a major effect on soldiering in the last half of the 20th Century. America’s move from a semi-isolationist, reluctant player on the world stage, to being the arsenal of the Free World and the Allied leader during World War II, to being the Free World political and economic leader during the Cold War, to being the world’s lone super-power today, have all influenced soldiering for America.

We could go on and on about the 20th Century changes affecting soldiering; we haven’t even mentioned the monumental change from brown shoes to black shoes, but I think you can see that extensive changes have taken place. Nevertheless, most experts believe that the changes of the 20th Century will pale when compared to the changes you are likely to face.

If the foremost demographers are correct, before the last of you retires from military service, the world’s population will approach 10 billion, twice what it was when you entered high school. Much of the population growth will be in the poorer parts of the world, and, if recent trends are any indication, most of the new people will be living in the world’s cities. America’s population will grow only about 30% from the same period. We will continue to have an ever decreasing percentage of the world’s population. Our economic output will continue to be huge, but it too will continue to be an ever decreasing percentage of the world’s output. Many of the pundits, particularly those who want to see decreases in the Defense budget, tell us that we are unlikely to face any single-nation, peer, competitor in the next 20 years. However, almost any student of history will remind us that combinations of nations have changed in much shorter periods of time. Certainly, we would like to believe that we do not have any such thing as natural enemies in the world of nation-states. We will continue to work hard to get along with the rest of the world, but it is not difficult to imagine combinations of states that could challenge the United States and her interests. In fact, nation-states will not be our only challenges. There is a lot of shooting going on in the world today, but little if any is between nation-states. Most of it comes from non-state entities trying to change or dismantle nation-states. The cover and concealment on many future battlefields may well be urban humanity, nullifying some of our advantage in such things as long-range precision weapons, and making infantry ever more important.

In the last half of the 20th Century, we learned a lot about working with allies, but we didn’t learn nearly as much as you 21st Century soldiers will need to know. General Bill Nash and the soldiers of the 3d Armored Division may be giving us an inkling of things to come in their work with the Russian Brigade in Bosnia.

The move to the “information age”— the “digital age”—will probably have a more profound effect on soldiering than all the technological change we saw in the 20th Century. In the last 3 years, Defense Science Board task forces have been looking into various aspects of the changes likely to occur. It is not difficult to pick out individual changes, but determining the combined effects of the manifold changes taking place is a problem you will surely inherit. Your Army, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other services are hard at work on the matter, but the Chief will not solve the problems in his time. The Defense Science Board task force on Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance often hears and talks about the commander of the future having “total battlefield awareness.” Unfortunately, we often speak and act as though the knowledge will be available only to our commanders. We fail to recognize that computing power is the one commodity in the world whose price continues to go down, and that most of the technological things which go into providing battlefield awareness are readily available on the commercial market and that “great power” defense expenditures are not needed to acquire that technology. We also sometimes fail to recognize that the opposing commander will be using the same technology to try to make our “total battlefield awareness” totally wrong! Soldiering in your time will surely be impacted greatly.

The move to a global economy will also surely affect your soldiering. In the middle of the 20th Century, the Army had to create nearly the mirror image of a large industrial economy in order to take military force to less-developed or war-damaged parts of the world. We had port battalions, railway operating battalions, construction battalions, and huge storage and maintenance depots. The Army set the standard for many of those activities. Whatever was needed, the Army could do it better than almost anyone. That is not the case now. Today, companies like Caterpillar and Boeing provide world-wide parts and maintenance support much faster than the Army. In Bosnia, a contractor provides the base operations and housekeeping, freeing our soldiers to do the soldiering. The residue of much of that military-industrial complex continues to be in uniform today. The Secretary and the Chief understand the problem and are working for change. Their changes and the changes you will be able to make can move us to an Army where those who wear the uniform will be almost exclusively fighters or the providers of very direct combat and combat service support to the fighters. We can buy the base support and depot maintenance from the civilian economy, have the soldiers do only soldiering, save the taxpayer money, and defend the Nation better.

The Army will be an ever smaller part of the nation’s population. The members of Congress with military service will continue to decline. Maintaining ties to the American community will be ever more difficult and more important. The fighting part of the Army is almost too small for today’s world, a world of relative peace. The likelihood that it will be too small for the unforeseen problems you will face approaches certainty. Integrating the Regular Army and the Army’s Reserve Components was important in the 20th Century. Integrating the Total Army, perhaps in an entirely new fashion will be even more important in your time, both to have a large enough Army and to help maintain ties to the larger American Community. Seek out duty with the Reserve Components as did General George Marshall. It may well help you as much in the 21st Century as it did him and the Nation in the 20th Century.

Some aspects of soldiering are unlikely to change very much. Sylvanus Thayer knew that both competence and character were required by West Point graduates and the Army they would serve. It is as true today as it was in 1817. Competence is essential. Your soldiers will expect you to know your job. Maintaining competence in a world where knowledge is expanding as rapidly as it is today will require dedication and diligence on your part. At the same time, the “information age” promises tools and helps for continuing education beyond the dreams of Sylvanus Thayer or even beyond the wildest dreams of we 20th Century “old fuds.” In the early North African battles of World War II, when not much of anything seemed to be going right from my very limited perspective, it was difficult to see how we could win except that we were Americans and God surely had to be on our side. In later years, I understood that the competence, diligence, study, and preparation of the Army’s leaders, Generals Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, McNair, Chafee, and others like them enabled us to get out of the terrible fix that years of national neglect of our defenses had put us in. Another fellow, very familiar with this site on the banks of the Hudson, Coach Bobby Knight, put it very well when he was being interviewed about the Olympic basketball team. He was asked if he thought the team would have “the will to win.” He replied that everyone had the “will to win.” The question really should be, “Do we have the will to prepare to win?” The Nation will judge your soldiering by the answer to that question.

Soldiering has always been team building. The great American pronoun is “we,” the “we” of “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ,” the “we” of “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . . ,” the “we” of “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honors . . . ” Sometimes we get it mixed up with the ubiquitous, antecedentless “they,” the “they” who caused our problems, the “they” in Washington or in our State Capital, or at higher headquarters. Whether it’s the Army and the Armed Forces of the 20th Century or the Army and the Armed Forces of the 21st Century, there is no place for “they.” There is only room for “we,” the “we” of the squad, platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, Army, and Joint Task Force. During the days just before the ground attack in Desert Storm, a well-known TV newsman was interviewing a U.S. Army tank crew. He was trying every way he could to get the crew members to admit they feared the forthcoming battle. The crew members clearly didn’t want to say much of anything. The taciturn tank commander simply grunted. Finally, in exasperation, the loader, the junior member of the tank crew, said, “Of course we’re scared, but we’ve got a good tank; we’re well trained, and we’re a team. We take care of each other. The guys on the other side are the ones who really ought to be scared!”

Your main job, as long as you are in the Army, will be building and fostering that sense of “we,” whether it be at your first platoon or in a job like General Bill Nash’s turning unfamiliar allies like the Russian Brigade into “we.” Competence alone will not get it done. Character and integrity are absolute essentials. If I could give you only one bit of advice, it would be: Keep your moral compass declinated! Every day you are on duty, you are likely to face difficult moral and ethical questions that will require balancing the need for compassion and a recognition of human fallibility and sinfulness—including your own—with the needs for cohesion, discipline, and justice. Doing it well requires that your own moral and ethical underpinnings be solid. It will be the most difficult part of your job. At the same time, it will be the most satisfying part of your work. Knowing that you’ve had a part in building the “we” of the United States Army, and in helping that Army, the Armed Forces, and the Nation be prepared for the exciting and sometimes perilous tomorrows of the 21st Century will be a marvelously exhilarating experience. It will be worth all the pain, strain, and effort you put into getting through West Point and the training that will follow. The Army and the Nation will be counting on you. The Army gets fine officers from ROTC and OCS, and from battlefield commissions, but, from the time of Sylvanus Thayer until today, we, the Army and the Nation, have always expected West Point and her graduates to set the standard. You must not let our soldiers or the Nation down!

Thanks for a wonderful day, for the excellent review, for this very special honor, and for the chance to blow off a little steam.

I do have one second bit of advice. Perhaps it’s not advice, but simply a plea. It’s “Beat Navy” again this year!


Thayer Award

Since 1958, the West Point Association of Graduates has presented the SYLVANUS THAYER AWARD to an outstanding citizen of the United States whose service and accomplishments in the national interest exemplify personal devotion to the ideals expressed in the West Point motto, “DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY.”
The Sylvanus Thayer Award is funded by a generous endowment from E. Doug Kenna ’45 and his wife, Jean.

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