The Foreign Service Journal, June 2003

A moment of truth came for Vernon Walters during a White House meeting in 1970. Then serv- ing as the U.S. defense attaché in Paris, he had just received his pro- motion to major general (conferring the second of his three stars, all of which, at his request, were on his shoulders at his Arlington Cemetery burial in March 2002). Chief of Staff Haldeman wanted to know if Walters would serve as the Oval Office note- taker. President Nixon had endorsed the idea in light of Walters’ unmatched experience as an inter- preter and aide. Haldeman later described Walters’ reaction: “He drew himself up to his full height and said, ‘A general commands troops. He is not a secretary.’” Walters, who died Feb. 10, 2002, at age 85, started his career as a James Boswell and ended it as a Samuel Johnson. During a half-cen- tury in the nation’s service, he trans- formed himself from a secretary to a general, from a derivative figure to a primary force. Boswell, whose Life of Johnson may be the best biography in the English language, related to Johnson in a way once described as the ivy to the oak. So, too, Walters attached himself to towering figures, and then set about to evolve from the vine to the tree. He began as a private in the Army, without a college education. He rose steadily through the ranks, but not because of his ability to com- mand troops. He rose because of his gift for languages, flair for interpret- ing, dedication to preserving a writ- ten record of the spoken word, and his knack for winning the confidence of high-ranking officials. Walters became a global presence in the course of his many sensitive presidential missions. Toward the end of his career, he served as per- manent representative to the U.N., with cabinet rank, and ambassador to Germany. He died a celebrated raconteur. Like Johnson, Walters may be remembered more for his table talk than for his writings. Secretary Powell got it right in hailing Walters’ life and work as “storied.” (See side- bar, p. 60.) Walters would have enjoyed the tributes from those who gathered in Arlington’s Old Post Chapel on March 5, 2002, to bid farewell. But he would have been annoyed at those who, in describing the extraor- dinary arc of his career, failed to appreciate his transformation from Boswell to Johnson. The New York Times ’ obituary, for example, stated he “may not have made history in his career, but he saw it firsthand.” That is a half-truth. Walters knew that some dis- missed him as “a burly, jovial mes- senger boy who had no part in draft- ing the messages he was carrying,” as he once summed up the uncharita- ble view of his role. He resented the put-down that he “spoke eight lan- guages and thought in none.” Several obituaries dredged up this quip, and even attributed it to him. Walters never said it of himself. It would have mocked his aspirations. When, at age 74, he heard that Nixon in his memoirs had portrayed him as a “top-drawer strategic thinker,” Walters took notice. That was how he wanted to be remem- bered. Career Continuities In May 1991, George F. Ward, the DCM in Bonn, hosted a celebra- tion to mark the 50th anniversary of Walters’ entry into U.S. service. Walters was then concluding his 58 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U N E 2 0 0 3 A PPRECIATION F ROM B OSWELL TO J OHNSON V ERNON A. W ALTERS 1917-2002 B Y F LETCHER M. B URTON During a half-century in the nation’s service, Vernon Walters transformed himself from a secretary to a general, from a derivative figure to a primary force.