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Norman Schwarzkopf Interview
Commander, Operation Desert Storm
June 26, 1992
Las Vegas, Nevada
I saw a photo of you in a yearbook. I think you were a cadet of about ten, with a very serious expression. And the legend has it that you said, "I want this serious expression, because I'm going to be a General someday."
Norman Schwarzkopf: I don't think I quite said it that way. I think that's part of a myth that has built up. But I think I said, "Men in uniform are supposed to look serious..." or something like that.
Did you learn that from your father? He was a military man wasn't he? I understand he had quite a varied career. Could you tell us a little about that?
Norman Schwarzkopf: My father graduated from West Point in 1917. Became a captain in World War I. When the war was over, went back to El Paso, Texas. He was in the cavalry, guarding the border between the United States and Mexico.
His father became a cripple in a wheelchair from arthritis deformans. And in those days, a captain in the Army didn't make any money at all, and my dad was an only child, so he became the sole support of his parents. So he had to leave the military.
He went back to New Jersey, and it just happened to be at a time when New Jersey had decided that they were going to form a State Police, and they were looking for the first superintendent who would organize and lead the New Jersey State Police. I won't go into all the details, but it became a big political struggle.
When my dad came back and applied for the job, they said, "What are your credentials?" "I'm a West Point graduate. I've had this experience in the military, and I'm a good organizer..." and that sort of thing. And they said, "What are your politics?" And he said, "I don't have any. I've never voted in an election in my life." In those days, Army officers didn't vote. The commander in chief was the commander in chief, and therefore it wasn't right to vote for a political party. So Army officers didn't vote at all.
To make a long story, short, at a very young age he organized and formed the first New Jersey State Police. I think he was 27, or 26 at the time. He was their first superintendent and remained in that job for 15 years.
My dad was very much involved in the Lindbergh kidnapping case, which was a very controversial case, and has been ever since then. Also, a political governor came in that he had been an enemy of for quite some time, and this governor did not renew my dad's charter. So, after 15 years of leading the State Police they said, "Thank you very much, we no longer need your services."
About that time things were heating up in Europe, and my dad had been active in the National Guard. When the National Guard mobilized for World War II, my dad was mobilized with them. So, he returned to the Army on full-time duty. He finally retired from the Army in 1957 as a Major General. So, he had two careers. He had this career as a policeman, and this career in the military too.
I gather he was quite an influence on you.
Norman Schwarzkopf: Oh, he was.
Your father was stationed in Iran for part of the war. You lived there too. didn't you? That was kind of unusual.
Norman Schwarzkopf: I think both of my parents decided it was time the family be reunited. So, we all went to Iran to be reunited as a family. But then the school system in Iran was terrible. One of my sisters was a senior in junior high school, and the other was a sophomore, and they didn't have a decent school system in Teheran.
After one year of living in Teheran, my parents came to the very wise conclusion that our education was suffering. So, we all went to school in Switzerland for a year. Then my dad was reassigned to Germany. I went to Germany, and went to Frankfurt High School for a year, then Heidelberg for a year, and ended up in Rome. So, these wonderful, formative teenage years, I spent the whole time abroad, in one country after another.
Picked up some languages, too?
Norman Schwarzkopf: Yeah, I did. When I arrived in Switzerland I had only had one year of French, and hadn't done very well. They put me in a room where my roommate was French, and didn't want to speak English; sat me at a table with nine other people that spoke nothing but French. If you wanted to eat, you'd better learn how to say, "Please pass the bread," in French.
That's a wonderful way to learn a language, when you're young, and your mind is so flexible. I was absolutely fluent in French within six months.
Back to the schooling, in general, were you a top student?
Norman Schwarzkopf: When I was a younger student, I was forever getting these comments on the report card that said, "He is not working to his potential. He can do much better than what he is doing." I went overseas, and overseas I was more interested in learning by seeing, and feeling, and hearing, and experiencing, and that sort of thing. And amazingly enough, I came back to the United States and was a straight A student from there on out. Something clicked somewhere along the way, and I graduated valedictorian of my class in high school, and I was top 10% of my class at West Point, without very much work. And got a Master's Degree in Guided Missile Engineering from USC. Something turned on. I was never a bookworm, I was always interested more in being more well-rounded, rather than being perhaps viewed as perhaps an egghead.
You were also involved in sports, were you not?
Norman Schwarzkopf: I played football, was on the track team, ended up messing around with wrestling, and played soccer. In Switzerland I was on the Junior Championship Team of Western Switzerland as a fullback. I played a lot of tennis as a young man.
But I wasn't all-American caliber, at the time. It's only when I became a General that people looked back and said, obviously, he was an all-American football player. But it wasn't true. I was a very good high school athlete, but I was certainly not a very good college athlete.
What particular event or experience inspired you most growing up?
Norman Schwarzkopf: I don't think I can pick a single experience. Of course, World War II had a tremendous impact on me. It's something that not many people younger than me in the country today remember, but at that time the entire world was at war. It was a battle between good and evil. And it was a world war, it wasn't a geographically limited war. So the whole country was involved.
There were fund-raisers, and there was rationing, and there were alerts, and you had to go through air raid drills, and this sort of thing. That certainly had a major impact upon my life as a young man, and particularly as a young boy when my dad was gone. To me, this all translated into my father being in some kind of danger.
There's no question about the fact that the teenage years that I spent abroad had a tremendous impact upon my entire life, from that time forth. I mean, I got to know people of so many different nationalities, of so many different cultures, of so many different ethnic backgrounds. In meeting all of these people of so many different make-ups, it was a wonderful education for me. It taught me that there's more than one way to look at a problem, and they all may be right, you see. So, it gave me a certain tolerance. Maybe tolerance isn't the right word, because tolerance implies that there's intolerance before. It's not that, but it just gave me an appreciation for people. Judge them as you find them. Never prejudge anybody based upon any of those things that sometimes people are prejudged. That's lived with me for the rest of my life. It gave me the ability to be flexible, to get along with people of all different nationalities.
[ Key to Success ] Preparation
That came in handy recently.
Norman Schwarzkopf: You betcha.
Was there, by any chance, a book, or a couple of books that meant a lot to you as a kid?
Norman Schwarzkopf: Oh, no, I read a lot. I read the whole Lassie Series. Jack London was one of my favorite people. I was fascinated by early mythology, and I read the Iliad and the Odyssey several different times. When I was a young man I read Das Kapital by Karl Marx, only because communism was this thing looming on the horizon, so I wanted to learn something about it.
I wouldn't say any one particular book. I enjoyed reading. It was fun to read. Remember, we didn't have television in those days. So, you either listened to the radio, or you picked up a good book, that was the way you learned.
What about in your school life? Was there a particular teacher that meant a lot to you?
Norman Schwarzkopf: People have asked me that over and over again. There was no one teacher. I always wish I could say something like that, but I can't. I can think of several that helped me along the way. At just the right time they were there to nudge me in the right direction, to get me perhaps to do something I hadn't considered doing, and it opened up new horizons. But there wasn't just one particular person at all.
If you want to look for one particular person, it was my mom and dad. They were the teachers that taught me a great deal.
Your career is terribly demanding: time away from family, not to mention putting your life, and many other lives, in danger. What turns you on about this life, General?
Norman Schwarzkopf: The troops. The people you lead. The duty that you're performing. Believe me, nobody stays in the military to get rich. Nobody stays in the military and makes a success of it, I think, unless they are really called to do so.
Someone once said, you can divide man's work into a calling, like a priest; a profession, like a doctor; a career, where you go from step, to step, to step, moving up a ladder of progression; or just a job, where you walk in every day and sort of punch a ticket. I find, the military is someplace between the calling and the profession. It's something you're identified with, you have a title, like a doctor has a title, and everybody calls you that. And yet, you also have to have this inner drive of service. West Point gave us a creed to live by: "Duty, Honor, Country." And not everybody who graduates from West Point, of course, lives by that creed for their entire life, but I have. I mean, it just became a way of life for me.
[ Key to Success ] Passion
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This page last revised on Dec 14, 2007 17:41 EST