Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the nation’s most celebrated and controversial soldiers and a central figure in U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, died Sunday night at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Taylor, 85, was admitted to Walter Reed in mid-January, and died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the Pentagon announced Monday.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said that Taylor will be remembered as “one of the great military men in American history” and that he “epitomized what it means to be a soldier, a diplomat and a scholar.”
A four-star general, he had served as Army chief of staff, commander of U.S. forces in Berlin and Korea, superintendent of West Point and U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.
His World War II career was studded with stunning exploits. As a two-star general commanding the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, Taylor was the first American general to land in France when his paratroopers leapfrogged the Allied armies that stormed ashore on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Struggling in the pre-dawn darkness to get out of his parachute harness, Taylor found himself surrounded by a herd of curious French cows. After searching frantically for 30 minutes for other members of his division, he finally heard the “click-click” of one of the toy crickets his troopers carried to signal each other in the dark.
Taylor returned the signal, rounded a hedge and embraced one of his men--"the finest, most beautiful American soldier I’ve ever seen, a fine private with his bayonet fixed.”
Rounded up 90 Men
Taylor managed to round up about 90 of his widely scattered troops, most of them officers (“Never were so few led by so many,” he said later), and led an attack that opened a causeway from Utah Beach for the 4th Division.
For his exploits behind the German lines in Normandy, Taylor was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest decoration for valor.
Earlier, he played a major role in the invasions of Sicily and Italy. He later participated in the airborne assault on German forces in Holland and was involved in bitter fighting in the Ardennes and Central Europe.
While in Sicily, Taylor was tapped by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for one of the most dramatic cloak-and-dagger missions of World War II.
Airborne Landing Planned
In September, 1943, the Italians under Marshal Pietro Badoglio had secretly surrendered to the Allies, and an airborne landing on Rome was being planned to take place simultaneously with the surrender announcement. But as a precaution, Taylor and Army Air Corps Col. William T. Gardiner were assigned to contact Italian authorities to determine the workability of the scheme.
The two officers, wearing their uniforms as a hedge against being shot as spies if captured, landed by boat at the Italian port of Gaeta and made the 75-mile trip to Rome in the back of an Italian military ambulance. After two days behind enemy lines, they found that the Italians were unable to provide sufficient support for the airborne landing, and Taylor called it off at the last minute by radio. For his performance, he won the Silver Star, the country’s third-highest award for bravery. Eisenhower later wrote of Taylor: “The risks he ran were greater than I asked any other agent or emissary to undertake during the war.”
In an interview with The Times in his fashionable Washington apartment in May, 1983, Taylor called the aborted airborne assault on Rome one of the most painful regrets of his 43-year Army career.
“It was a great disappointment to me and to the troops, many of whom were already in airplanes getting ready to move toward Rome,” he said.
Taylor, a blue-eyed six-footer, had a reputation as an aloof and reserved officer who maintained a distinct military bearing even when wearing civilian clothes.
“He was an extraordinary battle commander--the most tightly self-disciplined officer I ever met,” said the late military analyst S. L. A. Marshall, who served under Taylor as a brigadier general in Europe.
Taylor also was a skilled tennis player.
“The only time he ever threw his weight around was when he traveled and sought out the best doubles competition in a hundred miles,” said Walt W. Rostow, who was White House national security adviser during the Administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.
West Point Post
After the war, Taylor was given the prized assignment of superintendent of his alma mater, West Point, from which he had graduated in 1922. At age 44, he was the second-youngest man to hold the job. Only Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who became superintendent at 39, had been younger.
Scholarly and long regarded as one of the Army’s leading intellectuals, Taylor expanded the academy’s liberal arts courses, requiring the cadets to study the dissenting Supreme Court opinions of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the poems of T. S. Eliot.
Taylor also was a gifted linguist. He was fluent in Japanese, German, Spanish and French and was fond of reading such works as the plays of Aeschylus in Greek and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in German.
After nearly four years at West Point, Taylor was made commander of U.S. forces in Berlin in 1949. Later, after a brief tour at the Pentagon, he went to Korea in 1953 as commander of the 8th Army in the waning months of the war. After the armistice, he supervised the building of the South Korean army into a 20-division force.
Opposed Nuclear Policy
In 1955, Taylor’s old friend and admirer, then-President Eisenhower, made him Army chief of staff, an assignment that proved to be one of the most frustrating of his career.
Taylor was a strong advocate of strengthening the capability of the Army’s conventional forces to fight limited wars and was bitterly opposed to the doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation favored by Eisenhower and other top officials in his Administration.
Short of an all-out nuclear war, Taylor argued that massive retaliation “offered no alternative other than reciprocal suicide or retreat.”
After getting nowhere in his behind-the-scenes battles for a bigger Army and losing his friendship with Eisenhower in the process, Taylor retired in 1959, saying: “For four years I have struggled to modernize the Army, and my success was limited. So I decided I would do one thing for the country and withdraw an obsolescent general from inventory.”
Book Impresses Kennedy
Soon after retiring, Taylor set forth his views in a book, “The Uncertain Trumpet.” The book caught the fancy of Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who agreed with Taylor’s contentions.
Upon becoming President, Kennedy called Taylor out of retirement and put him on the White House staff with the title of military representative to the President.
In this role, Taylor was instrumental in persuading Kennedy to strengthen the U.S. commitment to save South Vietnam from falling to the communists. Taylor, an outspoken hawk, managed to broaden the commitment even further after Kennedy made him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962.
Although Kennedy reportedly was becoming disillusioned with U.S. involvement in Vietnam before his assassination in 1963, that was not the case with his successor, Johnson.
Ambassador to South Vietnam
In 1964, Johnson sent Taylor to South Vietnam as U.S. ambassador. Taylor constantly urged stronger steps against the communists and in 1965 Johnson began the large-scale introduction of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam.
In his memoirs, “Swords and Plowshares,” published in 1972, Taylor said that as ambassador he was “deeply convinced of (the) soundness” of U.S. objectives in Southeast Asia.
Rostow traveled with Taylor to Vietnam for an inspection tour preceding the Johnson Administration’s decision to dramatically increase the American role in the war.
Told of Taylor’s death Monday, Rostow said, “He was one of a kind--a soldier, scholar and public servant with total integrity and a wonderful sense of humor.” A memorial service is planned Thursday at Ft. Myer, Va., near here. Taylor will be buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, the Army said. The Army ordered flags lowered at all Army installations until his burial.
Taylor was born in Keytesville, Mo., on Aug. 26, 1901. He is survived by his wife, the former Lydia Gardner Happer, and two sons, John Maxwell Taylor and Thomas Happer Taylor.