What Now for Soldier of Peace? : Personality: Adm. Gene La Rocque, head of a pro-peace, pro-military research center, has a new objective. He wants to create a national commitment to solving domestic problems.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Take away the Cold War and we don't have anything left. We don't know why we get up in the morning."

Retired Rear Adm. Gene Robert La Rocque was referring to his fellow countrymen, but he could have been talking about himself and the institution that he runs, the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. CDI is a research and analysis organization dedicated to a strong military but opposed to excessive spending on weapons and policies that increase the danger of nuclear war.

The questions before the center, as with many groups in the loosely defined peace movement, are: Now what? Will the thaw in the Cold War focus national attention on military spending or lull Americans into indifference?

La Rocque came to Los Angeles--a trip that included a visit to the Century City office of television producer Norman Lear, who nows heads Act III Communications--to look for some answers.

Founded by La Rocque when he retired from the Navy in 1972, the CDI flourished during the last years of the Vietnam War and continued to grow after the war ended, fueled, like many other organizations in the peace movement, by fears of nuclear confrontation.

The CDI has always been able to raise the money for its budget, now $1.7 million, La Rocque said. "The need (for the center) was felt in the country. I never had to work to get the people."

Not that the center was preaching to the converted. Indeed, the center often ventures into hostile, alien or suspicious territory--Congressional committees, the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House--sometimes invited, sometimes unsolicited.

Larry Korb, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, was assistant secretary of defense from 1981-85, and as such dealt often with La Rocque and the center. "They do very good analysis," Korb said. "They're very useful if you want to know something like how much a Trident costs. But the problem is, normally they are against this , not for that. They don't say, 'Don't build this, but you should build that.' "

As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, Korb said the center's anti-nuclear stance tends to be "almost like a phobia," which makes their "just-get-rid-of-them" criticism simplistic at times.

"Where they have an impact is that they're a group of former military," Korb said. "That increases their credibility more than if they were a group of Woodstock alumni. I've had Gene lecture at the Navy War College and almost lost my job. My attitude was, if he's right, we ought to know about it. If he's wrong, the students are going to find out."

Until recently, the CDI provided the country's only privately funded "second opinion" on military weaponry and systems. (La Rocque said of the organization's influence in opposing such matters as the B-1 bomber and underground nuclear testing, "Maybe we broke a little ice.")

Now with "peace breaking out all over," La Rocque said, the CDI, in theory, should be out of a job. But, he added, America's real work--adjusting to the new era--has just begun.

"We're caught up in the psychology of the Cold War. We've been at it 40 years," La Rocque said. "The military-industrial complex (remains) a big influence in this country. It's clear our enemies are AIDS, drugs, homelessness. We need to fill the potholes, build schools, clean up the environment, help (Czechoslovakian President Vaclav) Havel.

"We cannot play a major role in the world if we do not have money. Our treasury is broken. Every Tuesday we have a giant bake sale and sell enough bonds to run the government for a week. We borrow from the very people we try to defend, Germany and Japan. If we do not make a significant change, the world is going to move ahead and leave us behind."

For starters, La Rocque would like to see the defense budget reduced by one-third, to $200 billion, by 1995; and U.S. troop strength reduced from 3 million to 2 million. And he and his center staff, which includes other retired military officers and civilians, are prepared to give line-item advice on those reductions.

How to do it? How to redefine national security to include not only a strong military but a strong social, political and economic system?

La Rocque knows that to turn the country around, to loosen the grip of the military-industrial complex on the budget and on the national psyche will require the attention and commitment of the entire nation.

Getting the message out will require a sophisticated level of know-how and will cost enormous sums--thus, the visit with Norman Lear.

La Rocque's friend Harold Willens, an early and constant supporter of the center, arranged the lunch with Lear for the admiral and Leo Wyler, a former military contractor who believes in the center and its mission. Willens, a retired Los Angeles businessman, helped organize businessmen nationwide against the Vietnam War and went on to head the 1982 nuclear freeze ballot initiative in California. A board member of CDI, Willens wanted Lear's advice, and it seemed clear he would welcome Lear's active participation as well.

Lear was having a busy day, but listened sympathetically between interruptions. Military spending? He'd heard it before. He knows the problem. And it made him shake his head ruefully.

"It sounds old-timey," Lear said. "We didn't need to hear of $400 toilet seats to know we're spending too much. The Democratic Party should be leading this battle, if there was one."

The state of the Democratic Party is an ongoing concern of his, as is cleaning up the environment. Lear did not offer to get involved with the CDI, but he did have some advice.

"You need a spokesperson," Lear said. "A high-profile public speaker with a liberal voice to put on television."

He was not talking about the 71-year-old Gene La Rocque, a polite, slightly built man who seems to have a genuine interest in all people and who shows not a visible trace of the military bearing of an admiral.

But there is more to La Rocque than good manners. When he assesses the military-industrial complex his manner is blunt, tough. When he switches to himself--and the human scene in general--he can be sardonic.

He calls himself "a little kid from Kankakee, Ill.," "an Eagle Scout" who wound up taking on the Pentagon, spoiling the parade by crying out "the Emperor has no clothes," and alienating himself from his former colleagues in the process, dismissed as a nut or a traitor by some.

"The first guy in the Pentagon who says, 'You don't need this,' he's going nowhere. My former colleagues just never understood what I was trying to do. They believe absolutely that blind obedience is more important than what is good for the nation."

About the center's need for a high-profile spokesman, he said privately: "I'm not looking for a man on a white horse to gallop up and lead us to the solution of our problems. I don't think we need to wait for a spokesperson any more than the Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians waited for one. We pride ourselves on our democratic institutions. That means people speaking out. I do think, however, it would be useful to have more spokespeople on this issue."

But the question remains: Now what?

"I've been trying to appeal to some of the conservatives in the country. These fellas who want a strong nation to be able to compete in the world with consumer products. Get them to recognize we're hamstrung."

Many peace organizations have been reacting to the thaw in the Cold War with calls for "economic conversion" away from military spending. Although much of what La Rocque says sounds similar, he detests the term.

"Maybe to me, as kid in Catholic schools, there's a religious connection. We're not out to convert, but to diversify to commercial products we can market around the world. We need a strong military. I'm a military man."

A military man with a long memory, La Rocque recalls with approval the era that ended with World War II, a time when the military produced its own weapons, when there was no such concept as munitions for profit.

He knows it is unlikely the military will take over production again, but he does talk about taking the profit out of weapons manufacture as a real possibility.

If not probability.

"We're not nuts," he said with a laugh, throwing his arms out. "Look, we may not even be right. But we present another point of view to help the public and government make a right decision." He said he'll stick it out for a few more years.

"I'll give it to about 75. That's time enough to bring in more young people. Then I'll give it up and go sailing."

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