Roger Hilsman, foreign policy adviser to JFK, dies at 94


Roger Hilsman Jr. sits at his desk after being named Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs on March 13, 1963. (AP)
March 8

Roger Hilsman, a commando raider during World War II who later served a tumultuous stint as State Department intelligence chief during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the early stages of the Vietnam War in the Kennedy administration, died Feb. 23 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 94.

He had complications from several strokes, said his son Hoyt Hilsman.

Dr. Hilsman, who was the son of an Army colonel, was a West Point graduate who served during World War II with a fabled Army commando unit in Japanese-occupied Burma known as Merrill’s Marauders.

After being wounded in battle, he transferred to the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor of the CIA, and in 1945 took part in a parachute rescue mission to liberate a Japanese POW camp in the Chinese region of Manchuria. One of the prisoners in the camp was his own father, who had been seized by Japanese forces three years earlier in the Philippines.

When he reached his father to free him from captivity, Dr. Hilsman wrote in his 1990 book, “American Guerrilla,” his father remarked, “Son, what took you so long?”

Dr. Hilsman continued to serve in the Army while attached to the OSS and CIA for several years before receiving a doctorate in international relations from Yale University in 1951. He worked with NATO in Europe, then resigned from the Army to join the Center of International Studies at Princeton University.

He came to Washington in 1956 to work for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, where he became friendly with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.). After Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Dr. Hilsman joined the State Department as director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research and became a key figure in planning foreign policy.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962, Dr. Hilsman communicated with Soviet officials and briefed congressional leaders on developments in the tense Cold War standoff.

He also became one of Kennedy’s closest advisers on the growing crisis in Vietnam. After visiting Vietnam in 1962, Dr. Hilsman recommended that the United States develop ways to thwart the Communist Viet Cong forces. He favored the adoption of counterinsurgency efforts, not unlike the guerrilla-style tactics of his old World War II unit in Burma. Merrill’s Marauders, named for their commanding officer, Gen. Frank Merrill, have often been cited as the forerunners of the modern military’s special forces units.

Dr. Hilsman’s thinking put him at odds with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department hierarchy, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who favored a more robust military response, including bombardment and more conventional forces. But Dr. Hilsman, who still had the ear of the president, remained an influential foreign-policy voice.

“Hilsman had risen quickly in the bureaucracy,” David Halberstam wrote in his authoritative 1972 book about the architects of the Vietnam War, “The Best and the Brightest.” “Kennedy liked him particularly because he was unafraid to challenge the military.”

By April 1963, Dr. Hilsman had become assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. He came to believe that South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, could not lead the country effectively unless he removed his brother and chief adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, from a position of authority.

In August 1963, Dr. Hilsman helped write a controversial memorandum suggesting that the United States should abandon its support of Diem unless he booted his troublesome brother from power. Although it said nothing about a coup or assassination, the memo was interpreted in some quarters as giving authority to the South Vietnamese military to depose Diem and his brother. Both were assassinated in early November 1963, leading to instability in South Vietnam’s leadership.

When Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Dr. Hilsman lost his key source of support. “He had probably made more enemies than anyone else in the upper levels of government,” Halberstam wrote, “partly because of the viewpoints he represented, partly because of the brashness with which he presented them.”

He resigned under pressure in February 1964 and took a teaching job at Columbia University.

“There has been a tendency to ‘over-militarize’ what is essentially a political struggle by relying too heavily on bombers, artillery and large-scale conventional operations,” Dr. Hilsman wrote in the New York Times in 1964. “By themselves, military measures can only postpone a Communist takeover, and even then only for as long as the South Vietnamese and ourselves are willing to pay the price.”

Roger Hilsman Jr. was born Nov. 23, 1919, in Waco, Tex., and grew up on military posts. After completing high school in California, he attended a long-defunct military prep school in Washington for a year in the late 1930s, then spent a year tramping around Europe, including a visit to Nazi Germany in 1939.

He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1943. He was wounded during a skirmish in 1944 before being reassigned to the special OSS unit, made up of U.S. commandos and international irregular forces.

His later switch to academia and policymaking led Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) to call Dr. Hilsman a “latter-day Lawrence of Arabia.”

He wrote many books on foreign policy and taught at Columbia until 1990. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1972 from Lyme, Conn., where he lived for many years and served on the town council.

Survivors include his wife of 67 years, Eleanor Hoyt Hilsman of Ithaca; four children, Hoyt Hilsman of Pasadena, Calif., Amy Kastely of San Antonio, Ashby Hilsman of Haworth, N.J., and Sarah Hilsman of Ithaca; and six grandchildren.

In his influential 1967 book, “To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy,” Dr. Hilsman blamed Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Rusk and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for escalating the war in Vietnam, which he had come to believe could not be won by U.S.-backed forces in any conventional sense.

He maintained throughout his life that Kennedy would not have escalated the war the way his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, did by sending large numbers of troops to Vietnam in 1965.

In his later years, Dr. Hilsman wrote books on Chinese cooking and what he called a “layman’s guide to the universe.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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