John R. Galvin, a four-star Army general who served as the United States’ and NATO’s top military commander in Europe in the final years of the Cold War and whose foresight on counterinsurgency strategy influenced one of his young aides, future general and CIA director David H. Petraeus, died Sept. 25 at his home in Jonesboro, Ga. He was 86.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said a daughter, Kathleen Galvin.
In a 44-year military career, Gen. Galvin was widely described as a prototypical warrior-intellectual. He was a West Point graduate who also earned a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University and reveled in the poetry of William Butler Yeats.
As a brigade operations officer and battalion commander in Vietnam, he earned medals for valor and became known for an outspoken defiance of combat orders when he saw them as near-suicidal. He also refused a commander’s instructions to inflate the official “body count” of the enemy on the battlefield.
“The way I was doing things,” he once said, “wasn’t what you’d call career-enhancing.”
But his leadership ability and scholarship earned him friends in high places, which aided in his rise. He contributed to writing the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s secret multi-volume history of the Vietnam War, and played roles in reshaping the Army after the post-Vietnam era.
Thinking beyond large-scale, conventional warfare with the Soviet Union and other nation-states, he wrote influential reports and articles on counterinsurgency strategy and guerrilla warfare that would define conflicts in the Middle East after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Petraeus, as commander of coalition troops in Iraq, in part applied the general’s counterinsurgency tactic of coordinating military force with political and economic measures.
The two men met in the early 1980s, when then-Capt. Petraeus served as an aide-de-camp to Gen. Galvin. The general was captivated by the young officer’s voracious work ethic, his fierce intellect and his almost pathologically intense drive for advancement.
Gen. Galvin encouraged Petraeus to gain perspective away from “the grindstone cloister” of the military and attend graduate school in a program that would challenge him in new ways.
“He told me, ‘Maybe you ought to broaden your horizons and extend your vision beyond the max effective range of an M16 rifle,’ ” Petraeus once recalled. He went on to earn a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University in 1987, with a dissertation called “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.”
Meanwhile, Gen. Galvin won significant command assignments in West Germany and Panama. In the latter, he was responsible for U.S. military forces in South and Central America and the Caribbean at a time when the United States was arming military-led governments and right-wing rebel groups.
In 1987, as the newly appointed supreme allied commander in Europe, a NATO position, he publicly endorsed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The accord eliminated an entire category of nuclear weapons both nations had deployed in Europe, facing each other.
“Maybe we can’t strike as many targets as before, but neither can the Soviets,” he said, adding that he was still confident he could carry out his mission of Soviet deterrence and defense of western European allies. (In 2007, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin essentially said the treaty was no longer in Russia’s interest, and last year the U.S. charged that Moscow had breached the treaty by testing a missile whose range was prohibited by the treaty.)
Gen. Galvin remained as supreme commander in Europe until retiring in 1992. As the Soviet Union collapsed, he pivoted NATO strategy from one of Cold War defense to small-conflict peacekeeping, arguing for a “fire brigade” strategy in which troops were available in case conflict arose.
The strategy anticipated ethnic conflict in the breakup of Yugoslavia, where NATO forces were used in the late 1990s, although many in Congress called for a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Europe after the close of the Cold War.
The son of a bricklayer and plasterer, John Rogers Galvin was born in Melrose, Mass., on May 13, 1929, and grew up in Wakefield, Mass. His childhood was marked by tragedy: His mother died of peritonitis when he was 8, and two of his sisters died, one while playing with their father’s .22-caliber rifle in the attic.
After a fitful early college education studying journalism and pre-med, he attended an art school in Boston in the hope of becoming a cartoonist. Needing money, he also joined the Massachusetts National Guard in the late 1940s, and eventually he was persuaded to take the entrance exam for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
He graduated in 1954, becoming the first member of his family to obtain a college degree. He liked to recall that his time at West Point was distinguished mainly by his cartooning abilities, frequent infractions and participation in the theft of the Naval Academy’s goat mascot.
He later trained as a parachutist and graduated from Ranger School. In 1962, he received a master’s degree in English at Columbia and worked toward a doctorate in English at the University of Pennsylvania. His books included two volumes of Revolutionary War history and a memoir, “Fighting the Cold War,” published earlier this year.
Gen. Galvin served as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., from 1995 to 2000. He then moved to Jonesboro.
His decorations included the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star and three awards of the Legion of Merit.
He married Virginia Brennan in 1961. Besides his wife, survivors include four daughters, Mary Jo Schrade of Bellevue, Wash., Beth White of Decatur, Ga., Kathleen Galvin of Atlanta and Erin Scranton of Falls Church, Va.; a brother; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Gen. Galvin’s home town of Wakefield remained an evocative point of reference throughout his career.
In 1989, the sight of Berlin’s Wannsee lake reminded him of time spent on a lake in Wakefield.
“We are on the outer fringes of the Cold War, at the edge, in a period of transition to something else,” he recounted in his memoir. “It is a period of promise, a period of danger. The ice is thin. It’s like on Lake Quannapowitt, when you’re skating fast over the white ice and then you find yourself over the dark and you hear it groan.”
Months later, the Berlin Wall would fall.