Retired Army Gen. John W. Vessey, who rose through the ranks in a 46-year military career to become chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President Ronald Reagan, has died. He was 94.
Vessey — who enlisted as a private in the Minnesota National Guard in 1939, fought in World War II and Vietnam, and was the nation’s top military officer when he retired to his home state of Minnesota in 1985 — died Thursday evening, his daughter, Sarah Vessey told The Associated Press. He was surrounded by family and died of natural causes, she said.
After being named chairman of the joint chiefs in 1982, Vessey helped oversee the military buildup that Reagan championed when he took office just over a year earlier.
“It was probably the greatest peacetime modernization of the American military establishment that ever took place,” Vessey recalled in a 2004 interview. “We improved every facet of the armed forces, from the recruiting and retention, the selection of individuals, to the way they lived, but most importantly to the way they fought.”
Vessey said the Soviet Union had been making a “big push” to solidify its position in Europe, deploying SS20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles and strengthening its ground forces in East Germany, “dabbling” in West European elections at a time when NATO was shaky, and stepping up its espionage.
By the time Vessey retired in 1985, he said, NATO was strong once again, the United States had deployed Pershing II and cruise missiles in response to the Soviet SS20s, and negotiations with the Soviets to eliminate each side’s intermediate-range missiles were just about complete.
“He was smart and combined good common sense with good military judgment, and he knew how to get things done,” Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, said in a 2006 interview. Korb worked with Vessey while serving as an assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985. “He was a person of integrity.”
Even in retirement, Vessey heard from presidents and the Pentagon looking for help.
Reagan sent Vessey back to Vietnam in 1987 to account for Americans missing in action and bring back any still alive. His other tasks included reuniting separated families and getting former South Vietnamese leaders out of prison camps, Amerasian children out of Vietnam and the Vietnamese out of Cambodia.
“In typical Ronald Reagan optimistic fashion, he said, ‘Well, it ought to take you about three months,'” Vessey recalled with a laugh. “Six years later I told Bill Clinton that I had checked off all of those things and would like to be relieved.”
Vessey’s work to resolve the fate of the MIAs was “terribly important” because the issue had become a “rallying cry” for people who thought the United States had pulled out of Vietnam too soon or that the Pentagon was covering something up, Korb said.
In retirement, Vessey also chaired the advisory board of the Center for Preventive Action, an arm of the Council on Foreign Relations that seeks to prevent conflicts before they erupt; consulted for the Defense Science Board, Army Science Board and the Sandia National Laboratory; and led a campaign to build up the endowment funds of colleges affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
While Vessey generally wielded his influence in military and foreign policy circles away from the public spotlight after he retired, he made news in 2006 when he spoke out against a push to weaken protections under the Geneva Conventions against torture of prisoners, particularly as they applied to suspected terrorists.
He wrote Sen. John McCain expressing concern that doing so “would undermine the moral basis” that had traditionally guided U.S. conduct in war, and that “could give opponents a legal argument for the mistreatment of Americans being held prisoner in time of war.”
Another retired chairman of the joint chiefs, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, called Vessey’s comments “powerful and eloquent” in his own letter to McCain. Those letters became ammunition in the congressional debate over the use of coercive interrogation techniques in the war on terror.
“He never strayed from his morals or values or faith and he was an extraordinary patriot,” Sarah Vessey said of her father.
Vessey was born in Minneapolis in 1922. He enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard at age 17, when the threat of Nazi Germany was looming over Europe. He was called to active duty and fought in Northern Africa and Italy, where he received a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant at the battle of Anzio in 1944.
He married his wife, Avis, right after he shipped home. He made the Army his career, serving mostly in field artillery units stateside and abroad. His postings included several in West Germany.
During the Vietnam War, Vessey was a lieutenant colonel in the battle of Suoi Tre, where U.S. forces held off a fierce attack from a much larger North Vietnamese and Viet Cong force in 1967. Vessey was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest medal, and his unit received a Presidential Unit Citation.
He was promoted to brigadier general in 1971. He earned his fourth star in 1976 and was put in charge of U.S. and U.N. forces in South Korea.
Vessey showed his character after his opposition to President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to withdraw from Korea cost him a promotion to Army chief of staff, Korb said. Instead, Vessey became vice chief of staff of the Army in 1979 under the younger Gen. Edward C. Meyer.
“You never heard him complain or not defer to the real chief,” Korb said.
Vessey was building a lake home back in Minnesota when Reagan asked him to defer retirement and named him the 10th chairman of the joint chiefs. The general was never a self-promoter and never lobbied for the job, Korb said.
Congress didn’t strengthen the chairman’s role until 1986, Korb said, so while Vessey was nominally in charge, he had to lead by consensus. Vessey “had the perfect temperament” for that, Korb said.
Vessey and the joint chiefs advised against the 1982 deployment of Marines to Lebanon, which ended after 241 Marines were killed in a suicide attack on their barracks in Beirut in 1983. However, he directed the swift and successful 1983 U.S. intervention in Grenada.
“Jack Vessey always remembered the soldiers in the ranks; he understood those soldiers are the background of any army,” Reagan said at a ceremony when Vessey finally did retire in 1985. “He noticed them, spoke to them, looked out for them. Jack Vessey never forgot what it was like to be an enlisted man, to be just a GI.”
Vessey then settled on Little Whitefish Lake near Garrison, Minnesota, keeping a promise to his wife that they’d return before the snow fell.
“He and my mom were so happy to be back,” Sarah Vessey said Thursday.
The couple had two other children: John III and David.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush awarded Vessey the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, paying tribute to his efforts to account for the missing in action.
Bush called him, “the ultimate never-say-die soldier, the last four-star combat veteran of World War II to retire.”