If Victor "Brute" Krulak hadn't lied about his Jewish roots and obsessively covered up his background in order to gain entry to the traditionally intolerant military circles of the past, would the outcome of World War II — and indeed many of the key turns of the last century — have been very different?
It's a central question about the ambiguous figure at the core of journalist and historian Robert Coram's new biography, Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine. The star of the book, Brute Krulak, was by turns war hero, liar, bureaucratic conniver and self-sacrificing patriot. He was also, Coram says, the greatest Marine who ever lived. (Read an excerpt from Brute.)
Little known outside the Marine Corps, Krulak surely ranks as one of the most important people you've never heard of. As a newly commissioned officer in 1930s China, he borrowed a tugboat and sailed among a Japanese invasion force, gaining crucial design details that would allow Americans to construct the hardy amphibious boats that would later ferry troops ashore in the Pacific and in Normandy.
He proved himself a capable combat leader in the Second World War; soon afterward, Brute Krulak showed his mettle in political combat. He was the driving force in a shadowy Marine Corps effort to stop an Army-backed military reorganization scheme. The plan, as Krulak saw it, not only would have destroyed the Marine Corps, but also would have shredded America's tradition of civilian control by giving generals unprecedented powers. It was a fight that, as usual, Krulak won.
As he moved up through the ranks, Krulak would introduce helicopters into combat, as well as essentially write the book on counterinsurgency and play a key role in America's growing involvement in Vietnam. Sensing the war going the wrong way, he bluntly confronted President Lyndon Johnson. It was one fight he wouldn't win, and it ended his career.
Back in civilian life in his mid-50s, Krulak established himself as a writer, penning a respected book on the Marines, The First to Fight, and becoming a prolific newspaper columnist as well as an active civic leader in his adopted home of San Diego. When Coram interviewed Krulak during the final years of his life, he retained the intensity and intellect that had made him a Marine legend. And well into this age of tell-all confessionals, Krulak was steadfast in his lifelong refusal to open up about his background. He died in 2008.
Coram spoke recently to the AARP Bulletin about Brute Krulak's brilliant career and complex personality.
Q. Why the nickname "Brute"? He doesn't look very brutish in photos.
A. He was very small, and the nickname, which he embraced, was given to mock his size. But for a 5-foot-4-inch officer to become, in my judgment, the greatest Marine in the 235-year history of the Corps, proves that drive and determination and brain power and persistence remain the cardinal virtues.
Q. What was his background?
A. His grandparents on both sides were Orthodox Jews from Russia, part of the great 19th-century migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to America. Instead of staying in the East, they went west, where the Jewish experience was very different. In short, there was less discrimination. He grew up quite secular in Colorado and Wyoming.
Q. You wrote, however, that he completely obscured his Jewish background later in life.
A. When he went to Annapolis, he told people he had grown up Episcopalian. He walled off his past at the Naval Academy. It left him with no grounding — he had no roots essentially — and so he created his own life and identity.
Q. What did Krulak have against his real heritage?
A. Some people would say he turned his back on his Jewish heritage. But he never changed his name or volunteered to be baptized, so I think he honored his heritage in his own way.
Q. But why hide his background?
A. It was enormously difficult to be Jewish in the Marine Corps at that time. It was an intensely traditional, biased environment. Jews in the Marines got no further than captain and were usually just driven out.
Q. But he didn't resent the Marines for this.
A. In fact, the Marine Corps became his new tribe. The Marine Corps did for him what it has done for hundreds of thousands of other misguided young men and turned them into, in Krulak's words from one of his books, "citizens into whose hands the affairs of this nation can safely be entrusted."