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The Most Important Veteran You've Never Heard of: Victor Krulak

Interview with Robert Coram, author of "Brute"

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."

Q. When does Krulak first become a player in the affairs of this nation?

A. He was a 25-year-old second lieutenant stationed in Shanghai in 1937, and he stole the design, essentially, of the Japanese landing craft during the second Sino-Japanese War. That led to the Higgins boat, probably the single most important piece of tactical equipment of World War II. Eisenhower said that was the boat that won the war for us.

Q. He had another brush with history soon after, during the Pacific campaign fighting, didn't he?

A. He led a diversionary combat raid on a little island named Choiseul, and the fighting was so tight that some of his forces were literally backing into the surf firing at the Japanese. They were rescued, providentially, at the last minute by a couple of PT boats, one of which was skippered by a young navy officer named John Kennedy.

Q. What did he do next?

A. After the war, in the so-called unification battle, Krulak not only saved the Marine Corps from probable extinction, he preserved this vital American tradition of civilian control of the military.

Q. What was the unification battle?

A. There was a movement afoot from some of the most venerated people in the Army to change the military to be modeled after the German general staff. Gen. George C. Marshall was enamored of that model, in which the top staff officer reports directly to the president. It would have given power to the chief of staff that no military man since George Washington had.

Q. What did Krulak do?

A. He got access to the secret Army plans, and constructed the strategy against it.

Q. Was he just fighting for the Corps?

A. He was not fighting for his branch of the military. His interest was America and its constitutional fabric, and not just the advancement of his branch.

Q. You've written Brute was a great patriot. But he had cut himself off from his background, so where did that come from?

A. His patriotism was instilled in him at the academy and in his early years as a Marine officer. At the academy he began to create a new world. All the rigors of the academy were imprinted upon him. Patriotism is a big part of academy life. The patriotism was only strengthened in the Marine Corps culture.

Q. What was his role in the introduction of helicopters to combat?

A. He was a brilliant man — so brilliant that even when he was in his 90s he could make your head spin. He could see over horizons, and he immediately recognized in the 1940s helicopters would be important for carrying Marines into combat. He developed that, and the Marines were rewarded for it.

Q. How so?

A. When President Eisenhower decided he wanted to fly around in helicopters, the Army wasn't ready. The Marines were, and now Marine One is the most photographed helicopter in the world.

Q. Krulak became a player in John F. Kennedy's White House as Vietnam developed into a major conflict. But in the Johnson White House, the war would be his downfall. What happened?

A. He was an expert in counterinsurgency, and he confronted Johnson and told him unless he changed policy, he'd not only lose the war, but the next election. Johnson threw him out of the Oval Office.

Q. Did Johnson fire him?

A. He said Krulak wasn't important enough to fire. He let him dangle. Brute had hoped to become commandant of the Marine Corps, but he didn't let his personal ambition stop him when he thought his duty was to speak up for the good of the country. He did what was right even though he knew it could destroy his career.

Q. Post retirement, he remained a force.

A. Even into his 90s, he kept his seat on the board of the San Diego Zoo, and was a leader in civic affairs. He's actually the guy who brought pandas to the San Diego zoo through his friendship with Ronald Reagan and a number of people in Washington.

Q. And he started up a successful second career.

A. Well after his retirement he became a writer — a real felicitous writer, supremely confident, with a magisterial command of his subjects. His book about the Marine Corps, The First to Fight, was an instant classic. And he was an influential columnist for Copley News Service for years.

Q. I'm a little surprised I've never heard of him.

A. Outside the military, he is not well known. But this is a man who changed the destiny of America. He was the hinge for some of the greatest events of the 20th century. His contributions to America cannot be overstated.

Q. What was he like in his final days?

A. I'm 73 and have interviewed thousands of people in my career. Even though he was in his 90s, I have never interviewed anyone with the combination of intellect and pile-driving personality he had. Even when he was 95, he walked in and just took over the room.

Chris Carroll lives in Maryland.