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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: General Theus, thank you for agreeing to do this interview, we're grateful that you came in such bad weather and appreciate your being here.
THEUS: Well, thank you very much for the invitation, I'm really honored and privileged to be here.
BOND: I want to begin when you're thirty-two years old and the Supreme Court, in 1954, announces that segregated schools have to come to an end. Can you remember what your initial thoughts were when you heard about this, I'm guessing, on the radio or read about it in the newspapers?
THEUS: My initial thought was simply that "This is great, we have finally won one," one of the major decisions that would move our society forward but together. And so I thought that at that point this was really good. I did not expect any immediate major adverse reactions, if you will, in the community. But this was soon put to an end because -- let me tell you a little bit about myself at that point.
THEUS: At that point, I was working in the Pentagon, relatively new, new arrival there, very junior person, one of the minority and I use that in the sense of numbers rather than races. Very small number of us were there in the Pentagon. So my -- understandably, my entire unit was all white and I had a very -- I thought -- a very important job. In any case, the first thing that came to mind, "Well, we won this one. We'll move ahead peacefully to get the schools integrated. We will not have any problems with that whatsoever." When I came to work the next day, I was talking with one of my supervisors, who happened to have been white, and he said to me, "Well, what do you think of the Supreme Court decision, integrating the schools?" And I said to him, "Well, Jack, I think that it's really a good thing. It's something that's been long time coming and should have happened a long time ago." And he said, "Well, do you really think that we can legislate equal opportunity, equality of treatment, equality of education? Because if you think back, for many years we have had separate schools for people like you and people like me." And so we engaged in -- not a heated debate, we discussed the relative merits of this sort of thinking. The fact that the separate but equal doctrine certainly had not proven to be correct, that it was certainly added to the great disadvantage that minority people and so forth.
But he was a Southerner and he felt very strongly that this ruling should not have come down from the courts. He felt that the courts were intervening in an area where they should not be. And so I had to work very hard to put him straight on this one, to understand that really, this is something that all of us as American citizens were deserving and it should have come to pass a long time ago. Now, as for myself, as I mentioned and this at the risk of redundancy, I felt that this was fine and that it would move ahead swiftly, having become accustomed to things happening in the military. But, of course, you and I know that it didn't move smoothly at all. We know what happened afterwards. As these events started to place -- the resistance, use of military individuals to integrate the schools, the bussing doctrines and so forth -- it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to have strong leadership from the top. And I'm thinking now of our government, if we were going to make this law really mean anything to our nation.
BOND: Now, looking back at it from today's perspective, almost fifty years later, what do you think about progress made today? How this has worked out? You're initially optimistic --
BOND: -- that optimism is quickly dashed. Now here we are with the advantage of fifty years hindsight. What are you thinking now?
THEUS: I think that there's no question in my mind that it was a good move. It's working well now and I think that the price that we paid in turbulence, violence in our communities at that time, were well worth it since it did open the schools, open the road to equal opportunity. And, of course, you and I know that without education -- without a good, solid educational foundation -- that one simply cannot progress in today's society within the United States. Now, very interestingly -- I noted with a degree of alarm that on some of our campuses, there were black students demanding -- in recent years -- demanding separate quarters, separate rooms where they could meet. They wanted to live together away from the majority. I felt that that was wrong. I can understand their feelings because they didn't live as you and I did, this enforced segregation, where not only the education itself but the quarters, the living quarters, everything was all inferior. They hadn't seen this, and so when these sorts of thoughts started to come out about -- I'd say about half-way, we're now at the fifty-year point. I'd say at about the half-way when these thoughts started to be voiced and people started to demonstrate, to try to acquire separate living quarters, they wanted to have special courses that would be open only to minority members and so forth in some schools -- I was alarmed about this. Now I see this has subsided, I think that we're on the road now to doing what one would expect us to do in a society and a democracy. And that is, we do have the schools are all open to everyone. And I think that this good, there's no question in my mind.
BOND: Now a moment ago you mentioned leadership from the top, which, of course, in a military organization, the person at the top gives an order, everyone below jumps to.
THEUS: Have to do it.
BOND: In civilian life, of course, if the person at the top gives an order it may or may not be obeyed and he may or may not have the ability to enforce the order. Can you compare these two examples and put the Brown decision there? President Eisenhower initially vacillates about it.
THEUS: That's right.
BOND: And is not in favor of it, he's not against it, he really is quiet, and it's not until the crisis erupts in Little Rock in 1957 that he's forced to call out the military to integrate the schools. Is that a failure of leadership?
THEUS: In my way of viewing it, yes. You can't paint it any other way. You can explain it, but you can't agree that this was appropriate for a leader, the leader of our nation at that time, because without that kind of push -- effort, if you will -- we simply could not move ahead. Now as you said when we had the eruption there in Little Rock, yes, he sent in the troops. He saw to it then that without his direct intervention, his statement of support of the Supreme Court ruling, that we would continue to have turbulence, we would continue to have resistance and, of course, with resistance on one side, with those pushing for the integration on the other side, and rightly so, we would never settle our society to an even keel. And so he saw this as something that as a leader he had to come for and to take a strong stand.
BOND: Let me go from 1954 back to your birth, your beginnings. You said last night -- [you] described the move of the family to Illinois initially. But take us back to your early days. What do you recall of the very, very early days of life, the circumstances in which you lived, your mother, father and so on?
THEUS: Well, I lived in a broken family, but interestingly enough we had my father who spent most of his time in the adjoining big city of Chicago. When he was in Robbins where we grew up, a little town outside of Chicago, he lived with his father, my grandfather, in the house next door. We youngsters lived with our mother in the house on the next lot. So --
BOND: And there were nine of you?
THEUS: That's right, nine total of us.
BOND: Four brothers, four sisters and you?
THEUS: And myself, that is correct. We lost one of the sisters very early, in fact so early I can barely remember her. But in any case this was an impoverished, small, bedroom community. I think I mentioned last evening that the houses were built by residents themselves.
BOND: Yes, so in spite of being impoverished, at least they had not only the wherewithal, but the drive to build these houses.
THEUS: Exactly. Exactly, and the people in the community cooperated with one another. The men from other families came to help families as they started to build their homes. There was never a case where we went hungry, for example. If you, as a youngster, happened to be in the yard playing with the kids next door or even down the street, when their mother decided it was time to eat, she didn't just call her children in. If there were other kids in the yard, she would herd them all in the house. I recall specifically a lady by the name of Mrs. Adams, lived a few doors from us. Whenever I was in the yard playing with her kids -- and I was always happy when dinner time because she would insist that I come in and eat with them. I would, of course, out of politeness, I would tell her, "Oh, Mrs. Adams, I can't possibly do that." And she would say, "You get yourself in her and sit down at this table, young fellow! We have enough food for everyone." And conversely, the same thing would happen if the kids were in our yard and Mom would say that it was time for us to eat. So it was a cohesive – even though impoverished – it was a cohesive group of people out there. People were proud. They worked together and tried their best to look after each other.
BOND: On the other hand, this kind of community coming together isn't unusual, but raised to a higher level, this kind of cooperative house building does strike me as an unusual phenomenon. You don't hear of this often.
THEUS: That's right.
BOND: At least in the more modern era of the twentieth century we're talking about here. What was it animated this community?
THEUS: When the African Americans went to Chicago and other Northern cities as a result of this sort of classic migration that I mentioned --
THEUS: -- they found that it wasn't easy to make a living. They found that jobs that they thought existed didn't really exist or they weren't competitive, perhaps they didn't have the skills and so forth. So, in order to exist in this new territory, they went out and purchased these lots at relatively low cost and of course there were entrepreneurs there who had bought up a lot of land, subdivided it into lots, and sold it off at what appeared to be low prices to us, but enough to make a good profit for the developers, if you will. And so, in order to lower their cost of living, they moved out there and such started to build houses. Well, it was pretty obvious that they couldn't do it all by themselves, neighbors just started spontaneously to come together to help each other. And so in turn, those who had already built, when they saw someone else needing that kind of assistance, they were able to go over and help them.
BOND: So can you describe the community of Robbins? I mean, was it large? How big it was it?
THEUS: It was a very small community.
BOND: How many families?
THEUS: I would say that, oh, at the time we lived there, I would say that there were probably anywhere between maybe 750 to 1,000 families at the most. There were only two white families in the whole community, one owned a grocery store and the other owned a farm equipment and farm supply store. The others were all blacks, African Americans, most of whom had moved out from Chicago trying to avoid the high rents.
BOND: And you described last night being bused to the neighboring community of Blue Island to go to school?
THEUS: Blue Island, that's right.
BOND: The bus waiting at the end of the school day until every single black student was on the bus --
THEUS: That is right, yes.
BOND: -- so that none of you would be left behind. So I'm getting a picture of a black community surrounded by whites, is that fair?
THEUS: That's exactly -- that's exactly what it was.
BOND: So, on the one hand you're living in this community where everybody looks like you --
THEUS: That's right.
BOND: And then as you approach school age you leave it at least for a few hours every day?
THEUS: For the high school. We did have an elementary school from first grade through twelve there in Robbins -- and a very nice school it was too, really -- but we did not have a high school. So when we reached high school age, we had to be bused to this town of Blue Island. We were accepted in the classes. But there was no effort to make sure that we progressed well. If there were activities that would extend into the evening hours or into hours on other than at the normal time for schools, we were usually discouraged from joining in those. I remember specifically that I was always interested in rifles for example. That practice normally took place after hours. So I was politely told, "Well, you know, maybe you might want to look at something else. This is not anything that you'd want to do." When I talked about getting into business, I wasn't encouraged, shall we say. Not flatly told no, but not encouraged to take business courses even though I wanted to do that and took as many of those as I could.
THEUS: The town itself was segregated even though it was North -- north of the Mason-Dixon line, of course. But we were not welcome in any of the little cafes, the main street. We could not go into the movies except for a loft, even up North. However, and interestingly enough, there were some enterprising young black Americans who knew that if you were not an American black person, then you would be accepted. And so some went to the point of learning enough French that they would go to the theater and ask, "Deux billets, s'il vous plait?" And they were immediately sold the tickets to the main floor and they were ushered in. Others went so far as to -- I didn't see this personally, but I was told about it -- that they learned how to wrap a turban.
BOND: Yes, yes. Students I was in school, in college with, used to put on turbans to go to the drive-in movie theater.
THEUS: Yes, exactly, and then they were accepted.
BOND: The idiocy of turning this person down because he's a dark American and accepting this person because he's a dark non-American -- I mean, just incredible.
THEUS: Well, we encountered that. We encountered that and this was not only Blue Island -- all of the surrounding communities that were now predominantly white. In fact, they were all white. You were just not accepted out there unless you were there working for some reason or other. And of course most of the jobs were all outside of the community. So you could travel out to work, but you saw to it that you weren't there for any social or recreational reasons.
BOND: Do you remember this tension breaking between the black community, the surrounding white community which on the one hand extends at least a welcome to school children if it does discourage them from extracurricular and expressing their ambitions -- did this tension ever break into violence of any sort, do you remember, as a kid?
THEUS: I do recall several instances of violence where one of the friends of our family was at the edge of the borderline of one of the communities. And he was attacked without provocation. Another -- a group of fellows decided that they would go to this town and seek revenge. And of course they were beaten pretty badly. But -- there were these little things, but it was so rare, I think that it was a case of most of the individuals in Robbins, most of the blacks did not seek to break down the barriers. More of, perhaps, an acceptance of the situation. And it was not a priority to break down these barriers.
BOND: Do you remember your mother, or other adults in the community giving you and your siblings instruction as to how you were expected to behave in this challenging world where "here things are fine, over here they're less fine"? I'm always interested in how this knowledge of race relations is transmitted from generation to generation.
THEUS: I don't recall a specific briefing on this. I think that we learned more from association with those in the community. We learned from seeing what happened when people were caught, shall we say, away from the community. There was one town in particular -- Cicero, Illinois.
BOND: Oh, yes.
THEUS: Cicero was particularly bad.
THEUS: And this was a town where you heard from others that you shouldn't be caught in that town at all. You should pass through quickly. I think the old saying that some -- "How do you visit Cicero?" "Quickly." "How do you go through it?" "As fast as you can." That sort of thing. So I don't remember being specifically told that you're expected to do this and that. Maybe an off-hand comment back and forth, but not any specific instructions.
BOND: Now, you spoke last night, movingly I thought, about these air shows.
THEUS: Oh yes.
BOND: And it's not redundant to repeat what you said. Tell about the entrepreneurs building the plane, building the field, and so forth.
THEUS: Yes, yes.
BOND: How did aviation come into your life?
THEUS: Well, when I lived out there in Robbins, of course, as a youngster, we were first introduced to aviation through our comic books. There was one called G-8 and the Flying Aces, and this was the comic book that depicted a hero, G-8, and his Aces fighting against the bad guys who would do bad things to a community. So that was very interesting. And then there was Mandrake and the Magicians,Mandrake the Magician. And he was always presenting a picture of how the nation, cities would look in the future. And he had airplanes flying overhead and balloons and all of those sorts of things, even some rockets. And so --
BOND: Mandrake, didn't Mandrake have a black companion? Lothar?
THEUS: He did, he did, and I can't remember the name.
BOND: Was it Lothar?
THEUS: I think that is the name, that is correct, yes.
BOND: But in G-8 and Mandrake are white.
THEUS: No, no.
BOND: You're not seeing yourself reflected here.
THEUS: No no, no no.
BOND: So you don't -- so what makes you feel, "I can do this or there's a place for me here"?
THEUS: Yes, I can certainly answer that one. It was observing that some blacks had been able to go beyond what was expected of them. There was no doubt that we were being swallowed up in this world of powered flight and everyone was interested. In spite of the obstacles, some black people were able to acquire airplanes, in some cases even to put them together from kits themselves, to put these aircraft together. And they wanted to fly them. Of course they encountered the expected barriers of using "white only" fields. And so, they came out to Robbins and there was a big meadow -- normally I think a cornfield. But in any case, level enough that they could land their aircraft. They got permission of the local farmer to use this.
And so, we had barnstorming pilots -- these are people who would move from community to community, doing acrobatics, tricks and so forth with their airplanes. We had a group that started to come to Robbins very regularly, on a regular basis. And we kids would go out and we'd sneak as closely as we could up to the aircraft. And we'd work -- we'd talk to these pilots. We'd go and feel these airplanes, and they were then -- to us they were sleek, powerful, modern machines in spite of the fact that the fuselage, the covers on them, was just painted canvas. And the fact that the wheels, the landing -- they were tied to the landing gear with bungee cords. You're familiar with the bungee cords that you use now.
BOND: Sure, right.
THEUS: They were tied to these and these pilots, who, of course, in their sharp leather suits, their leather jackets and goggles, leggings sometimes, boots and so forth. And for a very small sum of money -- maybe a quarter, I think that it was at the time -- they would take us up and fly us around the community and so forth. And of course we were very proud to --
BOND: Do you remember your first time?
THEUS: I sure do, I sure do. I went up and, gee, it was just such an exhilarating feeling to find yourself above the trees and then back over the community where you could look down, you could spot your own home and so forth. And so I felt at that time that this was really the life for me. I said to myself, "Gee, when I grow up, I'm really going to be into aviation, and I'll do the sort of things that G-8 is doing with his Flying Aces. I'll lead a squadron and I'll vanquish all of the bad guys, all of the people who were -- who would do harm, if you will, to our community." And so this was not so much a black thing, it was more a thing of participating in something that had become really sort of a craze throughout the nation, flying. I just really wanted to do that.
BOND: Now, were there in older people, memories of early pioneering flyers, white flyers?
THEUS: Oh, yes.
BOND: And this kind of romanticism attached to it that is passed on to you?
THEUS: Very definitely, very definitely. We of course followed the exploits of --
BOND: [Eddie] Rickenbacker.
THEUS: -- Rickenbacker and [Charles] Lindbergh and all of those, and this, of course, all of this did was to heighten our interest.
THEUS: And then when we saw the opportunity to have hands-on contact with people who flew with the aircraft themselves, of course we took to this and people came out from -- I'm saying people, I'm referring to African-American young men -- came out from Chicago, even, to -- so that they could be on hand to see this. And some of them, some of the pilots who were later in the Tuskegee Airmen experience were those who flew into this field. I'm thinking now of a fellow by the name of Hurd -- what was his first name? It wasn't Jim [James A.] Hurd -- I'll think of it in a moment. But anyhow, his last name was Hurd and the reason it's on my mind is that, he just recently passed away. But he was one of those who was one of those pilots who came out there, and then when the opportunity to fly for the Air Force came, he was one of the first to embrace this and became a combat pilot. Went to Europe with the group and so forth, and then after the war moved back to Chicago. And as I mentioned, we lost him just in the matter of a few months ago.
BOND: Now these barnstormers who'd come, I'm getting a mental picture of a crowd down on the field --
THEUS: Yes, yes.
BOND: The pilots take off, they engage in these barrel rolls and tricks of all sorts.
THEUS: Yes. That's correct, exactly.
BOND: How big a crowd would a typical show attract?
THEUS: Oh well, you see, the reason -- you have to understand that flying was such an attractive sport that it attracted not only the people from the African American community, but people from the white communities all around. And so, on hand there would be several thousand people gathered around out --
BOND: And so, are they charging admission to see this?
THEUS: They did in some cases, and other cases they made their money by having little concessions to sell food and so forth.
BOND: It was really hard to charge admission, you could stand over here and see what was going on.
THEUS: Exactly, so it would be very difficult. But you got in fairly close up for a small admission. Then they're people like Bessie [Elizabeth] Coleman, for example, who had to go to Europe, you know, to get her pilot's license and so forth. She was out there. There were others who walked on wings and attached themselves to the wings of these aircraft and they stood up as the aircraft rolled and so forth. And they wouldn't toss, they wouldn't drop off. But as you know, we did lose some people to that sort of stunt flying. But this was a very popular thing.
BOND: It's hard to imagine now, flying is such an everyday experience. Not actually piloting a plane but being in one is such an everyday experience. It was so rare then, for anyone to have been in an airplane. It had to be one of the most exciting things you could do, or to watch someone take off in one of those flimsy looking things.
THEUS: That's right. But you see, in those days, in those days, Julian, those were not flimsy aircraft. They really looked like -- well, perhaps like space ships look to you today.
THEUS: They really looked powerful and state-of-the-art. In fact, I used to amuse myself by making sketches of these aircraft. I just wonder if I still have some of those around. I'm curious about that. I'll have to look. But I did, I drew sketches of aircraft that I saw and to me they were just the most state-of-the-art things that one could imagine, it was really quite interesting.
BOND: Now, I guess this attracts you to the idea "I can do this, I can do this" -- the comic books, the experience of seeing these flyers, going up yourself, the excitement attached to it.
THEUS: That's right.
BOND: Was the military the most immediate option for you to get yourself into this world?
THEUS: It was, it was. I looked forward to the day that I could join the military, the Air Force, if you will, the Air Corps at that time -- join and learn to fly military aircraft. But when I first started to get this urge, I was very, very young, so I had to wait for time to pass.
THEUS: And, of course, we're getting now into the '30s, 1930s and so forth, so I had to go ahead and complete high school. I had thought very much about going off to college because we didn't have any incentive or, shall we say, any examples. I don't know if there were any individuals from this small community who even thought in terms of going to college. So after I graduated – I was very fortunate. I skipped several grades in elementary school, and so I was one of the younger people through high school – but I hadn't thought too much about college. I started to work doing some unskilled labor jobs, then along came the war, along came the war. Along came the war, and I joined the hordes of people who were -- worked on projects that were related to the war. In fact, I recall specifically I went to work on a construction gang making about three times the money that I was making working in the small automobile dealership before this came along. And so there was just no thought at that time of going on to college.
Then when the opportunity came, the program was announced that the Army Air Corps would accept African Americans for pilot training. I hit a little bit on that last evening. It took a lot to get this, though, to get this done. But it was not an easy thing, and I may have brushed over it too rapidly last evening because we had to have -- first of all, we had to have a [law]suit by a fellow by the name of Yancy Williams, who literally sued the War Department to open up flying to African Americans. We had Mrs. Roosevelt, as I pointed out, after she came down to Tuskegee and flew with an African American who had literally taught himself to fly. And she, upon completion of the flight, vowed that she would help us in getting what we wanted. We had Dale White and Chauncey Spencer who flew a rickety old aircraft and there was -- they had a lot of problems getting that thing from Chicago to Washington, D. C. But it paid off because Senator Truman -- then-Senator Truman -- came out and looked at this airplane and looked at these fellows, and he made a commitment on the spot. He said, "If you had guts enough to fly that thing all the way from Chicago to Washington, D. C., I have guts enough to help you get what you're trying to -- what you're asking for, and that is an opportunity to fly." In the meantime, there was a thrust on the part of the African-American news media that led those that were in the legislature were pushing. So, I don't see that the War Department had any choice but to open up flying to African Americans.
But they decided they would do this on a very limited scale -- "We'll train just enough pilots and crew members to staff one squadron." That was supposed to be the 99th. So they said, "Well, we'll build an airport for them." And it is said that they also went on to say that "Since we know" – quote, "know" – "We know that African-Americans can't fly, we know that they don't have the brain capacity, the ability to fly military aircraft. So we'll give them a few airplanes. We'll build them a base, they'll kill a few of themselves, maybe as collateral damage a few families might suffer on the outside, but that's about it. But we'll prove once and for all the wisdom of keeping blacks out of the cockpits of military aircraft."
BOND: So, with the expectation that you are going to fly --
THEUS: Yes. That's right.
BOND: -- you sign up.
THEUS: I did.
BOND: You're called up, you sign up.
THEUS: I went down --
BOND: And what's your experience?
THEUS: Well, I went down to the old post office building in Chicago and -- well, before that. I decided that I wanted to fly, as I'd mentioned earlier, and as I said I was working and now starting to make a little bit of money, but not a lot. But I did take my last bit of money and bought several books on aeronautics -- read, studied them very, very religiously. And then I went down to the old post office building where they were giving these tests on for individuals to see if they qualified to fly. As it worked, as it turned out, upon completing the test, was scored, fellow came out and looked at me and he said, "I noticed that you said on your application that you're not a pilot, that you've never flown an aircraft." And I said, "That's correct, sir." And he said, "Well, I just don't understand this." He said, "I haven't seen a higher score down here from a non-flying individual. How do you explain that?" And I said, "Well, you know, I like aviation. I, of course, read up on it and so forth, and so I was able to do well on it." He said, "All right," he said, "You'll do all right." He said, "Now, looking at your physical you do have a problem with one eye but I think that you'll be okay if you go out and maybe go see your doctor and see what will happen." I did and he said, "Oh, well it's nothing really seriously wrong." He said, "You were probably a little fatigued," so he said, "Eat some carrots and rest up for a week. And go back, you'll probably pass." And so I did. And so he said then, "Okay, you're fully qualified. You can go into aviation cadet training." And I said, "Fine, fine, let me go, turn me loose." And he said, "Oh no, wait a minute, we're only taking a few of you at a time. We're building a base for you and all of that." And so in the meantime my draft board kept breathing my neck, saying, "We think that perhaps you are just putting us on, and you don't want to go into the service and so forth," and they kept this up for about six months.
BOND: So even though you had, in effect, volunteered for the Air Corps --
THEUS: Yes, yes.
BOND: -- the draft board is saying --
THEUS: Was still breathing down my neck saying that if they don't send you to flight training, then you're going to have to go on into the --
BOND: You would have gone into the Army?
THEUS: That's right, into the Army. But when I arrived at Selfridge Air National Guard -- well, not Selfridge, I'm sorry -- at Fort Custer, Michigan, I told the people who were processing me there that I really wanted to be on the aviation side of things, I wanted to go into the Army Air Corps, at least be close to airplanes. And the fellow there just, he wasn't at all concerned about that. He said, "Well," he said, "If you really want to be Air Corps, go ahead stick out your hand." And I did, and he stamped Army Air Corps on it and so I got over in a separate line for Army Air Corps. And then as I mentioned, I went on down to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. And the rest of it is history. I was able to become first sergeant in short order, and --
BOND: But you didn't become a pilot?
THEUS: I did not become a pilot.
BOND: And they lost your application.
THEUS: That's right. So anyhow, after I got to Keesler, we wrote back to the board, my commander and I both tried to contact them. They claimed they no record of my having passed these exams. And so we kept this up, back and forth, back and forth. Finally after about, I guess it was closer to a year -- between six months and a year -- we did receive information from headquarters Air Corps that I had been found fully qualified for aviation cadet pilot training and that I was to be made Air Corps unassigned, taken away from the cadre, made Air Corps unassigned, preparatory for entrance into this program. My commander who was relatively new himself, said, "Gee," said, "I sure wish you would stay and help me straighten out this squadron. And I'll help you get a commission after that and I'll get you into flight training if that's what you want to do."
So I stayed with him. This was my own choice. It seemed the thing to do because I was asked – this is the first time that I had really been asked to make a decision, that I could, whether I could stay or not. So I decided that he needed help, he was nice enough to ask me if I would agree to stay, and so I did. And when we got things straightened out a year later, I was ready to go into pilot training, and so I filled out my new application, sent it in. It was immediately rejected because they said, "We're phasing the program down; we're not accepting anyone from the outside anymore," and so that was the end of that. I went back to this captain and I said, "I'm not going to get to go to flying training." And he said, "Well," he said, "the next best thing we can do -- we've got to get you a commission." He said, "We'll get you into officer candidate school. Make an application and see and I'll help you."
BOND: Now, before you get into OCS, many people think that almost all military training is, in fact, leadership training. Do you get the feeling that in these pre-officer training school that you're learning how to be a leader? You said last night that when you were watching these airmen fly on the field in Robbins, that you knew then you could be a successful leader.
BOND: How did you know it then, and then what did the military do for you to reinforce this feeling?
THEUS: Well, the feeling came as I was watching these pilots flying these aircraft and, of course, they -- some of them flew in formation. They did have leaders, not designated necessarily, but they did have someone who was directing them in their actions. And I said to myself that "I can certainly do that well. If I learned to fly, that I can be a leader of one of these groups and better still, I can be a leader of a group such as imagined by G-8 and his Flying Aces. I can be in charge of the group, I can lead them in vanquishing the bad guys." And so there was no question in my mind that I wasn't going to just be one of them, I was going to be a leader of a group of them. So I had that feeling.
And then as I moved into the old Army Air Corps -- first off, we were shipped initially to Fort Custer, Michigan. Then we received our assignments to Keesler Field. And I don't know why -- maybe because I looked it or acted it -- but I was told that I was going to be in charge of the detachment going to Keesler, and that I was responsible then for seeing to it that -- first of all, that they had all of their equipment with them, that they were lined up and ready to go at a given point, and so forth, and responsible to see that they got there. Well, of course, that was very easy because we all loaded onto a train. I counted to make sure they were there, looked at the orders and made sure that they were there, and we got them to Keesler. Then after I arrived at Keesler, I was in basic training. That was rather uneventful. But then for some reason or other, my commander selected me to supervise a couple of work details.
BOND: Why do you think he selected you?
THEUS: I don't know. I think that maybe it was because -- maybe I looked eager. Or maybe I was emitting some signals of which I wasn't aware at the time. But I was selected for that, and the next thing that I recall is that he came out and he said, "Would you like to go to clerical school?" And I said, "Of course, sir." So I found myself then going over to Atlanta University for a short course then in military clerical business. And perhaps again because I tried to do the best with my job, I soon found myself as chief clerk in the office, seeing to it that all of the other clerical duties were performed well, that the people were doing them. And then shortly thereafter I was asked if I would prefer to really be a first sergeant. And so I was then appointed to that position, to acting-first sergeant because I was still a staff sergeant, but I was given that position. And then I gradually -- not gradually -- I started to enjoy being in charge, making sure that things happened. Making sure that they happened without -- with minimum disruption, with minimum of turbulence and so forth. So, yes, I think that there was definitely a build-up of this leadership quality and desire to lead, long before I got to Officer Candidate School.
BOND: And the very nature of the military is this hierarchical system where this person's in charge of these people, this person in charge of that person and them, and so on and so on -- a stairstep, and you're moving up this stairstep and feeling, "I can do this."
THEUS: Yes, exactly.
BOND: And proving "I can do this" and then comes officer training school and that's a big step.
THEUS: That is true. You put it very well, because as I started to move up, many times just on the basis of performance of the duties that I had, then I got another chevron, when I had moved up another notch. Then you had to quickly grow into the position. In other words, you had to now -- you're a sergeant, you have act like a sergeant, you see. How does a sergeant act? Well, a sergeant has to be a leader. And so now you move to the next level. You have others under your, not necessarily control, but your supervision, and so you have to now exercise your leadership ability with that group. And so it was a combination of doing the work well, wanting to move ahead, and then once moving to the next level, then growing into the position. And demonstrating that you could successfully manage the next level of people.
BOND: Now, in all of this what role, if any -- and I believe it must play some -- does race play? I don't mean race in guaranteeing you success, but just race generally. Here you are, a racial minority in an overwhelmingly white institution, at a time in American life when racism is prevalent everywhere. How is this coming into your life?
THEUS: Well, you see, at that time, at the times that we have discussed, we were -- I was in an organization that was all one group, was all black.
BOND: Right, but you're in the middle, this all-black group is in the middle of this larger white group.
THEUS: That is correct, that's correct. So race was not an issue at that point -- was not an issue, did not really become much of an issue until later on after I was commissioned and moved into a more integrated society, if you will, small society of military people. Now when I arrived at Erding Air Depot, Germany after the Armed Forces were integrated. Of course we had, had some people there who were avowed racists, but we had a commander who called all of his senior people together and stated to them, categorically -- and I recall that I was advised about this later on -- so that he had them all in with theatre. And he was an old cavalry officer, even though in the Air Corps, he was an old -- he had originated in the cavalry. He always walked around with his leggings and the big, what do you call it, the pants, you know?
BOND: Blouse, pants that they --
THEUS: So anyhow, and he carried this riding crop, and he came, went into this theater and he said, after the customary courtesies of everybody coming to attention and so forth. He walked in, slammed this crop on the desk that was up front, and said, "I have now a few words to say to you this morning." He said, "We're going to have the first Negro officers coming to this base very shortly." And he said, "Whether I believe in it or not, is not important." He said, "We have our orders. Everyone's to be treated equally here, fairly, no one is to be insulted, and if anyone wants to get themselves into deep trouble, the best way to get yourself thrown off this base and completely out of the Air Force is for you to make any problems whatsoever. Do you understand this?" Nobody said anything. He slammed his crop down and he said, "You're dismissed," and he left. Now, you and I know again that issuing an order like that will only, at best, keep individuals from exhibiting any -- outwardly any prejudices.
THEUS: But they will not necessarily eliminate the prejudices, the biases that have been long embedded in them. And so surely -- sure, we encountered some problems. Not many confrontations on the base, but in the local community, not much except where the feelings of restaurateurs has been poisoned by members of the majority race. Where there was some concern about fraternizations of black GIs with the German women.
BOND: German women, yeah.
THEUS: That sort of thing. But basically it went along fairly smoothly, certainly much more smoothly than it had in any of our contacts in the civilian communities prior to going into the service. But then, things were changing and we were in an environment where you were expected to obey and even if you disagreed with the particular situation, you were obeyed for the most part or you just walked away from it.
BOND: And, of course, this is a perfect example of leadership. He gives the command.
BOND: He lets the command under him know that this isn't a question of liking, disliking. This is an order.
THEUS: That's exactly right.
BOND: This is what we're going to do.
BOND: And if you can't obey the order then there's no place for you here.
THEUS: That's right.
BOND: And you can't do that in civilian life -- or you can try, but you can't do it.
THEUS: You know it won't work.
BOND: So you arrive there and you find a relatively benign situation.
THEUS: Yes, exactly.
BOND: In part because of what this man has done. And what's your next step?
THEUS: Well, of course, I was in this small organization that provided computer support for the Depot, through the area there. Fortunately, those who were appointed above me where broad-minded people, they were not solicitous, but they saw to it that everything that was done in the organization, my wife and I were included in it, from a social standpoint. There was no question or problems at all about duty performance because, again, I made sure that there was nothing that was left undone that was in my area of responsibility. And so I think that that helps, too. That helps, too. So there was no room for criticism there at all. Got through that I thought very, very well indeed, primarily because we had good leaders and primarily because I think that I did my job to the best of my ability.
BOND: Do you think – and maybe this is my ignorance of the kind of people you'd be working with – that the nature of the work, with this relatively new field of computers, attracts a person different than the norm one might have run into had you been a -- work in supply --
THEUS: Yes, yes.
BOND: -- or actually working as a trainer or what have you. That that, in turn, contributed to the relatively benign situation you found yourself facing with, that the nature of the people with whom you worked and the fact that you're in this new field --
BOND: -- made a distinction between what you might have experienced some place else?
THEUS: I certainly agree with you. Yes, I agree that the field of computers, electronics and so forth does attract people who are better educated, I should say, more technically oriented, are not as concerned with many of the social aspects of things and they accept you for what you know and for what you do.
BOND: They're not as concerned, could you say, with personality as they are with performance?
THEUS: You hit it right on the button, exactly. You state it so much better than I could. You're quite right. So I think that that played a part also, yes, very definitely. And then too, I had an opportunity to do some things that gave me quite a bit of exposure. I had the shop that we called analysis and presentation. It was taking computer data, putting it into presentation form, charts, graphs, that sort of thing, and then using that to brief the senior people. And on the base, the senior people are our command that was located above us, both from the States, the German representatives, and so forth. So I think that with that and working hard at that task, I gained a reputation of doing these kinds of jobs well. And also, I think that there may have been some concern that maybe this young guy now has a pipeline to someone who maybe able to get back at me if I don't treat him properly -- not any favors, but certainly not to do anything that would be out of line. I never had to use that, but I have to admit it came to my mind also, that if things didn't work, I don't think I would have hesitated about going to one of my superiors, perhaps at the next briefing or what have you, I probably would have dropped it by.
BOND: So, did you believe your colleagues and co-workers had this sense too, that "If I step out of line," so to speak...
THEUS: Yes, yes.
BOND: "There's a sanction that comes down against me." And in a situation where people are constantly being judged and evaluated, as to whether or not they're going to move up to the next level, this makes sense just not to do it, stay away from it.
THEUS: Yes, yes, yes.
BOND: So then after this experience, what happens to you then? I want to trace your career.
THEUS: Sure, well… From there, let’s say this: I did work on some highly classified data that I provided the Commander on a regular basis, and so forth.
BOND: Let me interrupt you there: I hear you have moved into a really elite position?
THEUS: Yes, that’s correct, that’s a different thing, you’re right.
BOND: And that also creates distinction for you, different than if you’d been just handling regular data.
THEUS: Yes, yes, it does. Exactly.
BOND: I am sorry, go ahead.
THEUS: So then, one day, I received notice that I was going to be transferred to the Pentagon. I think I might have mentioned last evening, that many of my friends came to me, and said, “Gee, Lu, you know, we at the Pentagon, I’ve been there, and we use Colonels to empty the waste baskets. And you’re a Captain, and you’re going to the Pentagon, what are you going to do, what do you think they’ll have you doing?” Well, I said, “Well, I’ll just do what whatever I need to do." So I went on to the Pentagon, continued in logistics and statistical services, computers and all of that. And I had the task of developing systems to control logistics, the supplies, and so forth, equipment. But at the same time, I had to make many policy decisions. Now, these decisions, emanating from the Pentagon, affected operations, of course, throughout the world. I enjoyed doing this. I found that it was easy for me, having had this experience at this lower level, it was easy for me to grasp what needed to be done, and to develop the systems and to make the policy decisions and so forth. I encountered a Colonel for whom I worked at this lower level. And he came to me very apologetically, one day in the hallway, as we were passing one another. And he said, “Lu, I think that you’re probably wondering how you got to the Pentagon.” And he said, “I hope you are not unhappy with me,” he said. “But I received word from the headquarters that they were seeking a sharp young officer, and perhaps we’d even like to have a minority fellow, if you have one, who can move into this position, we’d like to give them an opportunity to work at this level.” And he said, “And I nominated you and they selected you.” And I said, “By all means, Colonel, I’m just real happy to be here.” So that worked out well. I continued to work very hard at the Pentagon. I took things very seriously, as one should. It didn’t matter if we had things that we had to do beyond the normal work hours. Now there, though, in the Pentagon, most of the time you did not see your co-workers socially. So there wasn’t that kind of a problem. I did receive word, as recently as a couple of months ago, from a fellow with whom I worked, or who worked for me, as a civilian, in this job. I didn’t know this, and this is the first time I’ve stated this publically. But he said, in an email to me, he said, and I still have that email, incidentally, he said, “Lu, you’re probably wondering about an incident that occurred while you were in charge of this branch in the Pentagon.” And he said, “If you’ll recall, I came to you and said, I have to go and see the top-level Colonel in this group. And that you asked me if there was something wrong and if I could help in any way. And I told you that, no, that there’s nothing that I can ask you to do for me. I can’t share it with you, but I just want your permission to talk to the Colonel.” And I said to him, “Stan, this is most unusual, but I trust you, so if you have a problem that you need to discuss with the Colonel, go ahead, you have my permission.” And I never heard any more about it. In fact, I didn’t even ask him about it anymore. But he related to me what had happened.
BOND: And this is almost 50 years later.
THEUS: That’s right, that’s right. He said that he was in a food line in the cafeteria, and there was a Lieutenant Colonel, who was on the next level above me, and he was speaking with one of his contemporaries, and he said “You know, we have this n-word person working in the office,” and he said “and I think that it’s really terrible that it’s come to this.” And then he had a few other disparaging comments, and said that, “Well, I am certainly not going to cooperate with him, he will never get anything done past me.” And so Stan overheard this, and he said that he didn’t do anything about it on the spot, he wanted to talk to the Chief of the department, and he did. And interestingly enough, this person was not selected for Colonel. This person was cashiered out of the Air Force at the end of his term as a Lieutenant Colonel. That meant that he had to retire several years earlier, and so forth. And I didn’t know that this had happened. And Stan and I were not really buddy-buddy. We were casual friends, but not real close. So my point in telling you this one is that sometimes help comes from sources that are unexpected. And you don’t know that there are individuals who are really in your corner, who prefer not to necessarily be identified, they are not seeking any adulation, or any praise or what have you, they just do it because they feel it’s the right thing to do.
BOND: It’s a great story.
BOND: General, we have you at the Pentagon, and you described an incident there, where without your knowing it, race had intruded into, really, the performance of your duties.
THEUS: That's true.
BOND: Where do you move next from the Pentagon and does race play a role there?
THEUS: Well, it does. It does, and I'm just thinking now, I want to collect my thoughts as we move along from the Pentagon because things really started to change fairly rapidly for me at that time. I went from there out to an Air Defense Command Base -- Moses Lake, Washington. And from there, well, I went on over to Klamath Falls, Oregon. But we're getting a little bit ahead of the game. I completed all of the undergraduate work off campus.
BOND: At Maryland?
THEUS: At University of Maryland – no, I did this off-campus initially, did all but the final semester classes there. And so the Air Force decided that I should go over to Maryland for my final semester, to get my bachelor's degree. I went over there and that worked out very well. Came back to the Pentagon, and I heard that they were sending some students -- some military people, officers -- to graduate school. So I went over to talk to them in the education office and as it turned out they did have a slot open. They needed to have an individual with a master's degree in business administration. So I asked for it and got it, and I went over to George Washington University for one year. The normal course time was supposed to be two years, but they said, "If you can squeeze into one calendar year then we will let you go over and take this course." So I did, and it worked out very well.
Well, now this is very interesting because I understand that George Washington University had for whatever reason not admitted any African Americans to the graduate school in business administration and that my friend, Gene Tyree (ph.), also a colonel, and I were the first to go over there for this course. And that was very interesting because we really had to work real hard at it because it was compacted, everything was set up so that we had to do almost twice as much work in half the time. But I did notice, we both noticed, that some of the students would not talk with us about the content of the course. And if we had problems and we tried to get some idea of just what, how the others dealt with that particular problem, that they would simply change the conversation. And so Gene Tyree and I decided at that time that we were not going to do anything but max the course. And so we talked with our wives, very open about it. And we told them that we were encountering some problems. We didn't think that we could, would have any problem overcoming them, but it would take sacrifice on their part of not having us immediately responsive to the things that they might want to do. Both wives agreed, and so between Chief Tyree, as I called him, and myself, we were either over at his home in his basement studying or we were in my upstairs room studying. And my wife played a major role in my getting through that course quite successfully. She typed all of my term papers, things that I had to do. And many a day I would come out of my room after having studied most of the night, grab a piece of paper from her as she was just getting it out of the typewriter, and dash off to the school. Soon we found that other associates, other students were calling us to see how we dealt with particular problems.
So, that's a little side thing, again, so we did that. And then left that and went on out to Moses Lake, Washington. And there I was on the battle staff with the intelligence officer during the Cuban crisis. And that was a very, very interesting experience, to sit there and watch what was going on, and of course as you know, the big issue was one ship heading from Russia was loaded with additional missiles, and we had said that either we get the missiles out of Cuba or we will invade and destroy them ourselves. And we did not cut the Canadians in on this -- they were our partners in North American defense -- because we felt that this was purely an American thing, and we wanted to do it ourselves. As you know the story there, that they did turn around, turn the ship around and headed back.
BOND: This is the closest that we've come to nuclear war.
THEUS: That's right, that's right.
BOND: And it must have been incredibly tense.
THEUS: It was, it was very tense. We had duty there, we were on duty for about forty-eight hours and most of us felt that we were moving to the point where we would launch nuclear weapons on one another. We had the doors to the silos open, the missile silos. We had the aircraft were on their way to the targets and so forth.
THEUS: They were. So there was a piece on this on television several months ago that documented this whole thing, that where it was the closest that we ever came having total nuclear war. But anyhow, that was a great experience -- one, to be right in the middle of it, to making some decisions -- they were all minor because we were a sub of the total North American Air Defense Command. But we had to track the aircraft to make sure that there were no incoming aircraft from the Soviet side and we could, of course, see exactly what was going on. So that was a really, really an excellent experience that I think brought realism to the fact that we were really close to war.
BOND: To some extent, your experiences up to now might have easy parallels in the civilian world -- managing supply, managing distribution, computer work. But this -- there's no parallel.
THEUS: That is right. And that's why I tell everyone that when you go into the armed forces, you must understand that the armed forces, of course, has all of these other functions, functions that are non-combat contact. But -- but in the final analysis, you are responsible for supporting them and if necessary participating in the combat. We must never forget that the only reason for your existence is, of course, to engage the enemy if necessary and to vanquish them. And so, I welcome the opportunity to do this as a sort of an additional duty, a part of the thing, I had the management analysis shop for that organization. But I also had the responsibility of serving as the intelligence officer on the battle staff in this block-house, as we called it. So -- and then I went onto Klamath Falls, Oregon. A small base out there, a fighter base.
And now, that presented another one of these interesting problems. It was a small community, the community adjoining the base. We had an excellent commander, a fellow who had flown with the Flying Tigers during the conflict there in China and so forth. But there are -- understandably, there are clubs in town that are private clubs. And he went to them and said, "I have a number of young people at the base, we'd sure like to negotiate something so that once in a while, some of them could come into town and utilize some of the facilities here. And certainly they do not have the money to join your club, but we'd greatly appreciate it if you could make these arrangements." They turned him down cold. And I'm sure that part of it was on the basis that he had an integrated force out there. Well, he said, "All right," he said "if you don't permit them to utilize the facilities," he said, "then I'll just simply place the town off limits." They responded to that.
BOND: I'm sure they did.
THEUS: A few days later, of course, knowing that this would impact their economy, a few days later they did agree to open their clubs and other facilities to our people from the base.
THEUS: In the meantime though, I knew who that -- having completed now up to this time a lot of technical schools. I'd gone to the Armed Forces Staff College -- and I should talk about that, I'll double back on that when I get an opportunity.
BOND: Okay, sure.
THEUS: But anyhow, I knew that I needed to have a senior service school if I were going to continue to progress. So I'd hinted around, and you see, you can't apply for the Air War College, it's not an application process. It's one for which your commander and all of the people in your chain up have to recommend you for this one. So I decided I'd do the next best thing and that is to take the Industrial College of the Armed Forces off campus, by taking classes while doing it practically all of it correspondence. I did this and thought I'd checked that block and came down the line with a statement that I was a distinguished graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. And before I knew it though, within less than month after this came through, I received notice that I had been selected to go the Air War College in residence. And so, I think I mentioned the other night that this was very interesting. Again, I was successful in being a distinguished graduate of the Air War College. But en route to the Air War College, I had stopped by and talked to my friends in the Pentagon and telling them that I thought that I had done a decent job there before and I'd really like to get back to the area. Because I enjoyed being at that level with, again, exercising a bit of leadership in a different sort of way. I should say this, overall making decisions that affected the entire Air Force and I enjoyed that. I enjoyed that and making sure that I was right, making sure that these were the right decisions. But enjoying the fact that they were far-reaching, far-reaching.
So, anyhow, I waited for the detailer, as we call this individual, to come down from the colonels' group. And he did, came and had a stack of papers, much the same as you have in your hand now. And he flipped through them and he went from individual to individual, giving them their assignments. And every time he would turn his head toward me, I would raise my hand and try to get his eye and he would quickly turn away and move onto the next person. And so I was saying to myself, "Gee, I just wonder why this guy doesn't want to talk to me, he's my friend." Finally he got to me and he said, "Lou," he said, "I know that you were looking forward to coming to the Pentagon." He said, "but I have some good news and some bad news for you." And I said, "Okay, what is it John?" He said, "Well, you're to be assigned to Cam Ranh Bay." And I said, "Cameron Bay?" and I thought about it, and I said, "It's all right, that's fine," I said, "That's close to the Pentagon." I thought it was a joint assignment to the Army Station there, Cameron Station. So I said, "Oh, Cameron Station is fine for me." He said, "No, no, you didn't hear me correctly. I mean Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam." So I asked him, "Well, is it my turn to go?" And he said "No, no not really." I said, "Well, why are you sending me there?" He said, "Well, we were looking over your records and they look very good. You're doing very well indeed in your Air Force career," he said, "but you haven't been in a combat zone in a long time. We feel that you need to fill out your career brief by our being able to show that you have served in a combat zone." So he said, "Now are you a volunteer?" And I said, "Well,what if I don't volunteer?" He said, "We're going to send you anyhow."
And so I said, "Well, verify that I'll volunteer." So I went out to Cam Ranh Bay and there again, excellent opportunities for leadership because we had people out there who were there for only a year -- some of them, of course, against their own will. They didn't want to be there, they were separated from their families and so forth. So you really had to work at first of all, gaining their respect, gaining their compliance with rules and regulations, making sure that your people did the right things. For example, we had the controller shop there handling the pay for all personnel. I found that, much to my dismay, that some of the flight crews could not get adjustments to their pay. Couldn't make changes because they would fly missions and then they'd come back, and they'd be sleeping in the next day, or for various and sundry reasons they couldn't get over to the accounting and finance office during the time that it was open. And so I asked the young men who worked for me -- and women -- who worked for me. I said "Why, why, how are you letting this happen? We have people who are on the cutting edge of delivering armament to the enemy, and you're saying that they have to wait until you find the time to open and service their pay records?" And so, of course, I changed that immediately. Those are the sort of things that we did. We were very, very fortunate. We were on the peninsula upper level there and so we didn't have much in the way of problems from people from the outside. We had the Republic of Korea troops as our perimeter guards. But while I was there, President Johnson came out and visited with us.
BOND: I remember that.
THEUS: That was really quite an occasion. As you perhaps recall also, the news media was wondering, "Where is he? He's dropped from sight," and so forth. Of course we had already received these burn before reading messages, we knew that he was on his way to visit with us. Regardless of what your politics are, whatever you feel. You just had to have to get a thrill from standing out, looking out over the Bay, early in the morning and there's Air Force One on the deck, flanked by our fighters, coming in, the President, to visit the troops in the field. It was quite a thrill.
BOND: I remember hearing a great story about Johnson -- he's some place and a military aide says, "Mr. President, here's your helicopter. I think it's that one." And Johnson says, "Son, they're all my helicopters."
THEUS: Yes, yes, I don't doubt that.
BOND: Vietnam coincides with the period or creates a period in which the traditional relationship between the civilian population [and] the military population shifts. Unlike World War I, II, Korea --
THEUS: Yes, that's right.
BOND: -- all of a sudden, there's enormous difference of opinion in the public about whether this is wise, whether we should do it. And as you recall, marches, protests, demonstrations -- do you detect this as you're there in Vietnam? Is it pressing on you? I don't mean changing your feeling, but you're certainly aware of this.
THEUS: Yes, we were aware of it but it did not adversely impact on our performance of our duties out there nor the morale. What did happen though, what did happen is upon return to the United States, we had heard about this and we came face to face with it. When we returned to the United States from Vietnam, regardless of what role you played out there, there was such animosity that many individuals, upon arriving in the United States, as quickly as they could, they immediately shed their uniforms because they were blamed for things, some imagined, mostly imagined. But in any case, because there was this aversion to the war out there, they were made to be very uncomfortable and they were called very bad names.
BOND: Baby killers.
THEUS: Baby killers and et cetera, et cetera, and so therefore it was in our best interests to immediately take off our uniforms.
BOND: Now after a period in which the work that you're doing and the career that you've chosen have been generally celebrated by your fellow citizens --
BOND: -- all of a sudden there's a shift, how much do you feel?
THEUS: Well, there's no doubt that it can't help but impact your feelings in a negative way. You can't help but be concerned that here you are fighting an unpopular war but, on the other hand, you have to also realize that you are a military person, the decisions are made topside by our president and all of those who work for him. The orders that come down have the weight of those coming from our Commander-in-chief. So whether you're happy with them or not, you have to carry out those orders. The public had to understand that military men and women are subject to these kinds of orders. Sometimes they must do things that are not necessarily popular, but that as professional men and women of the military, you have to carry out the order that are given to you. And so, we took comfort in that fact, the knowledge that we were military people, we had no choice but to do what we were told to do -- short, of course, of committing atrocities, we wouldn't do anything like that. But to conduct the war, we had no choice then.
BOND: Now, Vietnam is also the first time we hear about racial conflicts within the military. I am sure it’s not the first time they occur, but it’s the first time we really begin to hear widespread accounts, typically in the army, conflicts between lieutenants, white lieutenants, and black troops. The Air Force – a little different, I am guessing – but does this come into play in the Air Force, as well?
THEUS: It did not, not to my knowledge, and certainly not during the time that I was there. However, this leads us to another point that I think is worthy of mention on this interview. Upon returning to the United States, I was assigned to the Pentagon again, as I had much wanted, and so I was back there. This time I was in charge of advanced technology for computers, for use throughout the Air Force. I was enjoying that assignment, because it was challenging, it was one of the sort of things that I wanted to do. But the Secretary of Defense rightly became concerned about human relations, race relations in the Armed Forces. And set about, then, establishing a committee to investigate the race relations within the Armed Forces. And I was honored to be asked to chair this particular committee. And so I gathered together about 30 people, a very heterogeneous group of individuals, some who were combat tested, Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant, a Naval Captain, a couple of Army Lieutenant Colonels, Air Force… and so forth…
BOND: How did you pick these people?
THEUS: Looked at the sort of people that I thought would bring first-hand knowledge, or at least first-hand good judgment to the committee. Some were selected by the personnel people of the individual services.
BOND: I am guessing that while you know a lot of people in the Air Force, you don’t know that many people in the Navy or the Army…
THEUS: No, I did not. So most of those were nominees of their services. And so they came to this committee as the nominees with the criteria that we had pointed out, that I pointed out, and that is that they should be levelheaded individuals who are familiar with the service, hopefully with some command experience, and so forth. And so we put this committee together, and I was asked if I should be relieved of all my other duties while doing this. I said no, because I felt that I had to keep that particular side going, while at the same time doing this job. And so for six months I ran between two offices. I would get up in the morning, somewhere between 3 and 3:30 in the morning, come in, run over to one office and work hard at that one, and then, put in about 8 hours there, and then run back to the Pentagon, and put in another 8 hours, finally go home, catch a little bit of sleep, and back again. So I did this…
BOND: Secretary of Defense is Mel Laird?
THEUS: That’s right.
BOND: I don’t associate [Melvin] Laird with this kind of effort. I am not saying that he is at all opposed to it, but it just doesn’t jump out to me, as someone… Why do you think he did that?
THEUS: I think that he realized that this situation was much more serious than most people had thought… And, because our mandate was to look at race relations in the Armed Forces, and determine one… status. Are they good, are they bad… If they are bad, is there a possibility that these poor race relations can spill over into the operational portion of the Armed Forces, and therefore, thereby prevent it from performing its mission of defending the nation? Now, you know that we did have some riots,
THEUS: you know that we did have a ship that had to stand down because of problems, and so forth. So our team, then, met regularly, every day, and then we fanned out to visit bases, camps, stations throughout the country. We then, or at the same time, concurrently, we called in a number of experts in the area. Primarily some psychologists, some psychiatrists, some people who were just from the field of academia that we thought would be useful. We called in senior officers, some senior non-commissioned officers. We made it a point to talk with individuals at bases where we visited, but on the basis of strict anonymity, to be sure that they would be willing to talk. And we did find that, yes, race relations situation was bad enough for us to be concerned about it.
BOND: Now, before you get to the recommendation, why do you think Laird chose you?
THEUS: There is no doubt, there is no doubt in my mind that race played a part in this. I think that they were looking for someone to conduct this study, or to head this study, that whatever we found and whatever we came up with would have more credibility if that person happened to be an African American.
BOND: The numbers were small, but there were other people that he might have chosen?
THEUS: There were, there were. I don’t know… In fact, I can’t say any more about why without seeming self-serving. So I’ll just say that I think that he looked at those who were available, those that he felt would come up with an impartial, fair finding, and recommendation to deal with this problem.
BOND: And the task force concludes that the Armed Forces has a race problem because the nation has a race problem.
THEUS: Yes. That's right.
BOND: Now you could have said, why don't we solve the nation's race problem and that will solve the Armed Forces --
THEUS: That's right -- no, but we couldn't do that because you see our job, as you well know, our job is to defend the nation. We could not say that we will model our treatment of people in the service after what's going on in the nation because all of us knew that this was wrong and that it only fostered conflict, disruption. And as an armed force we had to be sure that our people would not, under any circumstances, hesitate to carry out orders --
BOND: At the same time there are people who are saying, "Well, we tolerate these things in the civilian society."
BOND: "Why should the Armed Forces be a social laboratory?"
THEUS: Well, it wasn't to be a social laboratory. It was more to assure that people would have no reason -- military men and women, would have no reason -- to inject racial, ethnicity, religion and so forth in their decisions to conduct any -- an operation. I used to tell a number of commanders who were on the fence about supporting this program – I used to tell them very simply, "Your job is to, one, put bombs on the targets, to shoot down enemy aircraft. And in order to do this, you need people, don't you? How can you do this if your men and women are fighting it out in the back of the hangar because of their differences in races, religion, don't like each other, and so forth? How can you conduct your mission? So whether you agree or not -- whether you agree or not, you have to support this program that we placed in effect. And as you recall, we developed a program that -- a recommendation that said simply, "Every individual in the armed rorces must undergo a course of education in race relations. We must establish an institute to do research, to develop policy and procedures, to train instructors and to monitor this program as it goes. And that institute still exists, incidentally, and it's still doing a great job. It's changed somewhat because now it includes the whole scope of equal opportunity, civic -- civil rights and so forth. And also includes, of course, the women, you know, to be sure that they're taken care of. I get to that school occasionally, they still ask me to come sometimes and to speak. I was very flattered a few years ago that they named an auditorium after me down there. But in any case -- that again sounds self-serving and I apologize for that. But in any case, we found that implementing this program was somewhat difficult. There were people who said, "I don't need any training of race relations. I am not bigoted." And this is on both sides, now.
THEUS: And there were some who took advantage of it to do some silly things. We wanted people to get to know each other, there were some who advocated "let's take off all of our insignia, talk to people on a man-to-man basis or woman-to-woman basis," and you can't do that in the military. So we insisted that we have only the best people teaching and that they followed strict rules.
BOND: And in your view, this has been a success – despite these silly things?
THEUS: Yes, there's no question in my mind that the program was a success and is a success. We found first of all that the number of incidents that occurred were, first of all, the number was lowered. Secondly, that the intensity of the conflicts were lowered. Now you might say, rightly so -- you might say, well then, in our civilian society, this was happening at the same time. But we do believe that by instituting this program of race relations and by -- through that program the commanders all the way from the top, right down through, indicated their support of this program, that it couldn't help but really impact favorably race relations throughout the armed forces. Now, we're still continuing to work this because I get back to the truism that we discussed earlier -- you can't just issue an order that everyone will get along with one another.
THEUS: And expect that to be just carried out immediately. People still have their – sometimes not admitted – biases and so forth. People still have problems with getting along with people of different races and different ethnic origins, religions, even different genders. But you can lessen this by putting sufficient pressure on from the top.
BOND: I don't want to interrupt your career path -- we only have about ten more minutes -- but last night at a meal, we were talking about a difference between when you and I were younger and we knew the names of General B. [Benjamin] O. Davis.
BOND: We knew, I knew that his father before him had been a general. We knew [Daniel] Chappie James' names. And I was thinking that today with the exception of Colin Powell, I don't think I can recall quickly the names of any prominent military persons -- [Norman] Schwarzkopf from the Gulf War, I mean, you know, in times of war, these people come to the fore. But in general terms, prominent names in the military seem to have subsided in public consciousness whereas prominent names in business have risen. Have you thought about this? Does it mean a diminution of military consciousness among us? Are we seeing this as one reflection of the disappearance of the draft? What's happened in the relationship between the civilian and military worlds?
THEUS: I do think about that quite a little bit. I have a number of friends that occasionally I'll mention something about – civilian friends, not military related – I'll mention something that happened, someone just got promoted to general or someone moved to a command, and they give me a blank stare. And that is true. And it's because, in my feeling right now, is that because we're not openly engaged in war. We don't have things going on in which our military members are engaged. We have done well -- maybe not as well as some would hope -- we have done well in bring to the fore the qualified people. Getting them into positions, getting them promoted. And so it now becomes a non-issue, if you will, anymore. You know we used to look at the military as a place where -- if anywhere, a person could get equal treatment and they could go forward and be rewarded for their work, for their efforts and so forth. Now we don't think about that too much. Now the battle is in the industrial, in the business arena, and so forth and so there's much more interest there. Since we've broken down a lot of the barriers, they're more open on the other side, the military has subsided and to some attention by the nation. So particularly in the African American community, now it's much more -- I wouldn't say much more, but at least equally, if not more important for them, to be able to identify their industrial heroes rather than their military heroes.
BOND: I had the good fortune a little while ago to attend a briefing conducted by Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld. Somebody raised the question of the long-term shrinkage in the military.
BOND: The Rumsfeld plans for a smaller military. And the person asked, "What effect is this going to have on the ability of African Americans to go through this institution and emerge as leadership figures, either through a whole career or just a brief period, a brief stay?"
THEUS: Yes, yes.
BOND: And he assured us that while the larger number would shrink, the individual numbers, the percentages would stay the same, really be no change. Now, true or not, it does strike me that the combination of factors has combined to make the military less an option than it was, say twenty years ago, thirty years ago for advancement, for progress for a first career followed by, in many cases, by a second career.
THEUS: Yes, yes.
BOND: Do you think that's so?
THEUS: I think this -- that because of the evolution of civil rights, equal opportunity, the desire of corporations to have a number of African American and other minorities in those organizations, representative of our society -- that African Americans, as with other minorities, no longer have to rely on the military as a road to success. This is unfortunate because it cuts back on our selection, but we're able to have the input, shall we say, that we would get otherwise. So I think that is -- it is a problem, it's an issue, but it's also something that is healthy for our society in that it proves that we have now made the society open enough that African Americans can seek positions and advancements in career areas other than in the military.
BOND: But if it's true, and I think it is, that the military provides leadership training --
THEUS: Oh yes, yes.
BOND: In addition to everything else, it provides leadership training and if that becomes less of an option --
BOND: Does it mean that the opportunities for new leadership figures to emerge is thereby diminished? I mean --
THEUS: Yes, you're quite right, you're quite right, I certainly agree with you and it's one of those things that I guess -- I guess it's one of the things for which we have to pay, the fact that we have made it easier for them to advance --
BOND: A trade-off?
THEUS: -- a trade-off is the word I was seeking there. Yes, and so I'd say, yes, because the military did provide and is continuing to provide a source of leaders, people who have learned leadership, have advanced, demonstrated that they can perform and they can move into the civilian community, the civilian environment, and do a great job of it. So I do see that pool being reduced of people in that area.
BOND: We talked just before we began here about the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, who, many of whom went onto tremendous success in civilian life and just a remarkable group of people. Were they a remarkable group of people because they were drawn to the Tuskegee experiment or did the Tuskegee experiment make them into a remarkable group of people?
THEUS: You know, Julian, you're asking the question that is raised so frequently among all of my associates and, of course, including myself. Do events make great men or do great men – and I use men in the generic sense of it – or do men make great events? And you know there -- I can't answer you directly, categorically. I can't give you a categorical answer, but I would say that it's a bit of both, it's a bit of both. From the standpoint of the Tuskegee Airmen, I truly believe that those young men who answered the call to become Tuskegee Airmen, would have succeeded. The vast majority of them would have succeeded anyhow in whatever undertaking that they might have gone into. But the military probably -- in fact, it did -- hasten that development. It hastened their development as leaders and instilled in them the desire, the ability to achieve and so they carried this over into the civilian community. So again, I lean toward, I should say a bit of both. It depends on the individual. I don't know many, if any, Tuskegee Airmen that you could call failures, you know, who have transitioning to the civilian side. Some, I wonder, if they would have succeeded as well had they not had the experience. But it awakened within them, probably. And so again, at the risk of redundancy, a bit of both and I lean toward the theory that the Tuskegee Airmen experience really brought out the leadership ability in them and prepared them so that they could be better successes in our civilian society.
BOND: General Theus, we could talk for hours and hours but our time is up. Thank you so much for being with us.
THEUS: Well, this has certainly been my pleasure, indeed. Thank you so much for inviting me, it's an honor and a privilege.
BOND: We've enjoyed it, thank you.
THEUS: My pleasure, indeed.