Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career Development and Race

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.

BOND: Really?

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.