William R. Corson, 74, a
retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and expert on
counterinsurgency warfare who was almost court-martialed for publishing
a book that was highly critical of U.S. policy in Vietnam, died July 17,
2000, at Suburban Hospital, Virginia. He had lung cancer.
For much of his career, Colonel
Corson was an intelligence officer on special assignment with the CIA
and the Marine Corps. He spoke Chinese and specialized in Asian affairs.
In 1962, after four years as a
liaison officer in Hong Kong, he was assigned to the office of the
secretary of defense. This put him in touch with decision-making at the
highest level as U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia deepened.
He began studying Vietnam in
the early 1950s, when France was still trying to hold on to its colonial
possession. In 1966, he was ordered there as commanding officer of 3rd
Early in 1967, he was named
director of the Combined Action Program, in which small detachments of
Marines served with South Vietnamese militia in villages throughout the
country. The purpose of the program was to provide security from the
communists and win the loyalty of the people to the Saigon government.
According to an official Marine
Corps history, the program was highly successful. Colonel Corson was
praised by his superiors for his ability to relate to Vietnamese
villagers and win their confidence.
In 1967, when he returned to
the United States, he received another sensitive assignment in
Washington, becoming deputy director of the Southeast Asia Intelligence
Force in the office of the assistant secretary of defense.
But by that time he was
convinced that U.S. policies in Vietnam were doomed and he decided to
write a book.
The book, "The Betrayal,"
argued that the Saigon government supported by Washington was corrupt
and incompetent and that it was perceived by ordinary Vietnamese as
being as much of a threat to their well-being as the communists. Unless
the United States devised policies to take this into account, the book
said, the war would be lost and American servicemen would have died in
Publication was set for July 1,
1968, by W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., a month after Colonel Corson was
scheduled to retire from the service.
This brought into play a Marine
Corps regulation that required officers on active duty to submit
statements on public policy to review before making them public. Colonel
Corson claimed that this did not apply to him because the book would not
go on sale until after he had become a civilian.
Marine Corps officials
responded by having his retirement held up and by taking steps to
convene a general court-martial. These plans were dropped on the grounds
that they would only serve to draw attention to the book. Colonel
Corson's retirement went through a month later than originally
Colonel Corson later taught
history at Howard University for a year and then wrote several books on
national security issues, including "Promise or Peril," "Consequences of
Failure," "The Armies of Ignorance" and "The New KGB" with Robert T.
He also wrote a column on
veterans affairs for Penthouse magazine for several years and was the
publication's Washington editor.
William Raymond Corson was born
in Chicago on September 25, 1925. He attended the University of Chicago,
but left in 1943 to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II.
After the war, he graduated from the University of Miami, where he also
received a master's degree in business and economics. He later received
a doctorate in economics at American University.
In 1949, Colonel Corson was
commissioned in the Marine Corps. He served in the Korean War in 1952.
From 1953 to 1955, he was a student in the Chinese language course at
the Naval Intelligence School in Washington. From 1964 to 1966, he
taught a course on communism and revolutionary war at the U.S. Naval
William Corson, a retired
Marine Colonel and expert in counterinsurgency who was threatened with a
court-martial when he wrote a scathing analysis of U.S. military
strategy in Vietnam at the height of the country's antiwar movement, has
Corson, who was 74 and suffered
from emphysema and lung cancer, died Monday in a Bethesda, Md.,
e was the author of "The
Betrayal," a book published amid unusual rancor in 1968.
Arguing that America would lose
the Vietnam War if it supported a corrupt Saigon government, it was to
be released on the day after Corson's retirement from the Marine Corps.
But Corson, who had fought in
three wars during 24 years in the Marines, was not permitted to retire
on his scheduled date. Marine Corps officials accused him of violating a
regulation requiring approval of statements on public policy by
Corson had believed he was
exempt from the regulation because the book would be published when he
was a civilian.
Unpersuaded by his arguments, a
task force was convened to consider his court-martial. The investigation
was dropped when publicity over the controversy seemed to be heightening
public interest in the book. Corson was given a non-judicial reprimand
and cleared for retirement a month later.
The book won praise from
critics. Corson later became a consultant to the Senate Intelligence
Committee during its investigation of the CIA in the 1970s. He also
taught history at Howard University and wrote several books on national
security issues and a Penthouse magazine column for Vietnam veterans.
He grew up "a slum kid," by his
own account, on the wrong side of Chicago, raised much of the time by
grandparents after his parents divorced when he was 2. At 10 he was
working a newsstand. At 14, he was touring the country as a migrant
worker, picking fruit and learning to gamble. At 15, he entered college,
a scholarship student in math and physics at the University of Chicago.
He left the university at 17 to
join the Marines and fought in Guam and Bougainville during World War
II. After the war, he went back to school, eventually earning a
doctorate in economics at American University in Washington.
He fought in Korea, then
studied Chinese at the Naval Intelligence School in Washington,
mastering four dialects. In the late 1960s he taught a course on
communism and revolution at the U.S. Naval Academy, where one of his
most devoted students was Oliver North, the White House aide dismissed
for his central role in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Ronald Reagan
In 1966, he was given command
of 3rd Tank Battalion in Vietnam, whose history he had been studying
since the early 1950s when it was still a French colony.
He headed the combined action
program in which a Marine squad of 15 men was merged with a Vietnamese
Popular Force platoon of 35, and earned praise for his ability to relate
to the Vietnamese peasants and inspire their confidence.
But this job exposed Corson to
the rampant dishonesty of local government officials, who often sold
U.S. supplies meant for refugees and gouged villagers on rent.
By the time he left Vietnam, he
"The peasant sees that we are
supporting a local government structure he knows to be corrupt," Corson
said in a July 1967 interview with The Times, "so he assumes that we are
either stupid or we are implicated. And he decides that we are not
"The problem here is that we
treat the government of Vietnam like we should treat the people, and we
treat the people like we should treat the government. Frankly," he said,
"I am not sanguine about the prospects here."
He returned to a desk job in
the Pentagon, but the frustrations he had felt in battle-torn Southeast
Asia gnawed at him. He decided to write a book that would blast the
South Vietnamese government, American involvement and the military
strategy that not only failed to crush the enemy but also turned the
South Vietnamese people against their vaunted saviors.
Rising at 5 a.m. every day to
write, he was driven by the memory of a young Marine whom he had cradled
in his arms in the moments before his death.
"He said to me, 'Colonel,
doesn't anybody care?' I told him they did," he told the Washington Post
a short while later. "He asked me why someone didn't tell them the truth
about the war. I said I would. And he grabbed me by the arm and said,
'Colonel, do it!' Then he died, right there in my arms."
William Corson was laid to rest
at Arlington National Cemetery on 27 July. A decorated Marine and
outspoken citizen, he was one of the initial soldier voices to tell the
truth about the War in Vietnam. In a note to friends, Roger Charles,
one of our SFTT trustees and retired Marine, appropriately expressed his
emotions at the funeral: "Bill was buried on a slight rise overlooking
the Pentagon where he could continue to keep his eagle eye on those
entrusted with the lives of young Americans and the security of our