William Crowe Jr.; Joint Chiefs Leader Had Diplomat's Touch*
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007; B06
William J. Crowe Jr., 82, a Navy admiral who held the nation's top
military job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the Cold War
neared its end and who in retirement publicly criticized military and
presidential decisions, died of cardiac arrest Oct. 18 at the National
Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
Adm. Crowe, a nonconformist whose background combined political skills
with military experience, led U.S. troops through crises that included
the 1986 air raid on Libya and the showdown in the 1980s with Iran over
control of the Persian Gulf. He also shortened the military chain of
command, broke down interservice rivalries and developed an
unprecedented relationship with the head of the Soviet military that
helped prevent military confrontations between the two superpowers.
immediately apologized after a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf mistook
a civilian jetliner for an Iranian F14 attack fighter and blew it out of
the sky, killing 290 civilians.
Those performances and others led the New York Times to call him "the
most powerful peacetime military officer in American history."
One of the few Joint Chiefs chairmen who had never led the branch he
served in, Adm. Crowe was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
He declined a request from President George H.W. Bush to serve a second
But unlike the MacArthurian generals who fade away, Adm. Crowe made his
retirement years public. He condemned the military's anti-gay bias and
the don't ask-don't tell policy, the first officer of his stature to do
so. He criticized the buildup to the first Gulf War, endorsed Democratic
presidential candidate Bill Clinton when others questioned his lack of
military credentials, served as chairman of two boards charged with
investigating the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es
Salaam, Tanzania, and warned about vulnerable U.S. embassies a year
after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Three years ago, Adm. Crowe was among 27 retired diplomats and military
commanders who publicly said the administration of President George W.
Bush did not understand the world and was unable to handle "in either
style or substance" the responsibilities of global leadership.
A disheveled intellectual, Adm. Crowe (rhymes with brow) had long sailed
an independent course. Unlike most four-star admirals, he had not often
served at sea; he spent much of his career steering around the reefs and
shoals of the Capital Beltway and academia. Such experience proved to be
more than adequate for dealing with the Soviets at the end of the Cold
War. Adm. Crowe made friends with the Soviet Union's chief of staff,
Sergei Akhromeyev, and they signed a breakthrough agreement to avoid
military accidents when U.S. and Soviet forces operated near each other.
By his own account, Adm. Crowe said that the most crucial event of his
chairmanship was when he told Reagan that military leaders were strongly
opposed to a proposal Reagan had made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
for both sides to eliminate all ballistic missiles in 10 years. Those
missiles were the backbone of the U.S. defense in Europe.
"If he had heard my remarks, it was not obvious to me," Adm. Crowe wrote
in his autobiography "The Line of Fire" (1993). Reagan's proposal
disappeared without a trace. "I had weathered a crisis and had decided
to take the risk."
As a leader, he was an independent thinker, noted for his shrewd
geopolitical analysis and military strategizing.
In a 47-year military career, Adm. Crowe commanded U.S. forces in the
Middle East, was the commander in chief of NATO forces in southern
Europe and led the largest U.S. military operation in terms of
geography, the U.S. Pacific Command. He was also chairman of the
president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Clinton.
*An Auspicious Start*
Adm. Crowe was born in La Grange, Ky. After growing up in the
un-maritime environment of Oklahoma, he chose an unorthodox career path.
After spending a year at the University of Oklahoma, he headed to the
U.S. Naval Academy, where his peers in the Class of 1946 included such
future leaders as former president Jimmy Carter, Vice Adm. James
Stockdale and CIA chief Stansfield Turner.
Chafing under the academy's discipline, Adm. Crowe nevertheless excelled
academically. According to a 1997 article in Stanford magazine, he led
the Navy debate team to victory over Army on the question of whether
there should be compulsory military training. Navy argued against it.
Adm. Crowe's first military assignment was on a destroyer-minesweeper,
then he joined the submarine service. After receiving a master's degree
in personnel management from Stanford in 1956, Adm. Crowe got his first
command in 1960, on the diesel sub USS Trout.
When the cantankerous Adm. Hyman Rickover sent word that the young
officer should join the nuclear submarine corps, Adm. Crowe declined
because he had just started working on a master's degree and a doctorate
in political science at Princeton University. After he turned Rickover
down a second time, many predicted that his Navy career was finished.
Armed with the degrees, received in 1964 and 1965, Adm. Crowe found ways
to excel in the dead-end positions to which he was assigned.
Instead of getting a prestigious Pentagon post, he was sent to the same
position he would have received without a graduate degree, chief of
staff to the commander of a submarine squadron. He moved to a Pentagon
post in political affairs, where he learned the perceived value of his
doctorate after submitting a paper suggesting a change in Navy procedure.
"For Chrissake," his boss said, according to Adm. Crowe's 1993
autobiography, "we didn't send you to Princeton so you could come back
and tell us how to run the Navy. We sent you up there to learn how to
argue for the things we want back here, not to listen to what you think
are original ideas."
Later, in Vietnam, he was refused command of a surface ship, so the
not-yet-admiral became an adviser to the Vietnamese river force, known
as the "brown water Navy" that plied the Mekong Delta. He did well,
exercising his diplomatic and political skills, but his next post was
lobbying Congress on the status of Micronesia.
In 1974, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, chief of naval operations, ordered promotion
boards to consider "iconoclasts" for higher ranks. Adm. Crowe's work in
Vietnam paid off, and he was promoted to rear admiral. He became deputy
director of Navy planning and went on to the Pentagon's "little State
Department," the International Security Affairs Office, where he
specialized in East Asia and the Pacific.
He commanded the nation's smallest fleet, the Middle East force of four
ships based in Bahrain. The oil state wanted the Navy to leave its
bases. But Adm. Crowe, using his diplomatic skills, negotiated a complex
deal that resulted in a floating command that included access to
Bahrain's essential maintenance facilities and cut the U.S. rent in half.
Back at the Pentagon in 1977, he was put in charge of plans, policy and
operations for the Navy. Through that office, the Navy jousted for
missions with the other military branches.
*Fans in the Air Force, Army*
His talents were more widely appreciated among Air Force and Army
generals than among his Navy colleagues. "He saved my sleep, my hair, my
digestion and my sanity," said Gen. Edward C. Meyer, who held the
equivalent post for the Army.
Three years later, when the Navy planned to send Adm. Crowe to London
and force him into retirement, his friends in the other branches began a
widespread and unusual campaign to save his job. Naval officials,
outraged at the interference, fought back but lost. Adm. Crowe was named
commander of NATO's southern flank, which came with a villa in Naples.
In 1983, because of his limited command experience at sea, he lost a
chance to be commander in chief of the Atlantic fleet. But he was sent
to the equivalent post in the Pacific. That's where he had the
opportunity to impress Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger
in 1984, with a brilliant, unscripted presentation. The next year, he
was made chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but not without opposition from
Adm. Crowe, a renowned raconteur with an unlimited supply of humorous
stories, charmed Congress at his confirmation hearing.
"My father used to say: 'Your mind is like a parachute. If it won't open
when you need it, it is not much good.' I have an open mind," he said at
the hearing. "My minister said that the difference between a eulogy and
a testimonial is that in the case of the testimonial, there is one man
in the audience who believes it."
He also appeared as himself in a 1989 episode of the TV show "Cheers."
He told a Washington Post reporter in 1993 that arguments against
allowing homosexuals in the armed forces are "generated more by emotion
than by reason" and that the military could adjust to their presence
just as it has to the inclusion of minorities and women.
Still, he said, "to say that because gays are coming in the military
that the military's effectiveness will be destroyed, [that] we will no
longer be the world's premier military . . . I do not believe that. . .
. I think it's a peripheral issue."
Clinton appointed him ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1994, a job he
held for three years.
After returning to the United States, Adm. Crowe divided his time
between teaching at the University of Oklahoma and studying military
issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He also
ran BioPort Corp., the only licensed manufacturer of the anthrax and
rabies vaccines in the United States.
He received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal four times, and he
was also awarded the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and an Air Medal.
In 2000, Clinton gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Shirley Grennell Crowe of
Mitchellville; three children, Marine Col. W. Blake Crowe of Washington,
J. Brent Crowe of Alexandria and Bambi Coval of Alexandria; and four
Since 1999, Adm. Crowe had taught a class in security decision-making at
the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He told midshipmen last year that
although he didn't know how to get out of Iraq, he could help them learn
how to avoid the next Iraq.
"Bending another culture to your will can't be done on the cheap," he
said. "Our resources are not unlimited, and we should not be led to
believe otherwise." Every administration "underestimates the cost in
time, money and casualties," he said. "Voters should be die-hard cynics
when evaluating such predictions