- - Monday, March 5, 2012


By William Lloyd Stearman
Naval Institute Press, $37.95, 252 pages

“An American Adventure” is best characterized as autobiography liberally laced with opinion. The subtitle reference to early aviation is somewhat of a stretch. It’s true the author’s father was Lloyd Stearman, in whose aircraft legions of World War II aviators learned to fly. However, except for being son of the father, little of William Stearman’s life reflects that aviation heritage.

It’s too bad the book’s publicists made so much of that connection because it’s misleading. Nevertheless, William Stearman did have an interesting - sometimes very exciting - life, and it’s well he recorded it for the enjoyment of readers, researchers and, one must assume, family.

The story begins with his childhood, which is nothing exceptional given the times. Yet, he goes into some detail about the then-existent national prejudices, amounting almost to an apologia. There is little new here for those who experienced or studied those pre-World War II years.

The narrative picks up when the author joins Navy officer training and winds up on an amphibious ship in the Pacific. Like many junior officers in a small ship, he held down a plethora of jobs and his ship found itself in a fair share of combat, mostly around the Philippines. His description of life and combat in a small vessel is good stuff, especially for those who would like to know more about that part of American history.

Also good stuff is his description of eventually commanding that same, but now worn-out, ship sailing from San Francisco, through the Panama Canal and up through Jacksonville to Green Cove Springs, Fla. Equipment failed, skilled people had been discharged and it was an adventure for sure. It’s a good example of what too often happened in that rapid demobilization after World War II.

Leaving the Navy, Mr. Stearman departed the United States for a period of some 14 years to pursue postgraduate education in Switzerland followed by various government postings involving radio and public affairs in Austria, West Germany and elsewhere in Europe. He witnessed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and had more than his share of dealings with other governments (and spies from behind the Iron Curtain) as his broadcast and analytical efforts focused on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

In early 1966, switching from his European experience, he was posted to South Vietnam to head the North Vietnamese Affairs Division of the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office.

As it turned out, Mr. Stearman was the only person in the office who had any experience dealing with Communist countries. He immediately began putting it to work in various ways but particularly in the form of analyzing Hanoi newspapers in an effort to divine North Vietnamese intentions, an exercise that led to the accurate forecasting of their moves.

Unfortunately, to the great disappointment of the author, and perhaps to the detriment of the American effort, he was not always listened to. Perhaps it was because of that disappointment the author saw fit to include in his book long excursions into Vietnamese history, much of which is well-covered elsewhere in literature.

He left Vietnam after 20 months in-country thoroughly convinced the United States and its South Vietnam allies had won the war - a view he laments was not shared by the liberal media.

During the Nixon administration, Mr. Stearman served on the National Security Council staff. In that capacity he contributed to planning for the 1970 Cambodian incursion and helped provide backup for Henry Kissinger’s negotiations with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho, which led to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.

Leaving the White House in January 1976, Mr. Stearman returned to the State Department and took a position with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. That lasted only until the advent of the Carter administration when he took a sabbatical from government, with a spot of teaching at Georgetown University.

With the election of Ronald Reagan, he rejoined the White House staff, first on the National Security Council transition team. His reports on White House personalities, negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, Iran-Contra and more are enlightening.

While Mr. Stearman’s autobiography is overall an engaging work, he compromises it with long diversions, dissertations and polemics. The editors should have been more forcefully involved.

Nevertheless, the strength of “American Adventure” is the authenticity of the author’s experiences in hot wars, the Cold War and bureaucratic wars over the course of more than half of the 20th century. A reader who skips the digressions will come away with an enjoyable reading experience.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is president of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Association of Naval Aviation.

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