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The Nation

One Pentagon Constant Over Years: Its Historian

After three decades in the Defense Department, Alfred Goldberg, 83, knows its past as well as anyone.

November 24, 2002|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- He began his career as a military field historian in London during World War II. Now, on the cusp of what could be a new war in Iraq, Alfred Goldberg is still at it, gathering material as the Pentagon's chief historian.

Asked to account for his longevity, Goldberg, who turns 84 two days before Christmas, seemed puzzled. "I don't consider myself very old," he said.

The Washington Monument can be seen through the windows behind his desk in one of the many office buildings the Defense Department leases in the Virginia suburbs. "There are more people working for Defense in the Washington area outside of the Pentagon than in the Pentagon," he said, explaining that the famous five-sided building was built in 1943 to contain, well, an army. "The notion was that the War Department would shrink after World War II and the building could be used for other purposes," he said with nary a change of facial expression.

When Goldberg does smile, it's discreetly. Maybe he knows too much. And he's not about to give away any military secrets. You don't spend your career at the Pentagon without learning how to guard against interservice rivalries, pork-averse congressmen or, for that matter, visiting journalists.

Still, with a bit of coaxing, he will muse about history.

He closely observed all 20 men who have served as secretary of Defense since the first in 1947. In his eyes, Robert McNamara, who served in the Kennedy administration, was perhaps the most effective. "Probably, he had a greater overall grasp of everything going on than anyone else," Goldberg said. "He had a phenomenal ability to absorb information.

"Vietnam ruined his reputation, of course, and left him with a strong sense of guilt ever since," he added. "But he carried out changes in the departmental budgeting system that have existed now for more than 40 years."

Goldberg is big on Pentagon organization -- he co-edited a book on the topic -- and on civilian control, which he thinks is the key to the military's institutional strength. "The most effective secretaries have usually been very forceful people," he said, mentioning several times that Donald H. Rumsfeld is a strong secretary who welcomes organizational improvements. "And also they had a viewpoint, a dedication to civilian control."

Asked about the first secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who committed suicide less than two months after leaving office, Goldberg leans over his desk to share another of the history books he edited. He is eager to share dramatic before-and-after photographs that reflect Forrestal's growing depression during his 19 months in office. "Look at the picture when he took office and when he left," Goldberg said. "He was under tremendous emotional strain, and he snapped."

The people around him knew, Goldberg said, but President Truman's motives for removing Forrestal, he said, had more to do with politics than concern for the secretary's mental health. "Forrestal had not been particularly supportive of Truman, and Truman had to reward Louis Johnson, who was the chief fund-raiser for the 1948 campaign," Goldberg said.

The historian thinks the second secretary of Defense might have been kindly remembered by history were it not for the Korean War. Johnson, a former assistant secretary of war and past president of the American Legion, carried out Truman's orders to economize and downsized the military.

"The Korean War came along, it looked like things were going badly, and somebody had to pay the price," Goldberg said. "He was the sacrificial lamb. Out he went."

It is that kind of matter-of-fact view of history that characterizes Goldberg's approach to the job. Notice that a portrait of Gen. George Washington hangs on his office wall, and he will point out that it is just a copy, as if to avoid any errors of fact or interpretation.

The ninth of 11 children of immigrants from Bessarabia, a province claimed at various times by Russia and Romania, Goldberg is one of five remaining siblings -- the oldest is 96 -- who meet monthly in their hometown of Baltimore. About 50 years ago, they formed a family association, which now includes 23 children and what he refers to as "45 or 50" in the generation after that.

It is a rare vagary for Goldberg, who is a stickler for accuracy. With a staff of five and the freedom to hire outside consultants and editors, Goldberg is presiding over the writing of the official history of the secretary of Defense, distinguished in part by access to newly declassified documents. At the moment, he is deep in the editing of Volume 5, chronicling 1961 to 1965.

Goldberg was a historian for the Air Force from 1946 to 1965, when he joined Rand Corp. as a military analyst. After eight years he returned to the Pentagon as a historian for the secretary of Defense, where he has been for the last 29 years.

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