GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — Historians will remember Joseph A. Mendenhall as a Foreign Service officer who was sent to Vietnam in September 1963 by President Kennedy to assess the war effort during a whirlwind mission.
Local residents may think of Mendenhall, 92, as the father of Green Valley resident Penelope "Penny" Pestle, and as a La Posada resident since last fall.
And to his wife, Leone "Nonie" Mendenhall, Joe is the man who took her around the world to meet school children and diplomats as she taught English, entertained and sometimes took charge in improving the daily lives of local residents.
Each loved the life overseas.
"Istanbul was fascinating," Joe said. "It was the end of Europe, the beginning of Asia. We became friends with many people in all the (ethnic) communities and in our last winter there we played charades with two couples who could play in seven languages."
"Life in the Foreign Service was wondrous, adventurous, useful and involved lots of problems," Nonie said. "We raised three children abroad. We had hardship posts and sometimes had to boil water, even for them to brush their teeth. On the whole, I can't conceive of a life I would have preferred."
Joe Mendenhall was born and raised on a dairy farm in Maryland and earned a degree at the University of Delaware. He started law school at Harvard before getting draft into the Army just before World War II, which he spent stateside. The most eventful thing he did there was take the Foreign Service exam, which he passed.
Nonie grew up in New York City, graduated from Vassar and took a master's degree at Columbia University. They met through her brother, another Harvard law student. It took them five years to tie the knot.
In Istanbul they had their first child, had running water only 12 hours a day and lived in a World War I surplus shack so dilapidated that they woke one morning when a leg of their bed fell through the rotting floorboards.
Meanwhile, in the larger world, the Soviet Union was pressuring Turkey to allow the Soviets shipping access through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea, and Joe was writing papers that American businesses used to understand how to increase trade with Turkey.
Joe's work later took them to Saigon; Iceland, where he oversaw financing of a hydro-electric dam under the Marshall Plan; Switzerland, which they agreed was boring, though they had two more children there; and Madagascar, where he was U.S. ambassador from 1972 until his retirement three years later.
Every stop offered adventures and opportunities.
Nonie was appalled that slum children in Vietnam were falling through rotting walkways between stilt-houses and dropping into fetid, sewage water, so she took action. When a labor leader told her he had workers to help out but had no lumber, she called one of the wealthiest people in Vietnam, whom she knew through Joe's connections in the South Vietnamese government. The man donated the lumber and new walkways were built.
Once on a ferry in Madagascar, the Mendenhalls were so crowded by other passengers that Joe could never get both feet down on the deck at the same time. They found themselves eyeing the shoreline to see how far they would have to swim if the ferry capsized.
After he retired in 1975, they raised olive trees and made their own olive oil at a home they built on eight acres near the medieval walled village of Lucignano in Tuscany. They found the picturesque town after visiting nearby Rome and Florence when Joe was a Foreign Service inspector of local operations from 1970 to 1972.
A conversation about Mendenhall's career is an instant immersion in Cold War politics in Europe and Asia. He wrote a 700-page memoir, but it's strictly for family members because he pulled no punches in disagreeing with former colleagues. He may allow it be released "in 50 years," he said with a laugh. He also has recorded a 57-hour oral history of his career.
His coffee table in the sunny La Posada apartment features The Economist magazine because Joe likes to stay current on the "less important countries," though he noted with a laugh that some of yesterday's less important countries are today at the center of the world economic crisis.
Outside the family, Joe will be best known for the September 1963 fact-finding mission for Kennedy to Vietnam, which lasted just 36 hours.
While there, Mendenhall was told by two Vietnamese officials that their government had instituted a "reign of terror" over the populace. Mendenhall said that no government can operate in that manner and successfully wage a war.
The other half of that mission was Gen. Victor Krulak, who spoke mainly with U.S. military officials in Vietnam and returned with a far more sanguine view of the war.
Mendenhall and Krulak each made presentations in the White House before cabinet secretaries and top advisers and the president famously asked if they had been to the same country. Everyone laughed, but the visit to Vietnam changed nothing, as officials who had been sharply divided before the visit remained divided afterward.
In fact, in a trip to the White House a month later, Mendenhall was warned by a supervisor, "don't open your mouth in this meeting" because he was known as a skeptic. At that meeting, Mendenhall said, it was clear to him that Kennedy could not decide whether to support a military coup against the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, a coup that took place a short time later.
Kennedy died in November 1963, and President Johnson basically followed the military's view that the U.S. could win a war of attrition.
Mendenhall said his own view of the war is different from that of most journalists and academics, as he was neither hawk nor dove, but a realist. He still believes that the U.S. made a fatal mistake in putting troops in Vietnam but not in Laos, where they could have choked off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which provided supplies to Viet Cong forces fighting the government of South Vietnam. In 1964, he wrote a memo calling for the U.S. military to invade Laos to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
"The war could have been won had we followed the right strategy, by putting in ground forces to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail," Joe said.
That memo went nowhere because, as Mendenhall said, "my name was mud" in the eyes of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Mendenhall said Kennedy could not intervene in Laos because Congressional leaders would not go along, as they felt Kennedy had shown weakness in previous confrontations with the Soviets, the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, the Berlin Wall crisis and a Vienna meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev.
In Laos, Kennedy agreed to what Mendenhall called a "spurious neutrality" policy in which the royal family of Laos claimed to be neutral between the Communists and the West, while actually allowing the Communists to gain ground and use the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
McNamara, who went to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission a month after Mendenhall and Krulak, felt the war was going so well that he could set a date for U.S. advisers to leave the country, an idea Mendenhall thinks is bad policy, whether in Vietnam then or Afghanistan now.
"I remember when the draft of that (reached) me, thinking, 'This is a terrible error. We're not going to be able to do that in two years. You are risking the credibility of the U.S. government by saying that,'" Mendenhall said.
Mendenhall said Kennedy's weak showing before the Cuban missile crisis is what emboldened Krushchev to put nuclear missiles in Cuba. He said Kennedy's response was his finest hour, but said the crisis should never have taken place.
In another category-defying view, Mendenhall said that by the 1970s the Viet Cong had lost the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people and could have been defeated, but by then the U.S. was exhausted and unwilling to support the South Vietnamese Army, which could not do the job on its own.
The failure of the U.S. government to find a winning strategy in Vietnam has emboldened rogue states around the world because, Mendenhall said, the threat of U.S. military force still does not have the deterrent effect it once had. In 1990, for example, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Iraq refused to withdraw even after seeing the Allied coalition forces gather in Saudi Arabia, and a bloody land war followed.
Information from: Green Valley News, http://www.gvnews.com