Veteran’s Reflections: ‘Serving a Cause Bigger than Myself’

WASHINGTON — If it weren’t for Amer­i­ca, John Gun­ther Dean very well might not be alive today.

U.S. Army World War II
Ambas­sador John Gun­ther Dean, a U.S. Army World War II vet­er­an, pro­vides an inter­view about his time in ser­vice, Sept. 13, 2010. Dean, a Ger­man immi­grant, came to the Unit­ed States in 1938 to avoid per­se­cu­tion by the Nazis.
DoD pho­to by Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class William Sel­by
Click to enlarge

Born John Gun­ther Dien­st­fer­tig in Bres­lau, Ger­many, in Feb­ru­ary 1926, Dean had a good life to look for­ward to until the Nazi gov­ern­ment start­ed annex­ing sur­round­ing nations by force — per­se­cut­ing, enslav­ing and mur­der­ing Jews along the way.

“This coun­try was great to me,” he said. “I came as an immi­grant, I was able to go to Har­vard, I was flee­ing Nazis. … I want to help the coun­try.”

Dean’s fam­i­ly was one of the lucky ones; they escaped to the Unit­ed States in the win­ter of 1938–39 and changed their sur­name. Dean was a quick study in Kansas City, Mo., where his fam­i­ly final­ly set­tled, and went off to study at Har­vard at the age of 16. In 1944, he became a U.S. cit­i­zen and inter­rupt­ed his edu­ca­tion to join the Army.

“Every human being, regard­less of age, has to decide at one point what they want to do with their life,” Dean said. “I want­ed to serve a cause big­ger than myself. Serv­ing the coun­try was a won­der­ful way of ful­fill­ing that need.”

He orig­i­nal­ly was sent to Fort Belvoir, Va., to train as a com­bat engi­neer. But Dean — a native Ger­man speak­er who also is flu­ent in Eng­lish, French and Dutch — was a per­fect fit to work in the Office of Mil­i­tary Intel­li­gence at the infa­mous P.O. Box 1142, a facil­i­ty hous­ing teams that inter­viewed pris­on­ers of war and made clan­des­tine attempts to com­mu­ni­cate with Allied pris­on­ers held over­seas.

After serv­ing his enlist­ment, Dean returned to Har­vard, where he fin­ished his under­grad­u­ate stud­ies in 1947. He stud­ied law at the Sor­bonne and got a degree in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions from Har­vard in 1950.

He would end up spend­ing the next 39 years in the U.S. For­eign Ser­vice, even­tu­al­ly serv­ing as the U.S. ambas­sador to Cam­bo­dia, Den­mark, Lebanon, Thai­land and India. But his time work­ing with the mil­i­tary wasn’t over. He rou­tine­ly worked side by side with top brass. In Viet­nam, he over­saw a large con­tin­gent of U.S. diplo­mats as the war came to an end.

“I worked a great deal with the mil­i­tary from 1970 to 1972, in Da Nang, … I was giv­en the equiv­a­lent rank of major gen­er­al,” he said. “I had sev­er­al hun­dred Amer­i­can advi­sors work­ing for me in Viet­nam. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, 14 of them were killed.”

His unwa­ver­ing ded­i­ca­tion to telling the absolute truth in his diplo­mat­ic work often was unpop­u­lar, he said, but that didn’t keep him from speak­ing his mind to supe­ri­or offi­cers, sec­re­taries of state and U.S. pres­i­dents.

“It wasn’t always much appre­ci­at­ed,” he said, not­ing that his hon­esty as a diplo­mat caused quite a few per­son­al con­flicts in addi­tion to acco­lades.

He said his goal in his diplo­mat­ic career, fueled part­ly by his own life, has been to pro­mote devel­op­ment around the world, irre­spec­tive of reli­gious influ­ence or cul­ture, so long as the peo­ple rep­re­sent good val­ues and respect.

“I’ve tried to be the best pos­si­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the good val­ues the Unit­ed States stands for, whether it was in mil­i­tary or civil­ian life,” he said. “We all come to this coun­try, whether we’re Mus­lims, Chris­tians, Jews, Hin­dus or Bud­dhists, we couldn’t care less – we care about our coun­try, and it’s a won­der­ful coun­try.

“I’m here today to help the coun­try with the prob­lems it has in 2010,” he added. “We’re all humans. We all make mis­takes, and so I’m try­ing to help peo­ple learn to do things bet­ter.”

(“Vet­er­ans’ Reflec­tions” is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries of men and women who served their coun­try in World War II, the Kore­an War, the Viet­nam War, oper­a­tions Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day con­flicts. They will be post­ed through­out Novem­ber in hon­or of Vet­er­ans Day.)

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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