Faith. Family. Freedom. Those three words matter deeply to Lt. Col. Oliver T. North.
“When my grandkids turn 12, I give them three things and a note,” he says from his office in Reston, Va. “The three things are a compass, a shotgun and a Bible. And I tell them in the note, if you learn to use all three – and it has to be all three – you’ll never be lost, you’ll never be hungry, and you need fear nothing. But you have to learn to use all three. That’s important.”
In his autobiography “Under Fire: An American Story,” co-written with William Novak, North disputes both his lionization by supporters and his castigation by critics. “In the years since I was fired, my detractors have often dramatized and exaggerated what happened. But so have some of my supporters. While I certainly appreciate their endorsement, I am neither a saint nor a hero.”
However he is characterized, one thing is certain about Oliver North, a 20-year member of The American Legion: he isn’t shy about speaking his mind. He recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine about his life, his place in history and his views on current events.
The military life was in you almost from birth, wasn’t it?
Fort Sam Houston. The hospital was not even finished when my mom and dad reported for duty. Dad was with the 95th Infantry Division. They’d met in 1940 at a USO dance at Fort Niagara. Service was expected from us. All my brothers served. I have an Army brother, a Navy brother and a sister who married an Air Force guy. I don’t think any one of us had any choice except perhaps what service we were going to go into.
Religion has also been with you for most of your life. How has faith guided you?
The ’40s and ’50s were a lot different than the world is today. You went to church on Sundays. My brothers and I were all acolytes and altar boys. You went to church together as a family. You came home together. You had Sunday dinner with a tie.
Growing up with a background in faith changes your perspective on what is really important in life, and I hope I’ve been able to inculcate that within our children and my wife. I believe strongly in Jesus Christ, and we’re not ashamed to say so. Today that’s kind of, “Whoa, you’re one of those right-wing crazies with God and guns and your Bible.” Well, yeah, and it hasn’t hurt us. In fact, it has been a crucial element of my life.
What was your route to the Marine Corps?
I initially went to SUNY (State University of New York) Brockport, and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves out of there, and got my appointment to Annapolis because of that. The dean of men at SUNY Brockport was Dr. Harold Rakov, and he encouraged many of us to go into the military and use the education we were getting as an opportunity. He had been a Marine during World War II. He and my mom had gone to SUNY Oswego together, so this was a no-brainer. When I put in an application from the Marine Reserve to go to the U.S. Naval Academy, I didn’t think twice.
How has education changed since then?
When I was in high school with my brothers, all of our male teachers were veterans of World War II or Korea or both. All of our uncles were veterans of World War II or Korea or both. And, of course, our dad was a hero. Growing up, everybody – not just us in the North family, but everybody – knew a hero from a previous war. It was not at all unusual to have college professors and high-school teachers who had wartime experience.
Russ Robertson, who was the athletic director for the tiny high school we went to, had lost his leg on Guadalcanal as a Marine. There wasn’t a boy at that high school of perhaps 150 boys who didn’t look at him with some degree of admiration. He could still beat every kid in that high school at the 100-yard dash, and the prosthetic limbs in those days were nothing like the ones we see today.
The military was not looked upon as a bad thing until, quite frankly, the war that I was in in the ’60s. That’s when war and service in our military became a terrible thing. It was protested. Nowadays, you find college administrators who were students during the Vietnam War, who were out there burning their draft cards so they could avoid service, in large part because it was “the thing to do.” Well, guess who we’ve got running the colleges and universities of America today? I’m not surprised it’s happened. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised.
Few people know that you were a boxer and once fought author and former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, also a Vietnam War veteran.
The boxing program at the Naval Academy was a rigorous experience. The great thing about boxing at the academy was Emerson Smith, who had been Jack Dempsey’s boxing coach during all those smokers he’d done in the Pacific war. He knew boxing. What Emerson Smith did was indoctrinate us in the martial arts, in how to defend yourself and how to attack using 16-ounce gloves and headgear so you weren’t going to do damage to somebody that was going to be permanent.
Jim Webb is a good boxer. I like to think that the reason I won is I worked harder at it, could take a punch perhaps a little bit better, and he kept dropping his left ... and that gave me a chance to get him with that right. He dropped down a weight class the next year to avoid me, and a natural 145-pounder beat the living tar out of him because he dropped so much weight.
One date from the Vietnam War – May 25, 1969 – has major significance to you. Why?
Terrible day on a mountaintop. Hill 410. First platoon commander Bill Haskell was badly wounded. Bill and I were at one point the only officers left in that rifle company, so we were very close. Very badly wounded, he lost an eye, and no one expected him to live. But he’s lived a long and fruitful life since, thanks to a great Navy corpsman and, of course, the doctors and nurses who treated him for many months thereafter.
The most vivid recollection I have of that day isn’t the things I did. It was what one of my young Marines said. It took us five, six hours to get to the top of that hill. A lot were killed and wounded. One of the young Marines, Pierre Ciroux – we called him “Frenchy,” of course, because he was a French Canadian – he’d enlisted in the Marine Corps because so many Americans had gone to Canada to avoid the draft that he couldn’t find work, so he walked across the border at Presque Isle, Maine, and enlisted in the Marine Corps. When (the captain) got up to the top of the hill, I’d been wounded – not as bad as I eventually would – and Frenchy said, “You should have seen my lieutenant.” They gave me a medal for that day, but I didn’t deserve the medal. Frenchy Ciroux and Ernie Tooten and Jim Lehnert and the guys who went up that hill with me deserved the medal.
The idea that someone would say “my lieutenant” – not “the lieutenant” or “Lieutenant North” or “Blue,” as the nickname went, but “my lieutenant” – means as much to me as anything that ever happened to me in the Marine Corps. That doesn’t mean that they like you, but that they love you, and they respect you, and they would go with you through hell itself. And that’s why we ended up taking that hill. It was their courage. Officers often get more medals than they deserve, and the troops rarely get the recognition they warrant. That rifle platoon was full of guys like that.
What distinguishes today’s war heroes from those of the past?
That so many of these current heroes would say what guys like (Medal of Honor recipient) Clint (Romesha) would say – “I kept company with heroes” – reflects as much about their parenting as it does about those of us who served in Vietnam. The parents have done a magnificent job.
When I went to Vietnam, there were 210 million Americans. Today, there are 330 million. One percent of the American people can say they know the name of someone serving in our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard. I don’t think that is a good thing. I don’t know the answer. Certainly we can’t afford an enormous military. When my mom and dad were part of that greatest generation, 16.5 million were in uniform – most of whom volunteered. They came in because we were at war and the country needed them. Yeah, some saw that little yellow envelope and walked down to the recruiting station because they wanted more of a choice than they were going to get from the draft board. But everybody knew the name of someone serving. Today, a tiny fraction of America knows anything about the military.
Do you think those who have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have been adequately honored for their heroism and courage?
For 10 years, 2.4 million young Americans served in (Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom), not just at the time of the war but in the war. And you think about how few Medals of Honor have been awarded, particularly to live recipients. Something’s wrong in the system.
Does society misunderstand military service and veterans in general?
It’s a great insult to ignore veterans. The person who is coming back and trying to take the GI Bill and go to college, get an opportunity to get a good job, and just (gets) ignored. People in companies today, when they have two people show up for a job, they look at one who is a high-school graduate and one who has come out of four years in the military ... they’ll take the high-school graduate because they don’t want to worry about the problems the other person might have had. Even though they have all the characteristics that you would want in an employee – dedication, commitment, integrity – they’ll take the unproven high school graduate. It’s outrageous.
American Legion posts around the country will bring a guy in and say, “Look, we understand. You’re a veteran. I’m a veteran. Let’s deal with some of these issues.”
We’ve been at war longer than we’ve ever been at war before. What we need to do a better job of – and Freedom Alliance is also working on this, particularly with our wounded veterans – taking that military MOS and finding the civilian counterpart. I think that ought to be our primary job at Freedom Alliance, at The American Legion and at every veterans organization. We ought to be focusing on the millions coming out of this war who would make great employees for any company on the planet. They can be very productive people if you just give them a chance.
The Freedom Alliance really sprang from the Iran-Contra scandal. Does it bother you that when people hear your name, the scandal is usually the first association?
Everybody knew what was happening was wrong and should not have taken place. It was grossly unfair to try to take one Marine lieutenant colonel and pin the wrath of Congress on him.
It was a very polarizing time in America. There’s a lot of people who tell mythology today about how Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan would get together at the end of the day and have a drink together and pat each other on the back and say, “Well, tomorrow will be another day.” But that wasn’t true at all.
The fact is, I was there the night that Ronald Reagan called the leaders of Congress in, before Grenada. This is October 1983, and Tip O’Neill is the speaker of the House. And O’Neill stormed out of that meeting threatening that the president would be impeached for going to Grenada. People forget how very polarized Washington was. Democratic leadership, liberal in Congress; Republican president, very conservative in the White House ... Reagan knew exactly what he wanted to do as president. He wanted to bring down the evil empire, and he did, in spite of (Congress).
By the summer of 1987 this is at a boiling point because Ronald Reagan had accomplished a lot of what he set out to do. The last thing that needed to be done was bring down the (Berlin) Wall.
Reagan was a polarizing figure for the media. This particular event (the Iran-Contra scandal and trial) crystalized a lot of that angst, particularly with the media and the politicians. You had pundits and politicians on one side and the American people on the other. If they picked me to go and try to indict Ronald Reagan, they picked the wrong guy. I understood what the words “Semper Fidelis” really meant, and I was not going to be ashamed to say so. The outcome was a whole lot different than a lot of people expected it to be.
The day I was indicted was just a horrible day. It was the day I resigned my commission as a Marine and entered the retired ranks. Would love to have stayed a Marine. Didn’t get to. Went off and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and raised a boatload of money because so many people had donated to my defense fund.
You turned your defense fund into Freedom Alliance.
(Lt. Gen.) Ed Bronars and I took what wasn’t being used to pay for lawyers or security, donated some of it to the Naval Academy Chapel and used the rest of it to start the organization now called Freedom Alliance. We’ve helped thousands of troops who otherwise never would have gotten it. We’ve helped hundreds of kids go to college through the scholarship program. And we’ve allowed hundreds of youngsters to experience what being in the military is like through our military leadership academies.
Looking back today, how would you generally describe your philosophy on life and service?
If you can’t enjoy what you’re doing, if you’re not taking pleasure in what you’re doing, if you’re not in some way enthusing someone else about what they could do, you’re kind of wasting God’s good air, I think. Hopefully I’ve been able to do that over the years. I tell every young person who I work with, “If there is anything I can do to help you get up and go on beyond where you are today, I’ll do it, because that’s what my life has been all about.”
Mark Seavey is a writer and blogger for
The American Legion.