Book Review: Donald P. Gregg, Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas (Vellum, 2014)

Pot Shards presents the life and times of Ambassador Donald P. Gregg (above), an individual who contributed greatly to US foreign and national security policy. Readers are taken on a journey through Northeast and Southeast Asia and halls of power in Washington, DC. Readers will discover how much Gregg valued others and his value to humanity.

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is an independent, non-profit organization that advances the understanding of diplomacy and supports the training of foreign affairs personnel through a variety of programs and activities. As part of its Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, it has prepared thousands of transcripts of interviews recorded with US Foreign Service veterans.  These excellent oral histories present the realities of diplomacy to include thought provoking, sometimes absurd, and often horrifying stories from which valuable lessons can be drawn.  In April 2014, ADST graciously authorized greatcharlie.com to present the oral history of Ambassador Donald P. Gregg, an authentic intelligence professional and consummate diplomat.  In July 2014, Gregg published his extraordinary, must read memoirs entitled, Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas (Vellum, 2014).  It is part of ADST-DACOR’s Diplomats and Diplomacy Series. (DACOR is an organization of foreign affairs professionals.)

Donald Gregg was an employee of the US government for forty-three years, working in the fields of intelligence and diplomacy.  Gregg served in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for thirty-one years from 1951 to 1982.  Paramilitary trained and airborne trained, he spent most of his career in assignments overseas and advising the most senior leaders of the CIA.  He was assigned to Japan, Burma, Vietnam, and Korea.  He was special assistant to the Ambassador of Korea from 1973 to 1975.  Gregg also served as a member of the White House National Security Council staff from 1979 to 1982. Upon retirement from CIA, Gregg became National Security Adviser to US Vice President George H.W. Bush from 1982 to 1989, and US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1989 to 1993.  Outside of government, Gregg served as a senior consultant to Goldman Sachs, the chairman and president of The Korea Society in New York, and he currently serves as the chairman of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles.  Gregg was born in New York. He enlisted in the US Army upon graduation from high school in 1945.  He received training as a cryptanalyst and reached the rank of sergeant.  He went on to attend Williams College from 1947 to 1951, majoring in Philosophy.  Gregg has received numerous awards from CIA, the US Department of Defense and the South Korean government and five honorary degrees from American and foreign colleges.  Gregg has visited the North Korea several times and advocates for the normalization of relations between that country and the US.

On its face, Pot Shards is a significant contribution to the record of the US experience in the Far East written by a major player, an intelligence icon.  Pot Shards covers some weighty matters regarding intelligence, diplomacy, and defense policy.  Some of the issues and events discussed by Gregg have never been revealed in other texts. Gregg could have limited the book to the audience of policy scholars, analysts, historians, intelligence professionals and veterans and all those familiar with the subject matter.  However, he presents Pot Shards in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy at some level.  There is much in Pot Shards that would especially thrill those beguiled by spy novels and films and spy craft enthusiasts.  Yet, what makes Pot Shards most exciting is the story of the man: Donald Gregg.  With good humor, he recounts many satisfying exploits, but also reveals vicissitudes and trials he faced.

Individuals that Gregg mentions in Pot Shards are those with whom he had continuous contact as managers, mentors, and friends. Some of are well known, “foreign policy celebrities,” such as Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Creighton Abrams, Richard Helms, William Colby,  Harold Brown, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Holbrooke, and Richard Allen. Others may be remembered only by a few.  Gregg sheds light on their impact and exactly how their ideas ignited events from the inside. Moreover, Gregg indicates those individuals helped him develop a greater understanding of the world and other ways of thinking, allowing him to become something that he perhaps would not have been without them.

In Cloud of Witnesses, George Rutler examines sixty-six individuals, who have influenced his life, based on what Aristotle would refer to as their ethos (an honest use of talent), logos (an honest use of mind), and pathos (an honest involvement in the suffering of the world).  That would be the best way to examine Gregg’s presentation of his life and career.  At Williams College, Gregg was influenced by the thinking of Professor John William Miller, the head of the Philosophy Department, who taught him the simple definition of morality, “Never treat another human being as an object.”  Gregg explained that he has tried to live by that definition.  Gregg was also influenced by Miller’s interest in people taking action and being defined by, and held responsible for, the actions they took.  Miller taught him that “Man does not have a nature, he has a history,” Gregg recalled Miller urged his students to act upon what they believed in and to “cut behind appearance toward reality.”

It was clear from many anecdotes in Pot Shards that Gregg has had a genuine interest in people.  He has looked beyond differences, avoiding being caught up with race, ethnicity, or other things which had been used particularly in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s to determine how one should relate with another.  For example, when he first came to Washington, he would enjoy going to jazz clubs which catered to African-American patrons.  That was notable because Washington, DC at the time was a segregated city. Serving in the military at a young age, he learned about different men and different behaviors, and witnessed racial and ethnic prejudice which repulsed him.  In Kai Bird’s excellent work, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, it was indicated that racial and ethnic prejudice was apparent at CIA.  It was manifested in the casual and official discussions of some, and even worse, in decision making.  That was certainly not Gregg’s way.  His type of clearheaded, solid judgments resulting from giving situations and individuals a deeper look, was always needed.  Virtue shines in the presence of vice.

Having served as a cryptanalyst in the US Army, Gregg was sought by the National Security Agency in the middle of his senior year at Williams.  However, the recruiter rather than take Gregg suggested he join CIA.  Gregg knew little of the CIA and what it did.  However, the recruiter, with what Gregg now thinks was a bit of cynicism said, “Oh, they jump out of airplanes and are going to save the world!” That attracted Gregg, and initiated his thirty-one year career with the Agency.  Gregg has provided an incredibly intriguing discussion of his paramilitary training at CIA and the others he met during it. Gregg makes it clear in that discussion though, that so-called “good old days” in CIA were not always so good.  There were crazy events. Some people were not best serving the needs of CIA or their country. Managers who were very most often former OSS officers tried to recreate approaches taken by their former organization in German and Japanese held territory in Europe and Asia.   Often proposals for covert operations were based on questionable judgment and scant research.  Real possibilities for success were not fully considered by decision makers.  They were praised and approved by management as displaying a “Gung-Ho”, “Go Get ’em”, motivated attitude.  Yet, those operations more often resembled suicide missions.  Gregg found himself on such an assignment.

In March 1952, Gregg was assigned to fly to Bangkok, Thailand, where he would pick up a group of North Vietnamese whom he would train in sabotage and small unit tactics at a secret base. Following the completion of the training, Gregg and his team would be parachuted into North Vietnam.  Gregg spoke neither Vietnam nor French, and knew nothing of Vietnam or its history, and he was far from a veteran saboteur or guerilla leader. Gregg discovered an attractive post-debutante in her mid-thirties was the Vietnam plans officer and he had heard her say that her “Vietnam plan” had been accepted.  A cocktail party was given to celebrate the occasion, but Gregg was not invited.  When Gregg met his team, they turned out to be totally untrained Vietnamese with whom he had no way of communicating.  Gregg said they looked childlike.  Later he further learned that they were ethnic-Vietnamese from Thailand and had never set foot in Vietnam.  The potential for disaster was enormous. Gregg had no intention of backing out, but the truth behind the operation eventually revealed, and things worked out for the best. The operation was exposed as a fraud.  It turned out that a corrupt principal agent had hoodwinked CIA officers in Bangkok and had “taken the money and run.”  The mission was cancelled.

However, Pot Shards does not serve as some expression of some longstanding of primal doubt.  Gregg never moved about stating “Something is rotten in the Agency.”  Readers discover that through coping with those problems he learned not only what to do, but more importantly, “how not to do it.”  Gregg could recognize what was good, as good.  Gregg also worked with many in CIA who were true professionals.  He modeled his own management and decision making style in part from theirs. Gregg’s loyalty to his country and conviction toward duty was surpassed by no other.  He is proud of his years in CIA. So much of that experience was central to his personal life.  Through CIA, he met some life-long friends.  Through CIA, he met his wife.

Gregg makes it clear that his wife Margaret (“Meg”) has been central to his life.  A fortuitous encounter while hailing a taxi at Washington, DC’s Union Station set off of chain of interesting events that led to their life-long partnership.  Unbeknownst to Gregg, Meg, fluent in Russian, was actually Gregg’s superior in the Operations branch at CIA when they met.  However, as Gregg makes clear he was irresistibly taken by her combination of beauty, intellect, and charm, which made her something supreme to him.  Whether accompanying him in Japan, Korea, or Burma or remaining back in the US with their three children while Gregg served in Vietnam, she was the rock on which Gregg was able to build a career while raising a family. Relating the course of their marriage, Gregg leaves no doubt that meeting Meg was the best luck he ever had.

As Gregg rose through the ranks at CIA, he saw more clearly how many policies that drove CIA activities were not carefully considered and constructed. Gregg saw how euphonious policy speeches by political officials would often be based on captivating assessments of positive outcomes and capabilities of foreign partners not based in reality. He could see that near desperation on wanting a situation to be certain way led many, even the well-intentioned, to project their thinking on that of senior foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Only a negative outcome would reveal the error of a flawed approach for some.  In the early years of the US involvement in Vietnam Gregg witnessed this.  Gregg recalled accompanying US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Vietnam in 1963. McNamara was told by General Paul Harkins, who commanded the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) that “We will be out of here with a military victory in six months.”  McNamara was disturbed by the unrealistic reporting, and told US President Lyndon Johnson that things were really not as good as Harkins’ people seemed to think they were.  Gregg also recalled a war game in 1964 on the use of airpower in the North Vietnam.  He participated with: General Maxwell Taylor, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General Earl Wheeler, US Army Chief of Staff; General Curtis LeMay, US Air Force Chief of Staff; John McCone, CIA Director; and, in the presence of McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser.  Gregg, as the CIA representative of the Blue Team, gave CIA’s analysis of the plan to bomb North Vietnam.  Gregg described the rationale of the plan and then proceeded to explain why it would fail.  The rest of that story will not be spoiled here.  One will have to read Pot Shards to discover what the response to Gregg was from the many powerful men in the room.  Gregg’s description of it all makes the moment palpable.

Writing about his second tour in Vietnam, Gregg provides good lessons on how to function effectively as a manager or leader under extremely adverse circumstances.  His lessons hold true for professions beyond intelligence for they primarily concern human nature and the wonders and realities of human interaction.  There were many difficult experiences that were a part of that period.  One evening Gregg received a frantic call from a member of his crew who he described as a gifted and committed paramilitary officer, with several tough tours under his belt.  The officer had married a Vietnamese war widow with children and lived in her Bien Hoa apartment.  He had just returned from a mission to find one of his children “desperately ill.”  Gregg rushed to the officer’s apartment with medical assistance in tow.  Yet, by the time he arrived, he found the tragic scene of a beautiful young girl, eight years old, lying silent and still, with her frightened siblings and anguished mother, who was being comforted by the officer.  The girl was confirmed dead and the officer asked Gregg to take her away.  Gregg picked up the child and walked out.  Doing so reminded him of carrying his own small daughters Lucy and Alison to bed after they had fallen asleep. He searched for an answer on how to handle the situation.  This was a CIA matter and had to be kept confidential.  Gregg eventually decided to bring the child to the emergency room of the US Army hospital at Long Binh, where US Army Military Police told him where to go to have the body cared for.

In this segment of Pot Shards, there are also fascinating stories of Gregg’s exploits in combat.  He was in the thick of things as CIA Regional Officer in Military Region 3 (War Zone D).  There are accounts of Gregg managing paramilitary operations and interrogations of his crew.  He flew with forward controllers, directing fire support for US and allied troops.  He described radio communications from battles, the descriptions of which bring the reader right to the scene.  Gregg’s efforts were appreciated by US and allied commanders he worked with such as: General James Hollingsworth (US);  General John McGiffert (US); General Nguyen Van Minh (South Vietnam); General Jangnai Sohn (Korea); and General Roh Tae-woo (Korea); Colonel Nguyen Cong Vinh (South Vietnam); and, Colonel Bach Van Hien (South Vietnam).

On his second tour, Gregg could still see how different ideas, among policy and decision makers, about what was truly happening in there impacted the decisions being made and the lessons the US military as well as other security organizations as CIA, were learning from the experience.  At the very end of his tour in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams hosted a lunch for Gregg at his MACV Headquarters in Saigon, a place where he had been excoriated in the past.  At lunch, Gregg sat next to Abrams and six or eight of his subordinates.  He felt Abrams was the best of the three commanders the US sent to Vietnam.  Knowing Abrams had been in Vietnam for some time, Gregg asked him how long it had actually been.  Abrams proudly responded, “Six years.”  Gregg then asked him how he kept going, and Abrams stated, “Well, I keep learning things.”  Gregg then politely asked him what he had learned so far, and Abrams replied that just finished reading Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, an account of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Abrams said that he “now” understood Fall’s reasoning as to why the French had failed to reestablish their colonial rule in Vietnam.  When Gregg asked “How did Fall explain it,” Abrams explained, “Fall said that the French lost because they failed to politically organize the terrain.  I think I understand that now, but I would not have understood that a year ago.”  Gregg had no response to that, but explained that when he later saw pictures of heavy US battle tanks, named after Abrams, crashing around Iraq and Afghanistan, he thought of Abrams’ answer.

Through his achievements in Vietnam, Gregg developed a reputation in CIA as a very wise and capable officer.  He knew how to present ideas and concepts to develop agreement or consensus on issues. Bringing his thoughts to precise declarations took skill.  This was one of the many skills that Gregg honed through interactions with a number of accomplished professionals.  One who helped Gregg elevate his capabilities while he served in his next overseas assignment as CIA Station Chief in Seoul, was US Ambassador Philip Habib.  Habib was gruff and outspoken.  However, by Gregg’s account, he understood people well and was an excellent diplomat for whom he developed tremendous respect.  Gregg indicates that it was Habib’s maneuvering that help to save the life of liberal South Korean politician, Kim Dae-jung, after he had been kidnapped from his Tokyo hotel room by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).  Habib never accused the Korean President Park Chung-hee of ordering the kidnapping but sent a message to him explaining that the US was aware of the action and hoped he could do everything to keep Kim alive.  This allowed Park a chance to avoid direct embarrassment and contrive a story in which he accused rogue elements of the Korean government had alone committed the act, and in which he took credit for saving Kim.  Gregg said Habib’s astute handling of the situation kept Kim alive and allowed Park to save face.  Gregg explained saving face was always a major concern in Asia.  Habib’s actions allowed Washington’s relations with Seoul to improve.

Gregg completed his career at CIA on a high note at the US National Security Council.  He had achieved success maintaining an ethic of his own, a moral code.  There was goodness living inside a good man.  He saw the greater good that would result from his actions against Communism.  Gregg was invited to join the administration of US President Ronald Reagan as the National Security Adviser to then Vice President George H.W. Bush.  His job made use of all of his skills and experience from CIA.  During those six years with Bush, Gregg traveled to 65 countries.  Along with those visits came his attendance at endless formal events.  Gregg recounts some of rather unusual happenings at such gatherings, providing readers with a gift bag of humorous stories.  Yet, while in the Reagan administration, his self-image was put to the test.  Gregg dedicates a chapter to a painful period of that service: IranContra, which was the purported attempt by the administration to sell surplus arms to Iran in exchange for it to ensure the release of US hostages being held in Lebanon.  Claims that Gregg was involved with that matter were invalidated.  Gregg’s account of it all is captivating.

As Ambassador to South Korea in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, Gregg successfully made use of his experience at CIA as well as the White House.  However, Gregg did not tap into his training as an intelligence officer to manipulate Korean officials or simulate closeness with Koreans he met.  There was no deception at all. Gregg was genuine, natural, in his interactions and that is what helped him gain their respect and confidence.  There was a type of communion between Gregg and many of his senior Korean counterparts.  One of the issues Gregg was determined to confront as ambassador was the continuing negative note in US-South Korean relations over the alleged US involvement in the Kwanju Uprising of 1980.  Then Korean President Chun Doo-hwan had brutally cracked down on protests in Kwanju in the wake of the arrest of Kim Dae-jung on charges of treason. At least two hundred Koreans were killed in the streets.  Chun claimed that the US had fully supported his actions.  That was not true, but by the time Gregg arrived in Korea as ambassador, hostility toward the US was still strong in the city.  The US Cultural Center in Kwangju was often attacked with fire bombs by rioters trying to drive the US out.  Gregg after consulting with others, including Kim Dae-jung, went to Kwangju in January 1990.  While there, Gregg met with six leaders of anti-US groups for over three hours.  Gregg explained that he came to Kwangju to lessen the hostility that the people in the city seemed to hold for the US.  Gregg explained to them that the US was not connected at all to the incident, and many of the actions by the US at that time, such as moving an aircraft carrier to Pusan were not a show of support for Chun. That particular move was meant to signal to North Korea not to intervene.  The anti-US protesters believed the US was close to Chun administration, but Gregg let it be known that there was general distaste for it.  In that vein, Gregg explained, that at the time, the Reagan administration had agreed to receive Chun at the White House if Chun agreed to lift the death sentence imposed on Kim Dae-jung, and to release him from prison.  Most important in the conversation was Gregg’s apology over the fact the US had remained silent for so long on the Kwangju issue.  Gregg diffused the hostility toward the US and attacks on the Cultural Center in Kwangju stopped.  Gregg explained his first visit to Kwangju was deeply valuable in showing him how Koreans can hold feelings of han (deep-seated resentment) when they are dealing with events caused by others and which they feel are unjustified, immoral, and unfair.  When Gregg made his first visit to Pyongyang in April 2002, he explains that he encountered the same feelings of han that he had encountered in Kwangju twelve years before.  However, he notes that lessons learned in Kwangju were helpful as he tried to establish a dialogue and some degree of trust between his North Korean hosts and himself.  Ambassador Philip Habib certainly would have been proud of Gregg’s performance.

There is much more in Pot Shards to enjoy!  It is a book one will want to read again and again.

Quam bene vivas referre, non quam diu!  (It is how well you live that matters, not how long!)  There have been a few stories written about Gregg in books, articles, in anecdotal form.  Many were written in the troubled time of the Iran-Contra Affair.  Pot Shards presents the true life and times of Gregg, an individual who contributed greatly to US foreign and national security policy. Readers are taken on a journey through Northeast and Southeast Asia and halls of power in Washington, DC.  Readers will also discover how much Gregg valued others and his value to humanity.  Gregg continues to make a valuable contribution to US foreign and defense policy efforts as a private citizen.  Pot Shards is an absolute pleasure to read.  Without reservation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends Pot Shards to everyone.

By Mark Edmond Clark

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