EDITOR’S NOTE: George Proctor served in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine officer. After nine years of private law practice in Arkansas and a two-year term in the legislature, he was appointed United States Attorney by Presidents Carter and Reagan, and confirmed by the Senate. The Cotton Plant native prosecuted public corruption cases on Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, and worked as a senior executive officer in Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He served as an immigration judge in Los Angeles and San Francisco. What follows is an autobiographical excerpt from Proctor’s contribution to the forthcoming collection “Our Golden Age Kaleidoscope — Collected Memories of Post WWII Years,” published by Ed Nef, about his experience as a Marine and U.S. Attorney.
Current literature is replete with theories explaining the role comfort zones play in our pursuit of happiness. Not so much has been written about that feeling you get when you’re so far outside your comfort zone that you become fearful. You could say that when I committed to football, worked on pipelines for two summers in Iowa and Michigan, joined the U.S. Marine Corps’ platoon leaders’ officer candidate school, or explored the interior of a ship at a depth of 140 feet scuba diving, I went outside most folks’ comfort zone. Not mine; I had confidence in my athletic abilities and none of those was a stretch.
On the contrary, I had no confidence in academics. Hence, I was surprised (as was the Marine Corps) when my results from the General Classification Test placed my intelligent quotient higher than my fellow Marines who had bested me in tests on such topics as the operation of the M14 rifle — boring. As a result of my performance on the test, I was assigned study to become an aviation supply officer. The others, for the most part, were assigned to platoons in Vietnam. This was a far cry from my wish to become a pilot (too tall for the Marine Corps’ combat support aircraft) or an air delivery officer, which would mean jump school (no openings). I never considered becoming a platoon leader, which, with no war in sight at the time meant to me running around in the boondocks shooting blanks, playing Marine at war. Unlike most of my fellow Basic School classmates, I was married and soon to be a father.
Like many of my fellow Marine officer candidates, I was inspired to be a Marine by all the movies glamorizing the Marines in the Pacific campaign in WWII. I read everything I could find that related to the region or the campaign, including James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.” Even the movie based on that book grabbed me. However, after I survived platoon leader’s training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, I found that Joseph Heller’s book “Catch-22,” more than any of my other reads, captured the essence of serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Likewise, the essence of military service is demonstrated in the hilarious encounters of the more recent “M*A*S*H” TV series based on the 1968 novel of the same name.
While we were still in Basic School at Quantico, Va., we were told that the Army’s Special Forces were taking on the North Vietnamese Communists. Cambodian, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians who trained with us in Basic School struggled to carry a rifle, rucksack and other equipment we believed necessary to engage the enemy. Thus, we were confident that the Vietnam conflict, if one could even call it that, would be short-lived. Years after the war I was privileged to talk with former Viet Cong of our mutual experiences. They explained that they traveled light, relying on a bag of rice for sustenance and water from streams, left with only a weapon for significant weight.
I had orders out of Basic School to Japan, but after under two months there we boarded an LST (landing ship, tank) destined for Vietnam. As in a favorite flick, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” I was John Wayne heading for the shores of a country (not an island, but close enough) in the Pacific. During two weeks at sea, unaware for security reasons of our landing site, we listened to the North Vietnam’s propaganda arm spout threats from the likes of a woman who went by Hanoi Hanna. No concerns there — Tokyo Rose had made similar threats and dire predictions for the greatest generation’s Pacific campaign, and we know how that turned out.
We landed with no organized opposition. There were a few potshots, but they were likely from disgruntled farmers who didn’t know what the hell was going on. We set up pup tents and later upgraded to general-purpose tents housing a dozen or so Marines in each. Though John Wayne made no appearances, I once eyed Robert Mitchum saddled up to our officers’ club bar drinking a beer, playing himself.
My year there was largely uneventful, with the exception of one night when incoming mortars had us diving into our foxholes dug beside our cots. The mortars, or possibly grenades — not sure which — struck only yards away. I shudder today over the fear that gripped me. Never being able to sleep with my wedding ring, I had placed it on an ammo box beside my cot. In my haste to jump into my foxhole, I knocked the ring into the sand, where it was buried out of sight. Had I not been able to find it, my sweet Judy would have murdered me!
We were part of a Marine Expeditionary Force tasked with supporting an airstrip which the Seabees hastily constructed with planking composed of a lightweight metal alloy. The strip was hardly longer than the deck of an aircraft carrier and required a catapult to launch planes and arresting gear to keep them from going off the strip into the jungle on landing. In little more than a month, an A-4 jet made the first landing on our strip. Our base was located on a beach so that should it come to it, we could evacuate via the South China Sea — the Viet Cong had no navy.
Our unit was assigned the obligatory physician, dentist and clergy. Our dentist and clergy were not remarkable, though they drank too much (but that was the norm among those who weren’t crucial to the mission). Those of us who were crucial to the mission worked seven days a week.
Our physician, a psychiatrist, on the other hand, was straight out of “M*A*S*H.” Though he didn’t resort to dressing in drag, he deliberately wore his cap askance, responded to salutes from his corpsmen dismissively with Heil Hitler extended-arm salutes, and worked assiduously at being reassigned to our former base in Japan, realizing that getting back to the States was more than even he could accomplish. Once, when our commanding officer asked him why he had brought a suitcase to our daily meeting, he replied that when the CO ordered him back to Japan he intended to be ready.
While we sweated it out in a war that was not going as planned, the doctor was eventually reassigned to air-conditioning in Japan. He missed the night we slept outside our tents when intelligence warned that the Viet Cong would target our tent housing officers in an attack. And there was the time we assumed positions with weapons locked and loaded when the Viet Cong broke through our heavily guarded perimeter. (Why the Marine Corps trained all officers in the tactics and execution of the mission of a rifle platoon became obvious.) But like our psychiatrist, I was absent during a major infiltration of Viet Cong, on R&R enjoying the air-conditioned comfort of a room in Hong Kong’s Presidential Hotel.
Sad to say, but service in Vietnam presents a panoply of duplicity. We set sail from Japan to Vietnam in violation of the treaty prohibiting our deployment from Japan for hostile purposes. We were instructed to order our troops, if asked, to say that we had deployed from Okinawa (this preceded Okinawa becoming a Prefecture of Japan). To support the lie, we spent a night anchored off Okinawa Island. Many otherwise honorable participants in the Vietnam War found themselves a part of a larger lie. Most of the lies were above my pay grade as a first lieutenant. Assigned to teach my unit the topic of why we were in Vietnam, I became passive aggressive, merely letting it slide. Truth is, I didn’t have a clue. In one of my letters home, I told my mother I was in charge of an excursion into the village to give the troops a taste of the local culture. Southern Vietnamese were not our enemy; that concept became less clear as the war progressed.
Charged with keeping track of some 300 Korean War surplus arctic sleeping bags, I failed to write them off according to Marine Corps regs. While they were inappropriate to the tropical conditions of Vietnam, Marines used them as cushion on their cots until they mildewed and were covered by mold. Then they were, in Marine Corps vernacular, shit-canned.
But lo and behold, when our commanding officer had to account for the worthless sleeping bags, I became the fall guy. As a consequence, in spite of otherwise glowing fitness reports, I was punished by a letter in my file. So when most of my contemporaries were promoted to captain, I continued wearing the silver bars of a first lieutenant. And that ended the “what-me-worry?” saga of my life. I attribute the success I enjoyed for the remainder of my career to the fact that I clearly drove myself beyond my comfort zone.
Politics was ingrained in me early on — progressive politics, that is. Must have been in my DNA, as my sisters were like-minded. Adlai Stevenson was my man. He was among those who created the United Nations, he stood up to the Red Scare, and he was believed to have laid the groundwork for the election of John F. Kennedy. Then there was Hubert Humphrey and a long line of liberal losers of the popular vote, but winners in my heart, nevertheless. Not totally wedded to liberals, I also admired the pragmatists, their actions that can only be described as profiles in courage: FDR, LBJ and JFK. (That you recognize them by their initials speaks volumes of their contributions.) Still, until I took a political science course in my senior year of college, I did not realize that I would become a political junky.
With college, Vietnam, law school, a clerkship and two years’ solo law practice in the seat of the county I grew up in behind me, I filed for the Democratic nomination for state representative. When I asked my mother what she thought — she was, after all, the daughter of a former state senator on her father’s side and the granddaughter of a former speaker of the house on her mother’s side — she said, with a twinkle in her eye, that she’d likely vote for me if she found me the more qualified. Though uniquely qualified for representative of our agriculturally based district, my rice-farming opponent apparently did not win over my mother. When I only got 82 percent of the vote out of Cotton Plant, she became visibly angry at the 18 percent who voted for my opponent, who lived right outside Cotton Plant.
My district was one of the most conservative in the state. We were in the Mississippi River Delta, not in the state of Mississippi, but you get the picture. Upon my announcement that I would not seek re-election, a reporter wrote (presumably because of my support for a civil rights bill, unions, abolishing the death penalty, environmental preservation, criminal justice reform and ratification of the ERA for women) that the House was losing a stalwart liberal — a death knell for political ambition in Arkansas.
While in the Arkansas legislature, I was designated to present arguably the most important legislation of our term. The other sponsors of our bill to protect and preserve wetlands from exploitation were far senior to me. In fact, one was speaker for the house. But I was the only lawyer, maybe the only college graduate. The night before my presentation, the oldest and longest-tenured legislator had the unfortunate experience of being mugged by a prostitute (his, in fact). He appeared for the hearing, a tragic figure with a black eye and his arm in a sling. With as much drama he could muster, he stood and announced that though he had intended to present the bill, due to the unfortunate circumstances of the previous evening, he had asked young Proctor to present it in his stead. Those legislators with thoughts of “but for the grace of God go I” (most of them) were in my pocket. The bill passed.
Conditions for women in Arkansas improved but not enough for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment for women, which I championed as a representative in the Arkansas legislature in the early ’70s. Of our 100 representatives, we had no more than a dozen female legislators. One of our senior male members was infamous for maintaining women should be kept barefoot and pregnant. And so went the rights of women in our state and the nation. On the other hand, while serving as U.S. Attorney and later as a senior executive in the Department of Justice, the majority of my lawyer hires were women — on merit.
Though my solo practice was successful, it lacked the challenge and opportunity to prosecute wrongdoing, particularly public corruption — my growing interest, fed by my stint in the legislature. And, as my law practice became more lucrative, I was feeling more like the character Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” than my hero Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson, an unabashed self-described liberal and my mentor during my time as a prosecutor in Woodruff County, is a close friend. He brokered with our senators my appointment as U.S. Attorney, a position I did not seek. Don’t know what he would have said had I not jumped at the chance of being a U.S. Attorney after he had persuaded the senators I was their man. Perhaps he knew that I would have been a fool not to go for it. This catapulted me from a solo law practice in rural (my urban friends say that “rural” is redundant) Arkansas to the world stage (hyperbolic, perhaps, but that’s the way I saw it then).
The most satisfying aspect of my career was my decade devoted to rooting out public corruption as a U.S. Attorney. That and the fact that my two-year term in the legislature paralleled the corruption uncovered in Watergate were fodder for public corruption prosecutions. And what better way to prepare one for prosecuting public officials than to have walked in their shoes, facing on a daily basis the temptations that become irresistible for far too many. During my nine years as U.S. Attorney we convicted 17 county judges and the Little Rock city attorney for corruption, largely based on kick-backs for government purchases. Most went to trial, and I participated as lead attorney in them all. I personally tried three county judges in my second year in office. …
It was not until Bill Clinton was serving his first term as president that I found myself on the opinion pages of a national newspaper. The Wall Street Journal opined in two editorials that I’d given Clinton’s brother, Roger, a sweet deal on cocaine distribution. In fact, that case against Roger was not even in my district. Rather, it was in the district of another U.S. Attorney, now governor of Arkansas. He was the one who (wisely, I think) gave Roger Clinton immunity in connection with bolstering an investigation in his district. The Journal criticized me as well for the plea deal we gave a junk-bond millionaire for providing cocaine gratis to young women as party treats. Under the agreement he was sentenced to six months in prison. He had, however, contributed more to Gov. Clinton’s campaign than anyone else. So the Journal was suspicious. Ironically, the Arkansas papers were suspicious for the opposite reason: My aggressive prosecution of a friend of Clinton was attributed to my appointment by the Reagan administration. The Arkansas papers, although mistaken, based their claim of partisanship on arguable facts, where the Wall Street Journal’s opinion piece was based on poor reporting, at best.
To make sense of the problems that face us today, I go back to the years between WWI and WWII, when the great FDR addressed fears brought about by the Depression with his famous pronouncement: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Beginning with Cotton Plant, where it all started for me, fear has virtually destroyed my hometown. Today there are a mere 600 or so residents, mostly black. Friends there tell me no immigrant has chosen to live there, there is no longer a school of any sort, and as a sign of the times (for the U.S. but incongruous for my home town), the only employer is a marijuana processing operation authorized by the state.
To be frank, notwithstanding my obsession in my teens with Marines storming the beaches and the brave men of Normandy, I can’t imagine the courage of those Marines and soldiers. But a reasonable hypothesis espoused by many is that, while they have a fear of dying, it is subordinated to that of letting down their fellow Marines and soldiers. I do believe that in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, those who have fought even though they do not support the cause, do so for their comrades in arms. On the topic of our military involvement in the Middle East, never has FDR’s admonition of being governed by fear been more relevant. We developed an irrational fear after 9/11 and sacrificed fine young men and women as well as our prestige to an area of the world where we were unwanted and unneeded.
Not that long ago, I saw tottering WWII vets. Now we Vietnam vets are the ones limping around on canes and walkers and, regrettably, most of the vets of WWII have died. By conceding that I’m offended when a middle-aged woman offers me her seat on the bus, can I claim that I am aging gracefully? Probably not. Still, ironically, the fear I had in my 50s of death at age 78 is long gone. Death is inevitable, but only a tragedy for those who have been denied a full life by an early death. Not for me. While I would miss watching my sons and grandchildren continue to flourish and leaving the love of my life is unthinkable, I’m ready.
A friend described my life as serendipitous. I can’t quarrel with that. Virtually every step of the way has been guided by good fortune. Perhaps because I have been lucky, I expect things to turn out for the better, and they always have. We all owe a great debt to those young soldiers who lost their lives at Normandy and the Marines who died in our Pacific campaign, most before they could experience the joy of family, career and the many opportunities offered us as Americans. And even more regrettable is the loss of life in the unfortunate conflicts of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. For those of us who have led fruitful, complete lives, we owe much to these heroes. I often think of my father, who died at such a young age, and my cousin at age 50. It really has been a good run, and, hey, may it continue!