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Victor “Brute” Krulak didn’t suffer fools gladly, even when he thought one was the president of the United States.
According to legend, the Marine lieutenant general went into the White House and told his commander in chief that the Vietnam War was a mess. Krulak didn’t mince words about President Lyndon Johnson’s performance — Krulak supported more emphasis on counterinsurgency efforts — and his career suffered for it.
Or did it? Krulak had an unfortunate habit of embroidering his past. It’s hard to know what exactly went on in that White House meeting, although a photo suggests that it didn’t go well.
Now, military historian Robert Coram takes a look back at Krulak’s life in his new book “Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine.” Coram spent time with Krulak before the retired general died here in 2008 at the age of 95.
Krulak has many connections to San Diego: besides living in Point Loma, he spent time growing up in Coronado, ran the Marine Corps Recruit Depot for several years and was president of the Zoological Society of San Diego.
I talked with Coram about Krulak’s career, his connections to San Diego and whether he might have played a role in espionage from his perches at Copley Newspapers, which published the Union and Evening Tribune.
Krulak was five-foot-five, not exactly the size you’d expect of a man who became one of the most legendary Marines of all time.
He was an unusual man to be a Marine. He was the smallest and lightest man ever to graduate from the Naval Academy and be commissioned in the Marine Corps. If he’d been a year ahead or a year behind, he wouldn’t have gotten a waiver to join.
The main thing he had going for him was his intellect. He was extraordinarily brilliant and had a sense of audacity. He could see an opportunity and go for it: he was not afraid to make bold decisions.
Krulak had an eventful and high-profile career. You write that he played major roles in World War II and helped defend the Marine Corps against efforts to reduce its influence after the war. But the most striking moment in his career came in the White House during the Vietnam War. What happened there?
He challenged LBJ and told him that unless he removed some of the restraints from the military and let them do their job, LBJ would lose both his job and the election. LBJ didn’t want to hear that, and almost literally threw him out of the Oval Office.
He put everything on the line. As far as I know, he was the only senior officer in the entire Vietnam War who spoke truth to power, who told LBJ what every officer knew. They were all so afraid of the consequences and their careers.
What role did San Diego play in his life?
He retired to San Diego, and the city always had a special place in his heart. He spent time in Coronado as a child, but I don’t know why he went or anything about it. He didn’t want to talk about his childhood. That’s one of the big unanswered questions about him.
Whatever the circumstances, the city of San Diego was branded on him at an early age.
In the 1970s, a Penthouse investigative report revealed that the Copley News Service installed American spies as employees in its foreign bureaus while its reporters served as handmaidens to the CIA. Krulak held several top positions with both the Copley Newspapers and the Copley News Service. Was he involved in spying?
I’m certain that he was. He was a three-star general, he was close to the Copleys, and he was in and out of that shadowy intelligence world throughout his career.
What did you think of him personally?
He was an easy man to respect, and a very difficult man to like. But I grew to like him in the three and a half years I spent with him. He was a great moral beacon despite the tumultuous events of his own life, and he personified integrity as a grownup. I admire him as a man of integrity.