Wesley Clark was born in 1944 in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of Benjamin and Veneta Kanne, a lawyer and a bank secretary. When Clark was not quite four years old, his father died. His mother then decided to move to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Clark’s maternal grandparents lived. His mother eventually remarried in November 1954 to Victor Clark.
He attended Little Rock’s public schools, except in tenth grade he went to Castle Heights Military Academy in Tennessee, because the Little Rock Board of Education decided shut down the city’s two high schools in 1958 rather than desegregate. When he returned to Little Rock for his junior year, he helped the swim team win the state championship. Even though he could have gotten a full scholarship to Harvard, Clark was set on going to West Point. He “wanted the challenge, the leadership, the outdoor life, the adventure.” And when he enrolled at West Point at the age of 17, he was entering an institution that had educated two men he admired, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur. He excelled at West Point, eventually graduating first in his class.
After two years at Oxford and a year of training at the Ranger and Airborne schools and commanding a tank company in Kansas, he went off to Vietnam in July 1969. By that time, he had already been married two years and his wife, Gertrude, was four months pregnant. In January 1970, he was given command of A Company, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry. One month later while on patrol in the jungle he was shot in the shoulder, hand, leg, and hip during an ambush by the Viet Cong. Despite being wounded, he maintained command of his unit by continuing to direct the fighting. He was very lucky, since the bullets had not severed any major blood vessels, bones or nerves. In contrast, thirty-one out of the 579 members in his West Point class were killed in Vietnam.
After his return to the U.S., he held many positions during his thirty-four years of service including teaching at West Point for three years, being a White House Fellow and leading the U.S. Southern Command (Latin America and the Caribbean). In 1997, he became a four-star general as Supreme Allied Commander Europe which gave him overall command of the NATO military forces. It would be his last military post. He retired from military service in 2000.
Since then, he has written several books, has run as a presidential candidate in 2004, and formed his own political action committee and strategic consulting firm. He is also a frequent op-ed writer and commentator on television. He is currently chairman of an investment bank, a board director at several companies including a Minnesota-based wind power firm and a Senior Fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations. Some of his military awards include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The conversation below touches mainly upon his childhood, adolescence, and young adult years.
What values did your mother try to instill in you as you were growing up?
Honesty. She always praised me when I did well in school. She always encouraged me to be myself. She never had expectations for me. She always let me find my own expectations.
In what way did she do that?
She would say, “Oh, I can’t believe I can have such a smart son. I was never like that.” She would always take herself out of it.
Was your stepfather’s approach different from your mother’s?
My stepfather was a very good storyteller. He was a very accomplished speaker. He was a former banker who had become an alcoholic, divorced his first wife, severed all ties with his family, and lost his business reputation. All of this happened in his midlife in his early fifties. He spent several years trying to find some stability in his life.
How was his influence different from your mother’s?
First of all, he set a strong example of leadership and effectiveness. He was a man very capable of anything he set his mind to whether it was hunting or fishing (which we did), home repairs, help with mathematics schoolwork, catching or hitting a baseball, or walking on his hands across a room. He was a very capable person despite his background that I’ve just given to you. He always made me feel like I had something to live up to.
But without tremendous pressure?
There was no pressure from him, because there was so much pressure from himself to try to accomplish something in his life and to salvage his self-respect that he wasn’t capable of putting any pressure on me.
You spent a lot of time with your grandparents. In what way did they influence you?
The influence from my grandparents was to emphasize caution and doubt. My grandmother worried about me a lot. Granddad was a distant figure who moved his lips and finger when he read. He lost an eye in an industrial accident when he was seventy or seventy-one. I remember going to see him in the hospital and he had a glass eye. I loved them. It’s the way you see things when you are four to six years old. I remember taking a nap on my grandmother’s bed in the afternoon. I remember laying in bed next to her and listening to the radio at 6 o’clock at night when I was five and six years old. I remember Granddad chasing me down one time in the house and spanking me for annoying him. And I remember Grandmother standing up for me once to an angry neighbor’s wife. The values were values of family. We ate our meals together. We were together and that was the family.
How would you describe yourself as a child? What were you like as a boy?
I transitioned from being a Yankee to being a Southerner at the age of four. At the same time, I had lost a father. It was a tough transition that I can see in retrospect. Like a lot of things that happens to you in life, you don’t see it at the time. I developed a speech defect. We didn’t have kindergarten in those days so I started first grade when I was five and a half. I did okay. I was an average size and average in every respect, except that I was the only one who didn’t have a father and had a mother who worked.
Do you consider that part the most challenging part of your childhood? Not having a father or having a speech defect or both?
I didn’t even know I had a speech defect until they treated it in school. I was always getting teased by my uncle. He would tickle me and make me say, “Stop, Spot.” But I couldn’t say, “Stop, Spot.” I was with two or three other kids in the second grade and they took us one day a week for maybe six to nine months and corrected the speech defect.
So it wasn’t the other kids that were teasing you, it was just your uncle?
That’s what I remember. I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood. We played together every day. But everything was so different from Chicago. I was brought up in Chicago by nannies. I was pampered. There weren’t a lot of kids to play with and we lived in an apartment. I was the youngest of the grandchildren, so I was fawned over, flattered, given toys, and spoiled. Suddenly, when my father died, everything changed. I came to Arkansas and I played with a bunch of roughneck kids. There were fights and challenges. I usually played the Yankees and they played the Confederates in the Civil War games. And the Confederates usually won.
When you were growing up who was your biggest role model outside your family?
I can’t think of any one specific that I would cite. Of course, we idolized military leaders when Eisenhower was president. The Korean War was going on when I was kid and I remember being in the first grade and hearing on the radio Douglas MacArthur give a speech that old soldiers never die, they just slowly fade away. Of course, it sounded to me like the ghost of Christmas past, because it was spooky. You didn’t know what it meant to “slowly fade away.” It was one of those haunting phrases that whatever MacArthur meant by it, it certainly impacted the imagination of six-year-olds.
What is the best memory from childhood?
I have a lot of great memories. (Chuckles.) We played sports–football or baseball–in the street every single day after school. And we had two recesses plus a lunch period every day and we’d play sports at school every day. When you were in the third and fourth grade, you didn’t. But in fifth and sixth grade, you did. You played softball or football. You chose up sides and you played on those sides every day.
We did a lot of fun things. When I was in the fifth grade, everybody was into knights, King Arthur of the Round Table. We all had swords and shields. My stepfather got some pressed wood, cut it out, and made me a real shield. He put straps on the back. I had a plywood sword. One of my friends and I went and fought a duel against two other kids in the neighborhood, but their fathers had made them plywood shields. (Chuckles.) We were whacking at each other’s shields. My sword would hit his shield and it would bounce off. His sword would hit my shield and it was making a dent in my shield. It finally split the shield. I lost! And I didn’t like losing at anything.
When I was nine or ten years old, I was playing second base in softball in the church in the Royal Ambassadors’ league at the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church and someone hit a line drive. It was the hardest ball I’ve ever seen hit and it came right at me. I got it smack right in that glove. It was such a wonderful catch. I remember when I was in the sixth grade I was playing in the outfield and someone hit a ball. I think we were still playing softball at that point and I raced back for it, stretched my arm up, and got that ball. Those are great memories.
I was wondering if you read a lot as a child.
What kind of books did you read?
Geography, science, travel, history, and science fiction. I loved medieval history, geology, space, war–a wide variety of things. I was fascinated by science and science fiction.
When did you start exceling in school?
If you looked at my report card, I made mostly satisfactories at the beginning. They graded us on three levels in the Pulaski Heights Elementary School in Little Rock. You were outstanding, satisfactory, or needs improvement. In the first grade, I was satisfactory. Occasionally, I would get in trouble with the teacher. One day my first grade teacher told me I had gotten by, by skin of my teeth. I remember coming home and asking my grandmother what is the skin of my teeth. In the second grade, I started to make some outstandings and by the third grade I was making mostly outstandings. By the fourth grade, I was making mostly A’s.
And what drove you to excel?
I was very disciplined. I always did my homework. See, I didn’t have any allowance except for what I could earn. At one point, my stepfather gave me a dollar for every A. I would take those dollars every six weeks and I’d put them in a little compartment and save them. Then I would buy my model aircraft with them.
What kind of teenager were you?
First of all, I was young for the class. Socially, there were some kids who were sneaking out their parents’ cars in the ninth grade when they were fourteen years old. At that time, you had a learner’s permit at fourteen and got your license at sixteen. At fourteen, I had never even tried to drive a car, much less sneak one out.
I had braces and I was editor of the junior high paper in the ninth grade. I made good grades. I was elected president of the Junior Honor Society. I did swimming as a sport rather than football. A lot of people went through a big growth spurt in the seventh grade. One of the kids was the same size of me in the sixth grade and in seventh grade he was 5′ 10″ while I think I was 5′ 2″. Some of these people just matured really, really quickly. When I started the ninth grade, I was thirteen and I was 5′ 4″. I was not going to be a star basketball player or football player at five foot four and a 110 pounds not even a junior in high school.
As a teenager, how did you develop your sense of purpose early on? Was the Soviet Union a big factor?
Yes, it was. I began to see it in 1956 when I was eleven years old when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolt. And in 1957, Sputnik was launched and we were losing the race to outer space. Then in the late 1950s, there was the missile gap and there was the U-2 shoot down incident. Following that was the confrontation over Berlin, the Bay of Pigs. I was in West Point by that time.
Why do you think you consciously wanted to have a sense of purpose?
It wasn’t that I wanted to. It just sort of happened. You feel like there are things you are interested in that you are called to do and want to work on for the rest of your life. I felt that protecting America was a really important purpose. I loved my community, my friends, and family and they seemed to be threatened.
Why were you so attracted to military service when your family’s background was basically in law and banking?
My real father had served in World War I and he was a Naval officer for a year or two. I don’t think he ever got to sea. He was an ensign. I had a picture of him in a Naval uniform. I remember I was always interested in that. I never knew him as a lawyer. My stepfather’s banking career ended in personal failure. So I guess I just moved on.
As a teenager what was your approach to dealing with obstacles and challenges?
Like everybody else, I guess I tried to work my way through obstacles and challenges.
So you never had a defeatist attitude?
No, you just had to overcome obstacles. When I was a kid, I went to the Boys Club and got on the swimming team there. My stepfather had said, “Kid, you’re not going to be a basketball player.” I wasn’t getting big enough, fast enough, or good enough. So he encouraged me to join the swimming team and I liked it. The swimming coach was a guy who really pushed you to do your best. He taught me to believe in myself and to accept challenges and to move forward.
When he was twelve years old, his swim coach, Jimmy Miller, held time trials to qualify for the travel squad. Clark failed to meet his assigned time of 1:12.4 in the one-hundred-yard freestyle, coming in a full second behind it. In his book, A Time to Lead, Clark describes what his coach said to him afterwards when he was feeling sorry for himself.
He asked me quietly “You know what your biggest problem is?
“No, sir,” I said.
“It’s you,” he replied. “You didn’t believe you could do it. Now go sit down.”
A week a later, his coach unexpectedly gave him another chance. He came in at 1:11.7. In response, the coach told him, “So you did it, just like I knew you could. You were the only one who didn’t know it. Now you do. Now get back over there and sit down.”
Talk about going abroad for the first time and what that meant to you.
First time I went abroad I was nineteen. It was 1964. I had taken Russian at West Point. Three other cadets and I decided we would travel to Russia for a couple of weeks during the summer. I had a little bit of money left over from my grandmother’s death and I used some of this to pay the travel costs. After the thirty days in Germany as a “third lieutenant” with the 4th Armored Division in Nuremberg, the four of us went together on a train up through Scandinavia, across the Baltic Sea to Helsinki, and then into Leningrad. We spent ten days in Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev and back out. It was an eye-opening experience. We practiced our Russian. We went through the Communist Party museums. We met Soviet Army officers and had dinner with them. We were taken around by a guide to all the museums, all the time arguing about communism and capitalism, so it was a real challenging experience. After that, I realized my heart wasn’t in theoretical physics. It didn’t make sense to me being an army officer, trying to protect the country and being a theoretical physicist. I should concentrate on international affairs and more practical matters. I switched my area of concentration at West Point after that trip.
Was it hard in 1964 to get into Russia?
You had to go in as an official tourist, which meant you had to hire a guide. There were no unguided tours in Russia. Guides were all translators who spoke English, who were teachers and so forth. They were Communist Party functionaries. Their job was to spy on you. We were given a CIA briefing before we went in. We were told to watch out for being trapped by prostitutes and money changers and people trying to buy our blue jeans and other things like that. So we were careful not to get involved in anything like that. It was still a challenging environment. While we were there, the U.S. bombed North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. With all the outcry in the world press there, we were trying to defend U.S. action against our Soviet friends.
Did you ever have a rebellious stage in your life?
Yes. I had a couple of difficult semesters at West Point.
What did you do to rebel?
Tiny, little things. (Laughs.) Like keeping a gerbil in my room when it was forbidden. Not taking my laundry out and folding it. At one point, the prescription I was wearing for eyeglasses came back and they had reversed the lenses. My right eye was weaker than the left eye, but the prescription was stronger for the left eye. So I wore my eyeglass upside down for maybe a week or so before I got the prescription fixed, which in uniform at West Point was pretty outrageous. I didn’t do that during plebe year. I couldn’t get away with that during plebe year. I did it later.
At Oxford, what lessons did you come away with from being a Rhodes Scholar?
The lessons there were more subtle. It was about diversity, dealing with people of different backgrounds. To be successful in life you have to have a purpose and you have to have discipline to work for it. Oxford was a proving ground for that, in the sense that it was pretty much the opposite of the West Point environment which was structured and goal-oriented. Oxford was an environment in which everything was pretty open and casual. You could do pretty much what you wanted, so the structure and discipline you brought to it was what came from your heart, your focus.
Did you feel any obligation after being a Rhodes Scholar to do even more than what you set out to do?
It was all pretty much part of what I was doing in the Army. After I got out of Oxford, I served in combat in Vietnam. Then I taught at West Point and helped other aspiring young men try to win Rhodes Scholarships.
What are three things you like about what you do right now?
I like the broad array of businesses, the intellectual challenge. I like the relationships. I like the opportunity to play for significant achievement. It is the opportunity to do something meaningful. It is not only interesting and exciting and full of interesting people, but it is also doing something worthwhile.
What are you are most proud of?
My son and grandchildren. Family, in general. I’m proud of the contribution I’ve made in the United States Army, the people I’ve worked with, and again the Army–what it stood for. I’m proud of having been an Army officer. I’m proud of what I was able to do as the NATO commander to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
What advice would you give to a young person about developing their character?
It’s a function really of what age of person we’re talking about, because by the time someone is in late high school their character is already there. They are either going to achieve and do great things. They are in AP courses. They are in sports. They are in student government or leadership. They are responsible, or they aren’t. While there are always late bloomers, the majority of people’s identities are pretty well determined by that point. In my experience, in sixth through ninth grade is about where people’s character gels. And there, it’s a matter of trying to get young people to look outside their home and family, to see broader issues, to get involved in something outside their own lives, and to help them broaden their horizons.
What values would you instill in a child today?
Love for family and community. I would instill respect for others who may be different, people of different backgrounds, cultures and temperaments. I would instill a lifelong love of learning and an excitement of facing and overcoming challenges.
Let’s expand on that. What would you advise someone of any age about creating a meaningful life?
The meaning is the meaning that you put into it. It’s a function of your own propensities and determination. You have to give meaning to life, because it doesn’t give meaning to you. You have to accept it as your responsibility to add that meaning. You have to take what life has to offer. You have to be resilient enough to accept setbacks and challenges and strong enough to persevere and chart your own course and then give to others through contribution, service, and love.
A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor and Country by Wesley K. Clark and Tom Carhart
Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat by Wesley K. Clark
Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire by Wesley K. Clark
A Hand to Guide Me: Legends and Leaders Celebrate the People Who Shaped Their Lives by Denzel Washington