The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project Information Series.

Author:Jackson, Richard
Position:Eyewitness Oral History - John Whitehead - Interview

Fall 2017



Born in Evanston, Illinois; raised in New Jersey Haverford College; Harvard Business School U.S. Navy, WWII

Goldman Sachs Company Partner

State Department - Deputy Secretary of State President Reagan meeting

Decision to accept appointment Essex Fells, New Jersey Congressional hearing

Achille Lauro incident

Italian President Craxi and G7 Summit meeting Tunisia visit

President Bourguiba

Iran situation testimony

Mike Armacost

Media problems

Eastern Europe responsibilities Eastern

Europe mission

Lech Walesa

General Jaruzelski

Eastern Europe's Soviet relations

Gorbachev and Reagan Shevardnadze visit

Bulgaria visit

Todor Zhivkov

Romania visit


Romanian environment Relations with other agencies Reagan and the Philippines

1947-1985 1985-1989

National Security Council meetings Shultz's operating style

Views on State Department

Using Department and Foreign Service officer personnel

Old fashioned practices and rules

Recruiting policies

Political appointees

Staffing of Deputy Secretary's Office

Selecting ambassadors

Women and minorities in State

Department and Foreign Service

Lobbying groups

Staff meetings

Intelligence briefings (INR, NSA, CIA)

Public information

Typical workday Meeting

Social activities Intense workload

Physical fitness

Issues - U.S. attack on Libya

President's inter-agency meeting

Operational problems

Results of bombing


Qadhafi impressed

Sanctions on Libya

Meeting with Prime Minister Thatcher

British petroleum and Libyan oil

International lukewarm attitude

Views on Success James Baker

John Whitehead

Richard Jackson


Q: Mr. Whitehead, you were born in Evanston, Illinois, and as you grew up there, how much was foreign affairs on your mind, and in your environment?

WHITEHEAD: Well I have to state directly that I was born in Evanston, Illinois, but at the age of one and a half my parents moved to New Jersey, so only when it is convenient for me to describe myself as a middle westerner do I take advantage of my place of birth. But mostly I grew up in New Jersey. But I would say that my childhood background bears little evidence that I was going to spend a part of my career in dealing with the problems of the State Department. I did grow up in New Jersey. I would say in a normal family environment, it was in the depression. I was born in 1922, so by the time I was ten years old the country was embedded in the depression and, I know that my father was unemployed for two years during that period and the family really suffered from that depression. I had to become independent and make my own way in life at an earlier age than would be true of later generations and the memory of that depression, that period we lived through, affected my life. Skipping over lightly my high school days and my childhood, I went off in 1939 to Haverford College, a small college outside of Philadelphia, where I spent four very happy years. It also influenced my life considerably. Haverford was started by Quakers back a long time ago and the Quaker influence, respect for what we now call human rights and responsibility of people for each other and for listening to the views of others, is surely an influence that was very important to my life and influenced my attitudes later on when I was involved with the diplomatic world. I then served...

Q: Were your studies focused on international affairs?

WHITEHEAD: No. No, not really, I majored in economics, and I can't say, although certainly I learned something about the world's history and various things that had to do with international affairs, but there was no special interest on my part or concentration on international affairs during those years.

Q: And you came out of Haverford right into a world war.

WHITEHEAD: I did. When my class, which was the class of 1943 at Haverford, when we were well into our college courses, World War II was upon us. We all were concerned in the last year or two of our college education whether we would be able to get through without going into the service and a number of my classmates did go into the service before graduation, but the whole class accelerated our education. Studied all through the summer of 1942 and graduated in January 1943 instead of in June and then almost 100% of us went into some branch or other of the services. On to a period of about three years in which I was in the U.S. Navy. I found the program in which I entered as an ensign without any training and certainly without any knowledge of the navy or anything to do with the work there, and I was assigned to a ship, the USS Thomas Jefferson, an amphibious warfare ship whose responsibility was to unload small boats filled with troops and to make invasions with those small boats on enemy coast lines, and I spent two years of my three years of naval service in that activity and was involved with the invasions of Normandy and Southern France and then, when the ship went to the Pacific, the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. It was long periods of boredom interspersed with occasional moments of great activity during the invasions. The ship was a very active participant, and I had an assignment to land troops as a first wave of the Normandy invasion which is a memory I will not soon forget and I guess that was the first time that I had ever been involved in any kind of international activity. The only time, the first time that I had in my life been outside the United States. There I was training in Scotland for about six months before the invasion and then making the invasion in June of 1944 across the Channel. So that period of about two years as a young officer on that ship was an important influence in my life. As I look back, it has always been an influence. The horrors of warfare were there for me to see. I felt that something had to be found that would prevent the same thing from happening again, and I think those two years out of my life represented an important part of molding myself for my various later careers.

At the end of my two years of sea duty, I was permitted to choose what shore duty I wanted. I didn't have enough points to be released from the navy so I had to serve a period of shore duty which turned out to be about a year of additional service. Because I had planned on being a college teacher and a college administrator when I graduated from Haverford, I chose to be an instructor at the navy supply course school teaching navy accounting and finance to young ensigns. I had gone through that course myself and it was located at the Harvard Business School which had been taken over by the navy during World War II, and so I became a young member of the faculty at the Harvard Business School and taught navy courses for a year. The poor young men, and they were all young men, not one woman ever in any of my classes, were there for six weeks to learn navy accounting and finance before they went out on their ships around the world, and they were subjected to six hours a day, five days a week for six weeks, of my being their only instructor teaching them this material. It certainly was good training in how to keep the attention of an audience for long periods of time and cram in a lot of dull material into young and open minds. It was an interesting period. While I was there, I was persuaded that I would not go back to Haverford to be the assistant director of admissions, a job which had been promised to me by the then director of admissions when I graduated and which I thought all during my sea duty I would take. I was persuaded that I would not be very happy with that kind of career and that I should go to the Harvard Business School as a student.

And that's what I decided to do, so in 1946 I completed my naval service, terminated myself from the faculty of the Harvard Business School and became a student at the Harvard Business School and went through a two year, Master of Business Administration course at Harvard. Another part of my life was very important for me in my career because now for the first time I was exposed to the skills of talented young men, still not a single woman in my class at Harvard Business School in 1946, the beginning of 1946, not because there was a prejudice against it, but because women didn't apply and business was not considered an appropriate school for women to go to. Times have changed considerably at that school and everywhere else since then. I graduated from Harvard Business School in November, 1947 and I took my first job at Goldman, Sachs and Company, the investment banking firm, and began a 37-year career as an active employee of Goldman, Sachs and Company. We were very small, that firm in those days, and it became much larger and more relatively important during those 37 years, and I'll skip quickly over that period.

Q: But you rose through the ranks to senior partner?

WHITEHEAD: I rose through the ranks.

Q: Cochairman?

WHITEHEAD: Yes, I started in 1947, became a partner in 1956. Rose up the ranks through the investment banking side of the business, became the senior partner and cochairman in 1976, and in 1984 I decided, having been chairman for about ten years, decided that it was time, I was 62, and decided it was time for me to retire as cochairman, and I became a limited partner.

Q: But now in those years, or maybe later you've been a part of many international organizations. The UN Association, Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, International Rescue Committee, did those attachments begin early on or develop over that period of forty years?

WHITEHEAD: Some of them did, yes. Of course in my professional capacity at Goldman Sachs; Goldman Sachs during those years, went from being a very much domestic investment banking firm to becoming a truly international investment banking firm, and I pushed that objective for Goldman Sachs, particularly during the years when I was a chairman feeling that investment banking firms of the future would have to be...

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