Wanting to live up to a family tradition of service and soldiering, Charles U. Daly joined the US Marine Corps. What he thought would be an adventure turned out to be much more than that.
When he came back from the Korean war, decorated, wounded, and traumatized, wondering what was next, his quest for a new mission took him to the White House, where he worked with John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, as well as through a South African township devastated by the AIDS epidemic and so much more.
Chuck’s life story is true and it’s a testament for living up to Kennedy’s challenge to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. At every juncture, Chuck had two options. Make peace or die.
Chuck chose to make peace with fate every time, and that decision led him to a remarkable life of service. It has now become the title of his new book about his life story. Chuck is also the last living member of John F. Kennedy’s West Wing congressional liaison staff and before that, he led a Marine rifle platoon through some of the most intense combat of the Korean war and was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
He helped run several American institutions, including the University of Chicago, Harvard, and the JFK Presidential Library. In today’s episode, Chuck is joined by his son Charlie, who helped turn Chuck’s writings and memories throughout the years into a cohesive, remarkable, moving book, which I highly recommend.
Now please be advised that Chuck opens up some of his war experiences, and this episode may not be suitable for every listener. With all of that said, I bring you, Chuck and Charlie Daly.
Miles Rote: Hey everyone, my name is Miles Rote and I’m excited to be here today with Chuck Daly, author of Make Peace or Die: A Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares. We’re also joined by his son Charlie. This is our first father and son duo on the Author Hour podcast and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. Welcome to both of you.
Chuck Daly: Thank you.
Charlie Daly: Good to be here.
Miles Rote: Yeah, Chuck, you have such a remarkable story and this book is a testament to that. I know writing it must have been hard, and I know that you had a lot of support from your son, but tell us what it was like writing this book and your desire to put it out into the world.
Chuck Daly: I’ll try to do that. I had bits and pieces of a life scattered through notes and thoughts but not a book. I wasn’t sure how best to express this without being conceited but it was an old poet in World War One who lost his son and so on, and he wrote, “When you can face triumph and disaster and keep those imposters just the same,” it’s one way to look at it, and that was helpful to try to accept what happened and not glamorize it, not make it a history book. Just the fact that I see it in my life, in hope that others will find it interesting.
The Reality of Combat
Miles Rote: Really telling it how it is as opposed to, as you mentioned, glamorizing it into something else. Why do you think that’s important? Is this something that you want the youth to read, or other people to read before they think about the military and what it’s like to be in combat?
Chuck Daly: I think there are several questions. What it’s like to be in combat is very difficult to describe, it’s an elementary fact that it is. Entering into combat, first, it is very hard to learn to kill someone. The Marine Corps can teach you how to kill, and teach you how to get over it, but that’s a bit of a struggle. The idea of not trying to write a history book, and writing the specific instances that occurred in my life, for example, one day, getting a medal for an action. Then later on when you work back through the dead, as you’re required to do, and look in the pockets of the man you killed, in that one pocket is a photograph of a young woman and a baby. I think you can’t get over it.
Miles Rote: Thank you for sharing that. I think that really has to do with those undying memories that you talk about in your book and the nightmares that are in the title. I think, piecing this together and these moments as you’ve expressed and writing these throughout time and then bringing this together into a book to share, and share moments like that, I think is really important as much as it is difficult.
Chuck Daly: There was a movie called M.A.S.H on the television regularly, a very joyful thing and nurses and doctors and so on. It was a serious and very interesting one and quite good. Having gone through the experience after being shot, the place that I was treated was called meatball surgery and it was just about like that, get a man out of there alive and chop them up and fix them up as best you can and move on to the next player.
Miles Rote: Wow, yeah, when you were shot, I know that you’d even asked the doctor, about losing your arm potentially, and he said–what was the line he said? Something to the effect of, we’ll wait and see.
Chuck Daly: First of all, I was happy to survive the initial moments, but then I also thought of my wife and a son I’d never seen and that I didn’t want to go home outside, so I said, “Please don’t take it all,” and he said, “You know, we’ll just wait for it to fall off.”
Miles Rote: Wow. What was that like after being shot and returning home to your wife and meeting your son for the first time?
Chuck Daly: The long trip home was several stops in Japan to get fixed up and then in Hawaii, et cetera. And flying in an ambulance plane of being three tiers high with the stretchers. We landed outside of Washington DC at Andrews Air Force base and they helped get me out of my stretcher and to the top of the steps. I looked down and I saw my wife and the baby. I didn’t embrace them, I had a heavy cast and the nurses said, “Be careful with the cast and the baby.”
I said, “Hey, there are plenty more where that came from,” and all of us laughed and cried.
Miles Rote: What was it like being back home after facing such a terrible time abroad and settling back into life in the United States? With people living their normal civilian lives and having really no idea what it’s like over there. What was that like, trying to adjust?
Chuck Daly: Well, I was in the hospital for just over a year trying to keep the arm attached. That was a rather sheltered atmosphere, and then when you go outside, I don’t think anyone really noticed. I know when I was able to be gone overnight, my wife and I went to dinner and people thought I had been in a boating accident, which I had been nearby in Virginia, the wreckage was off the boat, not from a bullet. Which was alright, I was happy to be out.
Miles Rote: Right.
Chuck Daly: It was bittersweet.
The Day the White House Called
Miles Rote: Well, the adventure didn’t stop there. Even after that, it wasn’t long before you found your way to the White House, sitting with powerful Congressmen and Senators and even John F. Kennedy. Tell us about that path from the hospital to the White House?
Chuck Daly: I went back to an old job I had and I went down to Central American, and some other places with shipments of industrial molasses. I got to be 30 and it was kind of boring, so I quit that and decided to try to be a writer since I had a pension. I tried that, and it was all right. Then I took six months off with my wife and now two babies in Europe, and sold a couple of stories to magazines about that time. I heard about a fellowship in Washington, which paid for one half of a congressional session on the house side and the other on the Senate side. Those days, the congressmen had a very small staff, and the idea of getting a person who knew what he was doing was very good.
I hooked on with Stewart Udall who was a member of the house, and who later became Secretary of the Interior Department, which covered a whole variety of things. The other side was Kennedy who was a Senator and his sole interest at that time was becoming president.
I got to do odds and ends for him and then he got elected and I was not at home and I said that there were too many weaving spiders here for me, and we’re out of here. Because of my wounds, I can get free transportation on military planes and ships, so I got a couple of rooms on a ship outbound from the Brooklyn Navy yard and went to Europe. We stayed there and I did some writing.
Then I got a job as a writer, first for Stanford University. One day the phone rang while I was in the shower, and my wife said, “The White House is trying to call you.”
“Yeah? Is that right?” I said, “Was the number 456-1414? The callback number?” She said yes. I figured someone was having a good time but it wasn’t to be. When I answered it, they said that they needed to expand the liberal side of congressional relations between the White House and the members of the house.
He said, “We’d like you to come work here.” I talked to my wife and then I said, “I’ll tell you in the morning.” The next morning, we decided we would give it a try and I’ll get a free plane ride, which I could do, it’s a military plane out of California to Tennessee. And then we got a bus and went up to Washington. We went to the executive office building. The guy said, “You’re not on the list. I said, “Well that’s easy, call because we need to get in here.” I figured that was just some kind of bullshit or extra check-in, in order for us to get into the White House itself, which is on the side of the block.
The guard goes in there and then they said, “They are looking for you.” So, I got up to the West Wing of the White House, and to my astonishment, that’s where I was.
Miles Rote: That’s such a journey. Then you found yourself in a suit surrounded by these folks and having these kinds of conversations. What was that like for you, was that something that you felt proud of, did it feel strange, was it exciting, what was that like?
Chuck Daly: It was interesting, there was not particularly any intimidation but as it went on, I was more interested in individual members, what I could do for them, and what they had not been doing for Kennedy, or if they could do more for him. It was interesting, exciting, and in some cases, frustrating when they would not vote the way he wanted them to vote and they would have to be reminded, that we’re not emperors because we’re in the White House.
They are members of the Congress and they have to be reelected, and we don’t have a vote to reelect him, so they better relax and learn how to work with the Congress.
John F. Kennedy
Miles Rote: What was it like working with John F. Kennedy as far as him as being a man and someone you respected?
Chuck Daly: Well, I hadn’t, and wasn’t certain about the Kennedy’s because the old Joe Kennedy at one point felt the Germans were going to win so he was not popular. But Kennedy himself became his own man, they were blunt and good. I didn’t see him much as people would imagine, but every Tuesday, he would meet with the head of the staff and then after that, come out and Brian would report to us, what’s been going on.
Miles Rote: And then, of course, John F. Kennedy was shot, and you were actually at the White House during that time when you found out, is that right?
Chuck Daly: I was having lunch in the White House mess, which is the place for senior members down in the basement of the White House. It was 1:30 in the afternoon.
Miles Rote: Wow, what was that like hearing that, what was the response within the White House?
Chuck Daly: At that time, the only news we had was the first click over the wire, someone came into luncheon, and very quietly said to those of us in the particular staff corner of the White House mess, that he had been shot. I went back up to my office and waited for what else was going on. I called my wife and I said, “Kennedy has been shot and I’m still here.” She said, “I think he was shot in the head.” A few minutes later, I went down to the press office and was there when the news came. That was that.
Miles Rote: Wow.
Chuck Daly: It wasn’t quite all that, because the same bits and pieces of information and reading about them and so on. The following morning, congressional mail applied to my area and it was delivered as usual, except for one letter. That letter was, “Dear Mr. President.” I read it and this guy must have written it before the blood congealed in Dallas, and was just reminded us that he had been for Johnson and not for Kennedy at the convention.
Other than that, there was a lot of sympathy.
Miles Rote: Yeah, I’m sure, and that continuing for you too, and then you started to work with Bobby Kennedy.
Chuck Daly: I never worked with him, I knew him well. I worked with Johnson, he asked me to stay through the end of the unfinished business of the sitting Congress. He was ultra-kind to all of the Kennedy staff, and it was awful.
Miles Rote: It such a story. For everyone listening, I want you to know that in the book, there is such detail, from the wards to the White House. It is really fascinating to read and heartbreaking at times and revealing and inspirational in different ways. And, of course, such a unique insight perspective to this time and what went on.
When we first opened this conversation about how this book came about, over the years you were a writer of course, but you had just been taking notes and writing down ideas and different feelings throughout the whole experience, and then you were there with a big pile of all of these things. How did that turn into a book? I know that your son Charlie had a lot to do with that as well.
Chuck Daly: I had not intended to write a book. I had bits and pieces of notes, for example when Johnson became president and I thought his conduct was so frightful regarding warfare. I kept some four-by-six cards because I had to keep pretending to take notes so people would believe all of this. Then I realized that I was talking to the President and the Commander in Chief when I was making those notes and that some kids are going to be killed in the continuing war, and if people knew what I knew about Johnson and their sons got killed, it would be very difficult for them.
So, I boxed up the four-by-six cards and put them away and forgot about them.
Then, later on, the book developed a little bit. Charlie tried to say to me and as did Christine and my wife, Mary at that time, that plenty of time had passed and it was time to consider the book. I said that I didn’t want to do it. But then Charlie said, “I can help,” and from that moment we put the book together.
It was somewhat difficult when we got to the particulars, but it was not trying to be a history book. I was trying to be about the experiences of one person, and it may or may not be useful for others. Charlie, could you talk about that a little bit?
Charlie Daly: Yes, so we started with, like my father said, a pile of material, notes he had been taking. My job getting to work on this was to start seeing how we could turn that into a book. There is something I learned from Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, and he actually was kind enough to blurb this book, which is a whole other story, but he has something called the fool’s cap method. He believes that any book, the outline can fit on a single yellow legal page of lined paper. That is what we did.
We sort of broke down the events of my father’s life because as you can hear, he has lived a very full life with a lot of different episodes and twists and turns. We needed to make that fit into a coherent whole and we did that with that structure in mind. Then we looked at a life of war and its aftermath and trying to live a useful life after war has changed your sense of what that would even mean. I noticed in the original pages he gave me, it was as if the descriptions of Korea were in high definition and then everything else was black and white and there was less of it.
There were hundreds of pages about Korea and I think working in the Kennedy administration, in the first draft, was like 10 pages or something. So, we sat down and we talked about all of it and I took notes. We are talking hours and hours of conversations. The war stuff was hard, going back over that. There were days when we would talk for 10 minutes and he would say, all right, that is enough. He would go for a walk and I wouldn’t see him for the rest of the day.
Then there were other times when we’d go out and get breakfast or something, and he would just start telling me a story of when they were under fire and he would be talking faster than I could write. It was very rare that there was a comfortable middle ground, but we got through the war. In the other chapters in his life, especially the ones where a lot of people are still with us who have known him, I interviewed everybody I could get in touch with and we ended up with a thousand pages of interview notes.
Some really amazing people came out of the woodwork. I got in touch with a man up in Canada who is a sapper in the Canadian Army and runs the legion hall in this town in Alberta. We had some information on this man, who was in my dad’s platoon. He was Canadian, and he was killed. This guy up in Canada, Kyle, had some of the other pieces about his life.
What I am really proud of in this piece of research is through that, we brought all of that information together and now they have put together a small memorial at the Legion Hall for this guy. They have the whole story about this guy who left town one day and then came home in a casket with an American Flag.
Chuck Daly: His name was David Ivans and he was standing beside me, my radio and who was beside me also, then there was a burst of machine gun fire, and it killed them both.
Miles Rote: Oh god, I’m sorry.
Charlie Daly: We were about halfway through the entire project, just by total coincidence, my parents were cleaning out their basement. My mom was going through old family photos and that sort of thing, and she found a box, and in the box were these four-by-six cards that my dad described. We knew that these existed, and we assumed that they were lost to history. After we had already written the chapter about the Johnson administration and my father’s time there, we found these note cards that were his notes. It started with an account of what it was like in the White House immediately following the assassination, and then it basically became a catalog of Johnson’s behavior and how different those two men were as presidents and as leaders.
There is a line in there that was really striking where he said he used to sit in his office when Kennedy was still alive and know that it will all be over someday and he would move on to some other job and he didn’t want it to end. Then in the same office working for President Johnson, he would watch the clock and just wait until his last day in the White House.
Snapshots of History
Miles Rote: Wow that is such an incredible snapshot of history from the inside to being in those rooms and in those places.
Chuck Daly: They were all going obviously by when I was getting out of there. You know, Johnson wanted to keep me around. So, he called me, and he said, “You know that my airplane is Air Force One and it is going out to California to pick him up and it would be empty. Would the boys like to go home in Air Force One?” I said, “I thought so. I’ll let them know.” I told the boys to go out there and they were thrilled. I also told him that they had to come back by Greyhound bus because this is not the way we’re going to be living. So, they had adventures in both directions.
Charlie Daly: Those are my older brothers, Michael and Douglas. It is probably worth mentioning that I am 31 years old and when I tell people my father was in the Korean War, I get these really strange looks sometimes. People will say, “I think you mean Vietnam or maybe the Gulf War,” and then when I tell them that my grandfather was in the First World War in the British Army, they get very confused.
Above all, this project to me, even if it had remained a journal that nobody outside our family was going to read, this has been a once-in-a-lifetime project to work with my father on this. To have conversations we never would have had. To ask him things I never would have asked him, and if there is one thing I learned by doing this project it is that everyone should do this if you know someone who has lived through some interesting times or has some great stories. You never know the reason somebody doesn’t talk about their past or their experiences. If they think you’d be interested and starting that conversation, you never know where it will lead.
I can’t even describe what this has meant to me to be a part of this. There is an author I really admire whose book we reference in our book, Karl Marlantes, who is a Vietnam vet. He dedicated one of his books to my children who grew up with the good and bad of having a Marine combat veteran as a father and I think that description is pretty right on.
Miles Rote: You know Chuck, I want to say thank you again for having these hard conversations with your son and sitting down to create something like this that can live on, that can inspire others, that can educate people about the truth and the reality of these things, and not the glamorized version of them. I think it is so important. I think from the movies and even books, it can really be glamorized, and people lose the realness of how messed up this can be. How terrible it can be and how nightmarish.
You really take the time to dive back into that history, it really helps the future. I can imagine how it must have brought you two so much closer.
Chuck Daly: We got some good advice from a friend of mine long ago who had said he was struggling with a book. He said, “If you can’t write the truth, don’t write the book,” so we did the best we could do.
Miles Rote: You can see it throughout, and I highly recommend everyone check it out. It is such a moving tale. As Charlie was mentioning, it is beyond even what we have talked about today. There is so much more even from Chuck’s childhood and how he came to America. I highly recommend it.
Before we end this podcast, there is another thing that I wanted to ask you, Chuck, make peace or die is a powerful statement that you use in the book.
And not only is it the title but it is also the motto of the First Battalion 5th Marines. Tell us what this phrase means to you and how it guided you throughout this journey?
Chuck Daly: Well, it was probably earlier than that. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was killed as an infantry officer in World War One, believe it or not. My father’s brother was killed as an infantry officer in world war one and I don’t think that they chose to die but they chose to serve.
Miles Rote: Well Chuck, if people could take away one or two things from reading your book after you’ve poured your heart and soul putting this out there, if people could take away one or two things from it what would it be?
Chuck Daly: I think that’s up to each of them. I found that saying who needs to have a lift with this specifically, I can’t tell, I just hope that whoever spends the time to read this that it is something that they found useful. Even if it is something they disagree with but something that they may think about their own lives and what they can do to strengthen and be happier and be more useful.
Miles Rote: Thank you, yeah I think that is the best answer you could give and I think you’re right. I think for each person it is going to be their own experience with this book. It is such an honor talking to you both and learning about all of this. Reading the book, honestly as a former Marine as well, it is even more inspiring and hits home in a lot of ways. I also lost some people in the Marines and this matters a lot and thank you again for putting this out there.
Chuck and Charlie, if people wanted to learn more about what you are up to now and things that you guys are doing, where can they find more information?
Charlie Daly: Well, one place to start is on Jocko Podcast episode 196, an early version of the manuscript was featured on there, along with an extensive interview with my dad and that was pretty powerful stuff. It is funny. Dad, do you want to tell them a little bit about your recent experiences of podcast fame?
Chuck Daly: There are two people, one was from a restaurant here. He asked, “Are you Chuck Daly?” I said, “Yeah, who are you?” He said, “I listen to this podcast and I can tell your voice.” Jesus, I know I mumble. Then I got a knock on the front door here and there is a policeman outside and he said, “Can I come in?” I said, “Yes.” I was not enthusiastic, but I let him in and said, “What about?” he said, “Well, I just wanted to tell you that I listened to this program, this Jocko Program and I am a deputy chief of police in this side of town where we live. I wanted you to know that we use that material you had in some of our training of police officers.” He is a very nice fellow and I hope that is the only reason he has to come to my door.
Charlie Daly: Well the book now has a website. It is makepeaceordie.com and I am on Twitter @dalyprose. We are going to be posting updates about the book and I think at some point, my dad is going to do some kind of an “ask me anything.”
Miles Rote: That’s great. So, everyone, check out the website and if you want to buy the book again it is called, Make Peace or Die: A Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares. You can also find it on Amazon in addition to the website. Thank you both so much. Chuck, I know you are just going to continue to inspire people including police chiefs and everyone that reads the book. Thank you again for putting this out there and both of you for joining me on this podcast today.
Chuck Daly: Thank you.