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News | June 13, 2016

Faces of Defense Intelligence: Lt. Gen. Alva R. Fitch

By Greg Elder

Editor’s note: The Faces of Defense Intelligence series is intended to highlight the accomplishments of former military and civilian intelligence personnel who exemplified the Defense Intelligence Agency creed Excellence in Defense of the Nation. DIA would like to thank the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame at the US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, for providing research materials on Lt. Gen. Alva Fitch that made this article feasible. For further information on the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame please visit their website.

 During a lifetime demonstrating the hallmarks of a servant leader, Lt. Gen. Alva Fitch became the first Eagle Scout in the state of Nebraska, won the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, Grand Officier de L’Ordre Grand-Ducal de la Couronne de Chene of Luxembourg, Orden de Vasco Nunez de Balboa of Panama, and was a distinguished member and selectee to the first Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame class. A 1930 graduate of the United States Military Academy, Fitch attended and taught at the Command and Staff General College, and completed instruction at both the Army War College and Strategic Intelligence School. He survived capture by the Japanese in the Philippines and the rigors of the Bataan Death March, the sinking of two Japanese prisoner-of-war ships while a passenger, and was one of 350 survivors of 1,619 men at his prisoner-of-war camp; following World War II, he spent nearly two years on medical leave recovering from issues arising from his time as a prisoner-of-war. A commander of Elvis Presley and Colin Powell, he also served as an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. Leslie McNair and regularly worked alongside numerous historical figures such as Gen. Curtis LeMay, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Eisenhower. He also participated, as a soldier and senior leader, in some of the most trying and momentous periods in U.S. history.

At his memorial service in 1989, it was noted that, “He played the hand he had been dealt with style. There was never any doubt that his job and the men came first.” Lt. Gen. Alva Fitch embodied excellence in defense of the nation.   

Fitch began his intelligence career after attending the Strategic Intelligence School before serving as the military attaché and ambassador to El Salvador in 1948. After a fellow attaché was discharged from his position in Guatemala, Fitch took over most military duties for Central America. Although a short rotation, he represented the U.S. through revolutions and attempted coups in several countries. Following his attaché service, he worked as the Chief of the Latin American Section of the Department of the Army Intelligence (G2) prior to the Korean War. Upon the outbreak of the war, Fitch deployed to Korea as the executive officer of the IX Corps artillery and took part in the Battles of White Horse Mountain, Triangle Hill and 1953 Chinese offensive.

After tours in Korea and Europe, Fitch established his mark on intelligence when filling the positions of deputy and assistant chief of staff, intelligence (ACSI), for the Army from 1959 through January 1964. During this time, Fitch managed Army intelligence requirements and collection activities through a critical period of the Cold War, which included the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cuban Missile Crisis, Checkpoint Charlie flare-up, construction of the Berlin Wall and the escalating conflict in Vietnam. Fitch emphasized the need for additional aerial collection, increasing the Army’s airborne collection assets, realigned human intelligence resources to address the loss of refugee-related intelligence collected upon construction of the Berlin Wall, and merged intelligence and counterintelligence field operations to exploit collection opportunities.

Fitch had long complained the Army had no career intelligence field and was staffed predominantly by reservists or individuals on rotation from other fields, which meant the Army consistently lost its most experienced and capable officers just when they were most able to contribute. As the ACSI in 1961, he finally had the seniority to establish the Intelligence and Security Branch under General Order 38, which, for the first time in U.S. history, established intelligence as a military career field. Fitch’s effort led to the creation of recruitment standards and professionalization of intelligence, yielding better collection, analysis and warfighter support.

“[I]ntelligence went from being the Army's orphaned stepchild to becoming a branch of considerable importance,” Fitch said during a 1984 interview. “And, it is a branch that commands a good quality of officer. When the Intelligence Branch was new, I was invited up to West Point to explain it to the first or senior class. The first class is the one that would graduate that year. And, I did a good job. In fact, I did too good of a job; they would never let me come back. But, that year the intelligence vacancies were the first ones filled by the first classmen. The first man in the class gets his choice of branch and then so on, down the line, with the seniors filling vacancies as they go. This was a blow to the Engineer Corps which in the past had always been filled first. We've got good men in the Intelligence Branch, now.”

 Fitch transformed Army intelligence and, despite some opposition, made his initial mark on the creation of DIA. When holding the deputy ASCI position, the vice chief of staff of the Army tasked Fitch to write a paper for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to establish an agency intended to consolidate many of the roles spread across the service, to provide a unified Department of Defense (DoD) position and contact, and increase information sharing.

“The paper got to the Joint Staff and I was called up to defend it, and I defended it,” Fitch said. “Curtis LeMay was vice chief of air staff at that time; he may have been the chief, I have forgotten now which he was. Anyhow, he wholeheartedly bought my story. He said, ‘That's great. Why are we troubled with this?’ His staff got ahold of him afterwards and made him eat his words. They took my paper, but they modified it to give collection and evaluation to DIA.”

 At the completion of his time as the ACSI, Fitch was slated to move to CIA as the chief military liaison, but McNamara thought such a respected officer should stay in the DoD, so Fitch was assigned to be the second DIA deputy director beginning in January 1964. During his time at DIA, China tested its first three atomic weapons, the U.S. invaded the Dominican Republic, India and Pakistan fought a major conflict, and the U.S. commitment in Vietnam multiplied following the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In some cases, such as the threat in Vietnam, Fitch and his representation of DIA analysis in this period was instrumental in decision-making at the national level.

“By the spring of 1964, it had reached the point that the only way you could go from one city to another was by air,” Fitch said. “John McCone was director of the CIA at the time, and I was the deputy director of DIA and the acting director, since the director was off in Asia someplace. We looked at the Vietnam situation in some detail. We decided that the situation was a lot worse than was generally recognized…We formally estimated that unless something was done, it was only a matter of weeks until our position would become untenable. Well, this hit the Joint Chiefs of Staff just like turning a fire hose on them. They called me in and worked me over. ‘Look at this body count. Look at all the weapons we've been capturing,’ I said. ‘And look how you go from one place to another. How much of the land do you control? How much of a perimeter around these cities have you got? How much food do you get into the cities without paying a tax to the Viet Cong?’ They kept me up there in the "tank" for two days, grilling me on this estimate before they finally accepted it. I think that led to a great expansion of our forces in Vietnam. Maybe it would have been better if we just had gotten the hell out at the time, just write it off. But, there's no way you could do that as far as I could see.”

As the deputy director, Fitch also assisted in the development of DIA, often hindered by those who objected to its formation. With fewer than 3,000 employees, the agency was inundated with expanding intelligence requirements and missions. In April 1964, DIA assumed joint management with the National Security Agency for the DoD Special Missile and Astronautics Center (later known as DEFSMAC) to collect and disseminate intelligence on space and missile activities. Then, in March 1965, DIA took over responsibility for the Defense Attaché System, consolidating the activities from the military services and designed to provide an efficient system for collection of information and improved sharing. DIA also, to address an analytic shortfall, established the Technical Intelligence Directorate, and formed a joint DIA-CIA working group to address the threat of Soviet military forces. Fitch proved instrumental in transitioning DIA from a fledgling intelligence organization to a national-level agency committed to Excellence in Defense of the Nation. 



Cullum No. 8879 . Nov 25, 1989. "Memorial for LTG Alva R. Fitch". Interred in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA.

 Finnigan, John Patrick and Romana Danysh, Army Lineage Series: Military Intelligence.  Center of Military History, United States Army. Washington, DC. 1988. 588 pages. 

“Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame Biography: Lieutenant General Alva R. Fitch, US Army (Deceased).”

Petersen, Michael B. The Vietnam Cauldron: Defense Intelligence in the War for Southeast Asia.  Defense Intelligence Historical Perspectives, Number 2. Defense Intelligence Agency: Washington, DC. 2012.  60 pages.

PROJECT 84-7 Volume I: ALVA R. FITCH, Lieutenant General, USA Retired. Interviewed by Harold R. Kough, Lieutenant Colonel, USA 1984. 145 pages.

PROJECT 84-7 Volume II: ALVA R. FITCH, Lieutenant General, USA Retired. Interviewed by Harold R. Kough, Lieutenant Colonel, USA 1984. 188 pages.