Retired Lt. Col. William R. Corson -- author, teacher, spy, combat Marine and special assistant to presidents from Eisenhower through Johnson -- died at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda yesterday morning of pulmonary disease aggravated by lung cancer. He was 74.
Colonel Corson, who joined the Marines as a 17-year-old high school dropout during World War II, was the first commanding officer of the military's "Combined Action Program" in Vietnam. The project teamed Marines with South Vietnamese soldiers in an effort to recover countryside lost to the Communists.
After 25 years in the military, his career came to an end in 1967 with the impending publication of "The Betrayal."
In the book, published by Norton, Colonel Corson blamed various U.S. government agencies, as well as South Vietnamese corporate greed, for the tragedy of Vietnam.
According to friends and family, he was threatened with a court-martial if he published the indictment of America's involvement in Vietnam, and chose to retire.
"He was one of only two professional officers that publicly protested the stupidity and political shenanigans that were causing our efforts in Vietnam [to fail]," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Roger G. Charles, one of Colonel Corson's students at the Naval Academy during the mid-1960s. "He said he wrote the book because he owed it to the young men that died under his command."
Born in Chicago, Colonel Corson was the only child of a World War I veteran.
"There was a tradition of service to the United States that went back to the Civil War," said his wife, the former Judith Crumlish, whom he married in 1967. "He was an intensely patriotic man."
After dropping out of high school, he won an academic scholarship to the University of Chicago and studied physics under Enrico Fermi. When World War II broke out, he left college to enlist, fought in the Far East and was discharged in 1945.
Returning from the war, Colonel Corson played minor league baseball, got married and returned to the University of Chicago, where he realized that his math skills were not strong enough to pursue a career in nuclear physics.
His first marriage ended in divorce.
After going into business briefly, he earned his bachelor's degree and then his master's degree in finance from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. He later earned his Ph.D in finance from American University. When the United States became involved in the Korean War, he re-enlisted and was sent to officers school.
His first trip to Vietnam for the government was as a military observer in 1954, when he began working on special projects for the White House.
"I don't think Bill thought [Vietnam] was a mistake all along, but he did believe that a lot of deception, lying and cheating cost us 60,000 kids," said Mrs. Corson.
"He was not in favor of a Communist take-over but he could see what was happening early on," added Mrs. Corson, who met her husband while she worked at the Pentagon.
After retiring, Colonel Corson taught at Howard University, the University of Miami and the Naval Academy, where he taught history, economics and international relations.
Fluent in Chinese, he once imported Mao Tse-tung's writings from mainland China for a popular Naval Academy course about guerrilla warfare.
Said Colonel Charles: "He was responsible for a good many [midshipmen] going into the Marine Corps. By his conduct and intellectual strength and personality -- he was a Renaissance man to a lot of us."
A fan of opera and a voracious reader, Colonel Corson enjoyed playing golf.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by five sons, Christopher Corson of Silver Spring, David Corson of Greenville, S.C., and Adam Corson, Zachary Corson and Andrew Corson, all of Potomac; and five grandchildren.
Plans for services were incomplete last night.