By Will Marshall
Times-Dispatch State Staff
REVA - Before he moved to Madison County to write, raise horses and work with handicapped children, Donn Grand Pre was a crack salesman in the world’s most profitable and lethal business.
He traveled from one international capital to another and, with the help of shadowy middlemen, routinely clinched deals worth anywhere from $300 million to $2.5 billion.
Euphemistically known as an “international negotiator,” Grand Pre actually was a weapons dealer for the world’s largest arms concern: the U.S. government.
In 10 years, Grand Pre and 14 colleagues sold weaponry worth $40 billion to $50 billion to “all comers” in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The job thrust Grand Pre, a product of the North Dakota plains, into a fiercely competitive world of power politics and intrigue. Payoffs were a matter of course and blackmail an occupational hazard.
THE PERVASIVE PATTERN of cynicism and corruption, sanctioned at the highest levels of government here and abroad, gradually infected Grand Pre. “I found myself fully capable of giving or taking a bribe,” he said.
Driven by ambition and beguiled by glamorous Women, he neglected his family in Arlington. But he did not escape a nagging sense of guilt, of collapsing integrity.
The feeling crystallized one day in 1976, when Grand Pre heard President Ford say after the second assassination attempt during his tenure that “something has gone wrong with our society.”
The statement prompted Grand Pre to take a look at himself, “it was probably the first time in my life I’d done much introspective thinking,” he explained. What he saw, was a “merchant of death,” the protagonist of his autobiographical book, “Confessions of an Arms Peddler.”
Shortly after the revelation, he retired to the property he had bought near Reva. There, against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he and his wife, Cella, raise horses and run a school for deaf and blind children. Their six children are visitors.
ONE, THADDEUS DANIEL, whom the Grand Pres adopted is deaf and blind. Known affectionately as the "tadpole he is the prime reason the Grand Pres started the National Association for Deaf-Blind Children. If Grand Pre’s book sells well (over 30,000 copies thus far) they will use the proceeds to open a year round school.
At 54, Grand Pre cuts a ruggedly handsome figure in pointed boots, an embroidered Western shirt and a cowboy hat. Bluff and genial, his Midwestern accent punctuates the rancher attire.
“Confessions” is a briskly written, if slightly melodramatic, account on the corrosive effect of power, sex and money on Grand Pre and his family.
“There’s definitely a religious aspect,” he continued, while noting that the book is published by a Christian-oriented firm in Texas.
HIS DISENCHANTMENT with the arms business, he said, was fueled by a private “reconfirmation of Christianity.” He prefers that phrase to the ‘born-again” label, which carries overtones of evangelical fervor.
From Grand Pre's story emerges a venturesome streak that stems from his boyhood on a North Dakota farm. Like many youths growing up during the Depression in relative isolation, he longed for a life of adventure in the larger world outside.
After graduating from college and serving a stint as editor of his hometown newspaper, he joined the Army as an infantryman in World War II. Later, he was a combat veteran in Korea.
Satisfying a longtime infatuation with flight, he taught himself to fly in his spare time.
After retiring from the Army as a colonel, Grand Pre took a “quasi-military” post at the Pentagon. In 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara handed him a plum: A chance to join the elite team of “negotiators” who dealt with heads of governments all over the world. Grand Pre, bright, confident, ambitious, leaped at the chance.
I WORKED HAND IN GLOVE with the big defense contractors,” he said. His clients included the now deposed Shah of Iran (whose generals invariably demanded payoffs) and poverty-stricken countries that, nonetheless, hankered after the latest in military hardware.
Some of the sales represented legitimate efforts to bolster the defense capabilities of vital U.S. allies, he said. “But a lot of it was pure competition. Could we beat the French? Could we beat the Germans?
In the high-pressure push to sell more planes, bombs and tanks, it was easy to lose sight of how they would be used, he said.
Grand Pre and his team of dealers also sold weapons to opposing factions, especially in the Mideast, thus contributing to the likelihood of war.
Some weapons, such as tanks, were sold below cost in Europe simply to keep the assembly lines running in the United States, Grand Pre said. In a dangerous way the nation’s economy became addicted to the manufacture and sale of arms, he added.
MIDDLEMEN WERE EMPLOYED to dodge legal restrictions on sales, and few deals were consummated without bribery. “I was always offered things on the side,” Grand Pre said.
One morning he awoke to find a new station wagon in his driveway. One middleman offered him $150,000 in a Swiss bank account, another a new airplane. One middleman, with a penchant for blackmail, used women to lure Grand Pre into incriminating affairs.
Their lavish lifestyles had a heady effect on Grand Pre who was struggling to educate his children and meet medical and mortgage payments, on his $40,000-a year salary.
While disillusioning, Grand Pre's experience hasn’t transformed him into a crusader for disarmament. He is still for a strong national defense and limited sales to allies abroad.