MAD and McNamara

With the anti-Kavanaugh anti-Constitution circus almost over (temporarily), it is time to revisit the weighty matter of defense strategy. In particular, there are some loose threads hanging from my earlier posts (here and here) about mutually assured destruction (MAD).

I have been using this definition of MAD:

[It] is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender…. It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.

Implicit in that definition is the sensible view that mutually assured deterrence obtains even where there is a significant disparity in the strengths of opposing forces, as long as the weaker of the forces is strong enough to wreak vast devastation on an enemy. This view is consistent with the concept of overkill: a destructive nuclear capacity exceeding the amount needed to destroy an enemy.

At any rate, I recently discovered something about MAD that I should have learned long ago. The lesson came from Roger Barnett — a professional strategist and esteemed correspondent — who sent me a copy of a chapter that he contributed to American National Security Policy: Essays in Honor of William R. Van Cleave.

Armed with what Dr. Barnett says about MAD (in the course of a deservedly scathing critique of Robert S. McNamara), I went further into the Wikipedia article quoted above, and found this:

The doctrine [MAD] requires that neither side construct shelters on a massive scale. If one side constructed a similar system of shelters, it would violate the MAD doctrine and destabilize the situation, because it would not have to fear the consequences of a second strike. The same principle is invoked against missile defense.

In other words, there is a strict (and improbable) version of MAD that implies a fine balance of strategic-nuclear offenses and defenses. The purpose of this fine balance isn’t mutually assured deterrence; it is mutually assured destruction. Anything that changes the balance is thought to be dangerously destabilizing, thus inviting a preemptive strategic-nuclear attack by the party against which the fine balance has tipped.

This flies in the face of experience and logic. There was no such fine balance throughout the years of the Cold War. The U.S. and USSR had quantitatively and qualitatively different offensive and defensive strategic-nuclear forces. Despite that state of affairs, MAD (in my loose sense of the term) held together for decades. Nothing that the U.S. or USSR did during those decades upset the rough balance of forces. Not the construction of air-raid shelters. Not efforts to develop missile defenses, Not pronouncements about a U.S. strategy of attacking Soviet ballistic-missile submarines in their bastion. Not exercises aimed at demonstrating the ability to undertake such attacks. And so on, into the night.

None of the those things — predictably decried by hand-wringers (mainly appeasing leftists who begrudge defense spending) — was, and is, enough to upset the rough balance of forces that held, and holds, MAD in place. U.S. leaders, for example, could not know with enough certainty that an anti-missile defense system would thwart a retaliatory strike by the USSR, and thus enable the U.S. to launch an devastating first strike. (Nor have U.S. leaders ever been blood-thirsty enough to contemplate such a thing.)  The same kinds of uncertainties (if not lack of blood-thirstiness) have held Soviet and Russian leaders in check.

As I say here (using Russia to stand for the USSR, as well):

The main lesson of the Cold War and its sequel in the US-Russia relationship is that MAD works among major powers.

MAD works mainly because of ASSF – assuredly survivable strategic forces, or enough of them to retaliate (perhaps more than once). It was and is impossible, even with first strikes against all three legs of Russia’s strategic-nuclear triad, to nullify Russia’s strategic retaliatory capability. The same goes for the U.S. triad and retaliatory capability.

These truths have been and are understood by U.S. and Russian leaders. Were they not understood, MAD might have failed at any of the several stress points that arose in the past 70 years.

Mr. McNamara nevertheless hewed to the strict version of MAD. Why, and to what end? I call upon Dr. Barnett for the why:

What underlay McNamara’s thinking about assured destruction was complex. It was a combination of a myopic trust in systems analysis and cost-effectiveness based on an overweening belief in the primacy of technology in the conduct of warfare; a deficiency of knowledge about, a thoroughgoing disinterest in, and a total want of respect for Soviet strategic thought; and, most importantly, an absence of faith and confidence in the rightness of America’s cause and the ability of U.S. leaders to make correct, humane, moral judgments. This combination set the United States on a course for humiliation and political failure in Vietnam, and imposed on the world a false and deeply immoral understanding of strategic interactions among states….

… Mr. McNamara rationalized [assured destruction] initially by arguing publicly that the Soviet Leaders‘ have decided they have lost the quantitative race, and they are not seeking to engage us in that contest…. There is no indication that the Soviets are seeking to develop a strategic nuclear force as large as ours.” Earlier, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara claimed that parity in strategic weapons had already been attained by the Soviet Union, even though the actual balance of strategic weapons disproportionately favored the United States…..

… Later, assured destruction was said to be the controlling factor to prevent a spiraling out-of-control action-reaction strategic arms race. There was no need to continue to add offensive weapons to the U.S. arsenal so long as an assured assured-destruction capability was maintained.

In spite of such blatant contradiction, McNamara’s henchmen went on to argue that imbalances in the size of strategic arsenals was “destabilizing.” If Country A had appreciably more strategic weapons than Country B, then deterrence was unstable. There would be a temptation on the part of the stronger to launch a disarming strike against the weaker, especially in time of crisis. Furthermore, so long as large differences in inventories of strategic weapons existed, arms control would be impossible; for the weaker side would have no incentive to agree not to build up to equal the stronger, and the latter would have no incentive to reduce its superiority through negotiations. This led to Mr. McNamara’s welcoming the Soviet buildup in strategic weapons: as a consequence the strategic balance would be stabilized, any temptation by the United States to strike first would be scotched, and the foundation for arms control would be put in place.

To what end? I return to Dr. Barnett:

[T]o McNamara, MAD was a horrific bluff — indeed the most terrifying bluff ever issued. Given much of what McNamara said, then and since, there was no intention to carry out the threat posed by assured destruction. It was merely a device to limit the size of the U.S. offensive nuclear arsenal, promote arms control, and prevent the dedicated pursuit of strategic defenses.

As a veteran of the Pentagon during the McNamara regime, I concur wholeheartedly in Dr. Barnett’s judgment:

McNamara’s great, inexcusable moral blunder was to abandon strategic defenses and to lay MAD [mutually assured destruction] as the cornerstone of strategic stability. The damage that wrongheaded course has already caused is immeasurable, and the potential for even greater harm to the United States is truly frightening. At the time McNamara, as Secretary of Defense!, turned away from the key concept of defending U.S. citizens, the entire prospect of space-basing of defenses, for example, had hardly been conceived. Perhaps MAD was necessary as a stop-gap, temporary solution in the absence of defenses. To argue that strategic defenses can never work, can always be overcome, will fuel arms races, and will run contrary to arms control is to be absolutely wrong, and immoral on all counts.


Related posts:

The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Defense Spending: One More Time
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror
Preemptive War Revisited
Bellicosity or Bargaining Strategy?
It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World
The Folly of Pacifism (III)
MAD, Again
“MAD, Again”: A Footnote


LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty


I mentioned H.R. McMaster‘s Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in “Presidents and War.” Having finished reading the book, I must say that McMaster was derelict in his duty to give a full and honest account of the role of the service chiefs in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

The book’s focus is on the political-military machinations of November 1963 to July 1965. Most of the book is taken up with a detailed (almost monotonous) chronological narrative. It reads like a parody of Groundhog Day: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was fixated on “graduated pressure,” as were Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Ambassador (to South Vietnam) Maxwell Taylor; the service chiefs and General William Westmoreland (Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) kept asking for more, but without a clear strategy; McNamara kept President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) in the dark about those requests; when the chiefs met with LBJ, he played the pity card and persuaded them that he was in a tough spot, so they went along without vocal dissent. General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played along with McNamara and LBJ. Lather, rinse, and repeat ad nauseum.

In the narrative and subsequent analysis, LBJ and McNamara come across as the real heavies, which is what I thought of them at the time. (Regarding McNamara, see “The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective.”) McMaster indicts the service chiefs for not agreeing on a unified approach to the war, and then for failing to object (with one voice) to LBJ”s temporizing approach, which McNamara abetted by pushing “graduated pressure.” LBJ’s aim was to prevent Congress and the public from seeing how deeply the U.S. was getting committed (though far from adequately), so that LBJ could (a) win the election in 1964 and (b) keep the focus on his Great Society program in 1965. The only quasi-hero of the story is General Wallace Greene, Commandant of the Marine Corps, who finally voices his dissent from the go-along attitude of the chiefs. He does it en famille and then in a meeting with LBJ. But he is ignored.

Though McMaster goes into great detail about people and events, there’s nothing really new (to me), except for the revelation that the chiefs were supine — at least through July 1965. LBJ’s deviousness and focus on the election and his domestic programs is unsurprising. McNamara’s arrogance and rejection of the chiefs’ views is unsurprising. Service parochialism is unsurprising. The lack of a commitment by LBJ and McNamara to winning the war and devising a requisite strategy are unsurprising.

But there was something at the back of my mind when I was reading Dereliction of Duty which told me that the chiefs weren’t as negligent as McMaster paints them. It has since come to the front of my mind. McMaster’s narrative ends in July 1965, and he bases his conclusions on events up until then. However, there was a showdown between the chiefs and LBJ in November 1965. As recounted by Lt. Gen. Charles Cooper, USMC (Ret.), who was a junior officer at the time (and present at the showdown), “the chiefs did their duty.”

Here’s  a portion of Cooper’s story, which is drawn from his memoir, Cheers and Tears: A Marine’s Story of Combat in Peace and War (2002):

It was a beautiful fall day in November of 1965; early in the Vietnam War-too beautiful a day to be what many of us, anticipating it, had been calling “the day of reckoning.” We didn’t know how accurate that label would be….

The Vietnam War was in its first year, and its uncertain direction troubled Admiral McDonald and the other service chiefs. They’d had a number of disagreements with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara about strategy, and had finally requested a private meeting with the Commander in Chief — a perfectly legitimate procedure. Now, after many delays, the Joint Chiefs were finally to have that meeting. They hoped it would determine whether the US military would continue its seemingly directionless buildup to fight a protracted ground war, or take bold measures that would bring the war to an early and victorious end. The bold measures they would propose were to apply massive air power to the head of the enemy, Hanoi, and to close North Vietnam’s harbors by mining them….

Despite the lack of a clear-cut intelligence estimate, Admiral McDonald and the other Joint Chiefs did what they were paid to do and reached a conclusion. They decided unanimously that the risk of the Chinese or Soviets reacting to massive US measures taken in North Vietnam was acceptably low, but only if we acted without delay. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Defense and his coterie of civilian “whiz kids” did not agree with the Joint Chiefs, and McNamara and his people were the ones who were actually steering military strategy. In the view of the Joint Chiefs, the United States was piling on forces in Vietnam without understanding the consequences. In the view of McNamara and his civilian team, we were doing the right thing. This was the fundamental dispute that had caused the Chiefs to request the seldom-used private audience with the Commander in Chief in order to present their military recommendations directly to him. McNamara had finally granted their request….

The chiefs’ appointment with the President was for two o’clock, and Admiral McDonald and I arrived about 20 minutes early. The chiefs were ushered into a fairly large room across the hall from the Oval Office. I propped the map board on the arms of a fancy chair where all could view it, left two of the grease pencils in the tray attached to the bottom of the board, and stepped out into the corridor. One of the chiefs shut the door, and they conferred in private until someone on the White House staff interrupted them about fifteen minutes later. As they came out, I retrieved the map, and then joined them in the corridor outside the President’s office.

Precisely at two o’clock President Johnson emerged from the Oval Office and greeted the chiefs. He was all charm. He was also big: at three or more inches over six feet tall and something on the order of 250 pounds, he was bigger than any of the chiefs. He personally ushered them into his office, all the while delivering gracious and solicitous comments with a Texas accent far more pronounced than the one that came through when he spoke on television. Holding the map board as the chiefs entered, I peered between them, trying to find the easel. There was none. The President looked at me, grasped the situation at once, and invited me in, adding, “You can stand right over here.” I had become an easel-one with eyes and ears….

The essence of General Wheeler’s presentation was that we had come to an early moment of truth in our ever-increasing Vietnam involvement. We had to start using our principal strengths-air and naval power-to punish the North Vietnamese, or we would risk becoming involved in another protracted Asian ground war with no prospects of a satisfactory solution. Speaking for the chiefs, General Wheeler offered a bold course of action that would avoid protracted land warfare. He proposed that we isolate the major port of Haiphong through naval mining, blockade the rest of the North Vietnamese coastline, and simultaneously start bombing Hanoi with B-52’s.

General Wheeler then asked Admiral McDonald to describe how the Navy and Air Force would combine forces to mine the waters off Haiphong and establish a naval blockade. When Admiral McDonald finished, General McConnell added that speed of execution would be essential, and that we would have to make the North Vietnamese believe that we would increase the level of punishment if they did not sue for peace.

Normally, time dims our memories — but it hasn’t dimmed this one. My memory of Lyndon Johnson on that day remains crystal clear. While General Wheeler, Admiral McDonald, and General McConnell spoke, he seemed to be listening closely, communicating only with an occasional nod. When General McConnell finished, General Wheeler asked the President if he had any questions. Johnson waited a moment or so, then turned to Generals Johnson and Greene, who had remained silent during the briefing, and asked, “Do you fully support these ideas?” He followed with the thought that it was they who were providing the ground troops, in effect acknowledging that the Army and the Marines were the services that had most to gain or lose as a result of this discussion. Both generals indicated their agreement with the proposal. Seemingly deep in thought, President Johnson turned his back on them for a minute or so, then suddenly discarding the calm, patient demeanor he had maintained throughout the meeting, whirled to face them and exploded.

I almost dropped the map. He screamed obscenities, he cursed them personally, he ridiculed them for coming to his office with their “military advice.” Noting that it was he who was carrying the weight of the free world on his shoulders, he called them filthy names-shitheads, dumb shits, pompous assholes-and used “the F-word” as an adjective more freely than a Marine in boot camp would use it. He then accused them of trying to pass the buck for World War III to him. It was unnerving, degrading.

After the tantrum, he resumed the calm, relaxed manner he had displayed earlier and again folded his arms. It was as though he had punished them, cowed them, and would now control them. Using soft-spoken profanities, he said something to the effect that they all knew now that he did not care about their military advice. After disparaging their abilities, he added that he did expect their help.

He suggested that each one of them change places with him and assume that five incompetents had just made these “military recommendations.” He told them that he was going to let them go through what he had to go through when idiots gave him stupid advice, adding that he had the whole damn world to worry about, and it was time to “see what kind of guts you have.” He paused, as if to let it sink in. The silence was like a palpable solid, the tension like that in a drumhead. After thirty or forty seconds of this, he turned to General Wheeler and demanded that Wheeler say what he would do if he were the President of the United States.

General Wheeler took a deep breath before answering. He was not an easy man to shake: his calm response set the tone for the others. He had known coming in, as had the others that Lyndon Johnson was an exceptionally strong personality and a venal and vindictive man as well. He had known that the stakes were high, and now realized that McNamara had prepared Johnson carefully for this meeting, which had been a charade.

Looking President Johnson squarely in the eye, General Wheeler told him that he understood the tremendous pressure and sense of responsibility Johnson felt. He added that probably no other President in history had had to make a decision of this importance, and further cushioned his remarks by saying that no matter how much about the presidency he did understand, there were many things about it that only one human being could ever understand. General Wheeler closed his remarks by saying something very close to this: “You, Mr. President, are that one human being. I cannot take your place, think your thoughts, know all you know, and tell you what I would do if I were you. I can’t do it, Mr. President. No man can honestly do it. Respectfully, sir, it is your decision and yours alone.”

Apparently unmoved, Johnson asked each of the other Chiefs the same question. One at a time, they supported General Wheeler and his rationale. By now, my arms felt as though they were about to break. The map seemed to weigh a ton, but the end appeared to be near. General Greene was the last to speak.

When General Greene finished, President Johnson, who was nothing if not a skilled actor, looked sad for a moment, then suddenly erupted again, yelling and cursing, again using language that even a Marine seldom hears. He told them he was disgusted with their naive approach, and that he was not going to let some military idiots talk him into World War III. He ended the conference by shouting “Get the hell out of my office!”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff had done their duty. They knew that the nation was making a strategic military error, and despite the rebuffs of their civilian masters in the Pentagon, they had insisted on presenting the problem as they saw it to the highest authority and recommending solutions. They had done so, and they had been rebuffed. That authority had not only rejected their solutions, but had also insulted and demeaned them. [“The Day It Became the Longest War,” History News Network, January 20, 2007]

Emphasis added, with gusto.

This story, which I first read only a few years ago, underlines LBJ’s character as I had observed it since the 1950s, when he ran the U.S. Senate. America would be in a far better place today had LBJ succumbed to his first heart attack in 1955. With the possible exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, LBJ did more damage to this country than any president, between his failure of leadership as commander-in-chief and his economically and socially debilitating Great Society.

It’s a pity that General Curtis LeMay (Chief of Staff of the Air Force until the end of 1964) and General Greene overlapped on the JCS for only one year (1964). Greene hadn’t yet worked himself up to stating openly his view of what it would take to win. As a team — if they could have been harnessed — they might have moved the JCS toward confronting McNamara and LBJ sooner. Confronted sooner, McNamara and LBJ might have opted to cut and run before committing the U.S. any more deeply to the bankrupt strategy of “graduated pressure.” By late 1965, however, cutting and running had become an unpalatable option for pseudo-macho LBJ, who would urge American soldiers to “nail that coonskin to the wall” but wouldn’t give them the wherewithal to accomplish the mission. In that respect, LBJ proved himself a typical “liberal,” full of rhetoric and willfully ignorant of reality.

P.S. A relevant recollection:

Sometime in 1965, when I was a young analyst at a defense think-tank, I was working with an officer at Headquarters, Marine Corps, on the issue of troop levels. I plotted a simple relationship between the number of Marines in-country and estimates of the number of Viet Cong killed in action. You would have thought that I had invented sliced bread. The Marine officer arranged for me to present my analysis to General Greene, who arranged for me to present it to Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, in an effort to buttress the case for a larger infusion or Marine combat units. I don’t know the effect of my analysis, if any. And, frankly, I was embarrassed to be presenting such a simple-minded analysis to the Secretary of the Navy.

ADDENDUM 04/13/17

No discussion of LBJ’s failure of leadership should pass without mentioning the accusation leveled by General “Pete” Piotrowski USAF (Ret.) in Basic Airman to General: The Secret War & Other Conflicts: Lessons in Leadership & Life. The following passage (from pp. 246-247) is quoted by Don Jewell in “Flying without GPS One Dark, Stormy Night” (GPS World, March 11, 2015):

Nearly twenty years later, [ed. after the Vietnam War ended] I saw former Secretary of State Dean Rusk being interviewed by Peter Arnett on a CBS [ed. CBC] documentary called “The Ten Thousand Day War.” Mr. Arnett asked, “It has been rumored that the United States provided the North Vietnamese government the names of the targets that would be bombed the following day. Is there any truth to that allegation?”

To my astonishment and absolute disgust, the former Secretary responded, “Yes. We didn’t want to harm the North Vietnamese people, so we passed the targets to the Swiss embassy in Washington with instructions to pass them to the NVN government through their embassy in Hanoi.” As I watched in horror, Secretary Rusk went on to say, “All we wanted to do is demonstrate to the North Vietnamese leadership that we could strike targets at will, but we didn’t want to kill innocent people. By giving the North Vietnamese advanced warning of the targets to be attacked, we thought they would tell the workers to stay home.”

No wonder all the targets were so heavily defended day after day! The NVN obviously moved as many guns as they could overnight to better defend each target they knew was going to be attacked.  Clearly, many brave American Air Force and Navy fliers died or spent years in NVN prison camps as a direct result of being intentionally betrayed by Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara, and perhaps, President Johnson himself. I cannot think of a more duplicitous and treacherous act of American government officials.  Dean Rusk served as Secretary of State from January 21, 1961, through to January 20, 1969, under President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Perhaps Senator John McCain, POW for five years and presidential candidate in 2008, was one of the many victims of this utter stupidity and flawed policy flowing from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Mr. Peter Arnett opined that this would be a treasonous act by anyone else.”

Senator J. William Fulbright alludes to the warnings in episode 6 of a 13-part CBC documentary, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War. The segment starts around 1:10. Later, around 4:45, there’s a general discussion about targeting. Rusk is on-camera briefly, talking about the routing of attack aircraft. It has been alleged that his original admission about revealing targeting information to the North Vietnamese was excised. It’s a credible allegation, inasmuch as Rusk’s comment doesn’t make sense.