Vietnam War

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.

Presidents and War

This post is prompted by a recent exchange with former think-tank colleagues about H.R. McMaster‘s Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I’ve just started it, having until now steadfastly eschewed rehashes of the Vietnam War since its ignominious end. My assessment of LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam War is based entirely on my knowledge of the war as it unfolded and unraveled, and subsequent reflections on that knowledge. I’ll review McMaster’s book in a later post.

The president’s role as commander-in-chief is a two-edged sword. It was wielded ably by Lincoln and FDR (until the end-game in Europe), and badly by Truman, LBJ, Bush I, Bush II, and Obama.

Starting with Bush II, I believe that he made the right strategic decision, which was to bring the Middle East under control instead of leaving it hostage to the whims of Saddam. (Some will say that Saddam was contained, but — in my view — he was a threat to the Middle East if not to the U.S. as long as he was in power.) That may not have been what Bush intended, but that’s what he could have achieved, and would have achieved if he had committed the forces necessary to bring Iraq firmly under control. Instead, he followed Rumsfeld’s do-it-on-the-cheap advice for too long. Anyway, Bush got bogged down, much as LBJ had done with his “signalling” and gradualism in Vietnam. The 2007 surge might have turned things around, but Bush had run out of political capital and couldn’t commit the forces needed to stabilize Iraq for the long haul (and neutralize Iran), even if he had wanted to.

Obama then followed his anti-colonial impulses and converted potential stability into the mess that we see today.

Bush I set it all up when he declined the golden opportunity to depose Saddam in 1991.

Truman’s handling of the Korean War could be defended as making the best of a bad situation. But Truman’s decision to accept a stalemate instead of taking on the Chinese, as MacArthur urged, was a strategic miscalculation of the first order. It signaled to Russia and China the unwillingness of U.S. leaders to push back against Communist expansion. LBJ reinforced that signal in Vietnam. It took Reagan, who pursued a defense buildup in the face of chicken-little screams from the defeatist left, to push the USSR to its breaking point.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, you can pay now or pay later, but pay you will. I fear that the long-run price of the defense build-down under Obama will be high.

Rating America’s Wars

In “Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight” I say that

American armed forces should be used only to preserve, protect, and defend the interests of Americans.

I ended that post with an assessment of the engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. But what about earlier American wars? Here are my thumbnail assessments of them (the dates indicate years in which U.S. forces were involved in combat):

Indian Wars (1637-1918). This long, episodic battle with Native Americans was justified when the purpose was to defend Americans and justly condemned when the purposes were genocide and theft  of Indian lands by force or fraud. There is probably much more to be ashamed of than to be proud of in the history of the Indian Wars.

Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The struggle for self-government deserves praise whether the motivation was liberty in general or the economic interests of colonial planters, merchants, and manufacturers. The latter is a subset of the former, and the outcome of the war served both ends. In that regard, many of the leaders of the armed struggle also became prominent figures in the establishment of the Articles of Confederation and Constitution. Both documents were aimed at preserving and extending the liberty for which the revolution was waged.

War of 1812 (1812-1815). A leading cause of this war was the imposition by Britain of restrictions intended to impede American commerce with France. That, alone, would have justified the war if Britain could not be dissuaded by peaceful means, which it could not be. The U.S. had other legitimate grievances: impressment of American sailors into the British navy and British support of Indian raids in the Northwest Territory. The War of 1812 was, in effect, a belated and creditable resumption of the Revolutionary War.

Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The proximate cause of the war was the attempt by Mexico to retake Texas, which had won independence from Mexico in 1836 and annexed itself to the United States in 1845. The resulting war enabled the U.S. to acquire from Mexico — for $18,250,000 — land that is now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. The U.S. was right to prosecute the war and entirely reasonable about the terms and conditions for resolving it.

Civil War (1861-1865). The war that is still being fought (with words) by many Americans pitted the morally reprehensible Southern defenders of slavery against Northerners, led by Abraham Lincoln, who hewed to the dubious proposition that secession is impermissible under the Constitution. The Civil War can be justified only in that it ended slavery in the United States, which was not Mr. Lincoln’s original aim in prosecuting it.

Spanish-American War (1898). This unnecessary war was fought on the excuse of Spanish atrocities in Cuba and the still-mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. It was in fact an exercise in imperialism through which the U.S. acquired the dubious honor of controlling Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines — altogether more trouble than they were worth. It is especially galling that Theodore Roosevelt rode the Spanish-American War to fame, and eventually to the imperial presidency.

World War I (1917-1918). The immediate cause of the entry of the United States into this war was German acts of belligerence — sabotage and the sinking of U.S. merchant ships. Those acts were aimed at preventing the U.S. from selling war supplies to Britain. Germany, in other words, was sorely provoked, and the U.S. government could not realistically claim to be a neutral party in what was really a European war, with Asian and African sideshows involving opportunistic attacks on German interests in those regions. Had the U.S. stayed neutral and avoided war, Germany might have won, though a stalemate was more likely. In either event, an exhausted Germany would hardly have been a threat to the U.S., and might even have welcomed trade with the U.S. as it rebuilt in the post-war years. All of this was last in the anti-German hysteria of the time, which played well to the super-majority of Americans whose roots were in the British Isles. It is pure hindsight to say that a victorious or stalemated Germany probably would not have produced the Third Reich, but true nevertheless. America’s entry into World War I was a mistake, in any event, but it turned out to be a horrendously costly one.

World War II (1941-1945). While Anglo-American and French politicians pursued the illusion that peace could be maintained through diplomacy and treaties, Adolf Hitler and Japan’s military caste pursued dominion through conquest. The Third Reich and Empire of the Rising Sun failed to dominate the world only because of (a) Hitler’s fatal invasion of Russia, (b) Japan’s wrong-headed attack on Pearl Harbor, and (c) the fact that the United States of 1941 had time and space on its side. Had the latter not been true, Americans could well have found themselves cut off from the world — and much the poorer for it — if not enslaved. World War II clearly ranks just behind the War of 1812 as the most necessary war in America’s post-Revolutionary history.

Cold War (1947-1991). This necessary, long, and costly “war” of deterrence through preparedness enabled the U.S. to protect Americans’ legitimate economic interests around the world by limiting the expansion of the Soviet empire. The Cold War had some “hot” moments and points of high drama. Perhaps the most notable of them was the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which was not the great victory proclaimed by the Kennedy administration and its political and academic sycophants. (For more on this point, go here and scroll down to the section on Kennedy.) That the U.S. won the Cold War because the USSR’s essential bankruptcy was exposed by Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup is a fact that only left-wingers and dupes will deny. They continue to betray their doomed love of communism by praising the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev for doing the only thing he could do in the face of U.S. superiority: surrender and sunder the Soviet empire. America’s Cold War victory owes nothing to LBJ (who wasted blood and treasure in Vietnam), Richard Nixon (who would have sold his mother for 30 pieces of silver), or Jimmy Carter (whose love for anti-American regimes and rebels knows no bounds).

Korean War (1950-1953). The Korean War was unnecessary, in that it was invited by the Truman administration’s policies: exclusion of Korea from the Asian defense perimeter and massive cuts in the U.S. defense budget. But it was essential to defend South Korea so that the powers behind North Korea (Communist China and, by extension, the USSR) would grasp the willingness of the U.S. to maintain a forward defensive posture against aggression. That signal was blunted by Truman’s decision to sack MacArthur when the general persisted in his advocacy of attacking Chinese bases following the entry of the Chinese into the war. The end result was a stalemate, where a decisive victory might have broken the back of communistic adventurism around the globe. The Korean War, as it was fought by the U.S., became “a war to foment war.”

Vietnam War (1965-1973). Whereas the Korean War was a necessary war against communist expansionism, the Vietnam War was an unnecessary entanglement in a civil war in which one side happened to be communist. Nevertheless, the U.S., having made a costly commitment to the prosecution of the war, should have fought it to victory. Instead, unlike the case of Korea, U.S. forces were withdrawn and it took little time for North Vietnam to swallow South Vietnam. American resolve suffered a body blow, from which it rebounded only partially by winning the Cold War, thanks to Reagan’s defense buildup in the 1980s. When it came to actual warfare, however, Vietnam repeated and reinforced the pattern of compromise and retreat that had begun with the Korean War, and which eventuated in the 9/11 attacks.

Gulf War (1990-1991). This war began with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait. U.S. action to repel the invasion was fully justified by the potential economic effects of Saddam’s capture of Kuwait’s petroleum reserves and oil production. The proper response to Saddam’s aggression would have been not only to defeat the Iraqi army but also to depose Saddam. The failure to do so further reinforced the pattern of compromise and retreat that had begun in Korea, and necessitated the long, contentious Iraq War of the 2000s.

The quick victory in Iraq, coupled with the coincidental end of the Cold War, helped to foster a belief that the peace had been won. (That belief was given an academic imprimatur in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.) The stage was set for Clinton’s much-ballyhooed fiscal restraint, which was achieved by cutting the defense budget. Clinton’s lack of resolve in the face of terrorism underscored the evident unwillingness of American “leaders” to defend Americans’ interests, thus inviting 9/11.  (For more about Clinton’s foreign and defense policy, go here and scroll down to the section on Clinton.)

Which leads us back to the wars and skirmishes of the 21st century.