David Halberstam’s 1972 evisceration of the Vietnam War planning process during Kennedy and Johnson’s administrations has been on my list to read for a while, for two reasons. Being born just after the war means that I’ve heard for my whole life about what a mistake it was, but never understood the pre-war support for such a debacle. Also, I’m interested in the organizational problems that might have led to the entanglement in a country fighting for its independence from foreign occupations over centuries. How did anyone think this was a good idea? According to Halberstam, the U.S. government had limited its own critical capacity due to McCarthyist purges after China’s revolution, and Johnson in particular was invested in Vietnam being a small, non-war. In the same way that clipping lines of communication can destroy a conspiracy’s ability to think, the system did not really “think” about this at all. Many similarities to Iraq 40 years later.
The inherent unattractiveness of doubt is an early theme; the people who might have helped Kennedy and later Johnson make a smarter move by preventing rash action did not push to be a part of these decisions. Sometimes it’s smartest to make no move at all, but the go-getters who go get into positions of power carry a natural bias towards action in all situations. Advice from doubters should be sought out. I’m grateful for the past years of Obama’s presidency who characterized his foreign policy doctrine as “Don’t do stupid shit.”
The locus of control is another theme. Halberstam shows how the civilian leadership thought it had the military under control, and the military leadership thought it had the Vietnam campaign under control. In reality, the civilians ceded the initiative to the generals, and the generals never clearly saw how the Northern Vietnamese controlled the pace of the war. Using the jungle trails between the North and South and holding the demographic advantage and a strategy with a clear goal, the government in Hanoi decided the pace of the war by choosing to send or not send troops into the south. America was permanently stuck outside the feedback loop.
I would be curious to know if a similar account of the same war is available from the Northern perspective; were the advantages always obvious from the inside? How is this story told from the victor’s point of view?
Here are some passages I liked particularly.
On David Reisman and being a doubter in 1961, page 42:
“You all think you can manage limited wars and that you’re dealing with an elite society which is just waiting for your leadership. It’s not that way at all,” he said. “It’s not an Eastern elite society run for Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations.”
It was only natural that the intellectuals who questioned the necessity of America purpose did not rush from Cambridge and New Haven to inflict their doubts about American power and goals upon the nation’s policies. So people like Reisman, classic intellectuals, stayed where they were while the new breed of thinkers-doers, half of academe, half the nation’s think tanks and of policy planning, would make the trip, not doubting for a moment the validity of their right to serve, the quality of their experience. They were men who reflect the post-Munich, post-McCarthy pragmatism of the age. One had to stop totalitarianism, and since the only thing the totalitarians understood was force, one had to be willing to use force. They justified each decision to use power by their own conviction that the Communists were worse, which justified our dirty tricks, our toughness.
On setting expections and General Shoup’s use of maps to convey the impossibility of invading Cuba in 1961, page 66:
When talk about invading Cuba was becoming fashionable, General Shoup did a remarkable display with maps. First he took an overlay of Cuba and placed it over the map of the United States. To everybody’s surprise, Cuba was not a small island along the lines of, say, Long Island at best. It was about 800 miles long and seemed to stretch from New York to Chicago. Then he took another overlay, with a red dot, and placed it over the map of Cuba. “What’s that?” someone asked him. “That, gentlemen, represent the size of the island of Tarawa,” said Shoup, who had won a Medal of Honor there, “and it took us three days and eighteen thousand Marines to take it.”
On being perceived as a dynamic badass in government, relative to the First Asian crisis in Laos, 1961-63, page 88:
It was the classic crisis, the kind that the policy makers of the Kennedy era enjoyed, taking an event and making it greater by their determination to handle it, the attention focused on the White House. During the next two months, officials were photographed briskly walking (almost trotting) as they came and went with their attaché cases, giving their No comment’s, the blending of drama and power, everything made a little bigger and more important by their very touching it. Power and excitement come to Washington. There were intense conferences, great tensions, chances for grace under pressure. Being in on the action. At the first meeting, McNamara forcefully advocated arming half a dozen AT6s (obsolete World War Ⅱ fighter planes) with 100-lb. bombs, and letting them go after the bad Laotians. It was a strong advocacy; the other side had no air power. This we would certainly win; technology and power could do it all. (“When a newcomer enters the field [of foreign policy],” Chester Bowles wrote in a note to himself at the time, “and finds himself confronted by the nuances of international questions he becomes an easy target for the military-CIA-paramilitary-type answers which can be added, subtracted, multiplied or divided…”)
On questioning evidence for the domino theory, page 122:
Later, as their policies floundered in Vietnam, … the real problem was the failure to reexamine the assumptions of the era, particularly in Southeast Asia. There was no real attempt, when the new Administration came in, to analyze Ho Chi Minh’s position in terms of the Vietnamese people and in terms of the larger Communist world, to establish what Diem represented, to determine whether the domino theory was in fact valid. Each time the question of the domino theory was sent to intelligence experts for evaluation, the would back answers which reflected their doubts about its validity, but the highest level of government left the domino theory alone. It was as if, by questioning it, they might have revealed its emptiness, and would then have been forced to act on their new discovery.
On the ridiculousness of the Special Forces, page 123:
All of this helped send the Kennedy Administration into dizzying heights of antiguerilla activity and discussion; instead of looking behind them, the Kennedy people were looking ahead, ready for a new and more subtle kind of conflict. The other side, Rostow’s scavengers of revolution, would soon be met by the new American breed, a romantic group indeed, the U.S. Army Special Forces. They were all uncommon men, extraordinary physical specimens and intellectuals Ph.D.s swinging from trees, speaking Russian and Chinese, eating snake meat and other fauna at night, springing counterambushes on unwary Asian ambushers who had read Mao and Giap, but not Hilsman and Rostow. It was all going to be very exciting, and even better, great gains would be made at little cost.
In October 1961 the entire White House press corps was transported to Fort Bragg to watch a special demonstration put on by Kennedy’s favored Special Forces, and it turned into a real whiz-bang day. There were ambushes, counterambushes and demonstrations in snake-meat eating, all topped off by a Buck Rogers show: a soldier with a rocket on his back who flew over water to land on the other side. It was quite a show, and it was only as they were leaving Fort Bragg that Francis Lara, the Agence France-Presse correspondent who had covered the Indochina War, sidle over to his friend Tom Wicker of the New York Times. “Al; of this looks very impressive, doesn’t it?” he said. Wicker allowed as how it did. “Funny,” Lara said, “none of it worked for us when we tried it in 1951.”
On consensual hallucinations, shared reality, and some alarming parallels to Bruno Latour’s translation model, page 148:
In 1954, right after Geneva, no one really believed there was such a thing as South Vietnam. … Like water turning into ice, the illusion crystallized and became a reality, not because that which existed in South Vietnam was real, but because it became powerful in men’s minds. Thus, what had never truly existed and was so terribly frail became firm, hard. A real country with a real constitution. An army dressed in fine, tight-fitting uniforms, and officers with lots of medals. A supreme court. A courageous president. Articles were written. “The tough miracle man of Vietnam,” Life called [Diem]. “The bright spot in Asia,” the Saturday Evening Post said.
On the difficulty of containing military plans and the general way it’s hard to get technical and operations groups to relinquish control once granted, page 178:
The Kennedy commitment had changed things in other ways as well. While the President had the illusion that he had held off the military, the reality was that he had let them in. … Once activated, even in a small way at first, they would soon dominate the play. Their particular power with the Hill and with hawkish journalists, their stronger hold on patriotic-machismo arguments (in decision making the proposed the manhood positions, their opponents the softer, or sissy, positions), their particular certitude, made them far more powerful players than men raising doubts. The illusion would always be of civilian control; the reality would be of a relentlessly growing military domination of policy, intelligence, aims, objectives and means, with the civilians, the very ones who thought they could control the military, conceding step by step, without even knowing they were losing.
On being stuck in a trap of our own making by 1964, page 304:
They were rational men, that above all; they were not ideologues. Ideologues are predictable and they were not, so the idea that those intelligent, rational, cultured, civilized men had been caught in a terrible trap by 1964 and that they spent an entire year letting the trap grow tighter was unacceptable; they would have been the first to deny it. If someone in those days had called them aside and suggested that they, all good rational men, were tied to a policy of deep irrationality, layer and layer of clear rationality based upon several great false assumptions and buttressed by a deeply dishonest reporting system which created a totally false data bank, they would have lashed out sharply that they did indeed know where they were going.
On the timing of Robert Johnson’s 1964 study on bombing effectiveness (“we would face the problem of finding a graceful way out of the action”), page 358:
Similarly, the massive and significant study was pushed aside because it had come out at the wrong time. A study has to be published at the right moment, when people are debating an issue and about to make a decision; then and only then will they read a major paper, otherwise they are too pressed for time. Therefore, when the long-delayed decisions on the bombing were made a year later, the principals did not go back to the Bob Johnson paper, because new things had happened, one did not go back to an old paper.
Finally and perhaps most important, there was no one to fight for it, to force it into the play, to make the other principals come to terms with it. Rostow himself could not have disagreed more with the paper; it challenged every one of his main theses, his almost singular and simplistic belief in bombing and what it could accomplish.
On George Ball’s 1964 case for the doves and commitment to false hope, page 496:
Bothered by the direction of the war, and by the attitudes he found around him in the post-Tonkin fall of 1964, and knowing that terrible decisions were coming up, Ball began to turn his attention to the subject of Vietnam. He knew where the dissenters were at State, and he began to put together his own network, people with expertise on Indochina and Asia who had been part of the apparatus Harriman had built, men like Alan Whiting, a China watcher at INR; these were men whose own work was being rejected or simply ignored by their superiors. Above all, Ball was trusting his own instincts on Indochina. The fact that the others were all headed the other way did not bother him; he was not that much in awe of them, anyway.
Since Ball had not been in on any of the earlier decision making, he was in no way committed to any false hopes and self-justification; in addition, since he had not really taken part in the turnaround against Diem, he was in no way tainted in Johnson’s eyes.
On slippery slopes for “our boys,” page 538:
Slipping in the first troops was an adjustment, an asterisk really, to a decision they had made principally to avoid sending troops, but of course there had to be protection for the airplanes, which no one had talked about at any length during the bombing discussion, that if you bombed you needed airfields, and if you had airfields you needed troops to protect the airfields, and the ARVN wasn’t good enough. Nor had anyone pointed out that troops beget troops: that a regiment is very small, a regiment cannot protect itself. Even as they were bombing they were preparing for the arrival of our boys, which of course would mean more boys to protect our boys. The rationale would provide its own rhythm of escalation, and its growth would make William Westmoreland almost overnight a major player, if not the major player. This rationale weighed so heavily on the minds of the principals that three years later, in 1968, when the new thrust of part of the bureaucracy was to end or limit the bombing and when Lyndon Johnson was willing to remove himself from running again, he was nevertheless transfixes by the idea of protecting our boys.
On Robert McNamara making shit up, page 581:
Soon they would lose control, he said; soon we would be sending 200,000 to 250,000 men there. Then they would tear into him, McNamara the leader: It’s dirty pool; for Christ’s sake, George, we’re not talking about anything like that, no one’s talking about that many people, we’re talking about a dozen, maybe a few more maneuver battalions.
Poor George had no counterfigures; he would talk in vague doubts, lacking these figures, and leave the meetings occasionally depressed and annoyed. Why did McNamara have such good figures? Why did McNamara have such good staff work and Ball such poor staff work? The next day Ball would angrily dispatch his staff to come up with the figures, to find out how McNamara had gotten them, and the staff would burrow away and occasionally find that one of the reasons that Ball did not have the comparable figures was that they did not always exist. McNamara had invented them, he dissembled even within the bureaucracy, though, of course, always for a good cause. It was part of his sense of service. He believed in what he did, and this the morality of it was assured, and everything else fell into place.
On the political need to keep decisions soft and vague, page 593:
If there were no decisions which were crystallized and hard, then they could not leak, and if they could not leak, then the opposition could not point to them. Which was why he was not about to call up the reserves, because the use of the reserves would blow it all. It would be self-evident that we were really going to war, and that we would in fact have to pay a price. Which went against all Administration planning; this would be a war without a price, a silent, politically invisible war.
On asking for poor service, page 595:
Six years later McGeorge Bundy, whose job it was to ask questions for a President who could not always ask the right questions himself, would go before the Council on Foreign Relations and make a startling admission about the mission and the lack of precise objectives. The Administration, Bundy recounted, did not tell the military what to do and how to do itl there was in his words a “premium put on imprecision,” and the political and military leaders did not speak candidly to each other. In fact, if the military and political leaders had been totally candid with each other in 1965 about the length and cost of the war instead of coming to a consensus, as Johnson wanted, there would have been vast and perhaps unbridgeable differences, Bundy said. It was a startling admission, because it was specifically Bundy’s job to make sure that differences like these did not exist. They existed, of course, not because they could not be uncovered but because it was a deliberate policy not to surface with real figures and real estimates which might show that they were headed toward a real war. The men around Johnson served him poorly, but they served him poorly because he wanted them to.