General Harold K. Johnson’s efforts to define the military’s objectives in Vietnam were continually frustrated.
By Jon Guttman
When Lieutenant General Harold K. Johnson was sworn in as chief of staff of the U.S. Army on July 1, 1964, an officer serving in Vietnam wrote him, expressing his surprise at the appointment, “I have always believed that you were too intellectually honest and not enough of a politician to become Chief of Staff.”
Johnson’s reputation certainly preceded him, at least in Army circles. Few Army generals combined so extraordinary a military career with as solid a reputation for integrity as Johnson. Born in Bowesmont, N.D., on February 22, 1912, Harold Keith Johnson was profoundly influenced early in life by a Christian upbringing, the Boy Scouts and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Assigned to the Philippines when the Japanese invaded on December 8, 1941, Johnson took charge of a battalion of the 57th Infantry (Philippine Scouts) in a fighting retreat down the Bataan Peninsula. He became a Japanese prisoner in April 1942 and subsequently survived the “Death March” and three years of hardship and privation as a prisoner of war. During the Korean War, he showed outstanding leadership as commander of a battalion and two successive regiments, earning a Distinguished Service Cross and promotion to colonel. Johnson himself, however, may well have agreed that his greatest wartime challenges came during the Vietnam conflict as Army chief of staff under President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
A number of books have been published on the Vietnam War during the Johnson administration, but most–including McNamara’s–have dealt with the war at the government staff level. In Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1998, $39.95), Lewis Sorley focuses on one of the military protagonists who had to cope with a situation over which he had limited control. This is a significant perspective, since Johnson, as Army chief of staff, sought to define the military’s role and objectives in Vietnam, only to find his efforts frustrated by a president and cabinet that tended to diminish and demean the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in conducting the war.
Deeply religious and patriotic, Harold Johnson would never advocate the military’s stepping beyond its constitutional place in the American political system, but he was acutely aware of the dangers posed by President Johnson’s excessive dependence on McNamara and other civilian experts in pursuing the war. In a letter to a fellow officer years before going to Washington, Johnson quoted a passage from ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s Art of War that proved to be remarkably pertinent and prophetic: “In the Chinese armies one arrangement in command was faulty. Mandarins who had achieved distinction as civil functionaries studied military tactics late in life and directed operations in time of war, while officers of experience could not expect to reach the highest grades. As might be expected, this system frequently brought disaster to Chinese arms.”
Essentially, however, that was the state of affairs under LBJ and McNamara. Their choice of an overall commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, who measured progress primarily in terms of enemy body count, appalled Harold Johnson. Johnson believed that the military’s primary purpose was control rather than destruction. He developed and advocated a strategy in Vietnam based on concentrating forces to cut off North Vietnamese troop and supply movement to the South, wrestling local security from the VC and simultaneously developing a viable South Vietnamese government and army to secure the countryside. Johnson’s strategy was virtually ignored by LBJ and his staff. More serious, in Johnson’s opinion, was LBJ’s attempt to avoid publicly representing Vietnam as a serious conflict by refusing to call up reserve forces. “That was, I think, the greatest mistake that was made,” said Johnson, because the progressively growing troop commitments in Vietnam stripped the Regular Army of valuable trained personnel all over the world.
“It was kind of pathetic,” Colonel (later Lt. Gen.) John Cushman, a former military adviser in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, remarked in retrospect, “that Harold K. Johnson was being jacked around by McNamara, a man who couldn’t hold a candle to him in insight and understanding. I viewed General Johnson as a tragic figure.”
Ultimately, the LBJ administration’s dishonest treatment of the war in Vietnam backfired in January 1968, when the Communist Tet Offensive fatally undermined public credibility of government and military alike. Ironically, the man who succeeded Westmoreland in command thereafter, General Creighton W. Abrams, implemented General Johnson’s strategy with great success–but the damage had already been done. By then, too, Johnson, after weighing the pros and cons of resigning from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in protest of LBJ’s policies and then deciding to stick it out, had retired from the Army on July 2, 1968.
The author, a U.S. Military Academy graduate and a Vietnam veteran who served as executive officer of a tank battalion as well as a former faculty member at West Point, is clearly qualified to chronicle the career of an officer who deserves the accolades he gets. Sorley also makes a valiant effort to distance himself from his personal admiration for Johnson to balance his virtues against his flaws, particularly Johnson’s occasional lapses in judgment. Nevertheless, Sorley’s own loyalties and prejudices occasionally show. The most marked example is his description of Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khanh, who–with the assistance of General Johnson’s friend Colonel Jasper J. Wilson–overthrew the government of Maj. Gen. Duong Van Minh on January 30, 1964. After being praised by President Johnson for his “strong central direction and purpose,” Khanh was himself overthrown in August of that same year. Sorley notes that there were another nine subsequent American-backed coups in Saigon before Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky took the reins of power in June 1965, yet he seems to see nothing fundamentally wrong with such political chicanery. That irony is enhanced by the author’s later reference to North Vietnam as a “surrogate” of the Soviet Union and China–a statement amply contradicted by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s behavior toward both of its former allies in the years following the Vietnam War.
That aside, however, Honorable Warrior is an engrossing and enlightening biography. It is also a morality play about a constitutional government’s use and misuse of its military forces, with an admirable but human central character who strove above all to set an example for the U.S. Army based on his parting quotation from the Apostle Paul in the New Testament: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, think on these things.”