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Due to his deeply flawed arguments, Taylor has been referred to as “the most destructive general in American history.” 

Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor had a greater influence than any other military officer on America’s decision to go to war in Vietnam—and on the early strategy to fight that conflict. The strategic framework he helped establish, and the key assumptions upon which it was based, cast a long shadow over U.S. military operations all the way through to 1975.

When Taylor retired from the military in July 1959, after serving as the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, he was one of the most well-known generals in America. The commander of the 101st Airborne Division when it jumped into Normandy on June 5-6, 1944, Taylor, along with Matthew B. Ridgway and James M. Gavin, formed a trio of legendary airborne generals. Throughout the 1950s, all three were leading voices among the “Never Again” bloc of senior military leaders who had seen the disastrous experience of the Korean War and vowed that the United States should never again fight a ground war on the Asian mainland.

As Army chief of staff in 1954, Ridgway had dissented from a Joint Chiefs of Staff proposal to use American air power to save the French garrison in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu, under attack by Viet Minh forces fighting for independence from France. Ridgway, a four-star general, and Gavin, a lieutenant general, remained critics of the Vietnam War right until the end, and some detractors branded them “dove generals.” Taylor, however, changed course in the early 1960s to become the chief military enabler of American involvement in Vietnam.

All three generals had something else in common during the 1950s. They were staunch critics of the “New Look” national defense policy of their former wartime commander and the current president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Focused on containing defense costs, New Look shifted the national emphasis from conventional ground forces to air and nuclear-capable forces, embodied in the Strategic Air Command. The resulting doctrine of “massive retaliation” was based on the premise of “more bang for the buck,” but it was really an all-or-nothing strategic straitjacket.

Ridgway opposed Eisenhower’s plans to reduce the size of the Army, arguing that air power and nuclear weapons did not eliminate or even reduce the need for robust ground forces capable of seizing territory and controlling populations. The tensions between the Army chief of staff and the president rose to such a point that Eisenhower did not retain Ridgway for a second two-year term in office—he picked Taylor as his new chief of staff in June 1955.

Gavin, too, was a staunch critic of massive retaliation. During an appearance in January 1958 before the Senate Armed Services Preparedness Subcommittee, chaired by Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, he was asked for an estimate of casualties in a nuclear war and gave a shocking answer: 425 million. Gavin saw the need for other types of forces. As the Army’s chief of research and development during the mid-1950s, he was an early advocate of highly mobile and air transportable forces, the modern “air cavalry.” His vision became the foundation for the Army UH-1 “Huey” helicopters and airmobile units in Vietnam.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Taylor and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, just back from a trip to Vietnam, update President John F. Kennedy on Oct. 2, 1963. (Bettmann Getty Images)

During Taylor’s four-year tenure as chief of staff, he remained critical of Eisenhower’s defense strategy, but he played his cards close to the vest. Once he retired from the Army, however, Taylor became far more vocal in his criticisms of Eisenhower’s New Look policy. His 1960 book, The Uncertain Trumpet, was met with widespread critical acclaim. Printed boldly on the book’s dust jacket, “General Taylor Contends:”

• That the doctrine of massive retaliation has endangered our national security.

• That our military planning is frozen to the requirements of general war.

• That the weaknesses in the Joint Chiefs of Staff system have left the planning of our military strategy to civilian amateurs and the budget makers.

In line with the thinking of Ridgway and Gavin and other senior generals of the 1950s, Taylor quite correctly argued that America needed a far broader range of military resources to give it a “flexible response” capability, rather than an all-or-nothing reliance on massive retaliation.

His book had considerable influence on the Vietnam policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but not necessarily in the ways Taylor might have envisioned. As Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster detailed in his important 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his “Whiz Kids” of systems analysts and bean counters corrupted the concept of “flexible response” into the “incremental response” that used escalations of military force to send the North Vietnamese signals of the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam. Taylor ultimately supported that policy. The piecemeal application of force, the hallmark of American strategy in Vietnam, is one of the cardinal sins of warfare that military strategist Carl von Clausewitz warned against 200 years ago.

Taylor’s book got the attention of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign. In one of his early acts as president, Kennedy appointed Taylor to head a special study group to investigate the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. The panel’s final report confirmed the new president’s suspicion that he had been ill-served by the advice the Joint Chiefs had given him. To ease his reliance on them, Kennedy recalled Taylor to active duty in July 1961 and appointed him to the newly created position of military representative to the president. There was no precedent or constitutional foundation for the position.

In his book, Taylor had detailed many legitimate problems with the Joint Chiefs of Staff system, but his position as the president’s military eminence grise only made those problems worse. Taylor usurped the Joint Chiefs, cutting them out of the decision-making process and widening the gap between the nation’s military and civilian leadership, a problem that remained throughout the Vietnam years.

By the spring of 1961, Southeast Asia loomed ever larger on the list of international crises facing the administration. American military advisers had been in Vietnam in small numbers since President Harry S. Truman deployed them in 1950 to assist the French. At the start of 1961, when Kennedy came into office, there had been about 900 American advisers in Vietnam. By the end of that year, the number had ballooned to 3,205. But no combat forces were in Vietnam.

Kennedy had inherited from Eisenhower a Vietnam policy that the Pentagon Papers called “limited risk.” Kennedy, however, came into office with a far more muscular vision of America’s role in the world. In his inaugural address, he had declared that America was prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

A goal of spreading liberty and democracy throughout the world sounds good, but there was not—nor still is—any universally accepted definition of what those two principles really mean. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, whose repressive government tried to squelch political opposition, obviously had views on the matter that were radically different from those espoused by most of the Kennedy administration’s “Best and Brightest.”

The new president’s foreign policy vision soon ran up against reality. Not only had the Bay of Pigs operation been a fiasco, but Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was increasing pressure on the United States to withdraw from West Berlin. During the June 1961 Kennedy-Khrushchev Summit in Vienna, the old and wily Soviet apparatchik roughly handled the young and inexperienced president. When Kennedy returned to Washington, he told James Reston, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, “We have a problem in making our power credible, and it looks like Vietnam is the place.” A little more than two months later, on Aug. 13, the Berlin Wall started going up.

In October 1961 Kennedy sent Taylor and Deputy National Security Adviser Walt Rostow to Vietnam on a fact-finding mission. Taylor recognized that the United States was facing a double-crisis of confidence in Vietnam. First, there were grave doubts about America’s determination to hold the line against communist expansion in Southeast Asia. Second, there was widespread skepticism—both inside and outside of Vietnam—that Diem’s government could defeat the communists.

On his way back to the United States, Taylor put his initial thoughts in a Nov. 1 cable he sent to Kennedy from the Philippines. It began: “This message is for the purpose of presenting my reasons for recommending the introduction of a US military force into SVN [South Vietnam]. I have reached the conclusion that this is an essential action if we are to reverse the present downward trend of events in spite of a full recognition of the following disadvantages.”

Taylor noted first that America’s strategic reserve forces were already spread paper-thin with missions throughout the world, and he was concerned about committing any of those forces to “a peripheral area of the Communist bloc,” where they might become pinned down. That “peripheral” area was Southeast Asia, a characterization that would certainly change within a few years, but Taylor wrote his cable less than three months after the Berlin Wall went up, and tensions in Europe were running high.

The strain on the U.S. military from its global commitments, which intensified during the Vietnam War, should have been remedied by at least a partial mobilization of the Reserve forces, with some being put on active duty in Vietnam. But political leaders, especially Johnson, when he became president, could never bring themselves to make that decision. As a result, U.S. forces assigned to NATO in Europe were progressively stripped to skeleton formations to feed the troop buildups in Vietnam, making NATO perilously vulnerable to aggressive Soviet actions.

In his memo, Taylor also pointed out that by committing ground forces to Vietnam, the United States would be staking even more of its international prestige on the conflict there. After the bloodshed of the communists’ Tet Offensive in 1968 turned more Americans against the war, the original U.S. objective—halting the spread of communism and ensuring the sovereignty of the Republic of South Vietnam—was replaced with a new goal: get out of there while “saving face.” In the end, the United States didn’t even achieve that objective.

Additionally, Taylor warned that if the first contingent of U.S. ground troops proved insufficient to stabilize South Vietnam, there would be pressure to reinforce them with more men, which would be difficult to resist and might mean “no limit to our possible commitment (unless we attack the source in Hanoi).” As the Pentagon Papers document, up through the Tet Offensive, the United States had, in fact fallen into a policy of “unlimited commitment,” something far different from “limited risk” policy of the Eisenhower administration.

In his final caveat, Taylor said the introduction of American combat units could increase regional tensions and lead to a massive Chinese intervention, witnessed a decade earlier in Korea. Fortunately, Vietnam did not spin out of control to become World War III-East, but it turned out to be a larger war than Korea—exactly the type of war on the Asian mainland that Taylor and the “Never-Again” bloc had once warned against.

Taylor, however, did not envision the type of large force that eventually characterized America’s commitment in Vietnam. He made clear the primary functions of his recommended combat force:

1. Provide a military presence to raise South Vietnamese morale and demonstrate America’s intention to prevent a communist takeover of Southeast Asia.

2. Support flood relief operations in the Mekong Delta, which was the fundamental fig leaf for the entire intervention.

3. Conduct necessary combat operations for self-defense.

4. Provide an emergency reserve for the South Vietnamese.

5. Act as an advance party for the introduction of any follow-on American forces that the situation might require. It was this function that ultimately served as the mechanism for America taking over the war.

Even in the beginning, a light, token combat force would not suffice, Taylor said, but he suggested that 8,000 troops would be enough to secure his stated missions. The proposed American force would not be used to clear the jungles of Viet Cong guerrillas, he said.  “That should be the primary task of the Armed Forces of Vietnam,” which would be organized and trained for that mission, with ample support from U.S. advisers down to the battalion level. Although the American troops were operating in an advisory role, they could be “called upon to engage in combat to protect themselves,” the general added.

In support of his recommendation, Taylor made several strategic and tactical assessments—which proved to be stunningly wrong, but haunted U.S. operations throughout the conflict. For example, Taylor incredibly claimed that South Vietnam was “not an excessively difficult or unpleasant place to operate. While the border areas are rugged and heavily forested, the terrain is comparable to parts of Korea where U.S. troops learned to live and work without too much effort.” Most Americans who served in ground combat units in Vietnam would be hard-pressed to agree with his characterization of the country as “not an excessively difficult or unpleasant place to operate.”

Dismissing his previously stated warning about actions that could lead to a major ground war in Asia, Taylor wrote: “The risks of backing into a major Asian war by way of SVN are present but are not impressive.” He supported his argument with two strategic assessments that turned out to be completely wrong, but which were widely accepted then and continued to handicap American decision-makers into the late-1960s.

First, North Vietnam was “extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing, a weakness which should be exploited diplomatically in convincing Hanoi to lay off SVN.” A belief in the overwhelming force of American air power was an article of faith among the nation’s political and military leadership. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay famously said that North Vietnam should be “bombed back to the stone age.” There was a fatal flaw in LeMay’s logic: Industrially and economically, North Vietnam was not that far removed from the Stone Age. There were few worthwhile strategic targets in the country.

From the early days of the Operation Rolling Thunder air campaign (March 1965-November 1968), as the Pentagon Papers make clear, most of the U.S. intelligence community believed the bombing was having very little real effect, physically or psychologically, on the North Vietnamese. Yet most political leaders, McNamara foremost among them, continued naively to believe that the North Vietnamese would “get the message” with just a little more pressure. 

An A-4 Skyhawk takes off from an aircraft carrier in 1966 during Operation Rolling Thunder. Taylor and many other political and military leaders believed the bombing campaign would quickly force the North Vietnamese communists to retreat from South Vietnam. (Getty Images)

In Taylor’s second erroneous assessment, he contended that both the North Vietnamese and their Chinese backers would face severe logistical difficulties as they tried to maintain strong forces in the field. American troops faced the same difficulties, Taylor acknowledged, “but by no means to the same degree.” He again reinforced his argument with the air power fallacy: “There is no case for fearing a mass onslaught of Communist manpower into SNV and its neighboring states, particularly if our airpower is allowed a free hand against logistical targets.”

Events, of course, proved otherwise. No matter how long and hard American aircraft pounded the Ho Chi Minh Trail, men and the materiel flowed, almost without interruption, from the north to south. A typical American division, with its heavy equipment and massive logistical tail, could never endure hundreds of miles of jungle and mountain trails and emerge an effective fighting force. But a mobile and lightly equipped North Vietnamese division, trained to live off the land, was a different beast entirely. 

Taylor’s recommendation to send combat troops to Vietnam received wide acceptance among Washington’s senior policymakers, especially McNamara, but there was one key exception: the president himself. Kennedy would not make such a commitment at the time. However, the proposal remained on the table, along with the flawed supporting arguments in Taylor’s cable.

Kennedy eventually tried to resolve the conflicts between Taylor’s ambiguous position as “military representative to the president” and the authority of the Joint Chiefs by making Taylor chairman of the Joint Chiefs in October 1962. That move, however, did little to heal the political-military breach. Taylor intentionally and continually misrepresented the views of the Joint Chiefs to the secretary of defense and kept the other chiefs at a distance from the political decision-making process, according to McMaster.

Contrary to the beliefs of the other chiefs—that it was their duty to provide the civilian leadership with objective military advice—Taylor apparently thought his job was to support the secretary of defense’s policy positions, including McNamara’s theories about the incremental escalation of military force. The experience of the four-star general’s entire career should have shown him the fallacy of such a strategy.

To his credit, Taylor did not support the Nov. 2, 1963, coup that resulted in Diem’s assassination. Less than three weeks later, Kennedy fell to an assassin’s bullet. Johnson retained virtually all of Kennedy’s national security team—as well as the dysfunctional and toxic political-military divide that came with it. But Taylor’s credibility with Johnson was so strong that in July 1964 the president sent him to Saigon as U.S. ambassador to manage the growing crisis.

Taylor’s recommendation for his successor as chairman was Army Chief of Staff Gen. Earl Wheeler, a talented and experienced staff officer who had almost no combat and little command experience.

Taylor’s relationship with the increasingly corrupt and self-serving Saigon government proved rocky at best. First, he supported Gen. Nguyen Khanh’s coup against Gen. Duong Van Minh, but then helped engineer the removal of Khanh as prime minister. With each step, America increasingly assumed ownership of the war.

Joining 23,000 American advisers already in Vietnam, the first U.S. ground combat troops, consisting of 3,500 Marines, arrived on March 8, 1965. The underlying logic for their deployment had changed little, except that the internal situation in South Vietnam was now far worse.

That initial force turned out to be exactly what Taylor had described in his 1961 cable: an advance party for follow-on American forces. At the war’s peak in 1968, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam.

Johnson and McNamara were convinced that Taylor would make the perfect senior partner to Gen. William Westmoreland, Taylor’s longtime protege who had recently assumed command of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, which oversaw all combat forces in South Vietnam. But the Taylor-Westmoreland “dream team” turned out to be anything but harmonious. Despite his original recommendation to commit combat troops, Taylor retained a limited vision for their role and mission, while Westmoreland advanced a far more aggressive approach that led to the United States taking over responsibility for the war.

However, Taylor, Westmoreland and McNamara all clung to their beliefs that U.S. air power could bomb the North Vietnamese leadership to the negotiating table and that the communist troop and supply lines to the south could be strangled.

By the time Taylor was replaced as ambassador in July 1965, the United States was already beyond the “point of no return” on its slippery slope to a strategic quagmire. Unfortunately, the tragedy had seven more years to run. Today, Westmoreland is castigated as “the general who lost Vietnam.” Perhaps that is a more accurate description of Taylor, whom Tom Ricks, in his 2012 book The Generals, said was arguably “the most destructive general in American history.” 

Retired Army Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki is Vietnam magazine’s editor emeritus.