The decline of integrity, discipline and objectivity among the generals in Vietnam fostered a dysfunctional chain of command and an Army in disarray.
Just three decades before the United States found itself bogged down in an unpopular and seemingly unwinnable war in Vietnam, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called upon the nation’s leading military men to transform a small and admittedly third-rate armed force into the world’s most powerful. To do so required determined leaders who put mission above all else, who were unafraid to speak truth to power, and to whom failure by commanders was not accepted. Among them was George C. Marshall, who brought forward a stable of legendary generals who remain the hallmarks of American military leadership, the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Omar Bradley. By the time of Vietnam, however, the qualities ingrained in this cohort of men—and thus the expectations they held for their subordinate commanders—had greatly diminished, having profound consequences. In an excerpt from The Generals: American Military Command from WWII to Today, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and military affairs analyst Thomas E. Ricks examines the decline in generalship during the Vietnam War.
Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the discourse between civilian leaders and top generals that is essential to the conduct of war in the American system of government, already strained under President John F. Kennedy, began to break down altogether. President Johnson’s distrust of his generals extended well beyond the possibility of being challenged or misled by General William Westmoreland. “That’s why I am suspicious of the military,” Johnson told the most intimate of his biographers, Doris Kearns Goodwin. “They’re always so narrow in their appraisal of everything. They see everything in military terms. Oh, I could see it coming. And I didn’t like the smell of it. I didn’t like anything about it, but I think the situation in South Vietnam bothered me most. They never seemed able to get themselves together down there. Always fighting with one another. Bad. Bad.”
Policy is best formulated by using straightforward, candid dialogue to uncover and explore differences. But LBJ was afraid of those differences and used the process designed to formulate policy instead to obscure and minimize differences. A popular myth, persisting even in today’s military, is that senior civilians were too involved in the handling of the war. In fact, the problem was not that civilians participated too much in decision making but that the senior military leaders participated too little. President Johnson, General Maxwell Taylor and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara treated the Joint Chiefs of Staff not as military advisers but as a political impediment, a hurdle to be overcome, through deception if necessary. They wanted to keep the Chiefs on board with policy without keeping them involved in making it or even necessarily informed about it. Under President Johnson, the United States government pursued a policy of graduated pressure, which General Westmoreland summarized this way:
The campaign of escalating pressure through bombing continued in the hope that ground and air action together would prompt Hanoi to negotiate. Appropriate pauses were to be made in the air war to signal American intent and to allow time for a North Vietnamese response.
Had the policy formulation system been working, the wisdom of that approach would have been explored. Instead the White House excluded the senior generals, and the senior generals did not appear to listen to other generals. The approach of Westmoreland, shared by General William DePuy, hardly enjoyed universal support among military leaders. “It just seemed ridiculous on the face of it,” said General Frederick Weyand, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, who especially disliked the emphasis on measuring progress by counting the number of enemy dead.“I don’t know what the body count of the 25th Division was,” said Weyand, “and I didn’t care a hell of a lot.” Attrition, body count and “search and destroy” were the holy trinity of the Westmoreland approach to the war,Weyand said, and“I didn’t like any of them.”
Weyand was hardly alone. When retired Army Brig. Gen. Douglas Kinnard surveyed Army generals who had served in Vietnam about the conduct of the war, they were fairly evenly divided into three camps about the efficacy of the search-and-destroy concept. Thirty-eight percent said it was “sound,” 26 percent said it was sound at first but “not later” and 32 percent called it “not sound.” DePuy himself would concede decades later that the strategy of attrition rested on an unexamined premise: “We…didn’t know about the redoubtable nature of the North Vietnamese regime. We didn’t know what steadfast, stubborn, dedicated people they were. Their willingness to absorb losses compared with ours wasn’t even in the same ballpark.”Another general, Bruce Palmer, came to a similar conclusion: “We were searching and destroying, and fighting a battle of attrition, and trying to break the will of Hanoi simply by chewing up people. But we underestimated those people. They don’t quit that way.” Palmer added, correctly, that the other crucial factor the generals misunderstood was“how long our people back home would stand for it.”Had the policy formulation system not broken down, President Johnson and those around him might have better understood the military concerns about the conduct of the war, and his top generals might have grasped the domestic political limitations that approach would encounter.
General Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1962 through June 1964, further eroded the quality of civil-military discourse by playing down to McNamara the misgivings the other members of the Joint Chiefs had about the policy of attrition. McNamara, in turn, further reduced those concerns when conveying them to the president. The Chiefs, for their part, allowed themselves to be kept in the dark, cut off from the president. McNamara and Taylor actually worked to reduce communication between civilian and military officials, cutting off back channels between the military and the White House. Such alternate lines of communication are important to help fix the policymaking process when it fails to examine key assumptions or bring to the surface lingering differences in views.
No one had asked the American people whether they wanted to engage in a lengthy war of attrition on the other side of the planet, and in fact all the historical evidence at the time suggests that they would not. Nonetheless, Westmoreland would blame them for interfering with his strategy:“One reason they [Hanoi] could not read our signal was that the message was garbled by the loud and emotional voices of dissent on the domestic scene and sensational news reporting by the mass media.”It could be argued that, if anything, the gradualist signals sent were interpreted in Hanoi to mean that the Americans would not launch a full-scale attack.
The Joint Chiefs did not fail utterly in their duty. Irked by the gradualist approach, they came close to rebelling against Taylor near the end of his time as chairman, in June 1964. On May 30, they met without Taylor and produced a statement for the defense secretary that expressed their concern over the “lack of definition, even a confusion in respect to objectives and courses of action related to each objective.” They also ex pressed doubt about the entire approach of using military force to send signals and messages. The Chiefs intended their message to be read by McNamara before he joined Taylor, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other high officials in Honolulu for a meeting about the war. But on June 1, Taylor directed the memo to be withdrawn from McNamara’s office, on the grounds that he was unsure that its wording accurately reflected the views of the Chiefs. Incensed, the Chiefs met again, revised some of the language, and sent the new version to Hawaii with an explicit request that Taylor give it to McNamara. The Marine commandant also used his own Marine Corps back channels to verify that Taylor had represented the memo accurately. Such suspicions were well founded.“Despite the Chiefs’ urging, Taylor refused to submit their paper to the conferees, and after suppressing the memo, directly opposed the JCS position at the conference,”wrote Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster in Dereliction of Duty, his scholarly study of the professional and moral failures of the Joint Chiefs in dealing with the war. That lapse invited tolerance of greater sins.
Once obfuscation became accepted as the approach, it was hard to drop it. When Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon asked Taylor skeptical questions about the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 1964, “Taylor gave misleading answers,” McMaster noted. Later in 1964, the Joint Chiefs again made a run at expressing dissent. Taylor had been sent to Vietnam as U.S. ambassador and had suggested that Earle Wheeler succeed him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.Wheeler, growing frustrated in the post, eventually told McNamara that the Chiefs were prepared to state to the president that unless the war was taken vigorously to North Vietnam, they wanted to withdraw American forces from South Vietnam. McNamara met with the Chiefs and kept them from bolting by promising that he was willing to entertain the possibility of a series of major escalatory actions, from heavily bombing the North to confronting China in a land war—none of which he really wanted to take. When the Chiefs submitted a memo to the president stating their views, McNamara omitted a key phrase from it. The result of such evasion, concluded McMaster, was that“the assumptions that underlay the president’s policy went unchallenged by the one formal body charged by law and tradition with advising the president of the United States about strategy and warfare.”
Johnson was certainly a poor wartime commander in chief, but he remained a canny manipulator of men. In mid-1965, he cajoled the Joint Chiefs, “You’re my team; you’re all Johnson men.” At this point, duty should have overcome courtesy and impelled the Chiefs to correct their president, as General George C. Marshall almost certainly would have: They were not his men, they should have said—they were the nation’s men. Yet the president had measured them well, for, in fact, they would behave as his minions when they met with members of Congress and failed in their duty to be truthful.
Finally, in November 1965,Wheeler and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got up the nerve to go to the White House and present President Johnson with a united front. They called for an end to his policy of gradual escalation and lobbied to replace it with a major military offensive against North Vietnam. They wanted to pound North Vietnam hard from the air, with both Air Force and Navy jets, and also to mine and blockade its harbors. Furthermore, they wanted this application of “overwhelming naval and air power”to be done quickly. Johnson made it clear that this was not a welcome meeting. He did not offer them seats, though he listened attentively as they stood in a semicircle to present their recommendations.
When the Chiefs finished, the president turned his back on them for about a minute, leaving them standing while seeming to weigh their counsel. Then he whirled on them in a fury. “He screamed obscenities, he cursed them personally, he ridiculed them,”recalled Charles Cooper, then a Marine major, who had been brought to the meeting to hold maps. Among the names the president spewed, recalled Cooper, who later rose to the rank of lieutenant general, were“shitheads, dumb shits, pompous assholes.”After the Army chief of staff and the Marine commandant confirmed their support for a sharp, swift escalation of the war, Johnson again yelled at them.“You goddam fucking assholes.You’re trying to get me to start World War III with your idiotic bullshit—your ‘military wisdom.’” Then he ordered them to “get the hell out of here right now.”
In his car afterward, Admiral David McDonald, the chief of naval operations, said, “Never in my life did I ever expect to be put through something as horrible as you just watched from the president of the United States to his five senior military advisers.” Johnson had counterattacked powerfully. Henry Kissinger, meeting General Wheeler three years later, saw him as a beaten dog, resembling “a wary beagle, his soft dark eyes watchful for the origin of the next blow.” General Harold K. Johnson, the Army chief of staff, told students at the Army War College years later that at one point he had decided to resign as chief of staff of the Army.“And then on the way to the White House, I thought better of it and thought I could do more working within the system than I could by getting out,”he recalled.“And now I will go to my death with that lapse in moral courage.” He also seemed to retreat in place emotionally and professionally. “I acquired the feeling, the sense, that I was an observer, I was not a participant—particularly in my role as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
President Johnson’s tantrum was a modern low point in discourse between generals and presidents. Among other things, LBJ’s explosion recalls George Marshall’s wisdom in trying to maintain a social and emotional distance from the president. Had FDR spoken to him in the degrading fashion Johnson spoke to the Joint Chiefs, Marshall almost certainly would have replied that he clearly had lost the confidence of the commander in chief and so was obliged to submit his resignation as chief of the Army. It was a sign of the decline in the quality of the nation’s military leadership that none of those present in that November 1965 meeting did so. As General Mc Master wrote: “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well or, at least, to withhold the whole truth. Although the president should not have placed the Chiefs in that position, the flag officers should not have tolerated it when he had.”It was equally a sign of how LBJ had failed to live up to the example of Franklin Roosevelt, whom Goodwin called“his patron, exemplar, and finally the yardstick by which he would measure his achievement.” Unlike FDR, Johnson never really explained his war to the nation. “At no time that I was aware,” wrote Joseph Alsop, who became almost the last “hawk” among prominent journalists,“did President Johnson or his advisers seek to prepare the American people for the grim consequences of a protracted military battle, nor did they adequately explain to the public the reasons for the fight.” Neither the president nor the Joint Chiefs did their duty during the Vietnam War.
THE UNITED STATES AND NORTH VIETNAM WERE HEADING toward a major clash that would come early in 1968 and prove to be the determinative campaign of the war. Until then, it was possible for both sides to develop a genuine sense of progress—a situation surprisingly common in war. If the Americans were pushing back the Viet Cong and their Northern backers in 1967, the Communists could conclude at the same time that they had met the world’s most powerful military on the battlefield and, despite lacking its tanks, bombers and helicopters, had survived and even learned something about how to handle the newcomers. Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese defense minister, would write in September 1967: “The situation has never been as favorable as it is now. The armed forces and the people have stood up to fight the enemy.”By then the Communists were planning the major offensive they would launch five months later.
In fact, by late 1967, there were signs that the Vietnam War was beginning to sour for the U.S. Army. It was an unwanted war for which the Army had not prepared.“The officer corps of the 1960s was trained to fight Russians,” Charles Krohn, an Army intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1967-68, wrote decades later.“They envisioned massive tank and mechanized infantry battles. Force versus force. In Vietnam every American officer dreamed of the day when the little beggars would come out and fight, but they never did”—at least not during Krohn’s time there. As it fought in Vietnam, the Army was not much interested in the theories or tasks of counterinsurgency that lay outside “its standard operational repertoire,” Army analyst Andrew Krepinevich noted. This included tactics such as “long-term patrolling of a small area, the pervasive use of night operations, [and] emphasis on intelligence pertaining to the insurgent’s infrastructure rather than his guerrilla forces.”
The U.S. Army in Vietnam displayed a willful ignorance. It did not see a need to send senior officers to the British Jungle Warfare School in Malaysia. Nor did it choose to study the French experience in Vietnam a decade earlier, even though the French arguably had fought harder, with higher casualty rates. Pentagon analyst Thomas Thayer recalled being told by the French defense attaché in Saigon—a veteran of fighting in Vietnam who was chosen for the diplomatic post because of his excellent English—that during the first 18 months of his assignment, only one American had visited him to inquire about the lessons the French might have to share. Even more strikingly, when Army Special Forces troops under a CIA program began training villagers to defend themselves, the program worked, with armed locals posting “a record of almost unbroken success”against the Viet Cong.Areas around villages in the training program recorded a noticeable improvement in their security. Maxwell Taylor, then U.S. ambassador, directed the CIA to turn the program over to the U.S. military, resulting in a major drop in the effectiveness of the mission. “Our direction was you organized these villages for their own defense, and that expanding defense then excludes the enemy,”remembered William Colby, who was the CIA station chief in Saigon from 1959 to 1962 and then chief of the agency’s Far East Division until 1968.“When the military took over, it was ‘You take these forces and use them on offensive missions.’ They sent them up on the Cambodian border and they chased around in the woods and it never had a damn thing to do with the overall strategy.”In other words, they were misused just as Weyand’s 25th Infantry Division had been misused, with the same poor result. Under military control, over the following year the village defense program collapsed.
Nor did Army leaders pay much attention to the fact that during the early part of the war, the Viet Cong’s primary form of support was local: It drew almost all of its recruits from the surrounding population and its weaponry from government forces, through either capture or purchase.“The rationale that ceaseless U.S. operations in the hills could keep the enemy from the people was an operational denial of the fact that in large measure the war was a revolution which started in the ham lets and that therefore the Viet Cong were already among the people when we went to the hills,”Francis“Bing”West, Marine combat veteran and analyst wrote in a 1969 RAND study.
The Army’s leaders in Vietnam chose to ignore even the knowledge of its own best-informed members: When advisers in the field, close to the action, disputed the optimistic reports coming out of the American military headquarters in Saigon, their views were generally ignored. Early in his tenure as commander in Vietnam, Westmoreland ordered the advisers to put aside their frustrations and to “accentuate the positive” in their reports. One of the most outspoken advisers, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, effectively demanded a hearing, traveling to Washington in 1963 and using Army connections to line up an opportunity to brief the Joint Chiefs on his notably pessimistic views. Taylor, then still the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, learned about the planned briefing a few hours before it was to begin and, in collaboration with his protégé General Earle Wheeler, the Army chief of staff, canceled it at the last minute. A similarly skeptical October 1963 State Department report titled “Statistics on the War Effort in South Vietnam Show Unfavorable Trends” was swatted aside with a note from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to Secretary of State Rusk: “Dean: If you promise me that the Department of State will not issue any more military appraisals without getting the approval of the Joint Chiefs, we will let this matter die. Bob.”
The Army in Vietnam even managed to disregard formal internal reports that “noted the absence of an overall counterinsurgency plan and the excessive use of firepower, particularly in pacification operations,” wrote analyst Krepinevich. In March 1966, a lengthy report commissioned by General Johnson concluded, “The war has to be won from the ground up.” The Army chief of staff went on to make a series of somewhat muddled recommendations on how to bring about that reorientation. On the one hand, the report, which reflected the views of young officers who had served as advisers in Vietnam, stated that the American approach to the war had been “inappropriate” and “marginally effective.” The report found that “present U.S. military actions are inconsistent with that fundamental of counterinsurgency doctrine which establishes winning popular allegiance as the ultimate goal. While conceptually recognizing the total problem in our literature, Americans appear to draw back from its complexity in practice and gravitate toward a faulty premise for its resolution— military destruction of the VC.”
So rather than shift to what it needed to do, the Army would continue doing what it knew how to do, which is how bureaucracies act when they lack strong leadership. “We went and fought the Vietnam War as if we were fighting the Russians in the plains of central Europe for a very simple and straightforward reason—that was what we were trained, equipped, and configured to do,” said Robert Komer, the CIA officer who revitalized the pacification effort in Vietnam in 1967. “We overfunded and over-invested in a military war we couldn’t win the way we fought it, and we really didn’t do enough for what was, even from the outset, proving to be at least a limited success, and that was the pacification effort.” When Westmoreland was asked at a press conference about the best way to respond to an insurgency, he replied with one word: “Firepower.” It can be argued that the United States really never launched a genuine counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam.
The enemy learned how to deal with the American approach, and would encourage it as they neared the launch of their citycentric Tet Offensive, taking actions that would lure American forces into the countryside and borderlands. As Truong Nhu Tang, a former Viet Cong official, put it in his memoir, the result of the Americans’ concept of the war was that they never really participated significantly in the most important fight in Vietnam:“The military battlefield upon which the Americans lavished their attention and resources was only one part of the whole board of confrontation.And it was not on this front that the primary struggle was being played out.”
During the Vietnam War there was a lack of willingness among general officers to examine their own performance, as well as a lack of curiosity about it. “By the second decade after World War II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity,” causing otherwise intelligent men to act stupidly, wrote Neil Sheehan in one of the best books about the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie.
One result of such attitudes was the end of the relief of generals. If in Korea the Army had begun to find it difficult to relieve generals, during Vietnam it found it all but impossible. Firing senior officers would have been seen as a confession of failure. Furthermore, in a hazy war with a muddled strategy, what constituted success was less clear,so rewarding it and punishing failure became even more difficult.The result was that by the arrival of the Vietnam War,firing a general officer amounted to an act of dissent, a public questioning of the way the Army worked, because it involved someone who had risen through a demanding process over two decades. To say that he was not fit for a position was tantamount to a rejection of the process that had produced him. So where relief was once a sign that the system was working as expected—rewarding success and punishing failure—it had become seen inside the Army as a hostile critique of the system. As General Westmoreland put it, “If an officer progresses through the United States Army’s demanding promotion system to reach the rank of general, he is, except under the most unusual circumstances,clearly competent,even if he may not be the best man for every assignment.”
Everyone makes mistakes, especially when operating under the extreme mental and physical stress of combat. Indeed, part of the art of combat is forcing the enemy to commit errors. But victory in war often goes to those who are able first to recognize their mistakes and then to correct them.American generals did not seem able or even willing to do so in Vietnam. For years, American generals refused to recognize mistakes, to the point of self-deception.As historian John Gates put it,“The stubborn commitment of the high command to error defies belief, but the evidence of it would seem to be overwhelming.”
Seemingly unable to do their own jobs, the American generals of the Vietnam War often sought to do the work of their subordinates. One of the enduring images of the war is that of commanders hovering over the battlefield in command helicopters. William Rindberg recalled being a platoon leader in a serious fight:“The battalion commander was almost forced off the air, and the brigade commander was on the net controlling one of the platoons, the division commander was talking with the company commander. All this was going on and the company commander was getting pretty frustrated.He couldn’t even talk to his own platoons because everybody was on his net.”
The relatively new technology of the helicopter might have enabled generals to try to escape their roles. Instead of trying to improve strategy, generals and colonels climbed into aircraft and became what one general called “squad leaders in the sky.” They found themselves in a situation where the fundamental task of a general—to understand the nature of the fight and adjust his force to it—may have been all but undoable. When strategy becomes inexplicable, the natural tendency is to retreat into tactics. “Kill more Viet Cong” was at best a tactical imperative, but it became the mantra from the White House and the Pentagon down to the headquarters of the U.S. military in Vietnam.
Thomas E. Ricks, a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, has covered U.S. military activities around the world and has authored several books including The Gamble and the New York Times bestseller Fiasco.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.