The main idea of this book is to use detailed chronicle of events from the beginning of Kennedy administration until July 1965, the beginning of mass escalation by Johnson administration to demonstrate how inter-service rivalry, bureaucratic maneuvering, and plain political cowardice led to failure of military leaders to provide clear advice to political leaders against untenable semi-war intentionally designed not to win. It also demonstrates how typical bureaucratic career enhancing games taken to the level of the Country’s military leadership and involving military engagements could sacrifice lives of many thousands of people for some additional star or bureaucratic advancement for individuals at the top.
1 The New Frontiersmen and the Old Guard: 1961-October 1962
The story starts with the new president – Kennedy coming to power and bringing with him the big philosophical change in American politics. It coincided with establishment of Max Taylor, who was proponent of the new approach to military, as Army Chief of Staff. The political consequence was the change from Eisenhower’s doctrine of mass retaliation to Kennedy’s doctrine of flexible response. Eisenhower believed that competition between communism and capitalism will be resolved in economic and society building competition so military aspect should be limited to prevention of big war by the making it impossible to start small wars and then escalate them. This doctrine made it impossible to achieve expansion of communism by revolutionary methods of internal subversion. The mass retaliation doctrine required a small high tech and massively nuclear force with supplement of quick and effective support of counter-revolutionary forces wherever communists get real opportunity for break through. This doctrine stopped Korean War, kept in check multiple countries of the third world, preventing communist take over, even at the expense of respect for national sovereignty of these countries, and successfully prevented any serious wars for the 8 years.
Kennedy’s doctrine however was based on complex ideas of theory of games, flexible retaliation, proportional escalation, and formal adherence to international norms with massive undercover operations outside of these norms that would somehow remain secret. This doctrine required massive army since proportionality of response and prevention of use of nuclear weapons become more important than winning. This attitude put Kennedy on collision course with military leaders who came out of WWII with notion of winning, which he successfully overcame by using bureaucratic maneuvering to implant his supporters like Taylor in leading military positions and non-military wiz kids like Robert McNamara in leading civilian positions over military.
2 Havana and Hanoi: October 1962-November 1963
The first consequence of new Kennedy doctrine was American failure in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs when Kennedy’s ineptitude and his intention to hide American support to anti-Castro forces at any cost led to defeat of these forces and consequent conversion of Cuba into communist dictatorship and Soviet military base. The following missile crisis forced Kennedy to go to the brink of nuclear war and eventually delivered huge victory to the USSR that was successfully masked by American pro-Kennedy media as Soviet defeat. However indecisive Kennedy was in fight against communist Castro, he compensated by decisive intervention in Vietnam against Diem, who until then successfully contained communist forces by using not very nice methods of suppression. Kennedy administration organized the coup that killed Diem and by doing so caused disarray in anti-communist forces, opening door for massive intervention of North Vietnam, Kennedy administration leaders were ready to meet with sophisticated strategy of game theory.
3 New War, New Leader: November 1963-January 1964
After Kennedy’s assassination new president Johnson found himself between two opposite pressures. On one hand Democratic Party and left wing demanded limited military response initially unconsciously and later fully consciously supportive to “progressive” communist movement, while on other hand republicans and right wing movement stand by ready to exert massive political punishment for loosing Indo-China similar to Truman’s suffering for loosing China. The fear to win as much as fear to loose pretty much defined his policy of receding any initiative to communist forces and using retaliation by proportional escalation to contain their success.
4 Graduated Pressure: January-March 1964
This is the story of the initial attempt to gradually increase pressure not necessarily to stop communist forces, but rather to find acceptable accommodation with them. It was base on the strange reading of Caribbean missile crises result as a demonstration of success for gradual approach, rather than success of direct threat of mass retaliation that in reality it was.
5 From Distrust to Deceit: March-July 1964
This chapter is a nice demonstration of elite modus of operandi when their action based on sophisticating reasoning and mathematical approach deliver completely different result than elite expects: they just lie and distort result to fit to their narrative. In this case the main actor was McNamara who successfully interfered in communication between president and military leaders, which eventually made clear choice to give priorities to their career rather than to risk it by giving honest professional advice and resigning if their advice is not accepted.
6 Across the Threshold: August 1964
Meanwhile the Joint Chiefs personal was changed with pushing out WWII fighting generals like LeMay and substituting them with bureaucratic generals like Wheeler. All this added to election complain where Johnson ran as peacemaker, successfully trying to present his opponent as warmonger. Interestingly enough it was in conjunction with attempt to demonstrate strength by providing limited military operations in Vietnam, when Gulf of Tonkin events of Vietnamese attacks on American destroyers were used to initiate congressional resolution, demonstrating Johnson’s strength, and repudiating Goldwater’s accusations.
7 Contriving Consensus: August – September 1964.
Direct strikes against North Vietnam resulting from Tonkin resolution did demonstrate Johnson strength, but did not change overall strategy of administration directed not at winning the war, but at convincing enemy to settle. This chapter details personalities, their history, and attitudes that led to continuing clashes between military and political leadership with military consistently giving way so the strategy of limited response with automatic transfer of initiative to the enemy remained operational.
8 Prophecies Rejected and the Path of Least Resistance September-November 1964
This is about actual predictions of supporters of limited semi war such as Rostow and attempts to analyze them using traditional methodology of war game. Such game SIGMA 11-64 was formally conducted and concluded that such limited engagement will not achieve objective of changing enemy behavior, but it would erode support for war in USA. The prediction was correct, but policy makers just ignored these results. The chapter also discusses some guerilla attacks on American troops and retaliation that had to be strictly calibrated to be proportional.
9 Planning for Failure: November-December 1964
This is about bureaucratic process of long term planning that administration conducted pretty much excluding military leadership. The special commission was created for this purpose, which produced report mainly reaffirming objective to save South Vietnam, but also including planning of how to spin events in the case of defeat. Overall all activities were conducted with accommodation to political requirements so prevent public from understanding that country is actually at war.
10 A Fork in the Road: December 1964-February 1965
At this point Johnson visited Vietnam where he tried to suppress internal political infighting between various groups in Vietnam leadership threatening withdrawal of American support. After concluding that South Vietnam would not stand on its own even with American air and logistics support, Johnson started introducing ground troops despite his preferred objective to established the great society programs.
11 The Foot in the Door: February-March 1965
At this point the war was turned into American war. However even after committing ground troops and starting to bomb Northern territory civil politicians retained detailed control over military operations, practically preventing military from winning the war. Meanwhile political situation within South remained fluid with internal struggles and even coup attempt.
12 A Quicksand of Lies March-April 1965
This chapter presents a nice catalogue of spin and outright deception that Johnson administration used to hide scale and nature of American growing involvement in the war. The conclusion here is that taken this entire together one had to accept failure of the bureaucracy to prevent its top leader – president from starting real war without consideration of its costs and consequences.
13 The Coach and His Team April-June 1965
This is about the process of Johnson’s continuation of dual efforts to increase military involvement and hide its scale from the public. It was policy doomed to be a failure in such open society as USA.
14 War without Direction: April-June 1965.
This is about one of the main causes of failure: deep involvement of the top leadership into operational issues that inevitably led to neglect of strategic issues that in turn led to long periods of wondering without clear detailed and achievable objectives that made it practically impossible to win war against determined enemy with clear knowledge of his objectives and readiness to pay any price to achieve them.
15 Five Silent Men duty: July 1965
The final chapter is about failure of military Chiefs to stand up to political leadership for what they believed is a case in Vietnam War. Obviously for these people their own career was more important than anything else for all practical purposes.
MY TAKE ON IT:
It is very a detailed and in depth analysis of American involvement in Vietnam from the point of view of interactions between senior political and military leaders who failed at all meaningful levels from strategic to operational to tactical. I think this raises the very important question of war and peace. I guess the founders were wise when they wrote into constitution that power to declare war belongs to Congress as the most populous and close to the people body, guaranteeing by this that it would not be done easily or for non-critical reasons. Unfortunately starting with Truman this constitutional wisdom was disposed off, leading to 70 years of failure. We lucky that these wars were relatively small and insignificant due to nuclear weapons and American technological superiority, but still costs of these wars, not only in human lives and dollars, but also in overall moral and cohesiveness of society was way too high. If such approach will continue in the future it will eventually get to the very dangerous levels.