U.S. Policy Mistakes in the Vietnam War (Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster)

Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster: U.S. Policy Mistakes in the Vietnam War

Recorded on Dec. 4, 2014

Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster describes a series of events that led to what he says was an American war in Vietnam that lacked strategy and failed to consider long term costs and consequences.

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Essentially in this period of time, as Vietnam became an American war, as President Johnson was thrust into the presidency after the assassination of President Kennedy, November of 1963, the president was motivated mainly by two things: one, to become elected in his own right in 1964, and then to pass the Great Society legislation in 1965.

He viewed Vietnam, principally, as a danger to those domestic, political goals. So what he wanted was advice from the military that would allow him to make decisions on Vietnam that did not place those goals in jeopardy. So even though it was clear to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and many others that it was time for a decision, a clear decision between an American war and disengagement from Vietnam, that sort of discussion really didn't even take place.

What happened is the president's advisors and the secretary of defense, in particular, developed a strategy to meet the president's concerns. That was the strategy of so-called "graduated pressure." It was based on a fundamentally flawed assumption that limited military actions, covert actions, against North Vietnam under OPlan 34A, beginning in January '64, and then limited bombing strikes against North Vietnam would convince Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese leadership to desist from its support for the Vietnamese communists in the south.

Now there are all sorts of problems with this thinking. One of the problems was mirror imaging the enemy and, in fact, applying, in this case, the rational man theory of English common law to Ho Chi Minh. In fact, there were memos written in this period of time that they would establish a common law pattern of attacks to convince Ho to do the rational thing. So, of course, this misunderstands, again, the nature of war. The fourth continuity in the nature of war is it didn't mention war is a contest of wills. And war and acts of war unleash a psychological dynamic that really don't allow you to have any kind of rational prediction of what the future or course of events are going to be.

The other thing, and we see this even today when we think about the application of standoff, long-range capabilities to war, is that really when you take standoff actions against an enemy, you are leaving decisions in the hands of that enemy, what they're going to do next. So the only way you can really compel an outcome is to have the military force able to compel the outcome. This is consistent with Thomas Schelling's writings about coercive forces. It's that brute force option that makes those actions short of that brute force option more effective in the area of dissuasion, or coercive diplomacy.

Really, from that point on, the Vietnamese communists and Ho had the initiative, and responded in ways that I think were actually eerily predictable. There were war games run in 1964—the Sigma war games—that were eerily prophetic in predicting the future course of events in the war. What happened, though, is that the president and the secretary of defense did not want the best military advice from the chiefs. In fact, in a phone call to Lyndon Johnson during when all these decisions were being made, he says to the president, "Hey I'm taking a divide and conquer approach with the chiefs and it's coming along pretty well." Essentially telling him, "Hey, you're not going to get really effective advice from them."

So what he was trying to do was keep them divided so that they wouldn't give him advice that could be used against his policy. He wanted to prevent any kind of a policy debate and he was deceiving the American people about the nature of America's commitment. It was not only counterproductive because it really removed what could've been an important corrective to what was, at least in retrospect, an unwise policy. But it was undemocratic. It delivered circumvention of the Constitution of the United States.

I think the criticism the chiefs said that at the time—and there were criticisms of each other later—was that they were a party to that because instead of drawing out the long-term cost and consequences of the war in a way that would help the president make that decision, they instead took a foot-in-the-door approach. Go along with this graduated pressure, get the first bombing runs off, and get the first troops committed under the idea that they would be able to argue over time for a more resolute application of force and the sources necessary to achieve the outcome.

This manifested itself during several meetings. One of them is, I think, quite revealing in which the chief says it's going to take at least 100,000 troops to make a difference—this is in the summer of 1965—and the president says, "I can't give you 100,000 troops." Then goes the next chief, "What do you think, 100,000 troops?" And he goes, "I can't give you 100,000 troops. Mothers would come out of their kitchens and take their aprons off," he said. And he turned to Robert McNamara who was sitting next to him and he said, "Let me tell you a story." He said "Imagine that you're in a small town and you have a business and you need to keep your business afloat. You need to go to the bank for your loan and it's Mr. McNamara's bank. You say, 'Hey I need $100,000 to keep my business going.' And Mr. McNamara tells you, 'I can't give you $100,000, but I can give you $5,000.' What do you do? Take the $5,000 and do the best you can, or just let your business go under?"This is how we went to war without a strategy. This is how we confused activity with progress in the Vietnam War and didn't consider long term costs and consequences.

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