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Page 48
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<< 47. Grave Removal in Northern Quang Tri Province, late 196649. Keep Singing >>

From Dealey Plaza to Gulf of Tonkin

By John Crandell

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Random thoughts on the leadup to Lyndon's Big Lie (The first of a three-part dissection of LBJ).

Statistics were ever the bottom line with Robert Strange McNamara. Numbers were his only mantra. Once installed at the Pentagon early in 1961 he brought in his "Whiz Kids" and having received carte blanche from JFK, began a top-to-bottom review of the entire defense program. His deadline ran right into the brick wall of normative operations in the five rings of the five-sided Pentagon. His management techniques gained in formulating firebombing of cities in World War II, in college studies, and rising through the ranks at Ford, Inc. quickly were short-circuited by military bureaucracy. Added power granted by Kennedy allowed him to push aside and largely ignore the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In White House meetings, they would never volunteer a word of advice unless asked and their mute reticence irked Kennedy. He downgraded their value and brought Maxwell Taylor out of retirement to try and ease the friction. Being pushed aside, the analytic input of the Chiefs became lost amid McNamara's predilection for dominance. Also, the arrogance of the cigar-chomping General Curtiss LeMay annoyed the hero of PT-109. LeMay sat immediately to the left of Taylor in meetings in the Roosevelt Room. Their antagonism towards one another soon became legendary. Taylor hated tobacco smoke. LeMay would light up and puff blue clouds out of the right side of his mouth. And Taylor was not the only recipient of abuse. When Kennedy refused to order the immediate bombing of Cuba in the 1962 Missile Crisis, LeMay left the door open while relieving himself in the president's Oval Office restroom—for all to hear. He was the all-time loose howitzer in relations between the Pentagon and the White House and would soon be immortalized by actor Slim Pickens in the film Doctor Strangelove.

The Whiz Kids disparaged sole reliance upon military experience. The circuit breaker would blow on their quantitative analysis come the third day of January, with Kennedy nearing two years in office. That had come with the infamous Battle of Ap Bac south of Saigon, the engagement of ARVN and Viet Minh forces which illustrated ARVN command's reluctance to engage despite advisor John Paul Vann's advice. Guerilla marksmen had improved their aim and brought down several American helicopters. With the disastrous results reported by Halberstam and Sheehan, Taylor dispatched General Earl Wheeler to Saigon for an assessment. The general returned to Washington and delivered a damped-down report. To have rendered an accurate assessment would have stood as an embarrassment to the Kennedy administration's efforts in counterinsurgency. A spot-on report would have pictured the South Vietnamese military as a gaggle of idiots kowtowing to a corrupt, repressive dictatorship; would have stood diametrically in contrast to political necessities in the US capital. An adequate report would also have revealed in-country commander General Paul Harkins as being a deluded lunatic and that he and Ambassador Lodge were at each other's throats.

By November of 1963, Taylor had become chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Three of its members had been reassigned under the administration's effort to get Pentagon commanders to get with it. Only LeMay remained due to his influence in Congress. Army General Decker had advised McNamara that the American military could not win a conventional war in southeast Asia—and was forced to retire as a result. Also forced to retire was Navy Admiral George Anderson who had gotten in McNamara's face during the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. Georgie was never forgiven.

After Kennedy's death, what had been his distaste for the military mindset was replaced by a simulacrum in Lyndon Johnson's rabid need for support, consensus, and approval. The new chief executive was notoriously averse to dissent and was obsessed with the need to project unity. Customary interservice rivalries among the chiefs resulted in his brushing them aside, with a long-drawn-out tragic result. McNamara and Taylor were dispatched to Saigon for an assessment in the second week of March of 1964. Upon return, McNamara reported Harkins as being self-delusive and inept in his performance. In June he was replaced by Westmoreland who in turn proceeded to continually cook the books in assessing NLF/NVA strength. By then, McNamara had come to realize that the Chief's intelligence reports served primarily as a means for the acquisition of greater resources and so decided to pay little heed. However, as the cost of increased materiel for assisting South Vietnam rose, McNamara deliberately underestimated 1963-1964 spending and later expressed surprise when forecasts were exceeded so that Johnson could expand domestic spending. As costs rose in future years, he would continue to produce doctored numbers to satisfy Johnson's desire to mislead Congress and the nation. He'd quickly become the favorite among Johnson's cabinet by fully supporting Johnson's nullification of Kennedy's NSAM conceived for an immediate one-thousand-man reduction and a rapid withdrawal of American personnel following the fall election of 1964. An insidious aspect lay with LBJ's favoritism. McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to both Kennedy and Johnson would eventually describe the latter as being "the wariest man about whom to trust that I have ever encountered." Bingo. Anyone halfway familiar with Johnson's sordid career before 1960 can see much in that statement.

Prior to his appointment as ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan had served as assistant to White House advisor Averill Harriman and had occupied several desks at Foggy Bottom. In February of 1964 he was given specific Oval Office instructions—tasked with collecting opinions from various federal departments on the issue of how best to proceed in Vietnam. Pressure from somewhere had called for taking more active military measures and it wasn't coming from the Pentagon. Right off, Curtis LeMay told him that the current policy "would result in US involvement over an indefinite period with no light in sight." Other Joint Chiefs rumbled that Americans would not support a limited involvement. Taylor weighed in, voicing that Americans would sour over an involvement extending past 1965. LBJ had given Sullivan orders to formulate only one single path, and nothing more: "a slow, very slow escalation" of aerial bombardment of the north. This was a full year in advance of what became the game-changing NLF attack on Camp Holloway at Pleiku. Eyeing the November election, Johnson in no way wanted to create a comparison with the nation's experience in Korea. His long-time associates and benefactors back home in Texas quite likely were the source of pressure. The fact was that they had leverage, and lots of it.

Half a century later, for his 2014 master's thesis at Fort Leavenworth, Major Jeffrey Quail set out to prove that beginning in 1963, a decade of corporate operational contract support of Pentagon ops in Vietnam "positively affected the future logistical capabilities of the US Military." He was duly awarded a master's degree from the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies. He ought to have dedicated his study to Lyndon Baines Johnson—as he inadvertently revealed the primal factor in the US having invaded a small nation on the other side of planet Earth.

The downgrade of the Joint Chiefs' input had served to fortify McNamara's dominance of the department. He could dominate on one side of the Potomac and wantonly wag his tail on the other. That's why 'Ol Hang Dog loved him. One month following the assassination in Dallas, LBJ telephoned McNamara from the Johnson Ranch on Christmas Day with a curious holiday greeting. Only four weeks had lapsed since Kennedy's brains had been blown to smithereens. He said this to the strange man: "You are one of the nicest things about this Christmas. You've made our year mighty comforting to know you're around. There's no one in government that means more than you, and I just wanted to say that to you." Many years later McNamara would relate that his actions under Kennedy during the Missile Crisis had been a personal triumph (after first having recommended an invasion), that he'd learned much during his first year and nine months as SecDef, that by then his views had become "pretty well fixed" and he then turned his attention to South Vietnam with full confidence.

The South Vietnamese government's sway in the provinces weakened during the first half of 1964 and McNamara and Taylor made a second trip across the Pacific. Arriving back in the Pentagon, the Brilliantined SecDef wrote a report containing three options, each one conceived in view of the November election. By his actions since JFK's death and his having been in accord with Kennedy's plans for withdrawal and then wagging his tail for war for Johnson's political welfare, McNamara became America's elemental hegemon of the coming eleven-year disaster. He would always speak with wide-eyed gonzoid authority. Ironically, even in attempting to account for all of the wrong decisions speaking to the press following the publication of his book In Retrospect in 1996, he was never undone or abjectly ridden about his and Johnson's malevolence. Interviewed by Errol Morris in the 2003 film The Fog of War, his pepped-up enthusiasm comes through in spades. He seems enthralled to have finally realized he had made an inordinate statistical error. And sadly, the foremost conclusion after reading his son's harrowing memoir—Because Our Fathers Lied, is that Craig McNamara never fully came to grips with his dad having clearly signed off on him early on. While he was in prep school in New Hampshire, he called his father, and made a request to be sent government leaflets regards Vietnam, background information for an upcoming teach-in on the reality of US involvement circa 1966. Silence ensued. Craig was near going overboard, off the boat. Yet no memoir has better delineated that time in American history. Getting off of his father's craft freed him up, allowed for his embrace of the world as it is, and quite an adventurous life his has been.

John Crandell served in II Corps with the 4th Infantry in 1969. Camp Enari, then the division's base of operations, is now solidly covered with uniform rows of tea plants. Only the faint trace of the base perimeter remains.

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