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Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
First, you have to define victory, and we'll get along fine. Victory should mean attaining what you set out to accomplish. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you destroy all the enemy. It doesn’t mean necessarily obtaining the kind of formal surrender when the enemy lays down his arms as at Appomattox, let’s say, or on the deck of the battleship Missouri. In Vietnam, for example, there was a very clean objective announced at the offset and repeated over and over again by national leaders. Our objective was very simply to prevent a communist regime’s being imposed on South Vietnam and to allow South Vietnam to choose its own government. It was as simple as that. But eventually that objective was garbled and confused to the point where no one seemed to understand it. Eventually we were putting so many restraints on the military that it became almost impossible to create a situation that would allow the achievement of victory in that limited sense. For the military to be really effective, they have to know well in advance what they can and cannot do. It takes a great deal of time to plan these things. Sudden changes of policy may be justified for political reasons, but they can be untimely from a military standpoint.
Sometimes a political objective may be almost diametrically opposed to the military objective, in which case you’ve either got to change your political objective or keep out of the war. The political and the military aspects presumably come together in the President. He’s the commander in chief and has all the military power, and as head of state he has all the other forms of power. So it’s up to him to harmonize national resources.
Then you agree with Clausewitz that war is the ultimate extension of diplomacy?
I’m a Clausewitzian, but I wouldn’t quite put it that way. I would say that military power is one of many forms of national power which are used to achieve national and international goals. When war comes, its needs become preeminent, but all the rest [of a nation’s powers] must be coordinated and focused on the national goal.
You have stated publicly that you worry more about civilian leaders who are overly impressed by their own self-importance overriding military judgments than you are with any possible military challenge to civilian authority.
I hope I didn’t say it quite that way. Let me put it this way. Certainly not since the Civil War has there been any identifiable military candidate for the man on horseback. I can’t think of any. I might say, parenthetically, that you can’t find an officer in the Army today who even knows how to get on a horse. I think civilians would generally be amazed at how loyal the military is to the principle of civilian control and how shocked they are when any suggestion is raised to the contrary. On the other hand, our democratic system, the rotation of administrations—which political party doesn’t matter—and the rotation of the key people involved in national security, makes the first year of any new administration a time of great danger for the republic. The machinery of government is tremendously complex, and it has wheels and gears and throttles to make it go. A new gang comes in and doesn’t know where to put in the fuel or how to put on the brakes; and furthermore, these people don’t have experienced secretaries who have the telephone numbers of the people who do know. It’s a terrible time, a very dangerous period. I think the Bay of Pigs is perhaps the most recent and most dramatic indication of what can happen when a new administration comes in.
Why did President Kennedy turn to you after that fiasco?
No one was more surprised than I was. I had met Congressman Kennedy once when I was superintendent at West Point and on an occasion when he had asked me to make a talk at a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Boston. But I certainly had no feeling, no vibrations, to suggest that I was dealing with the next President of the United States. Then, after retiring in 1959, I wrote my book The Uncertain Trumpet and took off for Mexico to run the Mexican Light and Power Company. I was amazed during the presidential campaign to get a note from him saying he had read my book and liked it very much. We left Mexico in December, 1960, and were getting settled in New York when the Bay of Pigs occurred. He called me from the White House and said, “You see what a mess I’m in in Cuba.” “Well,” I said, “I did see the New York Times’ headlines about something going on in Cuba.” Thereupon he asked me to come down [to Washington] the next day and talk to him about it.
The first year of any new administration is a time of great danger for the republic.
Did he indicate why he had turned to you?
I failed to mention that when the Kennedy administration came in, I was called by the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, whom I’d known, and offered the ambassadorship to France. I said, “Why me?” Rusk replied in effect that the President thought it would be good to have a military man to deal with de Gaulle. I declined, but at least I had the feeling [JKF] knew who I was.
You once described the Bay of Pigs as the blundering use of power in support of questionable national interests.
I’m not sure I used those words, but that was my feeling.
After your official inquiry ended, was it a difficult decision to return to public life as a member of the Kennedy administration?