After a varied career as a soldier, statesman, diplomat, and presidential adviser, Taylor wants to known as someone who “always did his damndest.”
If the Strait of Malacca had been in the Mediterranean, Maxwell Davenport Taylor might well have become a famous—and habitually seasick—American admiral. That three-thousand-mile error on the entrance examination to Annapolis launched Taylor instead on a brilliant career as an Army officer, in both World War II and Korea, and later as a statesman, diplomat, and presidential adviser. He was born August 26,1901, in Keytesville, Missouri, and spent many childhood hours listening to the Civil War memories of his maternal grandfather, a one-armed former Confederate sergeant.
Geography betrayed him on his Annapolis exam, but he did splendidly at West Point, graduating fourth in a class of 102, in 1922. He received his diploma from Superintendent Douglas MacArthur, who had made the cadet a lifelong nonsmoker by legalizing tobacco at the academy, which “took the fun out of the game.” The new second lieutenant of engineers served in a drab, unexhilarating Army that was supposed to have been rendered obsolete by the war to end all wars.
Promotion was strictly by seniority—a stagnating condition that led many promising young officers to resign: Taylor spent thirteen long years before receiving his captain’s bars. Tours as a student at the Engineer School at Camp Humphreys, the Artillery School at Fort Sill, and the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth were interspersed with a five-year assignment on the faculty at West Point, where he taught French and Spanish. His linguistic skills brought him, in 1935, a coveted appointment as a language officer in japan, part of a rotating exchange program between the two potentially hostile nations.
Arriving in Yokohama that October with his wife, the former Lydia Happer, and their two sons, Jack and Tom, Taylor devoted himself to mastering the complexities of Kanji, the Chinese characters with which Japanese is written. After eighteen months of study, the young officer was attached to a Japanese artillery regiment on firing maneuvers at the foot of Mount Fuji. That fascinating assignment was abruptly terminated when he was summoned ta Peking to interpret for Colonel “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, then an American military attaché observing the Japanese invasion of North China.
Taylor returned to Washington in June, 1939, to become a member of the last class at the Army War College before World War II. The following spring, he was sent to Central and South America to assess hemispheric defense needs against the Nazis. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Major Taylor was a member of the military secretariat serving the Army chief of staff, George C. Marshall.
During World War II Taylor served with high distinction, first as chief of staff of the 82nd Airborne Division, in North Africa and Sicily, later as commanding general of the 101st Airborne. He led the famed “Screaming Eagles” into battle at Normandy on D-Day and in subsequent actions in the Arnhem operation in Holland and in the defense of Bastogne during the latter days of the Bulge. After the war he served as superintendent of West Point and as the commander of the American military government and Army forces in Berlin. He commanded the U.S. 8th Army during battles immediately preceding the 1953 armistice in Korea, and later believed he had ended his military career as the Army chief of staff during the second term of President Dwight D. Elsenhower, his friend and wartime commander.
Retiring as a four-star general, Taylor became the chairman of the board of the Mexican Light and Power Company in Mexico City in 1959. He lost that position the following year when the Mexican government purchased the utility, and he returned to New York as the president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Meanwhile he had eloquently argued, in his first book, The Uncertain Trumpet, for a flexible military response to replace the strategy of massive retaliation advocated under Eisenhower.
Taylor’s views were favorably received by the new President, John F. Kennedy, who summoned him to Washington after the Bay of Pigs invasion and asked him to head up a special committee to investigate and analyze the ill-fated invasion of Cuba. His work with the Cuba Study Group, which included Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, resulted in his appointment on July 1, 1961, as military representative to the President and, from 1962 to 1964, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President Lyndon Johnson appointed Taylor ambassador to South Vietnam in 1964. He returned the next year as a special consultant to the President, as well as head of the Institute for Defense Analyses. He again retired in 1969. Taylor has written two other books on national defense, Responsibility and Response (1967) and Precarious Security (1976), and an autobiography, Swords and Plowshares (1972). Despite problems with arthritis, he maintains a busy schedule of activities, including frequent lectures at the War College. Recently he sat on the sun porch of his Washington apartment facing the Japanese embassy next door and discussed aspects of his life and career with AMERICAN HERITAGE:
General, weren’t you one of the Allied Commanders accused of coddling Nazi leaders at the end of World War II?
You’re referring to the incident involving Field Marshall [Albert] Kesselring. Our division had pushed up to Berchtesgaden, and among the bigwigs we captured was Kesselring, who had been Hitler’s last commander in chief in the west. After he surrendered, we put him up in a hotel for safekeeping, and the press began demanding an interview with him. Army headquarters approved the press conference, which I set up in the hotel lounge. Kesselring sat at one end of a long table, the press at the other end. The one stipulation was that no photographs were to be taken. But someone took an unauthorized picture showing Kesselring flanked by me and another American general. In front of us in the picture were a pile of glasses and wine bottles, which were actually down in front of the reporters. The photo was published in London a few days later with the caption “Another back-slapping party with the Nazis.”
Did this get you in trouble with Army headquarters?
It was a quite sensitive issue, as you can imagine. Fortunately, I had strong proof of my innocence and was able to explain what had happened. A neighboring division commander was not so lucky. Hermann Goering had walked up to him and abruptly stuck out his hand. The commander made the gross mistake of taking it. That photograph set off a tremendous outcry back home, which sort of proved the truth of the old saying that “war hath no fury like a noncombatant. ” Well, although anybody ought to know not to shake hands with Goering, I never had any feelings of animosity toward German soldiers. They were fighting for their cause and were doing the best they could, and we were doing our best to destroy them. There’s a certain international camaraderie among soldiers. It’s historical. But the public reaction to these incidents was, in a way, just part of the “hate-the-brass” postwar period when the senior officers get charged with everything that happened except the final victory.
Have you any idea why we turn on our heroes so quickly?
I don’t know if we turn on the individual heroes, as such. Wars are just not pleasant, even when all agree the war is indispensable and victory is achieved, as was the case in World War II. The country was simply fed up with it. Lots of young men had been in very disagreeable and sometimes very dangerous places, and they were damn tired of just the sight of the uniform. When I was superintendent of West Point right after the war, I visited a lot of college campuses and received boos from many of the students. They weren’t really mad at me, and it didn’t hurt my feelings. I could understand that my uniform reminded them of a very unpleasant experience. Later, the older veterans become very sentimental about their wartime associates and change their attitudes completely. That kind of reaction is fairly understandable, I think, in any democracy.
In your autobiography and other writings, you seem quite critical of what you consider biased reporting, not just against the military but against government in general.
Yes, but let me make this distinction. During World War II, I would say that relations with the press on the Western front were very good. I think Ike showed good judgment in taking members of the press into his confidence on some things and never got really burned. You had the feeling the press was with you. They recognized it was their war just as much as it was ours. In Vietnam, that changed, though. That’s where my complaints were.
You’ve referred to the reporters in Vietnam as a different breed.
We had some who were over there not to report what was going on but rather to try to make events happen. In the good old days “all the news that’s fit to print” meant what it said. Reporters didn’t show personal bias on the news pages, or were not supposed to, and generally didn’t. Then, on the editorial page, the newspaper used its power to influence opinions and events. That is thoroughly reputable, thoroughly understandable, thoroughly defensible. But now almost every reporter feels he has to be an investigative reporter uncovering the skulduggery of officials, and he’s against them.
Doesn’t the press have a legal obligation to serve as an unofficial watchdog on government?
I don’t know that that’s in the Constitution. I think that the exposure of rascals and incompetents is one of the results that should come out of good reporting. If we get the man who is involved in misdeeds, that’s an aspect of the truth that should come out. The factual reporting of events also allows the public to judge the quality of their elected or appointed officials. You can’t argue those points. But in the case of Vietnam, it was really a question of motivation. There were reporters in Saigon who boasted openly that they were going to get [General Paul] Harkins, for instance. They were opposed to the way he carried out government policy. I often said when I was U.S. ambassador there that I was fighting on four fronts: one against the Viet Cong, one against Hanoi, one against Washington, and the fourth against the media.
Were there really open hostilities with the press at times?
Very much so. It wasn’t that bad while I was ambassador, but when the American troops got there, then the press really came to Vietnam in great numbers, and every day something had to get back home for publication. Sometimes they reported what happened, and sometimes they didn’t. There is no question but that a lot of it was very biased.
But hardly as biased as the government-controlled press you experienced as a young officer during the 1930’s in Japan.
When I was over there [1935–39], that was wartime from the Japanese point of view, because they were at war with China, and censorship was on. We had no transoceanic radio at that time. At the embassy we’d get a pouch about twice a month. You had cables, of course, but in terms of newspapers and things of that sort, comment on world events, almost nothing. So I had to depend entirely on the Japanese newspapers for news, so that after awhile I became almost convinced Hirohito was the Son of Heaven. You could just feel your critical abilities fade.
What was the purpose of the exchange of military personnel between Japan and the United States?
Since the turn of the century, after we went to the relief of Peking, our Army and Navy had an arrangement whereby two officers would go each year to Japan and China to learn the language. Japan sent the same number here. In the case of the Army, you were allowed to be assigned to one of their military units. But in the case of the Navy, the Japanese were so secretive that our officers never had any comparable assignments. I don’t know what we did with their naval officers, but I hope there was absolute reciprocity.
How did you get into the exchange program?
I had heard about the program as a West Point cadet, and being much interested in languages—I spoke French and Spanish—after graduation I came down here to Washington to apply. I went to the old executive office building which, would you believe, then housed all of the state department and all the Army and Navy senior offices. I was a brand new second lieutenant of engineers. The Army intelligence officer I talked to looked me over and said, “Taylor, I’ll put your name down, but I must say you’ll never get the assignment because the engineers would never approve of it.” So I thanked him and went my way and thought no more of it. In 1935, when I was about to leave the Command and General Staff School at [Fort] Leavenworth for a very undesirable assignment, some angel was looking after me, because a wire came from the War Department asking if I was still interested in going to Japan.
Was intelligence the real purpose of the exchange?
Yes, to learn the language and become as familiar as one could with the Japanese military establishment. You must remember, between the world wars, if you asked why do we have armed forces, generally the answer was because of the threat of Japan. While that was not an urgent thing, it was nevertheless in the background. Japan was regarded as our most likely enemy in case of war.
Were you writing reports on Japanese tactics?
I was assigned to a Japanese artillery regiment for a couple of months, after I was able to read their newspapers and have conversations. After that I was sent to China to serve as a Japanese-speaking assistant to Colonel “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who was observing the advance of the Japanese army south to the Yellow River. Then, when the war moved south, I was ordered back to our embassy in Tokyo, where I acted as an assistant military attaché. I had a very interesting self-assigned job. The Japanese were so damned secretive that you couldn’t get your hands on their military literature or anything of the kind you routinely read in newspapers here. But I discovered by prowling around the sites of the principal military schools in Tokyo that I could buy textbooks that were printed to help officers pass examinations to get into the schools. These books gave tactical problems along with the approved solutions. I collected some sixty-four of these map problems and, trying not to look at their solutions, staked out each situation on the appropriate map, as I had been trained to do at Leavenworth, and then wrote out my solution. Then I compared each with the book’s solution to find the differences between the oriental and occidental military minds.
What were the differences?
The Japanese army was completely fascinated, deluded actually, by their faith in seishin [spirit] and their belief that the armies of the emperor were invincible and hence should never go on the defensive. Always attack. It was similar to offensive à outrance, the doctrine of the French army in 1914 which led to so many bloody defeats early in World War I. According to Japanese theory, if you were in a situation where obviously in view of your mission you should defend your position or conceivably even retreat to another, they would always put on a night attack. Even though they clearly wouldn’t have enough strength, they’d take advantage of the night and try to surprise the enemy. A night attack was something our forces were very leery of doing because of the disorder that can be created. So it was clear we could expect many night attacks and very little defensive action. You could also get some details of technique from their use of artillery, which was always very bad from an American point of view. Technically the Japanese were way back about World War I in the use of artillery fire. They didn’t know how to mass their artillery effectively. So those insights were of value.
What did you do with this information?
I put it all in a report which became the basis of our first combat handbook on the Japanese army. After a few engagements we had a much clearer perception. But I checked after the war, and there wasn’t much in my report that wasn’t right.
In 1939, what was your estimate of the Japanese fighting man?
You could see that the human material was excellent. It was typically the Japanese peasant who was your soldier. He was a short little fellow, but broad shouldered, hardy. He expected little from life and got little from life. He was clearly a tough infantry man.
Given your choice, would you have preferred to fight the Japanese or the Germans?
There was no doubt the war would be settled in Europe. At times I felt a little sorry for my friends who were fighting their way through the jungles of the Pacific, while in the European theater you might find yourself put up for the night in a historic chateau, surrounded by the fine arts in a truly cultural setting. Not so in the Far East. Furthermore, professionally, the saying was that if you wanted to be a general in the Army, you had to be in Europe. If you wanted to be an admiral, you had to be in the Pacific. You take the five Army chiefs of staff after World War II: [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, [Omar] Bradley, [J. Lawton] Collins, [Matthew B.] Ridgway, Taylor. We all had one thing in common, a responsibility for Utah Beach. Ike was the overall commander on D-Day, Bradley was in charge of all the army troops, Collins was the corps commander at Utah, and Ridgway and I were division commanders of that corps. It seemed as if you had to have that Utah connection or you couldn’t be chief of staff.
But with all your experience in Japan…?
Logically, with that background, I should have been in the intelligence business in the Pacific. Instead, I spent the war in Europe. Conversely, a good friend of mine, General Albert C. Wedemeyer, was one of the few American officers to graduate from the German War College in Berlin. So when the war broke out, they sent him to Southeast Asia. I guess it just proves you have to be versatile in the Army. In any event, going to Europe was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.
On December 7,1941, you were a member of the military secretariat of the chief of staff, General George C. Marshall. What was it like around the War Department that day?
With the cloud of war hanging over the country, his six assistant secretaries rotated around the clock. One would stay on through the night hours and, of course, we’d all be in the chief’s office during the day. On Pearl Harbor Sunday I was home working on some papers, which sounds careless, but you never had many secret documents in those days. When you got a secret document, it was a great event. So I was working on some papers, and my two boys were upstairs listening to the Redskins football game. They first yelled down that the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor. I said, nuts, what’s that? But I immediately called the office, and the lines were busy. Well, then I thought it must be right, so I got in the car and went to the old Munitions Building and reported in. General Marshall’s staff spent most of the day in the chief’s office trying to decide what were the real losses at Pearl. There’s always exaggeration at times of disaster, that everything is gone, the world’s come to an end. Well, it was bad enough, but it wasn’t that bad. We were not aware at first that the aircraft carriers had escaped.
Fairly late in the day, General Marshall called me in and wanted a stenographer. He wanted to report to President Roosevelt the events as he knew them at that time. All the officers were there by that time, but the girls hadn’t got any word, so we only had one stenographer, a very attractive young lady who didn't take shorthand. She used a little stenotype box. So the general dictated his first communiqué of the war to this young lady and went back into conference. I didn’t pay any more attention to what she was doing and pretty soon he rang for me and was unhappy to learn his report wasn t ready. So I asked her how she was doing.” “I’m doing fine, she said, “just fine. But the more I watched the young lady, the more apparent it was that she was in deep trouble. Finally I want over to her and said, “Now look, how are you really doing?” She looked up at me with her beautiful brown eyes filled with tears, and said, “Major, I didn’t get a word he said. ” That was one of the saddest moments of my life. I had to tell George Marshall, with all his cares, “General, you’ve got to do it all over again.”
How could the Japanese have achieved such devastating surprise, with all the talk of war and Hawaii on military alert?
That’s hard to explain. But bear in mind that the military was fascinated by the assumption that if the Japanese attacked us, they would attack the Philippines. In the war games, no one ever suggested the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. It illustrates the great danger of ever eliminating an enemy option just because you don’t think it’s likely.
At the somewhat “advanced” age of forty-one, you became a paratrooper. How did that come about?
I had joined General Ridgway in the summer of 1942 to serve as his chief of staff of the 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. About two months later, a couple of officers came down from Washington and said: “Gentlemen, we’ve got news for you. We’re going to assign the 82nd four parachute infantry regiments now in training and divide it into two airborne divisions.” This decision was based on the recent German airborne success in taking Crete. They parachuted and landed troops in the face of the Royal Navy surrounding the island and the preponderant British forces on Crete. They dropped in, seized the airfields and took the island. The curious thing was that while Crete convinced us in the U.S. that we needed large airborne units, Hitler, after losing four thousand troops and scores of aircraft, came to just the opposite conclusion—that large airborne attacks were too costly.
So the Germans never tried it again?
Not a major airborne operation. They did put down several hundred parachutists during the Battle of the Bulge—men pulled out of various units and assembled into a ramshackle task force. Militarily they accomplished very little, but the psychological effect on us was terrific. I was on my way back from an assignment in the States to rejoin my unit at Bastogne. I stopped by Ike’s headquarters outside Versailles, and even though I was in a major general’s uniform, I had to show my identification tags to prove I wasn’t a German parachutist there to drop a grenade in the chief’s office. Incidentally, the German paratroopers were commanded by an old Normandy adversary, Lieutenant Colonel von der Heydte. I finally met him by chance after the war at an industrial conference in Chicago. He was a university professor and by that time looked more like a scholar than the ubiquitous paratroop leader who frightened so many people in Belgium and France during the Bulge.
Of all the battles your division fought during World War II, possibly the most controversial was the Arnhem operation, which you have said “accomplished everything except victory at the critical point.”
That’s true. Both the 101st and the 82nd got all their objectives, but the real purpose of the exercise was to get the bridge across the Nieder Rhine at Arnhem. The major defect of the operation was its dependence on the Army forces on one two-way road, seventy miles long to Arnhem, which crossed innumerable streams and canals, big and little. Had we got up there, we still would have had an Army supported by a single road, and beyond the Rhine we’d have been faced by German reinforcements that had had time to get ready. So the whole thing was a poor show from the point of view of the payoff to be expected. In retrospect, the whole Arnhem campaign was a little like the march to the YaIu River in Korea, in that both might have been even more disastrous had they been successful.
Allied intelligence at Arnhem wasn’t too good, either.
It was better than I knew at the time. I was really aghast when I discovered after the war that we had broken the German code and had knowledge of many German dispositions. I knew nothing about that. Even the British airborne commander at Arnhem was not told of the presence of two Nazi panzer divisions resting in his attack area. But Ike knew it, and [Field Marshal Bernard] Montgomery knew, but they never got the word out to the major combat units. I suppose the reasoning was that if we indicated by our actions that we knew the panzers were there, the enemy would figure out we had broken their code and would change it. That’s an awfully thin excuse. What do we have these things for if not to win a battle? In that case, we lost a lot of brave British troops.
You suggested that the march to the Yalu in Korea might have been a disastrous success.
Very much so. The worst thing that could have happened would have been to be victorious. Had we made it to the YaIu River, we presumably would have overrun but not pacified North Korea, with thousands of communists and sympathizers capable of creating a serious guerrilla problem in the rear. And we still would have had a million Chinese waiting on the other side of a four-hundred-mile hostile frontier preparing to attack when they got ready. An intolerable situation in the long run.
Why did MacArthur go for the Yalu?
That’s hard to explain. He came out of World War II with a record as a great strategist. Perhaps, by that time, he had a feeling he could not be defeated. He couldn’t believe that he would be licked and his forces run back to below the thirty-eighth parallel. The invasion at Inchon, of course, was a great victory and just confirmed his feeling of omnipotence. Not that Washington was blind to the danger of Chinese intervention. It’s just that after Inchon, nobody was prepared to challenge the great proconsul’s strategic judgment. But in the process we jettisoned the original war objective of repulsing the North Korean invasion and substituted a far more ambitious goal of reunifying all of Korea by force of arms. It’s unfortunate, really, that no thoroughgoing analysis was ever made of the Korean War, because we proceeded to repeat many of its mistakes in Vietnam.
Because of the difficulty in reconciling foreign policy objectives with military action?
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.
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?
It was. I had no desire whatever to come back. I had had a long hard tour in Washington as Chief of Staff and I left with a rather bitter taste in my mouth in 1959. To return to the bear pit I knew quite well was not attractive at all. Actually the first offer was made through Bobby [Robert F. Kennedy], who asked me to become director of the CIA. Well, I had no problem turning that down. It was not my dish. I have great respect for the importance of such intelligence work, but I also had a feeling that I was not well designed for it. As I told the President, the government had spent a lot of money making a soldier out of me and if they turned to me and said I was needed in a military capacity, then I’d have a very hard time saying no. Well, after a lot of discussion and uncertainty, they came up with the title of military representative to the President, to describe in a vague way the functions I performed as the President’s adviser on military and intelligence matters.
Did you see your appointment as an opportunity to pursue the concept of flexible response you had written about in The Uncertain Trumpet?
You don’t go around with a formula ready to apply to events but you may have an ingrained attitude toward them. President Kennedy had shown in his acceptance of the premise of my book and in some of his own statements that he was thinking in that direction on military strategy, and I believe [Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara was also. It was about 1960 that the first formal statement outlining “wars of national liberation” had come out of Moscow or Hanoi, although I don’t think we then understood what it meant. But in that regard, it was President Kennedy himself who put the great drive behind the so-called counterinsurgency program to prevent “wars of national liberation.” He had visited Vietnam as the French were crumbling, and he got a very clear picture, amazingly clear for this young man who really had no special mission there, of the kind of subversive technique that was dragging the French down. So that his counterinsurgency program—it was badly named and gave an entirely false impression to the public—was little more than a desire to prepare our government to cope with outbreaks of the kind that we saw was going so badly in Vietnam.
Was there a feeling that the concept of counterinsurgency could be field-tested in Vietnam?
Not in that sense. But once we got involved more deeply, the feeling was “let’s study this phenomenon and get as much out of it as we can.” An understanding and analysis of causes and studies of effect, that sort of thing. It’s been suggested that attitude was somehow wicked. I don’t know what was wicked about it. I think we would have been criminally negligent if we had neglected the opportunity to learn.
You led one of the earliest missions for President Kennedy to evaluate the situation in Vietnam.
The report we brought back in October, 1961, simply verified the adverse field reports we’d had as to the decline of the internal situation, the increased strength of the Viet Cong, and the added support which was coming out of Hanoi. On the assumption that an independent South Vietnam free from attack was the goal of our Southeast Asian policy, the report recommended steps to support that policy. But we also made very clear that our recommendations would not solve all the problems but would be a step in the right direction. They included a substantial increase in advisers, not only military but administrative and intelligence advisers. One of the main points in the report was the need to get truly professional intelligence out there, something the pathetically weak government in Saigon could not provide, if we were to get the facts necessary to plan the program that Washington might decide to follow.
Some observers argue that the American buildup in South Vietnam was a conscious attempt by Kennedy to counter the weak impression he had made on Nikita Khrushchev at their historic summit conference in Vienna.
I wouldn’t say that. The thing that affected President Kennedy the most in the early years was the feeling that he couldn’t be guilty of another failure like the Bay of Pigs and expect to live politically. He approached Vietnam with appropriate caution, a caution I can assure you I shared with him over how far to go and what to undertake. Also to what extent we could depend upon the South Vietnamese. If indeed Vietnam was the kind of threat we were going to see elsewhere, the feeling was that we’d better handle it right. So he moved forward very cautiously.
You have described the President’s personal shock at the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Was that a covert operation?
Not if you mean a covert operation conducted by the CIA.
Would you tell the story behind the famous cable sent by the State Department to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon on August 24, 1963? (In it Lodge was instructed to inform Diem that U.S. backing would be withdrawn unless he disassociated himself from his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his sister-in-law, Madame Nhu. Lodge also was authorized to offer “direct support” to rival military commanders who might take action to verthrow Diem.)
It was a very sad affair—one that caused a serious break within the ranks of the Kennedy team. The cable you mention was dispatched to Saigon without normal clearance at the instigation of a few of the President’s advisers who were convinced that “we can’t win with Diem” and hence he must go. The cable amounted to a major change in policy. It authorized [Ambassador Henry Cabot] Lodge to tell Vietnamese officials and generals in effect that the U.S. would no longer support Diem on his present course but would favor a move to replace him.
Actually, little happened in Saigon for quite a while during which the generals hesitated to move. But on November 1 the coup took place and both Diem and his brother were assassinated. We were meeting in the Cabinet room when the news came, and President Kennedy, who always had insisted Diem never suffer more than exile, jumped up and rushed out of the room. I had never seen such a look of shock and dismay on his face before.
You’ve called the August 24 cable an “egregious end run.” How did it all come about?
It’s well known now what the sequence was. The group was led by Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman, Assistant Secretary of State [Roger] Hilsman, and Michael Forrestal of the White House staff. That Saturday they drew up the cable, cleared it with Under Secretary George Ball, who was out playing golf, and got a telephone clearance with the President in Hyannis Port. It was then dispatched without the concurrence of the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the CIA, all of whom had a vital interest in its contents. Yet when we all got together the following Monday morning, its authors couldn’t explain what the cable actually meant. At least they couldn’t answer the questions we put to them.
The death of Diem drastically altered the situation, didn’t it?
The assassination set in motion a sequence of crises, both political and military, that eventually forced President Johnson in 1965 to choose between introducing American combat forces and accepting defeat. And I’m convinced it also provided encouragement to the communists to exploit the removal of their mortal enemy. So I would assess this unfortunate episode as one of the great tragedies of the Vietnamese conflict and a cause of the costly prolongation of the war into the next decade.
Would you say that the subsequent death of President Kennedy was a turning point in this nation’s history?
It’s impossible, really, to take any historical event and say positively it is a turning point. Yet in my mind this one was. To what extent would this very promising young man have fulfilled his apparent potential? He had two bad counts on his record with the Bay of Pigs and this August 24 affair, but he had many other things in his favor. Certainly his ability to attain the confidence of the American people during that period, that augured well. Camelot was more than an apt phrase. The Kennedy White House generated a certain electricity. It was a stimulating environment. After the President’s death, that atmosphere gradually dissipated, at least in my biased view, and has never been quite the same since. [His death] was critical to the outcome in Vietnam, and since Vietnam was lost, everything has gone downhill. Moreover, the loss of the Kennedy brothers has had an international impact. They had impressed themselves on the foreign world far more than any other Americans of recent times.
You became a close friend of Robert F. Kennedy, who named one of his sons after you. What kind of President do you think he would have made?
Well, again, one never knows. Bobby was quite different from his brother. He was a man of strong character, often abrasively aggressive; at the same time he had a real sense of empathy for the small people. He had the ability to move people. I recall once when he got up on top of a truck and talked to a crowd in Indonesia. They didn’t understand a word he said but they cheered. He had that spark his brother had, which I call the x factor that produces inspiring leaders. If there ever was a deputy President in American history, Bobby Kennedy was the one.
You have maintained for years that this nation is not skillful enough in the manipulation of all the components of its vast power. Is the United States making any progress along these lines?
Not very much. We have let our military strength decline and have done nothing to improve our diplomatic skill to mobilize our vast economic power in support of our national interest.
Why do you believe Americans are “reluctant” to use their power?
It’s hard to say. You can be reluctant for a lot of reasons. You can be reluctant because you’re averse to using power in principle or because you don’t know how to use power, or the President may get contrary advice from his experts. For a time we’ve been restrained by the memory of Vietnam. So we give the impression of the shackled giant we read about.
Speaking of politics, have you ever been tempted to run for public office?
Never. That’s just not my bacon. Nevertheless, I would say that the greatest need in the country today is good men who are willing to get into politics. A great weakness today is that the best of America won’t seek public service.
Well, there’s a bad aroma currently associated with government of all sorts. It’s a very difficult life you obviously lead here in Washington. There’s the high cost of divesting financial interests.Then there is the fear of being pilloried publicly as the result of leaks to the press or exposure by means of the Freedom of Information Act. There are many reasons.
The Pentagon Papers were not the results of the Freedom of Information Act. How did you feel when they were published?
Highly indignant. I heard about them during their preparation under Dr. Leslie GeIb in the Pentagon. Bob McNamara assured me that the project was just to establish a clear record of the participation of the Defense Department in the Vietnam War. But it worried me that none of Gelb’s researchers were allowed to interview the principal officials involved. Also, the identity of Gelb’s researchers was concealed.
Then, after Dr. [Daniel] Ellsberg had acquired a set of Gelb’s studies, The New York Times got hold of them and turned them over to Neil Sheehan for further selective editing. So when you read the Pentagon Papers today, you don’t know who the author is—GeIb, one of his researchers, or Sheehan. Further, you don’t know how much of history has been omitted along the way.
Do you think the publication of the Pentagon Papers jeopardized the national security?
It jeopardized national security by providing a very unreliable record to confuse further the history of the Vietnam War. Also, the unauthorized publication of top-secret papers without punishment of the perpetrators is a very dangerous precedent.
One consequence of Vietnam that is still in the news is the shift to an all-volunteer service.
The Joint Chiefs never concurred in it. It reached the military in the Pentagon as a closed decision. Their part was only to implement it. From the first it had and still has a fatal flaw. You can’t support active operations solely by volunteers. Long casualty lists have a way of turning away volunteers.
Having devoted practically your entire life to the service of your country, do you sometimes have trouble believing what has happened to the United States since World War II?
The whole termination of the Vietnam War was and still is incredible—the fact that our Congress was willing to order us off the battlefield and leave an ally fighting there, an ally that five other administrations had guaranteed to support. Having seen that, I could believe anything.
So you’re still optimistic about the nation’s future?
I’m optimistic because we have the means, we have the resources, we have the people, if we can get them in the right place with the right motivation. I do think our political system is getting more and more vulnerable, at least in terms of its inability to handle very complex problems. We don’t talk much about it, but Congress is the most changed institution that affects our governmental activity. The domineering old dictators who ran committees are gone. Sure they were arrogant, but they did maintain order and they did get results. If you could get six or seven of those old congressional leaders together in the White House and they agreed on something, the President knew that he could speak with confidence. He can’t anymore.
Are you saying the revolt against discipline has extended to Capitol Hill?
Very much so, although there are signs of a return to order.
Do you ever wonder whether democracy might be becoming obsolete?
As a form of government it is certainly declining in numbers about the world. But as a concept and goal it will never become truly obsolete as long as men seek maximum personal freedom.
You’ve had a tremendously varied career as a soldier, statesman,-diplomat, presidential adviser. How would you like to be best remembered?
I have no ready answer for that one. But I’d be satisfied to be known, like President Truman, as one who “always did his damndest. ”