Monday, December 27, 2010


In February 2003, the country was in the midst of a solemn yet heated debate about whether or not to send our armed forces to war in Iraq.  That month public opinion polls indicated that if the United Nations approved such action nearly six in ten Americans were in favor of military intervention in Iraq and about half of the country approved going to war even without U.N. endorsement.  During that time of national dialogue I remember being asked by a college friend how I felt about the impending war, and I said that like the country as a whole I would be torn about what I would do if it was my decision to make.

My friend’s inquiry brought to mind stories of the life and career of John T. McNaughton who was raised in Pekin, Illinois which was also my hometown.  McNaughton was the son of the Pekin Daily Times publisher F. F. McNaughton and his career path led him to a position reporting to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the Pentagon.  In his Pentagon position, McNaughton had considerable involvement in decisions about the Vietnam war. 

Robert S. McNamara, John T. McNaughton, Gen. William C. Westmoreland
in Vietnam 1965

Part II

As I noticed how government officials such as Colin Powell appeared to anguish as they worked to gain public support of the Iraq invasion, my mind kept going back to McNaughton.  I remember how my parents and their friends who knew McNaughton spoke of how he seemed to be part of the effort to escalate the Vietnam conflict but later was said to have been quietly working against the war.  Was this true?  

One rainy Sunday afternoon I went to the Internet to see what I could learn about McNaughton’s real stance on the Vietnam War.  Unexpectedly my initial inquiry took me down a multi-year path where I would speak with numerous surviving former U.S. officials who were involved in high-level Vietnam decisions, obtain access to previously unseen McNaughton diaries, file an FBI Freedom of Information Act request, meet with McNaughton's surviving son Alex McNaughton, read scores of books and academic papers and go to Austin, Texas to do research in the LBJ Library. 

Part III 

My initial Internet searches quickly revealed that McNaughton’s thinking about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam had indeed evolved and that prior to his 1967 death he was working behind the scenes to find a way out of what had become a quagmire.  My interest then turned to seeking an understanding of why McNaughton had not been more vocal in his dissent.  I thought about the integrity of being silently opposed versus the position of White House officials such as Rusk and Rostow who internally and externally maintained a firm conviction that the U.S. needed to be in Vietnam.

The most prominent search returns included segments from The Best and the Brightest (David Halberstam), Secrets (Daniel Ellsberg) and The Pentagon Papers.  Halberstam dedicated eight pages of The Best and the Brightest to McNaughton.  Ellsberg, whose strong Vietnam dissent eventually provoked him to leak the Pentagon Papers documents to the press, wrote extensively about his relationship with McNaughton (who had brought Ellsberg into the Pentagon) in Secrets which was published in October 2002.  

Ellsberg had put up a website to promote Secrets and the website included an email address.  What if I emailed Ellsberg to ask about McNaughton?   No harm in trying.  After about a week without a reply I heard from Michael Ellsberg, Daniel’s son.  With the President’s decision about invading Iraq looming, Daniel Ellsberg had once again become a person of public interest (much like he is again now with the WikiLeaks controversy in full bloom).  Michael Ellsberg wrote that his father was fatigued from his many activities fighting the impending Iraq plan invasion and had just gotten out of jail because  of one of his protests.  Ellsberg conveyed through his son that Secrets contained anything he could tell me about McNaughton and suggested that I contact Morton Halperin who was a close McNaughton friend and aide.

Another weekend web search yielded an email address for Halperin at The Open Society Institute.  I sent Halperin a message saying that Ellsberg, via his son, had suggested that I contact him about research I was doing on McNaughton.  At best, I hoped for a short quote about McNaughton or perhaps a willingness to answer a couple of questions over the phone.  Within two hours, Halperin replied inviting me to meet with him in his Washington, DC office.

Two weeks later I arrived in Halperin’s office with a list of questions about McNaughton.  The first thing that Halperin said after we shook hands and I explained my purpose was “have you talked with Bob?”   I told him that I hadn’t, that I was just getting started, and that I didn’t know that he was reachable.  Halperin said that his assistant would get me McNamara’s contact information on the way out.  We then sat for over an hour and Mort Halperin answered my questions, provided additional information and offered some amazing anecdotes and character assessments of John T. McNaughton. 

Over the coming weeks and months I will tell readers more about my road to learn about McNaughton and will then post a 13,000 word piece on McNaughton's life and career.  It is my objective to make this a story about McNaughton, and not a justification or condemnation of decisions about Vietnam, Iraq or any other military conflict. 

As much as I can, I will respond to posts about McNaughton and what I have learned or accept as truth about his decisions but I will strive not to make any judgements beyond that.  I hope you will find McNaughton and his dilemmas to be as interesting as I did.

Thomas S. Paullin

Use These Links To Go To:
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5,

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