Friday, January 7, 2011

Chapter IV -- McNamara and McNaughton: "A Black Box”

After Kennedy’s November 22, 1963 assassination (the date of which McNaughton outlined with a thick-tipped black marker in his appointment calendar[i]), the Johnson administration appointed McNaughton to the post of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (ISA) where he was responsible for about three hundred civilian specialists and military officers who served as McNamara’s principal team working on matters that required a blend of diplomatic and military influence. [ii]   Once in the ISA post, McNaughton followed Robert S. McNamara’s instructions to devote up to 70 percent of his time on Vietnam, virtually delegating management of the rest of the world to deputy Townsend Hoopes, while McNaughton struggled to understand Vietnam’s complexities.  [iii] [iv]  [v]   With McNamara in the role as Johnson’s top advisor and most visible spokesperson on Vietnam, McNaughton worked behind the scenes analyzing data, developing detailed options and drafting memos that helped him to frame the internal Pentagon and White House debate on Vietnam

Since the end of the Vietnam War and the easing of Cold War tensions, most of McNaughton’s contemporaries have written about their roles leading up to the conflict and the evolution of their positions as events progressed.  Their accounts, the Pentagon Papers and the declassification of thousands of papers contain evidence, sometimes conflicting, about who made decisions and when the decisions were made.   Many of the memos compiled in the Pentagon papers and attributed to McNamara were in fact written by McNaughton after he and McNamara “had discussed and agreed on what was going to, be written.”   As McNamara’s reliance upon him grew, McNaughton gained influence.  Eventually the bond between the two men grew to the point where, as ISA Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Morton Halperin described it, their partnership became an apparent “black box” from which decisions on the war emerged.[vi]   


Robert S. McNamara (L) and John T. McNaughton
Tan Son Nhut Airfield, Saigon  July 9, 1967

Although rational and empirical discourse was the basis for policy decisions, their mutual trust was cemented by deep, and sometimes poetic, discussions.  Said McNamara in 1993: “I think that both (McNaughton) and I in effect sought to use numbers when numbers were an appropriate language and sought to use other concepts when numbers were not appropriate.  You can’t measure love or beauty in numbers and yet love and beauty or certain other truth, philosophical values are not subject to quantitative expression. But numbers of troops or dollars of defense budget are appropriately expressed in terms of numbers and there is a language that can be applied to them.” [vii]   McNaughton’s own diary described a 1966 airborne conversation that “… somehow shifted to poetry, and (McNamara) and Art read some of their favorite passages from Yeats, Arnold, Brook(e?), etc., from a book Bob had with him.”[viii]  McNamara described “a very free working relationship” with McNaughton where the two of them had frequent contact during the day, either by phone or dropping into each other’s offices.”  [ix] 


Despite their close relationship, McNaughton appeared fascinated with McNamara.  Arriving at the Pentagon one morning, McNaughton saw that McNamara’s car was already parked in the lot.  McNaughton touched the hood of his boss’s parked car to see if it was still warm, so he would know how long McNamara had already been at work. [x]   McNamara recalls that like other policymakers McNaughton knew practically nothing about Vietnam before going to International Security Affairs, but that he was “very perceptive” and learned quickly.   “I don’t think he knew anything about it (Vietnam.)  Essentially none of us did, that was part of the problem” said McNamara. [xi]   “He learned enough to know that it appeared to be a problem without a solution, which was not the view of others or some others”, recalled McNamara in 1993. [xii]   McNaughton’s mistrust of information he received from military leaders in Vietnam provoked him to make more than a dozen visits there in addition to dispatching others on fact-finding missions.  “Nothing classified on Vietnam is worth reading,” McNaughton told Halperin who was seeking resource material after McNaughton assigned him to draft a memo to President Johnson about Vietnam in 1967.   [xiii]  


Evem with internal doubts clearly forming by 1966, McNaughton was careful not to express them outside the office.  Richard Stolley, who was chief of Life Magazine’s Washington bureau knew McNaughton because his journalistic career began at McNaughton’s father’s paper in Pekin.  Stolley remembered traveling with the President and others including McNaughton on a trip to Southeast Asia in 1966.  At a stopover in the Philippines, McNaughton agreed to brief Stolley on, said Stolley, “what really was happening, as opposed to what was being announced at the press conferences.’   The two men met in McNaughton’s quarters and Stolley was able subsequently to file a story to Life in New York.  Said Stolley about McNaughton, “He was loyal to McNamara and to Johnson and I never thought he would reveal anything damaging to them or to the war effort.  He was always low key and laconic, never a rah-rah kind of war enthusiast..."   Stolley felt that if McNaughton "was filled with angst or turmoil about the U.S. role in Vietnam, he did not spell it out to me.”


Another hometown friend was James Unland, who recalled McNaughton’s impatience going back all the way to high school.  His impatience was not spared on his teachers: “sometimes he could be a first-class assh__, but few people who were eggheads had as much compassion as John.”   When interviewed for this article in August 2003, Unland said that he (a conservative) did not argue politics with McNaughton because “(McNaughton) was much too smart.” [xiv]   Unland’s son Jim recalls that his father and McNaughton talked a lot and wrote back and forth about Vietnam. [xv]   


As he became more immersed in Vietnam, McNaughton began to join McNamara at regular White House meetings on Vietnam with the president.[xvi]   Often the least senior staff person present during White House meetings, McNaughton would ponder his response if ever in the awkward position of having to respond to the President if his opinion differed from that of McNamara.  During a White House meeting the topic of bombing oil depots at Haiphong was being argued, and the President polled the room for a consensus.  McNamara said yes, it was time to bomb the Haiphong depots, and then the JCS and Walter Rostow agreed, with only George Ball dissenting.  Then Johnson called upon McNaughton, who had opposed the Haiphong bombing in private discussions.  McNaughton said, “I have nothing further to add, sir.” [xvii]   In his landmark book The Best and the Brightest, author David Halberstam said:  “The new American modern man was no longer a whole man; it was John McNaughton able to argue against his interior beliefs on Vietnam in order to hold power, McNamara able to escalate in Vietnam knowing that he was holding the JCS back on nuclear weapons, men able to excise Vietnam from their moral framework. So they could not resign; no one decision, not even a war, could make them give up their positions.” [xviii]


McNaughton worked from a stand-up desk in a high-ceilinged office on the third floor of the Pentagon’s E-Ring with a view across the Potomac to the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. [xix]   In the office, McNaughton employed a blend of styles which could be adapted to the situation at hand, maintaining a disciplined atmosphere when it came to security and protocol, and a down-home style to disarm prying journalists.  McNaughton almost never lost his temper, not wanting to signal loss of self control.  When he appeared to be angry, it was calculated to serve a purpose.  [xx]  A dark side, which came out only in the worst of times, caused him to withdraw and become very cryptic. [xxi]   ISA Deputy Townsend Hoopes recalled only one occasion when McNaughton lost his cool, returning exasperated after a White House meeting, and letting loose with a few expletives.  “His written comments were typically terse.  He did not waste words. I suspect this had something to do with his newspaper background.”[xxii]  


Staff was expected to be properly attired to enter McNaughton’s office, because staffers could never know who else would be there when they approached.[xxiii]    A safe that contained classified documents bore a conspicuous “Locked” or “Unlocked” sign to remind McNaughton to be sure it was locked when he left for the night. [xxiv]  Just outside the office a device with four colored lights[1] signaled McNaughton’s staff whether or not they could approach his desk.   Green indicated that is was ok to enter, yellow meant that he was to be approached only with an extremely urgent matter and red indicated a crisis and that staff should not enter unless summoned.  A white light prohibited entry while McNaughton used the office restroom and assured that nobody would read sensitive papers on his desk while he was indisposed. [xxv] 


On McNaughton’s desk were three chronologically organized notebooks, one documenting his current personal thinking, another holding his draft memos to McNamara, and a volume containing his finalized memos to McNamara.  McNaughton’s friend and colleague, Harvard Law School negotiations expert Roger Fisher believes that the sometimes incongruous material from the three different notebooks later created a false historical perception that McNaughton was indecisive, and asserts that McNaughton was much more confident in his convictions than sometimes portrayed.  Fisher recalled that McNaughton would do his own thinking, and then talk with McNamara before tailoring what he thought McNamara wanted into the final version.  When unable to convince McNamara of his personal view, McNaughton gave McNamara what he thought McNamara wanted.  Said Fisher, “An accomplished bureaucrat makes sure his boss will be happy with what he is presenting.”[xxvi]


“John was an idea person” said Fisher, “and had the ability to turn ideas into action.  He was very bright, a powerhouse, with broad interests and tastes.  He was bright and wise – not just ‘quick smart.’”   McNaughton’s greatest weakness, added Fisher, was probably a lack of attention to other people’s emotions: “He was very rational, but may not have thought enough about other people’s feelings.” [xxvii]   McNaughton did not devote much time to secondary issues, was not afraid to admit lack of knowledge when pressed for details during a conversation, [xxviii] and was able to set aside or delegate key issues for weeks or months at a time to focus on what he considered the highest priority problems.[xxix]   He would commonly schedule large portions of his workday in increments as brief as five minutes, allowing himself uninterrupted time to focus on a complicated subject.  Out of the office, he would call his secretary between appointments, asking “What’s cooking?” and she would fill him in on matters that were breaking back at the Pentagon or throughout the world. [xxx]  


On August 2, 1964, McNaughton was with his family for vacation at their cottage in Clear Lake, Indiana.  Halfway around the world, in broad daylight, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin before being driven off by planes from the carrier Ticonderoga.  No American lives were lost and damage was limited to a single bullet that hit one of the Maddox’s stacks, thus President Johnston did not authorize retaliatory action.  Johnson told the nation that the attacks were unprovoked; however the actions were almost surely a response to a series of covert actions against North Vietnam that had begun earlier in 1964.  A second destroyer was added to the Maddox’s patrol mission and Johnson sent a formal protest to Hanoi warning that further unprovoked attacks against U.S. patrols would carry grave consequences.  

The night of August 4, which was mid-morning in Washington, the Maddox’s feverish reports of additional attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats reached the Pentagon with “Flash” priority.  It had been a stormy, moonless night in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the recent release of a 2001 National Security Agency internal article casts increasing doubt on the assumption that any attacks actually took place on August 4.  But, the U.S. destroyers took evasive action to avoid torpedoes and fired at attackers, whether real or imagined. [xxxi] At noon, with the decision to launch reprisal strikes already put into operation, McNaughton received a call summoning him back to Washington.  Arriving in time for a late afternoon briefing session with McNamara, he attended a National Security Council meeting in which Johnson made the decision to seek a congressional authorization for actions to protect U.S. forces and defend allies in Southeast Asia, and start planning for a sustained bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese. McNaughton joined McNamara for dinner in the Secretary’s dining room and was with him when word came that the Ticonderoga had launched aircraft on a mission to destroy four North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases and an oil storage facility.   In an 11:36 p.m. statement from the White House, President Johnson told reporters of the response to North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. warships on routine patrol in international waters, and asserted that “we seek no wider war.”  McNaughton spent the night on a cot in his office. 

Congress passed The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7 by votes of 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate.   Brief debate centered on concerns about the open-ended nature of the Administration’s language, but an amendment intended to limit the resolution’s scope was quashed so that the North Vietnamese would have no doubt about the seriousness of U.S. intentions.   McNaughton drafted instructions on a message that was to be indirectly (the U.S. had no formal contact with Hanoi) communicated to North Vietnam.  The message was that U.S. patience with North Vietnamese aggression was wearing extremely thin and that if North Vietnam was to continue its present course that it could expect to suffer the consequences.  [xxxii]  Congress had been assured by Senator Fulbright, who managed passage of the resolution, that there was no consideration of using the authorization to change America’s role in the conflict.

In the ensuing days, McNaughton prepared testimony for the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  McNaughton had doubts about the abilities of U.S. allies in Southeast Asia and knew that we would be fighting an able and motivated enemy, but when he presented his analysis the Administration’s hard line was communicated.   A month later, McNaughton advised support of Vietnam’s rural pacification programs and its naval and air warfare against North Vietnam and he proposed renewal of U.S. Navy patrols off the coast of North Vietnam.  McNaughton said that if the North Vietnamese could be induced to attack again, the United States could legitimately enter the war and begin military actions that would eventually include bombing and mining North Vietnamese harbors and compel North Vietnam to enter peace negotiations.  [xxxiii]

By early September, McNaughton offered recommendations that hinted of a fading hope for meaningful improvement in South Vietnam’s weak and corrupt government.  He suggested that the United States’ best strategy would be to apply sufficient military pressure to compel North Vietnam to enter negotiation talks. Even these attacks might fail, he argued, and the United States might have to be content with having demonstrated the willingness to act. [xxxiv]

On November 2, 1964, President Johnson established what was to be known as the “working group” to conduct a thorough assessment of U.S. premises and options in South Vietnam and Southeast Asia.  With members including working group chairman Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy as well as Vice Admiral Lloyd M. Mustin, senior operations officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Harold Ford, senior China-Asia officer at CIA and McNaughton, the group immediately began work on what became an iterative process of evaluation and recommendations that would lead to intense military involvement in Vietnam.  The Vietnam working group held its first meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Election Day, November 3 on an issue considered so sensitive that Bundy’s calendar cryptically reserved the time to discuss “Topic A.”[xxxv] Almost immediately after the first working group meeting, McNaughton and McGeorge Bundy drafted documents assessing the possibilities of escalation and counter-escalation anticipating a Viet Cong offensive once bombing began in North Vietnam, and that foresaw deploying Marines in Da Nang as soon as air attacks began. [xxxvi]  

One of the Working Group’s first products, a November, 1964, second draft of a paper started by McNaughton entitled “Action for South Vietnam”, indicated a growing Pentagon sentiment that the United States should escalate by directly attacking North Vietnam. The paper called for a course of action that would begin new communications with Hanoi and Peking after attacking troop and supply infiltration targets in Laos, then in North Vietnam.  In preparation for a White House meeting, William Bundy recommended a shortened version of the plan entitled “Courses of Action” which McNaughton wrote on November 18, 1964.  It stated U.S. objectives as follows:

1.  Get Hanoi and North Vietnam support and direction removed from South Vietnam
2.  Re-establish an independent and secure South Vietnam
3.  Maintain the security of other non-Communist nations in Southeast Asia.

The only alternative from the paper that Bundy recommended was to immediately begin air strikes against North Vietnamese targets including airfields. 



[1] According to Halperin, the stand-up desk and the 4-way access light were still the same office when Halperin returned to the Pentagon in the Clinton administration some 25 years later. 


[i]               McNaughton, John T. , personal appointment calendar, 1964.
[ii]              Townsend Hoopes, “The Limits of Intervention”
[iii]              Daniel Ellsberg, July 29, 1998, UC Berkeley
[iv]              Townsend Hoopes told TSP in 6/30/03 phone conversation
[v]                Pekin Daily Times, July 1967
[vi]               Morton Halperin interview, June 27, 2003
[vii]              Suzan Ruth Travis Cline interview of Robert S. McNamara, tape recording, June 16, 1993.
[viii]             John T. McNaughton diary 1966-1967 --  4/30/66 diary entry 
[ix]                Robert S. McNamara phone interview, July 11, 2003
[x]                Alex McNaughton, August 11,  2003
[xi]               Suzanne Ruth Travis Cline interview of Robert S. McNamara, tape recording, June 16, 1993 page 36.
[xii]              Suzanne Ruth Travis Cline interview of Robert S. McNamara, tape recording, June 16, 1993 page 36.
[xiii]             Morton Halperin interview, June 27, 2003
[xiv]             Unland, James Sr.  August 14, 2003.
[xv]              James Unland Jr.  January 4, 2011
[xvi]             Ellsberg, Daniel  “Secrets”
[xvii]            Halberstam, David “The Best and the Brightest”, page 418
[xviii]           David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, page 599
[xix]             Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets, pages 37
[xx]              Alex McNaughton, September 12, 2003
[xxi]             Townsend Hoopes telephone interview, October 14, 2003
[xxii]            Townsend Hoopes, July 23, 2003
[xxiii]           Morton Halperin interview, June 27, 2003
[xxiv]           Alex McNaughton, August 12,  2003
[xxv]            Morton Halperin interview, June 27, 2003
[xxvi]           Roger Fisher telephone interview, December 16, 2005
[xxvii]          Roger Fisher telephone interview, December 16, 2005
[xxviii]         Alfred Krusenstiern, Pekin Daily Times,  July 1967
[xxix]           Morton Halperin interview, June 27, 2003
[xxx]            Townsend Hoopes, July 23, 2003
[xxxi]           Kai Bird, The Color of Truth, pages 285-288
[xxxii]          Ellsberg, Secrets, page 18-19
[xxxiii]         Harry G. Summers, Jr., The Vietnam War Almanac, page 244
[xxxiv]          David Kaiser, American Tragedy, page 344
[xxxv]           Kai Bird, The Color of Truth, page 293
[xxxvi]          David Kaiser, American Tragedy, page 357


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