Friday, January 21, 2011

Chapter VI -- "Numbed"

In 1965, the initial buildup year for U.S. troop strength in Vietnam, the number of American military personnel in Vietnam increased from 23,300 to 184,300.  It was also the first year of significant American casualties -- 636 U.S. troops had died in Vietnam by December 31, 1965.  As the American presence in Vietnam escalated, McNaughton continued to examine information from the field, develop options and make recommendations.  The rising tide of discouraging data caused McNaughton to become increasingly skeptical about the chances for success in Vietnam and the moral justification for U.S. involvement.

On February 8, 1965, the morning after Bundy, McNaughton and their delegation returned from Saigon and their unexpected side trip to assess the Pleiku devastation, the President convened a White House meeting of the National Security Council that was attended by congressional leaders.  Johnson favored the February 7 memo’s proposed bombing program, portraying it as a way to defeat aggression without escalation.  On February 19 Johnson authorized the regular bombing strikes that became known as “Rolling Thunder” with opinion polls at that time showing 64 percent support for continuing U.S. efforts in Vietnam.  The bombing, which was kept secret from the public, began on March 2.   There was no clear consensus, even among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as to whether the bombing campaign would have the desired impact.  On March 2 the President dispatched Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold K. Johnson to Saigon for an appraisal and recommendation on next steps.  General Johnson’s report included a recommendation for more ground troops, and at a March 15, 1965 meeting he estimated that it could take 500,000 American troops as long as five years to achieve victory.  March 17 and March 19 requests from Generals Westmoreland and Sharp sought another two Marine battalions.

As the buildup gained momentum, traces of doubt began to appear in McNaughton’s memos.  An addendum to McNaughton’s March 24, 1965, memo, “Plan for Action in South Vietnam” outlined challenges facing the U.S.  The addendum listed options under consideration and incorporated rationalization for America’s involvement should the plan eventually fail.  It described the reasons for U.S. escalation as follows:

70% -- To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)
20% -- To keep South Vietnam (and the adjacent territory) from Chinese hands.
10% -- To permit people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life.

ALSO – To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.

NOT – to “help a friend” although it would be hard to stay in if asked out. ..

As he began to prepare himself and others for failure to meet U.S. objectives, McNaughton validated action by stating, “It is essential, however badly SEA may go over the next 1-3 years – that the U.S. emerge as a ‘good doctor.’  We must have kept promises, been tough, taken risk, gotten bloodied, and hurt the enemy very badly….”[i]

On April 6, 1965, the President learned of significant new North Vietnamese troop infiltrations into South Vietnam.  In response, the Joint Chiefs proposed deployment of 8,000 new U.S. troops.  With conditions deteriorating and sensing a need to act, LBJ leaned toward approving the chiefs’ proposal.  Because of differing opinions on the proposal, Johnson called an April 20 meeting in Honolulu to review the proposed deployments.  The Honolulu participants, including McNaughton, concluded that bombing alone would not convince Hanoi that it could not win.  Only one or two of the Joint Chiefs disagreed.  [ii]

On July 13, 1965, McNaughton, cautious about breaking with the momentum toward escalation, attached probabilities to possible options in a memorandum to McNamara entitled "Analysis and Options for South Vietnam" describing three courses the war might take.   While making the case for U.S. deployment in excess of 400,000 troops, he assessed no better than 50% chance of U.S. success within a time horizon of more than three years.   He defined three possible outcomes as follows:

(1) Success for the USJ/GVN. (Actions one should expect to see in such a case were the extension of GVN control throughout the country, the disarming of the VC armed units, the cessation of infiltration and other DRV support, and the relegation of the terror and other insurgent activity to little more than a rural police problem.)

(2) Inconclusive for either side (self-explanatory).

(3) GVN collapse and concomitant U.S. defeat (self-explanatory).

With that amount of force, McNaughton saw the probability of Success/Inconclusive/Collapse as:

for the year 1966: .2/.7/.l
for the year 1967: .4/.45/.15 and
for the year 1968: .5/.3/.2--no further projection being made.

Throughout his life, McNaughton wrote diaries of his experiences and personal thoughts.  Beginning with his Navy enlistment, the diaries became increasingly detailed and continued through his years as a Harvard Law student, in Oxford, with the Marshall Plan, in Pekin and as a Harvard Law faculty member living in Cambridge.  Although no McNaughton diaries have been discovered for the period between McNaughton’s move to Washington through the end of 1965, a January 1, 1966 through April 22, 1967[1] diary has surfaced. 

The existence of the earlier writings and the 1966-1967 diary suggested that McNaughton likely also kept diaries for the period between 1960 and 1965.   McNaughton’s surviving son Alex believes that a new diary beginning April 23, 1967 was lost in the July 1967 plane crash that took McNaughton’s life.  After McNaughton’s death the FBI examined McNaughton papers stored in residences in Washington and Cambridge, and later McNaughton’s father destroyed many of the papers collected in the Cambridge, Massachusetts residence.  No evidence of the FBI’s examinations of McNaughton’s papers was present in McNaughton’s FBI file which was released to this author through a Freedom of Information Act request fulfilled in April, 2004.


On February 11, 1966 McNaughton wrote in the diary: "McNamara this morning, while talking with Cy (Vance) and me, said that 'there is not a piece of paper -- no record -- showing when we changed from an advisory role to a combat role in Vietnam.'"

As his Pentagon memos hinted at growing doubts throughout 1964 and 1965, McNaughton’s 1966-1967 diaries showed increasing dissatisfaction with his ISA position and a meticulous consideration of new career options.  On January 31, 1966 McNaughton told McNamara that he was interested in four slots in the Defense Department, the three Service Secretaries and the Deputy Secretary of Defense. McNamara responded that McNaughton’s ISA post was more interesting than three of those four, but concurred that the Service Secretary posts have more status and would better position McNaughton for future career moves.  In a February 28 telephone conversation, LBJ and McNamara discussed McNaughton as a possible appointee for the Vietnam Ambassador at Large position.  Referring to a Bundy memo, Johnson said: “Bundy suggests we bring the ol’ man McNaughton in" and (further quoting Bundy) that "McNaughton is growing restless on his present assignment and wants something with more status.” [2]   LBJ went on to say that he thought McNaughton would be good for the job even though "he doesn't seem to be a driver, but apparently he is."    McNamara defended McNaughton’s style, telling Johnson:” well he's been a lawyer, and lawyers don't openly drive for their clients” then seemed to argue to keep McNaughton in the ISA job saying that "his present post is at least as important as that one."   [iii]

By early 1966, a consulting relationship between McNaughton and Roger Fisher had begun to reach critical mass.  While on site in the Pentagon, Fisher had easy access to McNaughton from a temporary office two floors above McNaughton’s working area.  Fisher, the Harvard Law professor who had focused much of his scholarly work on the study of negotiation, forwarded recommendations that gained increased attention as frustrations grew about the lack of progress in Vietnam.  The two friends’ discourse pondered a range of strategies intended to pressure the enemy to enter negotiations among which were selection of bombing targets, timing of bombing pauses, making food a bargaining chip by flooding rice paddies and constructing a barrier to interdict the flow of troops and war materials into South Vietnam.

On January 18, 1966, John McNaughton finished a paper entitled "Some Observations about Bombing North Vietnam" that was not addressed to anyone in particular– in fact, it may have been just a personal think piece that was never meant to be advanced in final form because of McNamara’s reaction.  The paper lays out McNaughton’s political argument for the bombing program and is considered significant because McNaughton was knowledgeable about virtually every facet of the program and was also aware of its limitations.  He outlined the objectives of the bombing program as follows: [iv]

a.       To interdict infiltration.
b.       To bring about negotiations (by indirect third-party pressure flowing from fear of escalation and by direct pressure on Hanoi).
c.       To provide a bargaining counter in negotiations (or in a tacit "minuet").
d.       to sustain GVN and US morale.

The January 18 McNaughton paper argued against air strikes at population targets, because of anticipated public repercussions in the United States and abroad, as well as risks of an enlarged war with China and the Soviet Union.   Probably at least indirectly influenced by Fisher’s thinking, McNaughton posited that the bombing of locks and dams might provide leverage for negotiations, without killing or drowning people, shallow-flooding of rice paddies could induce starvation of perhaps more than a million people thus allowing food to be used as a bargaining chip. [v]

Also in January 1966, Fisher presented a memo proposing an anti-infiltration barrier across the DMZ and the Laotian panhandle as a possible means of arresting troop infiltration from North Vietnam.  Fisher felt that a barrier would make it possible to cease bombing, which was increasingly seen as unsuccessful in breaking Hanoi's resolve.  The barrier would incorporate an air-dropped line of barbed wire, mines and chemicals intended to inhibit the flow of troops and supplies from the North.   Fisher, the negotiations expert, explained that the idea behind the barrier strategy was to prevent attacks, which was an alternative to being compelled to retaliate after being attacked.  There is, says Fisher, “a difference between physically preventing action versus trying to influence it by increasing costs…a difference between influence and physical effect… preventing versus inflicting pain.  We were not thinking about formal, sit-down negotiations such as we might with the Russians.  We let our actions speak loudly.  This was tacit negotiation – giving them a yesable proposition to modify their behavior -- to simplify the other party’s choice.[vi]

Six weeks later McNaughton sent McNamara a slightly revised version of the Fisher draft and on April 7 the military response recommended against the plan, anticipating that construction and defense of a barrier would require 7-8 U.S. divisions and could take up to four years to become fully operational and would require an unacceptable diversion of resources.  Nevertheless, the Army, probably directed by McNamara, had started a program in March which would lead to deployment of a set of anti-personnel route and trail interdiction devices.  Roughly concurrently, four scientific advisors had formed a working group that called itself the Jason Summer Study, which submitted an analysis of the effects of the bombing campaign, an evaluation of the enemy’s logistics and manpower, a proposition for an air supported anti-infiltration barrier; and summary recommendations.  The Jason Summer Study determined that the bombing of North Vietnam was ineffective and recommended that the barrier concept be implemented as an alternative means of slowing infiltration from the North.  On August 30 the Jason scientists presented their work to McNaughton and a favorably impressed McNamara.  A barrier plan was partially implemented between 1968 and 1972, with mixed results and minimal impact upon the outcome of the conflict.


On April 1, 1966, after McNaughton mentioned to his boss that he “was feeling a little like an engine that had become disconnected from the wheels” McNamara told McNaughton “not to leave the government until we talked.”  McNamara attributed the lack of connection to what he saw as a shortage of clear policy in the government. 


On April 8, 1966 McNaughton's diary records that "Bob (McNamara) in an unguarded moment said 'I want to give the order to our troops to get out of there so bad I can hardly stand it.'"


The April 30 diary entry observed, “There’s a certain weariness in the government.”  He noted that “In State, Tom Mann is resigning; George Ball apparently intends to quit this summer; Bob McNamara is taking an awful beating from the press and from the Hill; I care less about things.  Partly, it’s because I don’t feel I can ‘get through,’ but that’s not the main thing, because I’m sure I have more influence now than ever before—on the NATO reorganization, on the US reaction to France, on nuclear-sharing arrangements, on Vietnam, etc. [vii] It’s just that it thrills me less to get a sentence into a Presidential speech or to sit at a table with Cabinet officers, or to have dinner with a Prime Minister.  I’m numbed.  Perhaps it’s time for new blood.”  [viii]


Add caption

Map of Vietnam in February 1967
Pentagon Papers  Volume 4, Chapter 2  "US Ground Strategy and Force Deployments 1965-1968



The second half of 1966 and the early months of 1967 found McNaughton involved with a wide range of issues and travels.  His international itinerary included stops in France, Germany, Italy, India, Turkey, Greece, Guam, the Philippines, the Bilderberg conference (held in England) and Vietnam.  Domestic travel included visits to New York City; Cambridge, MA; Lawrenceville, NJ (to see his son Alex at school); and Greencastle, IN (for DePauw University board meetings).  He also took a family trip to Scotland and traveled to Puerto Rico with his wife.  In the 1966-1967 timeframe, McNaughton delved into questions such as international monetary policy, the balance of power in Europe and nuclear arms control -- but mostly his family, his career and Vietnam.



[1]  The April 22, 1967 entry filled the last page of the marble covered notebook, suggesting there is no other significance to the diary’s ending on that date.
[2]  Johnson said that the Bundy memo also indicated that JTM is "a very talented man" and "would be wasted on the (Ambassador at Large) job.


[i]           “Plan for Action in South Vietnam” March 24, 1965
[ii]               Robert McNamara, In Retrospect, Page 182-183
[iii]              LBJ Conversation 9680 with Robert McNamara Monday, February 28, 1966, 7:50 AM
[iv]              JCSM-41-66 McNaughton draft, "Some Observations about Bombing . . ." (Pentagon Papers Gravel edition Volume 4, Chapter I,
[v]               JCSM-41-66 McNaughton draft, "Some Observations about Bombing . . ." (Pentagon Papers Gravel edition Volume 4, Chapter I
[vi]              Roger Fisher, December 19, 2005, telephone interview 
[vii]             John T. McNaughton private diary Unclassified.  Jan 1, 1966 through April 22, 1967
[viii]            John T. McNaughton private diary Unclassified.  Jan 1, 1966 through April 22, 1967


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