Monday, January 31, 2011

Chapter VII -- Revealing Conversations

McNaughton’s notes offered an insight into his state of mind after an April 4, 1966 meeting with a civilian official returning from Vietnam:

Place (Vietnam) in unholy mess.
We control next to no territory.
Fears economic collapse.
Militarily will be same place a year from now.
Pacification won’t get off ground for a year.  [i]

On May 13, 1966 McNaughton penned a long diary entry reflecting on a conversation with McNamara about frustrations with the pace of his career advancement.  McNamara tried to encourage his protégé, pointing out how far he had progressed in five years while McNaughton felt that he had not advanced at all and was still at the level at which his colleagues came in.  McNamara argued that “people at your level have a marvelous opportunity, because this administration will go on 6 more years and openings are sure to appear.” [ii]   After recounting the conversation, McNaughton mused that “What cuts the mustard is action.  (E.g., brilliant management of a shop, extraordinary effectiveness in getting things done in interagency struggles, acquaintance and influence with key Congressional leaders, manifestations from others that one is in demand.)” and he surmised that “if personnel changes in the State Department were imminent that McNamara might now have his name in the front of his mind.”  And then, his doubts surfaced: “When an administration is new and no one knows any better, all sorts of leap frogging can happen.  But after 5 years, a pecking order is established, and the ascent is slow and orderly.” [iii] 

Five days later, McNaughton and McNamara appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  His diary entry on May 18 revealed a level of personal conflict only hinted at by his speeches and memos:  “… when Bob and I appeared on TV before the SFRC last Wednesday, I was again the silent partner, consciously aware that my facial expression had to be ‘neutral.’  I told Sal to look at me and realize that behind my mask I was doing a ‘Harpo Marx’ just for her—with wild imitative laughter, grimaces of simulated pain, horror at mistakes, etc.  She said she saw no signs of my mask’s leaking.”

The June 24, 1966 diary entry:  Two phenomena particularly interest me.  One is the tendency to be a “bad loser”—to resent it when an “unwise” course of action (i.e., one you advise against) pays off (Dominican Republic?  Danang-Hue?), almost to try to trip things up to see that the unwise course proves out to be unwise.  The other is the tendency to raise one’s sights when the situation improves.  (It could be that adversaries might miss opportunities to settle because they insist on moving their settlement terms up and down as the tides of conflict flow better or worse.)”

On September 7, McNamara held McNaughton for “a revealing conversation” after their phone conversation several days earlier in which McNaughton complained that the government was at an ebb in its foreign policy that made it almost impossible to move anything in any direction.  On the phone, McNamara had dissented, referring to Averell Harriman’s appointment and saying “we are at flood, though the water may be only six inches deep.”  In this meeting McNamara remarked that “we seem to be muscle bound in our foreign policy—in VN, Europe, Japan, etc.”  McNaughton referred back to their earlier telephone conversation, to which McNamara responded that “… he must have conditioned himself to accept the most minor steps as major.”

On October 13, 1966, McNaughton joined McNamara and others on a three-day Presidential fact-finding meeting in Vietnam.  Despite pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a more pronounced escalation, McNamara recommended only 40,000 more troops and the stabilization of the air war.  Noting the inability of the bombing to interdict infiltration, McNamara advised a version of the Fisher/McNaughton barrier strategy and either a bombing pause or shifting it away from the northern cities, which he felt would improved the negotiating climate.  The JCS disagreed with virtually every McNamara recommendation and pushed for an escalatory 'sharp knock" against North Vietnam.

Four days after returning from his seventh trip to Vietnam, McNaughton made his October 18, 1966 diary entry:  “I drafted Bob’s report to the President on VN.  It was pessimistic.  We are doing fine in the “new (big) war,” but no better or worse in the war for the people.  No progress since 1961.  I told Bob today that I was going to make my third try the next time the Vietnamese made public asses of themselves (the first was in December 1964 when Khanh was kicking Taylor around; the second was in March of this year during the Struggle in Danang).  Find a way out.*  Meanwhile plug, plug along, trying all along to get Saigon closer to talking to the NFL.[1]   (By the way, Gromyko told the President that there was a 60-40 percent chance of a “change” if we stopt (sic) bombing NVN.)

          —We may be on the verge of a great step in non-proliferation.  The President is awaiting George McGhee’s reaction to some proposed treaty language that would ban common ownership of warheads (tho not of delivery vehicles).

 *I told Bob it would destroy him and would prevent LBJ’s reelection.”

The President met with the heads of government of all the troop contributing nations in Manila on October 23-26, 1966, to reach agreement on positions on the war and devise the desired framework of its settlement.  In a private conference, General Westmoreland urged expansion of the bombing campaign and indicated reluctant acceptance of the barrier concept.  The Chiefs, in a November 4 memorandum forwarding CINCPAC force proposals, added their rationale for the bombing: to "make it as difficult and costly as possible" for North Vietnam to continue the war, thus creating an incentive for NVM to end it.  Despite the growing undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the war, peace candidates in both political parties were soundly defeated in the November 8, 1966, off year election.

A series of entries in McNaughton’s diary revealed the internal conflicts that he felt in trying to reconcile issues such as his previous mistakes, loyalty to his superiors, protecting his career interests and what he knew about the situation in Vietnam.

11/13/66     McCloy said “I don’t know how Averell (Harriman) ever lived down what he did to Berlin.”  He went on quickly that he thought it was a test of greatness—to be able to live mistakes down. 

12/6/66       I have a feeling that the President is the “tough” one. And he is buttressed by Walt Rostow, who is, as Bob said, “a big bomber man.”  (I wonder if Bill Moyers left because of Vietnam—probably not.) The question may come soon when I can’t be a part of it anymore.  The trouble is, it does no good to “resign from the human race.”  And I would not make a noisy resignation, so there would not even be that effect. [iv]

12/11/66.    The one thing that is now clear is that the 1968 Presidential election is casting a pall over everything of importance in Washington.  Actually, the focus of the problem is Vietnam.  There is a stronger and stronger feeling that the war has to be over in 1968.  This mood is exactly the opposite of the one McNamara and I tried to create in the “October report”—viz., that the best way to come out best, soonest, is to gird for the long haul.  I’m afraid the President will decide to kick the bejesus out of North Vietnam in an effort to end the war quickly.  While this might do some good, I doubt it—because we haven’t come near to a winning combination in the South.  Furthermore, a cinderizing campaign against the North would not only run a high risk of enlarging the war (via China or Russia), but also convince the whole world that we were a thorough-going bully.  But what can we do?!  There is no quick way out.  In the meantime, I see Lodge’s phasing out; and I see Westy getting difficult (he is acquiring a power base of his own).

The pressures of publicly defending a policy that he increasingly knew was misguided, while maintaining an appearance of loyalty were reaching a peak as the escalation gained momentum. A family friend recalled a conversation with McNaughton’s housekeeper who suggested that McNaughton had begun to use sleeping pills as the weight of Vietnam played increasingly on his mind.  McNaughton’s son noticed, “Dad aged far more than six years from 1961 to 1967.  The pressure took a physical toll.” [v]

On December 23 McNaughton and McNamara talked before McNamara took off to spend the holiday in Aspen.  Their conversation was interrupted when McNamara’s call for the President was connected to the Texas ranch.  While waiting for LBJ to come on the phone, McNamara asked McNaughton about candidates to replace Henry Cabot Lodge as U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam.   Several names were discussed including Paul Nitze, Cyrus Vance, Ros Gilpatric and McGeorge Bundy.  After discussing the requirements of the post and the list of possible names, McNamara asked McNaughton “Would you be willing to do it?”  McNaughton answered that, “The problem is mainly how to maintain one’s marital status while out there” but indicated a willingness “to do it if certain things could be worked out.”  McNamara asked what he meant, to which McNaughton answered “Some way to be sure to see the family frequently and arrangements so I could get something done out there.”  In response to McNamara’s reply that “one can’t be sure of such arrangements”, McNaughton said he did not mean “winning the ball game, but rather having the authority and leverage needed.”

A week later McNaughton wrote in his diary that he had told a confidant that: “I was not letting on in Washington that I was a lame duck, but that I do plan to ‘move’ soon.  I said that I expected to make such a decision ‘by the end of the spring.’  I referred to the five directions I might go—(1) into a family newspaper, (2) with a big corporation in an executive capacity, (3) with a law firm, (4) to a different position in the government (e.g., ambassador to one of the Big Six—UK, France, Germany, USSR, India or Japan), or (5) back into the academic world.  I said that my ideal arrangement would be to have one foot in the Law School and one, say, in the Center or in the new Kennedy School.” 

“From 1967 on,” recounted Morton Halperin “our (McNaughton, Halperin and others in the ISA) whole purpose was to find a way out of Vietnam.”  As the spring approached McNaughton took time on a Sunday for a March 12 diary entry revealing that there were “Several things on my mind—

          —Vietnam’s future
          —US force levels in Germany
          —Strategic talks with the Soviets and on the personal side
          —Alex’s college
          —Ted’s teeth & school
          —my future.”
[1] National Front of Liberation  (or "Viet Cong")
[i]               Rational Man – Irrational Policy (A Political Biography of John McNaughton’s Involvement in  the Vietnam War) Essay, Thomas W. Janes March 31, 1977 page 121
[ii]               McNaughton 5/13/66 diary entry
[iii]              McNaughton 5/13/66 diary entry
[iv]              John T. McNaughton private diary (January 1, 1966 – April 22, 1967
[v]               Alex McNaughton, September 4, 2004


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