Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chapter IX – The Irretrievable Loss of a Friend

Just after noon on July 19, 1967, the midair collision of a Piedmont Airlines jetliner and a twin engine Cessna took the lives of John and Sally McNaughton, their younger son Ted and 79 others near Hendersonville, North Carolina.[1]  The couple had flown to North Carolina to pick up Ted from camp and the three of them appeared relaxed in a breakfast photo taken just before departing for the Hendersonville airport.  McNamara was told of the tragedy while in Baltimore visiting his wife who was hospitalized for surgery for an ulcer.  McNamara appeared to accept the loss stoically, but the President soon heard that, from exhaustion or grief, McNamara’s jaw was quivering uncontrollably. [i]

Ted, John and Sally McNaughton at breakfast on July 19, 1967

The day after the crash, McNaughton’s ISA deputy Townsend Hoopes wrote a memo to the ISA staff: “We have suffered a surpassing personal loss: and suffered it with the shock and disbelief that are themselves ironic and somewhat incredible for people who live amid daily reports of wholesale carnage across the world.  How sharp and painful is the difference in impact between impersonal death and the irretrievable loss of a friend.”[ii]

Death and Memorial announcment for McNaughton and family.

The funeral for John, Sally and Ted McNaughton was held at the National Cathedral on July 25, 1967 followed by a procession to Arlington National Cemetery for burial.  The Secretary of the Navy designate, his wife and his youngest son were interred near the plot where John F. Kennedy, the man whose administration brought McNaughton to the nation’s capital, had been put to rest less than four years earlier.  President Johnson drove to the funeral with Sen. Everett Dirksen, whose home was less than a mile away from McNaughton’s former house in Pekin, Illinois.  Vice President Humphrey, all the Joint Chiefs of Staff, half the cabinet, Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy and the secretaries of the Army and Air Force attended along with two planeloads of the McNaughtons’ central Illinois friends.  Secretary McNamara was an honorary pallbearer.  McNaughton's friend and former colleague Adam Yarmolinsky gave the eulogy.

What were McNaughton’s future plans?  Alex McNaughton said that “Dad always wanted to be President.” [iii] McNaughton’s father told a family friend that the McNaughton family had met to discuss financing John McNaughton’s run for elective office, an assertion that may be supported by a photo of McNaughton with his father and brothers in Springfield, the Illinois capital, about a month before his death.[iv]  McNaughton had changed his legal residence back to Illinois, probably in anticipation of returning home to run for governor or Congress. [v]

The turning point year of 1968, starting with a precipitous drop in public support for the war in the wake of the Tet Offensive, would almost certainly have ended McNaughton’s Presidential aspirations had he lived.  None of the key Vietnam figures from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were successful in running for important elective offices, although many continued to serve in key advisory positions in and out of government. 

In September 1994 when McNamara was researching his book In Retrospect, his assistant discovered a memo from Richard Helms, who was at CIA at the time, to LBJ suggesting what would probably happen “if we had just pulled out?”  The memo implied that the consequences would not be as dire as had been previously predicted.   With frustration in his voice, McNamara rhetorically asked “Why didn’t we have access to this memo?  I did not know it existed until about 1995. Was the threat as great as the President and the CIA thought?”   “This” McNamara said “is much the same argument that is going on now with Iraq.  The Domino Theory -- the term that Eisenhower coined to refer to the need to prevent the loss of Vietnam and Laos to the Chinese Communists which it was believed would reckon the security of the West – was it justified?  This issue was never fully debated.” [vi] 

Some thirty-five years after the fall of Saigon and with lingering public dissatisfaction with our country’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan, historical dialogue focuses on how the United States entangled itself in the Vietnam conflict, not whether or not the United States should have been involved -- there is fairly broad consensus that we should not have been involved.  However, even such a noted anti-war activist as Noam Chomsky conceded in his 1970 book For Reasons of State that “It is fashionable today to deride the domino theory, but in fact it contains an important kernel of plausibility, perhaps truth.  National independence and revolutionary social change, if successful, may very well be contagious.  The problem is what Walt Rostow and others sometimes call the ‘ideological threat,’ specifically, ‘the possibility that the Chinese Communists can prove to Asians by progress in China that Communist methods are better and faster than democratic methods.’” [vii]

McNamara’s In Retrospect posed the question: “Were such high costs justified?  Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, Lee Kwan Yew, and many other geopoliticians across the globe to this day answer ‘yes’. They conclude that without U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Communist hegemony-both Soviet and Chinese-would have spread farther through South and East Asia to include control of Indonesia, Thailand, and possibly India.  Some would go further and say that the USSR would have been led to take greater risks to extend its influence elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East, where it might well have sought control of the oil-producing nations.  They might be correct, but I seriously question such judgments.”  [viii]   

It is convenient to blame McNamara, McNaughton and their close colleagues for Vietnam, some even referred to the conflict as “McNamara’s War.”   Others argue that McNamara and McNaughton had limited influence, and that the Vietnam escalation was largely driven by the White House hawks such as Johnson, Rusk and Rostow.  In his book The Limits of Intervention Townsend Hoopes recalled that George Kennan once said that “if you trace back along the chain of cause and effect – treating each cause as the effect of an earlier cause, until you arrive at the first cause – you are forced to make a judgment of ‘cosmic forgiveness’ and ‘cosmic unforgiveness.’” 

“Going up is fun” wrote F.F. McNaughton in his daily column the day after his son’s death, “Much of John’s life he was going up.  There HAD to be bad years ahead – bad years and old age.  That plane crash freed him of them.” [ix]   His death helped McNaughton escape public scrutiny related to his involvement in Vietnam and deprived the world of a brilliant man who had learned lessons from costly mistakes and almost certainly would have made significant contributions in a complex world where the art of compromise is a fundamental skill for survival.  And, the early departure kept McNaughton from telling his side of the story, even though many of his superiors, counterparts and direct reports wrote articles, books and autobiographies after their time in office was complete.

In an October 12, 1968 speech at DePauw University, friend and colleague McGeorge Bundy described McNaughton as “a man unafraid to confront reality, and yet, unwilling to abandon the test of right when he accepted the test of possibility. He did not suppose that war could be left to the soldiers alone.  Or that peace could be made without them.  He cared for Southeast Asia, but he cared also for the fabric of our free society.  Above all, he believed that we must not kid ourselves, and he was right.”  Bundy surmised that “if John McNaughton were with us I think he might still be smiling a little. He knew the complexities of the contest in Vietnam, and he knew at close hand the problems of command and control in Washington.” [x]

John T. McNaughton’s friend and mentor Robert S. McNamara concluded In Retrospect by citing a favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s “The Palace.”   McNamara’s book was widely praised and widely criticized, and it was McNamara’s chance to tell his story and make amends in his own words.  McNaughton never had the opportunity to write his book and if he had, perhaps he would have also used literature to conclude his thoughts.

"These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep."
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 4.1

In the daily column he wrote for his own newspaper not long after his son’s death, F. F. McNaughton noted how much he would miss son John McNaughton’s frequent letters home.  McNaughton’s last letter home arrived on his father’s desk one hour before his death.  The last words of the letter were: “All’s well – John.” [xi]

[1] McNaughton’s plane crashed within a few minute’s drive of the home of beloved Illinois poet Carl Sandberg.   Sandberg died in bed just three days after McNaughton’s crash.

[i]                A. J. Langguth, “Our Vietnam” page 451
[ii]               Townsend Hoopes, July 20, 1967, Memo to ISA Staff
[iii]              Alex McNaughton, August 11,  2003
[iv]              Ellen L. Paullin, June 2003
[v]               Ellen L. Paullin/Alex McMaughton
[vi]              Robert S. McNamara, July 23, 2003
[vii]             Noam Chomsky, “For Reasons of State”  page 31) 
[viii]            Robert S. McNamara, “In Retrospect” page 319
[ix]              F.F. McNaughton, Pekin Daily Times,  7/20/67
[x]               McGeorge Bundy, DePauw University, October 12, 1968
[xi]              F.F. McNaughton, Pekin Daily Times,  7/31/67

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