Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chapter VIII -- Not a Word of This to Anybody

In a 2003 interview, Morton Halperin recalled a rare late night conversation when McNaughton expressed his doubts about the Vietnam War.  McNaughton rhetorically asked Halperin: “What right do we have to be there? … to get our people killed and to kill their people?”   After the conversation had ended and Halperin was back in his office cleaning up, McNaughton stopped on his way out of the office, looked at Halperin and said: “Not a word of this to anybody.”  

McNaughton’s Saturday, April 22, 1967 diary entry reveals a remarkable intermingling of thoughts about his own future, concerns about Vietnam and affairs in Europe.  He had talked with Benno Schmidt at J. H. Whitney & Co. about a partnership at the private equity firm, and also had discussions about being a vice president and General Counsel of IBM’s wholly owned subsidiary, World Trade Corp.  In the same entry he noted that McNamara approached him a couple of weeks earlier to inquire about his interest in being a Service Secretary, then asking if McNaughton would leave government if he didn’t get one of the jobs.  McNaughton answered “yes” and “yes.”   McNaughton then wrote, “The President today approved a tough schedule of bombing NVN; he’s in a ‘god damn those sons o’ bitches’ mood,” and went on to observe that  the big issues are the extent to which a compromise could be made, would appear as a US defeat and would thereby erode US power in the world.  McNaughton’s diary records that he then switched his thoughts to European matters, musing about whether President Johnson would “give away” anything while in Germany for (former West German Chancellor) Konrad Adenauer’s funeral.

On May 19, 1967 a defining McNaughton memo was circulated.  It was his first strongly worded on-the-record criticism of the war.  Although U.S. public sentiment was still solidly behind the war at the time, McNaughton’s memo was prescient about the much wider anti-war movement that would become fully energized after the Tet offensive in early 1968.  He described the war as “. . . . increasingly unpopular as it escalates-causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on the non-combatants in Vietnam, South and North. Most Americans do not know how we got where we are, and most, without knowing why, but taking advantage of hindsight, are convinced that somehow we should not have gotten this deeply in.  All want the war ended and expect their President to end it.  Successfully or else.”  

McNaughton then continued that he feared “…there is the fatal flaw in the strategy in the draft.  It is that the strategy falls into the trap that has ensnared us for the past three years.  It actually gives the troops while only praying for their proper use and for constructive diplomatic action.”  McNaughton posited that the “philosophy” of the war should be agreed upon now, so that “everyone will not be proceeding on their own major premises, and getting us in deeper and deeper…”[i]

McNaughton further observed that, “A feeling is widely and strongly held that ‘the Establishment’ is out of its mind. The feeling is that we are trying to impose some US image on distant peoples we cannot understand (anymore than we can the younger generation here at home), and that we are carrying the thing to absurd lengths.”  McNaughton’s own plans to remove himself from the daily angst of Vietnam were a reflection of what was in the minds of many of his colleagues.  McNaughton concluded his memo by cautioning that, “In this connection, I fear that ‘natural selection’ in this environment will lead the Administration itself to become more and more homogenized--Mac Bundy, George Ball, Bill Moyers are gone.  “Who next?”

Seeking advice on whether he should resign, McNaughton lunched with old friend, Lincoln Gordon, and learned that Gordon had also once considered resigning from government.   Gordon advised McNaughton that his superior had told him to “…go ahead and resign, but you only make page nine of The Washington Post, no other newspapers in the Country, and lose your chance to change policy for the better.”  Gordon told McNaughton that he decided to continue in government service.  McNaughton then looked at Gordon and said, “You know, I feel the same way.”   [ii] 

John T. McNaughton and President Lyndon Baines Johnson (undated)

McNaughton’s way out arrived that summer.  At a 1967 Rose Garden swearing-in ceremony for McNaughton and three others,[1] President Johnson remarked that the four nominees “…came from New England, the west coast, metropolitan centers of the East and a small town in the Midwest.”   McNaughton, the man from the Midwest, had been designated to be Secretary of the Navy effective August 1, 1967.   Close McNaughton colleagues offer similar, but slightly differing explanations for McNaughton’s planned departure to the Secretary of the Navy post.  “The position was open.” said McNamara, “It was higher in status than his current position.  I hated to see John leave ISA.   I missed John in that position (ISA), although we had other capable people.”[iii]     Hoopes recalled that McNamara had persuaded McNaughton to consider the possibility of a different job in Defense Department that would offer fresh perspectives and challenges and a new set of problems.  [iv] 

In spite of the Navy Secretary job’s many responsibilities, McNaughton would not have been in the operational chain of command and would not have had authority over how naval assets would be deployed and thus would have minimal tactical involvement in Vietnam decisions.  His focus would have been to assure that ships and crews were ready for deployment. [v]    Morton Halperin, however, said that if McNaughton had lived to perform his duties as Secretary of the Navy it is “hard to believe John would have sat idly by…”  He would have wanted to be, speculated Roger Fisher, “close to the action.”

McNamara’s In Retrospect expresses its author’s considerations about whether he himself should have resigned in protest of the war he no longer supported: “To a degree, I held such power, and some said I should have used it by resigning, challenging the president’s Vietnam policy and leading those who sought to force a change.  I believe that would have been a violation of my responsibility to the president and my oath to uphold the Constitution.” [vi]

In June 1967, McNamara asked McNaughton to start quietly collecting documents for future scholars to use, including papers from the Department of Defense, the State Department, the CIA and The White House.  McNaughton assigned the project, which would become “The Pentagon Papers," to Halperin who subsequently tasked it to Leslie Gelb.  The previously secret project gained notoriety when Daniel Ellsberg, who had first been brought to the Pentagon by McNaughton in 1964, surreptitiously copied the secret documents and slipped them to major news outlets.  In spite of McNaughton’s opposition to the war, two of his colleagues later speculated that McNaughton would have disapproved of Ellsberg’s actions.  In a summer June 2003, interview, Morton Halperin surmised that McNaughton “would have hated” Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers saying, “if John were there, he would never have given the notes to Daniel Ellsberg.”   In July 2003, McNamara asserted: “John would have been aghast.  (Ellsberg) violated security procedures he had sworn to uphold.”

[1]  The three other nominees referenced were Charles F. Baird (Undersecretary of the Navy) Paul Nitze (Deputy Secretary of Defense) and Paul C.Warnke (Assistant Secretary of Defense who was replacing McNaughton).

[i]               The Pentagon Papers (Gravel) Volume 4, Chapter 2, " pp. 277-604.       
[ii]              Thomas W. Janes March 31, 1977.  pp. 145-146
[iii]              Robert S. McNamara phone interview, July 11, 2003
[iv]              Townsend Hoopes telephone interview with Thomas Paullin
[v]               Robert Timberg, The Nightingale’s Song, page 403
[vi]              Robert  McNamara, “In Retrospect”,  page 314


  1. I have a hard time with McNamara's phrase "the president's Vietnam strategy". It seems that the president was torn throughout early 1965, and that he rejected Ball's withdrawal strategy in favour of McNamara, Bundy, and Rusk's more aggressive approach. Had things worked out differently, I wonder if McNamara would be so willing to credit LBJ?

  2. I also wonder what would have happened if government officials were openly encouraged to voice doubt? What if Pentagon culture had encouraged people like McNaughton to openly and routinely ask questions like he did at the beginning of this chapter, instead of hushing them up? Didn't McNamara say that this was why the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted, because JFK demanded that someone always act as the devil's advocate?

  3. David, I think that many of the Pentagon people,including McNaughton and McNamara, had crossed the tipping point and were against the war somewhere in the 1965-1866 timeframe. And, whether it was sanctioned or not, I think they did question the war, at least amongst themselves. I think the dissent conversations with White House people were few and far between.