Arrogance From the Secretary
Kudos to Robert Dudney for his editorial in the August 2009 issue titled, “The No-Brainers of Robert S. McNamara,” [p. 2].
In the early days of Robert McNamara’s tenure as Defense Secretary, I was one of the information officers serving under Arthur Sylvester, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Because of our daily contact with reporters, we were asked to forward to Mr. Sylvester any questions that Mr. McNamara might be asked at his next news conference. We were also to provide suggested answers, which meant we had to spend much time checking with our various service contacts for information.
It wasn’t long before the word was passed down to us from Mr. McNamara which summarized his arrogance in dealing with the press. He reportedly told Mr. Sylvester, “Just give me the questions. I know the answers!”
C. V. Glines
Please send a gold-embossed copy of the editorial, “The No-Brainers of Robert S. McNamara,” to the present Secretary of Defense, with the document stamped, “Must Read.”
John W. Payne
I found your editorial about Robert McNamara appalling. I am well aware that there are some who refer to Vietnam as “McNamara’s War.” Of course, you never hear about his involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which most people would say turned out well.
Our 43rd President pointed out that “he was the decider.” My 30-plus years in the Air Force and study of history have found that statement to be completely true. There will always be some, like yourself, who feel this is false, and perhaps in the future, we will refer to Iraq as “Rumsfeld’s War” and Afghanistan as “Gates’ War.”
The reason that President Kennedy became involved in Vietnam was based on strong advice from President Eisenhower and the country’s acceptance of the importance of the “domino theory” with regard to the spread of communism. No President wanted to be found guilty of ignoring this theory. Your editorial tries to simplify the “Vietnam Adventure” by using John Correll’s statement that “McNamara was Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 … which widened the involvement to a war in which 58,000 American troops died.”
You conveniently fail to point out other facts and events such as Kennedy directing the withdrawal of US forces on Oct. 2, 1963, or that there was a coup (in which the US government was implicated) in November of that year to overthrow the government of Vietnam, which resulted in the assassination of its President. Then we have the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and a transition of government which took over six months.
Despite insinuating that US Presidents are not the ultimate decision-makers in war, you lay Vietnam at McNamara’s feet, and only offer Gen. Curtis LeMay and his biography as additional proof. You totally ignore other powerful people (many as powerful as LeMay, in their field), such as Dean Acheson, George Ball, Bobby Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, Ellsworth Bunker, Clark Clifford (became Secretary of Defense in March 1968), William Colby (CIA station chief in Saigon and later CIA director under Nixon), Henry Kissinger, Gen. John McConnell (Air Force Chief of Staff after LeMay), Walt Rostow, Dean Rusk (Secretary of State), Gen. Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ambassador to Vietnam), Gen. William Westmoreland, and Gen. Earle Wheeler (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), all of whom made powerful and continuing inputs to one or more of the US Presidents involved. You also seem to ignore the comments of history books such as Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow, and the biographies of some of the famous people mentioned above, which tell of their inputs which they felt led to Presidential decisions.
I hope that your future editorials are more balanced and consider that perhaps many people could be blamed for a disastrous conflict that lasted over 10 years. We could easily have the same problem with Afghanistan.
Col. William R. Phillips,
Two things pre-Vietnam are worthy of note. US High Command in its infinite unwisdom decided not to provide air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion in early 1962. We young Naval Reserve intelligence officers had been taught in amphibious intelligence courses I-1 in 1957, I-2 in 1958, and I-3 in 1960 at Little Creek (Va.) that three-to-one air superiority was necessary to the success of an amphibious assault. Pity that information never penetrated the skulls of President Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and anybody else involved in that unfortunate decision.
During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. George Anderson stated in a high-level meeting that the Navy had been running blockades for more than 100 years. Secretary of Defense McNamara rebuked Admiral Anderson in the presence of the group, with words to the effect that they’d never done one right.
McNamara was an allegedly brilliant Pythagorean who understood neither human nature nor how to appreciate or lead people. My father, who only went through the 10th grade, told me that I would never meet a person who couldn’t tell me something that I didn’t know. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, the most successful in NCAA history, wrote, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Secretary of Defense McNamara, with all his education, was not as wise as my father or Coach Wooden.
Cmdr. Walter Dunn Tucker,
I was appalled by your Dudney-Correll editorial, “The No-Brainers of Robert S. McNamara,” in your August issue. It was a vicious, hate-filled page unworthy of a serious journal. Worse, it was full of poorly argued and, in one case, dangerous points: (1) McNamara never said that he opposed the Vietnam War “all along”; the record bears out his claim that he became opposed only after the war was well under way. Therefore, your accusations of “duplicity” and lack of “honor” collapse. You also imply that he was duplicitous in claiming that his mistakes were “honest,” and in claiming that he was not alone to blame for them. In fact, every Administration from Truman through Nixon made the same basic mistakes, giving McNamara a lot of company. Were they all “dishonest”
(2) You condemn McNamara for mentioning the “rank and file” of our armed forces only four times. Well, obviously his book was about the highest level diplomatic, political, economic, social, and, yes, moral issues; there was no reason for him to mention the troops, whose courage and self-sacrifice were never in question. Similarly, your condemnation of McNamara’s arguments as “philosophical mush” betrays your basic misunderstanding of history. High-level policy concepts (concerning diplomacy, etc.) cannot be as crisp and clear as a military standard operating procedure. And the record shows that McNamara was right: “We” did indeed “misjudge” our enemy’s “intentions”; moreover, there are problems without immediate solutions.
(3) Which leads me to my most important point: You condemn McNamara for failing to take the advice of military professionals. In fact, McNamara (and President Johnson and Cabinet) were far better placed to make basic policy judgments than were the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other uniformed leaders—judgments involving those diplomatic and other nonmilitary factors which must set the context for military decisions, not the other way around. To argue that our country’s civilian leaders must let the armed forces decide basic policy is to attack the Constitution-based concept of civilian control of the military—one of the cornerstones of our democracy. If Presidents and Secretaries of Defense must let narrow military proposals dominate higher policy, then Presidents and Secretaries become mere rubber stamps. On the contrary, we should thank our lucky stars that Johnson and McNamara had the wisdom and courage to reject military advice which would almost certainly (albeit unintentionally) have led to all-out war with China and perhaps with Russia as well.
Karl G. Larew
New Park, Pa.
I flew for MATS from 1965 to 1971, and was told that when the name was changed to Military Airlift Command, that the MAC was to be McNamara’s legacy. I wasn’t going to buy a copy [of McNamara’s book] because I couldn’t stand the man, but was waiting for someone to donate one to the Castle Air Museum, where I am the librarian, to read it. But now I don’t think I will read it. You are right on documenting his arrogance, as both my wife and I saw it in his speeches and interviews at the time. Thank you for your truthfulness.
Capt. Jim Preston,
Twain Harte, Calif.
The Legend of Frank Luke
The article “The Legacy of Frank Luke,” in the August issue [p. 48], mentions that Luke Air Force Base was named for Frank Luke.
Of note, the PBS series “History Detectives” mentioned that Amelia Earhart ground looped or blew a tire while taking off from Luke Field, Territory of Hawaii, while taking off on the second leg of her first attempt to fly around the world.
A search on the Internet shows that Luke Field was located on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor on what was later the USN air facility. At least one source says that the name was given up so that what is now Luke AFB could be given that name. The Ford Island facility was apparently a joint use facility before Hickam Field was completed and the entire facility turned over to the Navy.
Mt. Airy, Md.
Combat drones go back 45 years. Many of your readers are probably not aware that the first combat drone mission, to my knowledge, was launched over North Vietnam in August 1964 [“How the Predator Grew Teeth,” July, p. 42].
This was accomplished by a handful (probably less than 50) of Air Force officers, enlisted men, and Ryan Aircraft civilians using drones manufactured by Ryan Aircraft Co. in San Diego, Calif.
I was a member of that group. We dropped the drones from a C-130 aircraft just south of the North Vietnam border. The drones were programmed to fly their mission over North Vietnam doing vital reconnaissance to gather surface-to-air missile information. This was to be used in developing countermeasures to protect our manned aircraft on their combat missions.
We recovered the drones after they returned to the vicinity of Da Nang Air Base. The recovery was accomplished by us sending a message to the drones to shut down its jet engine, deploy a parachute, which was then snagged in midair by a helicopter and returned to Da Nang Air Base.
The mission was carried out in much the same way as our current drones, except we didn’t have the benefit of satellite communications. Therefore, we had to operate from South Vietnam using land-based radar. We also did not drop ordnance [from the drones].
Lt. Col. Milford E. Seabaugh,