The US Army was already upset about its losses from deep personnel and budget cuts when Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor arrived as the new Chief of Staff in June 1955. Army strength was down by almost a third since the Korean War and the Army share of the budget was dropping steadily.
These reductions were the result of the “New Look” defense program, introduced in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the “Massive Retaliation” strategy that went with it.
New Look was focused on the threat of Soviet military power, putting greater reliance on strategic airpower and nuclear weapons and less emphasis on the kind of wars the Army fought.
US planning was based on the standard of general war; the limited conflict in Korea was regarded as an aberration. If for some reason another small or limited war had to be fought, the US armed forces, organized and equipped for general war, would handle it as a “lesser included contingency.”
New Look—so called because Eisenhower had ordered a “new fresh survey of our military capabilities”—was driven by the belief that adequate security was possible at lower cost, especially if general purpose forces overseas were thinned out.
Another factor was the recognition that NATO could not match the conventional forces of the Soviet Union, which had 175 divisions—30 of them in Europe—and 6,000 aircraft based forward. So in 1952, the US and its allies had adopted a strategy centered on a nuclear response to attack.
As a side effect of New Look, the Army’s strength dropped by almost half a million men by 1955. The Army, which had been first among the services in its share of the defense budget, fell to last. The diminished role of ground forces predicted further cuts to come.
The effort to resurrect the limited war mission began during the tour of Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, Army Chief of Staff from 1953 to 1955, but the bulk of the task was up to his successor, Taylor, who has been called “the last of the World War II heroic generals” and was well-known for parachute jumping into Normandy on D-Day as commander of the 101st Airborne.
When he came to Washington, he brought with him a draft paper he had been working on, promoting a concept he called “Flexible Response.” It was no surprise that it called for greater attention to limited war and more resources for the US Army.
Voice of Dissent
Before his selection to be Army Chief of Staff, Taylor was interviewed by Eisenhower, who told him that he expected “loyalty in spirit as well as in letter” from the service Chiefs. By Taylor’s own account, he had “no difficulty” in assuring Eisenhower of “my readiness to carry out civilian orders even when contrary to my own views.”
That, however, did not fit with Taylor’s agenda to roll back the Army reductions. During his tour as Army Chief, Taylor consistently engaged in “undercutting as subtly as he could the Eisenhower policies of massive retaliation, with testimony on the Hill, with subtle leaks to the right journalists,” said David Halberstram in The Best and the Brightest.
It was difficult to substantiate any administration bias against the Army. The policy was Eisenhower’s and he was a retired five-star Army general. He had been Army Chief of Staff and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.
In public, Taylor focused much of his ire on Adm. Arthur W. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described by Taylor as “an able and ruthless partisan” who “led a major effort to cut the conventional forces and particularly the Army.”
In March 1956, the Secretary of Defense and the service Chiefs met at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico to talk about strategic requirements. Taylor presented his Flexible Response paper but the other Chiefs were not impressed, regarding it as essentially a partisan pitch for the Army.
Taylor pushed his arguments in speeches, articles, and interviews. “The avoidance of deliberate general atomic war should not be too difficult,” he said, since it would be of mutual interest to the superpowers “to keep the hostilities localized.”
“We are probably justified in assuming that neither side would voluntarily start a general atomic war,” he said. The Soviet Union would probably favor “other forms of aggression” and “in the long run, these less catastrophic forms of warfare may prove more dangerous than the direct threat of atomic attack.”
On the other hand, “a failure to have forces appropriate to situations short of general war can have serious consequences,” he said. “If we allow a limited aggression to go unchallenged, we will risk the loss piecemeal of our position around the world.”
Taylor is sometimes depicted as opposed to nuclear weapons, but that was hardly the case. In 1956, unable to secure his objectives with his basic Flexible Response proposal, Taylor reorganized the Army around the “Pentomic Division,” designed to fight either a nuclear or conventional war. Each Army division would consist of five self-contained battle groups with capabilities that included low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.
The Army already had artillery that fired atomic rounds and during Taylor’s tenure added the 155 mm Davy Crockett, a tactical nuclear recoilless gun mounted on a tripod and having a range of only a few miles.
To Taylor’s chagrin, Eisenhower was open to the idea of the Pentomic Division but saw it as an opportunity to make further reductions in personnel, which was not what Taylor had in mind. The Army followed the Pentomic model for a few years, then scrapped it and went back to a more traditional division structure.
Contrary to popular belief, Taylor did not resign from the Army in protest. He completed his full tour as Chief, retired in July 1959, and repackaged Flexible Response as a book.
The Uncertain Trumpet
Publication in 1960 of The Uncertain Trumpet was timed, according to the Taylor-friendly New York Times, “to coincide with the opening of Congress on Jan. 6 in hope that it might tip off a great debate on national security in the final year of the Eisenhower administration.” In addition to Taylor’s usual points on Flexible Response, the book launched a free-wheeling attack on the Air Force and the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
“In its principal aspects, the New Look was little more than the old airpower dogma set forth in Madison Avenue trappings and now formally buttressed upon Massive Retaliation as the central strategic concept.”
“The Air Force sees our principal danger in the growing strategic air and missile forces of the Soviet Union.”
“The Air Force is not equipped to discharge its responsibilities to the Army in ground combat.”
“Manned aircraft are disappearing and with them the kind of sustained air operations which justified the creation of the Air Force as a separate arm of the service.”
“I would dissolve the JCS as it now exists and replace it by a single Defense Chief of Staff” who would be the senior military officer of the United States. Additional advice would be available from a “Supreme Military Council,” consisting of three retired or soon-to-retire officers “not carried on the rolls of any service.”
The Army should be restored to the strength it had at the close of the Korean War, he asserted.
Despite the image fostered by Taylor’s admirers, the book was not particularly analytical or intellectual.
“Stylistically, The Uncertain Trumpet left much to be desired, being jargonistic and repetitive and resembling a series of Army briefing papers,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas Kinnard, a senior Army historian who once served on Taylor’s staff.
“Limited war” and “flexible response” as described in Taylor’s book had nothing to do with counterinsurgency or guerrilla warfare. “He seemed to be talking about guerilla wars, though it would turn out that he was the most conventional of men in terms of the new kind of warfare,” Halberstram said. “What he was really talking about was apparently limited use of highly mobile conventional forces in very limited wars.”
What The Uncertain Trumpet did have, beyond any question, was explosive political punch. Nobody realized that better than Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was running for President and welcomed the scathing criticism of Eisenhower’s military program.
“To the Kennedy people,” Halberstram said, Taylor “was a good general, different from the Eisenhower generals.” Kennedy, already enthusiastic about counterinsurgency and “brushfire war” strategies, adapted Taylor’s Flexible Response theme for his own purposes.
In his first job after retirement, Taylor was president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, but in October 1960, The New York Times predicted that he would be offered “a high post in the federal government” if Kennedy won the election.
In April 1961, Kennedy asked Taylor to lead a study into what had gone wrong in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a failed military operation in Cuba run by the CIA with detailed operational decisions made by the White House. Nevertheless, Kennedy blamed the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not providing him better advice. Taylor’s report gave Kennedy the answer he wanted: The Joint Chiefs had not adequately reviewed the plan.
In July, Kennedy recalled Taylor to active duty in a newly created position, carefully designated as “military representative to the president.” In this role, Taylor “effectively supplanted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs” as principal military advisor to the President, said defense analyst Thomas E. Ricks. At the time, Army Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer was less than a year into his tour as Chairman.
It was a symbiotic relationship. Taylor lent military credibility to the Kennedys. They welcomed him as an insider and made Flexible Response the centerpiece of strategy. Taylor was especially close to the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who named one of his children after Taylor.
Implementation of Flexible Response took several forms. The nuclear war plan was revised to include options other than massive retaliation. The conventional forces were rebuilt. The Army was projected to grow from 11 combat-ready divisions to 16, and the number of Air Force tactical fighter wings was increased as well. The Army share of the budget began to rise. By 1966, it would surpass that of the Navy and pull even with the Air Force.
However, Kennedy went well beyond Taylor’s prescription for Flexible Response with his emphasis on counterguerrilla warfare and a conversion to counterinsurgency swept through the armed forces. The administration was already leaning toward more active involvement in Vietnam.
In October 1961, Kennedy sent Taylor, accompanied by Walt Whitman Rostow of the White House staff, on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam. Taylor recommended sending a contingent of US ground troops, about 8,000, for limited use to reassure and shore up the position of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. “The risks of backing into a major Asian war by way of SVN are present but are not impressive,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s report helped Kennedy decide to do what he wanted to do anyway. He declined to send combat forces but ordered a big increase in advisors and support personnel. The total rose from 900 at the time of the Taylor-Rostow mission to more than 11,000 by the end of the year. The drift to deep involvement in Vietnam was underway.
Marching in Step
In July 1962, Kennedy nominated Taylor to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At his confirmation hearings, senators—no doubt recalling his firebrand activities of the 1950s—asked whether he planned to make sweeping changes.
“I assured them that none of these apprehensions was justified, that I was returning to the Pentagon in no crusading spirit, and I hoped, uninfluenced by any bias derived from my past experience.” Taylor was sworn in as Chairman by his friend Bobby Kennedy on Oct. 1.
“With his own man as Chairman of the JCS, Kennedy would no longer need a ‘military representative’,” said Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster in his highly regarded 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty. “When Taylor moved across the Potomac to the Pentagon, the President abolished the White House position.”
Taylor’s days as a disruptive activist were over. “I have come to understand the importance of an intimate, easy relationship, born of friendship and mutual regard, between the President and the Chiefs,” he said. “It is particularly important in the case of the Chairman, who works more closely with the President and the Secretary of Defense than do the service Chiefs. The Chairman should be a true believer in the foreign policy and military strategy of the administration which he serves or, at least feel that he and his colleagues are assured an attentive hearing on those matters for which the Joint Chiefs have a responsibility.”
Unlike the service Chiefs, Taylor had what was described as a “warm relationship” with Robert S. McNamara, the heavy-handed Secretary of Defense. The New York Times noted that Taylor managed to “adjust his concepts to complete endorsement of the McNamara [strategic] theory.”
As recalled in John M. Taylor’s biography of his father, Taylor said—probably with a certain satisfaction—that “under Kennedy, the Air Force had replaced the Army in the position of a ‘permanent minority’ on the JCS.”
In the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson following the Kennedy assassination in 1963, Taylor “demonstrated the same loyalty to Johnson that he had shown Kennedy,” McMaster said. The service Chiefs had little access to the White House.
“Taylor deliberately misrepresented the Joint Chiefs’ opinion and helped McNamara forge a consensus behind a strategic concept that permitted deepening American involvement in the war without consideration of its long-term costs and consequences,” McMaster wrote.
Even so, Taylor never gained LBJ’s complete trust, largely because of his closeness to the Kennedys, of whom Johnson was always suspicious. “Every now and then he’d say, ‘How is that Kennedy boy named after you?’ I wasn’t sure he was joking,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s reputation in journalistic circles continued to glow. “He runs counter to the prevailing image of professional soldiers as inarticulate men of narrow interests,” New York Times defense writer Jack Raymond said in 1964.
The View From Saigon
When Taylor’s tour as Chairman ended in 1964, Johnson named him ambassador to South Vietnam. Taylor arrived in Saigon in July with a powerful-sounding charter in a letter of instructions that he had drafted himself.
However, Gen. William C. Westmoreland—who had once served on Taylor’s staff in the Pentagon—had arrived a month earlier at Military Assistance Command Vietnam. As would become increasingly obvious over the next year, it was Westmoreland rather than Taylor who was Johnson’s general.
The burning issue was introduction of US ground troops into combat in South Vietnam. Westmoreland was for it; Taylor was not. Ironically, Taylor, who had spent much of the past decade disparaging airpower, thought that an air campaign against North Vietnam was the better strategy.
Taylor expressed that advice until April 1965 when Johnson and McNamara decided that the air campaign was not working and that the war would be won or lost in the south. The rapid buildup of US ground forces began. After that, Kinnard said, Taylor was “a background figure in Vietnam” as Westmoreland came to the fore.
By June, though, “Taylor was back on the team” and “now supporting the program advanced by Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs,” Kinnard said. Always flexible in the long run, “Taylor later modified his position, saying that perhaps the United States had waited too long to commit American ground forces.”
Taylor finished his tour as ambassador in July. He returned to Washington as a special consultant to Johnson, occupying the same office he had used in the Kennedy years in the Executive Office Building next door to the White House. His first assignment was a speaking tour to promote support for the administration’s war policy.
He continued to serve into 1969 as chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board but his public career was essentially over when the Johnson administration ended.
Echoes From the Trumpet
In Swords and Plowshares, published in 1972, Taylor implored the nation not to forsake forces for limited warfare because of the experience in Vietnam. “The fact is, without the limited war option and the forces that go with it, we have little of substance with which to defend ourselves,” he said.
In his later years, Taylor was a regular contributor to The Washington Post op-ed page, often sounding much like the Maxwell Taylor of old.
“By giving top priority to strategic weapons and thereby to preparations to forestall the least probable of our military threats, it will lead us to expend much of our resources on the wrong things or in the wrong order of priority,” he wrote in 1980. “It will confirm us in the neglect of our conventional forces.”
He was implacably opposed to the Air Force’s MX missile with basing modes that sought to survive a Soviet first strike. “A surprise attack on our silo ICBMs could be very damaging but its probability is very low,” Taylor said in 1981. “I can conceive of no national purpose or vital interest that might induce the cautious old men in the Kremlin to run the risks inherent in such an action.”
When Taylor died in 1987, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, “America has lost one of the greatest soldier-statesman in its history.”
In a broader perspective, Taylor has not fared that well in the critical analysis of history.
The harshest judgment is by Ricks in The Generals in 2012. “Maxwell Taylor arguably was the most destructive general in American history,” Ricks said. “As Army Chief of Staff in the 1950s, he steered the US military toward engaging in ‘brushfire wars.’ As White House military advisor during the early 1960s, he encouraged President John Kennedy to deepen American involvement in Vietnam. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he poisoned relations between the military and civilian leadership.”
“It is not overstating the case to say that the Army’s doomed voyage to Vietnam grew in part out of its search for a mission in the mid-1950s,” Ricks added.
H. R. McMaster’s conclusions are almost as caustic. “Taylor exacerbated service differences to help McNamara and Johnson keep the Chiefs divided and, thus, marginal to the policy process,” he said. “Taylor recommended men for appointment to the JCS who were less likely than their predecessors to challenge the direction of the administration’s military policy, even when they knew that policy was fundamentally flawed.”
From the middle 1960s on, Maxwell Taylor was never quite as large as his early legend. He did not expand significantly on his military concepts nor—given the positions of power that he held—did he have that much influence on policy or operations.
His big achievement was the formulation of Flexible Response. It has been interpreted in a variety of ways, some of them considerably different from what he had in mind. However, in various guises it became a fundamental doctrine of both the United States and NATO and is one of the lasting military concepts of the 20th century.
Even his worst critics will give him some credit for that.