Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War by Ingo Trauschweizer

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As the commanding general of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Maxwell Taylor parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. He later became an architect of Vietnam War policy during his tenure as a White House military adviser and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Kennedy Administration, and ultimately as ambassador to South Vietnam from 1964-65 under President Johnson. Taylor died in 1987.

He was called a hero, an optimist, a manipulator, a micro-manager, a wise man, and by some, a liar. He never wavered in his belief that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front.

Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War: From Berlin to Vietnam (Unirvesity Press of Kentucky, 328 pp. $45, hardcover and Kindle) by Ohio University historian Ingo Trauschweizer examines Taylor’s role in developing U.S. military strategy and doctrine. It is an academic work that chronologically recounts policy debates and bureaucratic conflicts in detail. The book is based extensively on newly declassified government archives.

This is not a biography. The book seeks instead to provide a “more complete” picture of “military, strategic, policy, institutional, intellectual, international, and diplomatic history”—a rather tall order that sometimes gets as bogged down as the Vietnam War itself. Ultimately, what stands out is Taylor and other decision-makers’ arrogance, mis-assumptions, and wishful thinking, particularly with Vietnam War policymaking.

Maxwell Taylor stepped into controversy in 1960 when his book, The Uncertain Trumpet, came out after he’d retired from the military as the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff. Trauschweizer describes the book as a “scathing indictment of the national security system and the shortcomings of massive retaliation” as a deterrent defense strategy.

In the book, Taylor called for building capacity and flexibility for “limited wars” with graduated pressures. Vietnam became the stage on which to test components of the doctrine as a “layered structure” of air war, ground war, counterinsurgency, and pacification. One major flaw in Taylor’s argument, Trauschweizer points out, was the failure to anticipate the dynamics of escalation. Another was a fatal misreading of the resolve of Hanoi’s leadership—and the Vietnamese people—in refusing to be figuratively and literally bombed into submission by the United States.

Later, in hindsight, Taylor cited several factors that led to the failure of his doctrine in the Vietnam War: the lack of a formal declaration of war, the lack of hard intelligence data, and the lack of “a comprehensive media information campaign” directed at the American people—something that also might be called a massive propaganda campaign.

For decisions to go to war in the future, Trauschweizer describes Taylor’s idea of a clear-headed, four-point test of the “national interest”:

  • The gain to be anticipated by success
  • The probable cost to achieve success
  • The probability of failure
  • The additional costs that failure would impose

Taylor also emphasized, in Trauschweizer’s words, “the need for a president to be absolutely certain of sustained popular support and to rely on a military prepared to win quickly and decisively.”

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Secretary of Defense McNamara, Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor, and President Kennedy at the White House, January 15, 1963 – JFK Library photo

One is tempted to respond: “If pigs had wings had wings, they could fly,” or at least to add that it would be advisable that every president contemplating war has a perfect crystal ball. For Taylor’s scenario to work, limited wars probably require the massive application of military power at the outset to avoid the risk of becoming protracted wars. Unforeseen consequences are also often inevitable.

If nothing else, Maxwell Taylor’s prescription can be used to assess the Unites States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and today’s risk of war with Iran, whether intentional or miscalculated.

–Bob Carolla