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

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The Vietnam War comes up several times in The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (Simon & Schuster, 641 pp., $32.50), a sprightly written account by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy that examines the relationships of former U.S. presidents to sitting presidents beginning with the Eisenhower administration.

Gibbs and Duffy, who are TIME magazine editors, include an entire chapter on former President Dwight Eisenhower’s influence on Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War during the tumultuous last four years (1965-68) of Johnson’s presidency. LBJ invited Ike to address his top Vietnam War policy makers in February of 1965, the authors report, and the former five-star general who did not escalate the war in Vietnam during his eight years in the White House (1953-61), made a case to use America’s military might to mount “a campaign of pressure,” as Ike put it.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Gibbs and Duffy say, asked Ike if that including using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Eisenhower replied that if China intervened, the U.S. should “hit them from the air, using whatever force was necessary, including nuclear weapons.” Ike “doubted that would happen,” the authors note, “But the United States [had] to put its prestige into keeping Southeast Asia free; if that takes [quoting Ike] ‘six to eight divisions… so be it.'”

Eisenhower later became disenchanted with Johnson’s handling of the war.  Ike was particularly bothered by LBJ’s public assertions that he escalated the war because of promises that Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had made to come to South Vietnam’s defense. Ike “had never made a unilateral military commitment to defend Vietnam, he insisted; he had only promised [South Vietnamese Premiere Ngo Dinh] Diem ‘economic and foreign aid.'”

Despite his disenchantment with Johnson, Eisenhower never publicly disagreed with Johnson on Vietnam War policy. Ike espoused a hawkish stance up to his death in March of 1969.

There’s also a chapter on the interaction during the election year of 1968 between Republican candidate Richard Nixon and LBJ, who on March 31 had announced that he would not run for re-election and would seek peace with the Vietnamese communists. Gibbs and Duffy show that Nixon continually promised Johnson that he—Nixon—would not “do anything to undercut the U.S. position” in bargaining with North Vietnam, and then worked to do the very opposite.

Nixon, in essence, helped sabotage the budding peace talks, making LBJ and his Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic opponent, look weak and indecisive in the process. Nixon used allies such as Henry Kissinger (who served as an adviser to Johnson on Vietnam War policies) and Republican bigwig Anna Chennault to all but subvert the peace process. The historian Robert Dallek said that the moves that Nixon made behind the scenes with regard to shaping the peace process in 1968 contributed to “a fall campaign that would produce as much skullduggery and hidden actions as any in American history.”

It is also worth nothing, the authors say, that with the missed opportunity for the start of peace talks in 1968, the Vietnam War “would continue and widen, the death toll mount, the damage deepen for years, until it finally ended on terms very much like the ones tentatively agreed to in October of 1968.”

—Marc Leepson