Part 7: Betrayal by Brilliance
by Robert L. Kocher
The two most authoritative books on the Viet Nam conflict as analyzed from the highest inside levels of government and policy are Lost Victory , by former CIA director William Colby, and In Retrospect, The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam , by Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The two accounts disagree with each other to an extent that it is as if the two men had been inhabiting different solar systems. For practical purposes, they did. The two men come from two opposite backgrounds and systems of reasoning.
Although he didn’t look it, Colby was a tough character and the real thing. He had been parachuted behind enemy lines in WWII to work with the Norwegian and French resistances. He went into the CIA as it developed. He arrived in Viet Nam in February of 1959 and was present there during the critical period of the war’s development.
Ideally, for an analytical or leadership position you want broad-based vertically upward inductive training and experience. You want a person who has the broadest in-depth knowledge at lower levels and specific details. From that point a person moves upward into inductively-derived complexly-developed generalizations and inferences. Colby’s reasoning was inductive. His experience with numerous specific details of war, and Viet Nam, coupled with a superior intelligence level, produced a mind that was almost encyclopedic. From this, he was able to construct principles and modes of direction based in reality.
Colby seems a man prone to understate, rather than exaggerate, himself, his capabilities, and his role in events. What you got from Colby was a description of what happened and his analysis—without excessive reference to William Colby.
Colby impresses me as a man tougher than was generally known, who held his temper during some of the amateurism and childishness in government and elsewhere during the Viet Nam period, and he was tired of holding back. Some of the comments in his book border on the caustic, but are accurate. He provides the facts, sometimes in a subdued form, then backs away from stating their obvious conclusions. His contention is that the war could have been won, indeed was won at several points, but the potential victory was thrown away by high level bungling. Hence the book title, Lost Victory. His is probably the definitive book on Viet Nam.
Colby died in an apparent kayaking accident in 1997 near his home, which is a terrible historical loss. I saw a brief series of comments from Colby on TV a few weeks before he died. It was clear that he was becoming somewhat impatient with the constraints of political niceties, and was becoming direct in his comments. What he might have said in another year or two could have substantially changed the view of Viet Nam, as well as of Kennedy, Johnson, and those around them. This is speculative, of course, but life experience in the psychological world has taught me there are signals that often indicate the eventual path a mind will travel.
Robert McNamara graduated from Berkeley with a major in economics, and minors in philosophy and mathematics. He also took two years of Army ROTC, which was a land grant college requirement that he and his classmates viewed as an irrelevancy to their world and was not taken seriously. From there he graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939. He was later asked to return to Harvard as a faculty member on short notice. He served a period in the military during WWII as a statistical control officer.
From there he went to Ford Motor Company, eventually becoming president in 1960. At that point Kennedy brought McNamara into his administration as Secretary of Defense.
On close inspection, McNamara had no real military background. A young officer by the name of Thornton had developed an accounting system of keeping track of airplanes, construction, mission effects, and whatever. In 1943 Dean Donham of Harvard asked NcNamara and another faculty member to teach statistical analysis and control to Eighth Air Force clerks and personnel, apparently as an extension of Thornton’s program. One can speculate as to whether is was also a statement of McNamara’s dispensability at Harvard. McNamara was brought on as a civilian consultant with indication he would be given an officer’s commission. For practical purposes he could have remained a civilian as far as proximity to front line command or military field responsibilities were concerned. A photograph in his book shows him as a Captain in early 1943. He left in 1946 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
The prestige and privileges of advanced rank at advanced pay in a position far behind the scenes in an urbane atmosphere, some of which was spent in Kansas, Ohio, and Washington—as well as India, the Pacific, and England—was a very comfortable way to go through the war. It was a plum dropped in McNamara’s lap rather than a sacrifice. McNamara believes it made a significant contribution to the war effort, and perhaps it did. But he has noticeable capacity to puff up his roles.
Applying business management techniques and statistical control may be useful or a necessity. However, it is abstraction that is only a small part of the army or any of the other services. It bears little relationship to establishment of morale and small unit tactics in jungles or deserts. The latter is basic to everything. McNamara’s military background was such that military operations were abstract statistics rather than participating directly in grimy life and death operations.
Unlike Colby, McNamara’s range of experience was narrow and distant from specific concrete reality. He led a somewhat protected and comfortable life where he started from the top, usually from abstract academic study. McNamara’s thinking was deductive in the sense of adopting broad general principles that were not inductively derived and hence of doubtful validity. In many cases, they were manufactured out of nothing and supported by the artificial intellectual environment in which he lived.
Colby’s book on Viet Nam is about Viet Nam and the events, figures, or personalities that played a part in it. Much of McNamara’s book is to a great extent about McNamara.
Whiz Kid Vanity
Robert McNamara’s book reveals a high degree of vanity. He makes the point of his own brilliance, which may be a conscious, or subconscious effort to intimidate people from disagreeing with him. He establishes control by assertion of intellectual dominance. This is the kid who was in the top of his classes in grade school. This is the young man who graduates from Berkeley and Harvard Phi Beta Kappa. This is the young man who is asked to become a faculty member at Harvard. This is the young man who is asked to teach management and statistical analysis in World War Two. This is the young man whose force of intellect is brought into a group of “Whiz Kids” who take over the operation of Ford Motor Company from the grips of an unintellectual previous group.
The McNamara mind as the voice of authority is established as a power not to be trifled with, and is capable of seeing clearly and powerfully manipulating things from a distance through statistical and abstract analysis. In his system his intellect is not tested against anything but his own intellect, or other sympathetic intellects. He still fights the realization that there is a world other than that of his own restricted experience. His message is: I’m brilliant, I knew a lot of important top level people, and I’m right.
McNamara was a man who projected an imposing image. The straight penetrating looks through the trademark austere rimless glasses conveyed a stern forcefulness that intimidated. That initial contact established a type of dominance and control. It sold McNamara. It sold McNamara very quickly into positions that may have been over his head. There were assumptions made on the basis of that look. Suggestible and naive people projected qualities and capabilities to McNamara on the basis of this impression. The question is whether those attributes really existed over the long term.
How good was McNamara? What is the hard real content of McNamara’s resume? McNamara shows a background of having lived in a very artificial world comfortably distant from the realities of the trenches, and from confrontation with the realities of making things work. He did well in academic surroundings. His military career was in reality a comfortable extension of academia. His roles were tangential and administratively bureaucratic in nature. He was never at the center of starting things and making them work in a role that required concrete working knowledge. McNamara is a statistical technician who happened to have fallen into temporal niches where such technicians were not previously present, but were useful, specifically in the air force and at Ford Motor. The effects may or may not have been dramatic, but the U.S. military and Ford Motor Company were, after all, well-established operations long before he got there. The scope of effect in those instances is different from the scope of depth of the individual and the validity or generality of the person or his skills to other situations. This power and dramatic effect can lead to views of abilities which are exaggerated by one’s self, or by others. In McNamara’s case, the image of his abilities was further enhanced by his verbal fluency and manner.
A rather crude analogy might be drawn to being stuck out on a country road. At that time, a mechanic who knows something about fuel filters might have a very dramatic effect and could be given power over your life. Whether he’s a genius or should be your neurosurgeon is a different question.
McNamara’s background is curiously devoid of elements necessary for anyone I would want to have in broad areas of authority and responsibility. He’s fundamentally a maintenance and monitoring technician who I would want people listen to, but at the same time I would want them to understand that his decisions were fundamentally based upon limited breadth and depth—regardless of verbal fluency and showmanship. It would be understood that he had a tendency to overestimate and over-sell himself beyond his ability. Unless he were satisfied to remain in a tangential role, his conceptual contributions would be easily and quickly acquired by other personnel and he would be a transient figure.
The word from McNamara is that he was brilliant. The word from people who were somehow transfixed by him was that he was brilliant. For the life of me, I don’t see it.
A Blowhard Leftist
Written analysis at the intelligence level of those reading the Laissez Fair City Times requires adherence to the proprieties of linguistic refinement and grace. Within that framework, I find that the only accurate description of McNamara is that he is highly conceited without foundation, more than a bit of a blowhard, and a name-dropper who attempts to impress with his associations. He is an intellectual bully based more upon appearance than muscle. My opinion is that he beats his own drum far too loudly and is prone to overdramatize and exaggerate his roles and abilities. In most cases where I have seen these traits, it hides fundamental weakness.
McNamara’s personal politics were what were once characterized as far left. On page 217 of McNamara’s book he quotes a December 3, 1965 Mary McGrory column which says, among other things, “The secretary is an admirer of Norman Thomas, the venerable Socialist leader who was the most effective orator at last Saturday’s demonstration here.” If someone were to call me an admirer of any socialist, my first inclination would be to kick them in the head for the insult to my intellect and integrity. But, this is a description of himself McNamara did not find offensive or important enough to react to or deny. This suggests that McNamara did not find the basic tenets of socialism dishonest enough, or a serious enough infringement upon human freedom, or in other ways objectionable enough, to provoke personal repugnance toward someone who advocated that system.
McNamara was a graduate of the academic processing mentioned in earlier chapters, and proceeded upon any premises acquired at that time, together with an absence of vital premises typical of those graduating from that system and era. I believe this produced a muddled lack of incisiveness and lack of clarity of thought. A radically left society was for him apparently not far beyond moral, ethical, or rational parity with the American system.
McNamara has inhabited a small world which has never been seriously confronted. He still resists that confrontation and clings to the unreality and narrowness of his views. Assuming he was serious about American military strength and victory, which must be a questioned assumption, the idea that he was wrong about much of what he did as Secretary of Defense seems inconceivable to him.
He was also involved with a group of intellectuals in the Kennedy administration who were narrowly chosen without close examination of the usefulness of their background beyond it’s abstract prestige, and who lacked contact with a greater whole reality.
McGeorge Bundy Loses His Cool
On page 95, McNamara describes McGeorge Bundy: “A Harvard fellow at age twenty-two, biographer of Henry Stimson at twenty-nine, and dean of Harvard’s Arts and Sciences Faculty at thirty-four, he possesses one of the keenest intellects I have ever encountered. And he was by far the ablest national security advisor I have observed over the last forty years.” Here we see more emphasis on the importance of abstract academic background.
Colby described Bundy as “—an exemplar of the Harvard establishment with a passion for public service.” Bundy is described as having a cool, rarefied attitude with a reluctance toward direct or immediate attack or response. According to Colby, Bundy made a visit to Viet Nam during which a major attack by the communists occurred. It apparently produced a temporary shocking revelation. In Colby’s words, “Bundy sent a strong telegram to Washington calling for sharp retaliation against North Vietnam itself. Proximity to the reality of war presents great challenges to cool intellectual analysis.” It is uncertain how much subtle ridicule and sarcasm Colby intended in that statement. The event would have made a hilarious scenario as part of a Peter Sellers movie comedy, if it had not been true, and if the principle figure had not been America’s national security advisor. As it was, it was part of an ongoing tragedy of genteel incompetence and immaturity that would eventually nearly destroy America.
What did Bundy presume had been going on over there? Why was this event a shock to him? He had little experience with, and did not understand, the realities of war. If he, McNamara, and some of the rest of those living fashionable academic distance from real life had been drafted into the army and had to go through it constantly, they might have experienced a real shock. None of that clique who had led soft lives and were continuing soft lives with prestigious titles had any realistic conception of anything. Bundy, McNamara, Kennedy and others, none of them had ever done anything in their lives that qualified them for anything except perhaps soft lives on the plantations of liberal universities that seemed to be their constant frame of reference. They lacked competent capacity or experience. They were hot-house plants. Their “passion for public service” didn’t express itself as a desperate need to go over and help Mother Teresa in a state of humility. It was more accurately limited to desire for prestigious participation in the exhilaration of government power by country club or faculty club dilettantes. Reality was an occasional resented crude intrusion into their rarefied discussions–and their lives. Within that frame of reference, the idea that a Harvard Dean might actually go over to look at what was being discussed and have a bullet sent whizzing over his head was a crude intrusion and insult that was absolutely not to be tolerated. The effect of the event would wear off upon return to the less vulgar world of academic discussion.
Harvard had an emphasis on a rather comfortable, artificial academic form in which the demands of reality became irrelevant. Capacity to think quickly, accurately, or in depth under battlefield conditions is not prerequisite to receiving a PhD in history or philosophy. It is possible to develop high levels of academic skills which are artificial and irrelevant to any other world. In fact, a person with impressive academic certification may be non-functional, and may show little talent, beyond the artificialities of the academic environment.
McNamara’s Crush on Kennedy
What occurred during the Kennedy administration was a forum of the unreal where Harvard Fellows or the equivalent partook of endless debate valid primarily in academic form without proper weight given to reality. There were figures, reports, presentations, arguments, meetings, meetings, meetings, and speculations which were academically creative, but applied to nothing beyond the rooms in which the debate took place. Throughout the McNamara book there are hundreds of records of constant debates and disagreements between advisors, who should more appropriately have been called faculty members, evenly divided on any particular issue. However, reality isn’t that divided. If there is that much debate, it often signifies the basis of disagreement is not so much between the debaters, but a lack of contact with reality on the part of one or both sides of the debate.
There comes a point where division over issues goes beyond thorough intellectual exploration and becomes mere expression of indecisiveness based on the hard fact people don’t know what they are doing. It’s milling around in confusion. In executive and command development, those who are consistently incorrect or confused must be culled out and replaced regardless of academically conferred accolades, impressiveness of manner, or family background. This is not a necessity at a university liberal arts department, which the Kennedy administration had become.
McNamara says many things in his book which he may not know he said, and are more revealing than he realized.
First, like many others, McNamara was overwhelmed by the charm of John F. Kennedy. His analysis partially becomes an irrational and contorted Kennedy defense. On page 94 he says, with the rapture of a teenage girl struck with a crush on a rock-and-roll star, and with equally as much content, in regard to Kennedy: “He was really a great leader, with uncommon charisma and an ability to inspire. He moved the young and the old at home and abroad, touching the very best in them, a rare and priceless gift in political leaders. In an imperfect world, he raised our eyes to the stars.” If Kennedy had not been lost, things would have been different. McNamara was apparently more emotionally moved than others of us–or at least in a different direction.
Beginning on page 32, McNamara says nobody in the Kennedy administration initially knew anything about Viet Nam. McNamara prefers to say, in a disarming way, it was “terra incognita.” McNamara mentions a Colonel Lansdale who according to Colby had had remarkable success in the Philippines and in establishing Diem in South Viet Nam. But Lansdale was considered too junior and lacking in “broad geopolitical expertise,” whatever that means. It may mean Lansdale was a potential rival who would very quickly eclipse McNamara and others by virtue of Lansdale’s superior experience, talent, and incisiveness. A vague excuse was concocted to remove that threat. Lansdale’s ability would probably have disturbed the complacency of the artificial status-based mediocrity associated with the high levels of the Kennedy administration. This was an exclusive group and talented outsiders such as Lansdale were not welcome. So Lansdale had years of success, but was declared unqualified, while nobody else knew anything at all.
Lansdale, who was later promoted to general grade, was a military genius, and a political genius who knew Viet Nam and knew Asia. He was a priceless gift from the Gods. In Colby’s words, “He was left to languish in a desk job in Washington, his productive imagination denied its useful place in Vietnam.” Exiled to a desk job where he wouldn’t threaten the arrogance of the Kennedy intellectuals would be a more accurate choice of words. It was a pompous ridiculous act that was one of the major mistakes of the war. It probably cost millions of lives.
Coalition of the Incompetent
What was developing in the Kennedy administration was a coalition protective of the incompetent who would substitute posturing over status and school grades for anything else, and truly talented people such as Lansdale were a threat that didn’t fit in. (This, incidentally, is becoming the condition of entire United States of late.)
In discussing the lack of knowledge regarding Viet Nam and South East Asia, there’s a sentence on page 33 of McNamara’s book that is telling. He sternly admonishes: “The irony of this gap was that it existed largely because the top East Asian and China experts in the state department–John Paton Davies, Jr., John Stewart Service, and John Carter Vincent–had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s.”
STOP HERE! Quick, before you read the next question, cover up the next paragraph below with your hand, because I don’t want you to read the answer to the question before you think about it. The question is: Does anybody but me, and a few others who will be mentioned in a minute, see anything strange here? Don’t cheat. Think.
First, if these people were so good, then why did China fall to a communist nightmare? The usual answer is of the form: because of great motivation by the inherent truth and justice of the socialist people’s movement. That bit of glib explanation is used by leftists to explain away many things, including systematic failure, including the fact that they quote it because they believe it from the start and subtly work to make that answer look as if it were true. But inherent truth, idealism, and justice is not what the Chinese people ended up with. People who were “purged” during the McCarthy hysteria were often in front of McCarthy for serious reason. Such mentalities in critical positions tended to direct policy into quicksand, coupled with a subtle selling job on how wonderful world socialism is, and that’s the real reason it triumphed instead of subtle sabotage of any attempts to defeat it. American difficulties and leftist victory tend to follow them around like a shadow and it’s no accident.
Second, why are there no names such as Liang, Lin, Tung, Chang, or Lei involved here? To qualify in the business of being accepted as a high-ranked Asian expert, you needed a strange-sounding middle name alluding to an aristocratic American family dynasty, and must have graduated from a prestigious left-wing school. A similar first name will do, or help. From there you spend a year at an embassy or visiting various nations, and you are in.
“China Hands” and Other Hacks
I am close to a number of people in the Asian community. They used to fume about the American elite politic’s “Old China Hands” or experts, none of whom were Asians–and none of whom agreed with the mainstream assessments of Asia found among Asians. The last 50 years has seen an immigration of Asians into this country who are among the most intelligent and highly educated people on earth. They were raised in the cultures, know the land, speak the language, know and lived the history, write the languages, but their views were considered inferior to vacant-minded, left-wing, elitist Ivy League hacks. That’s a good start on losing a war.
In reply, the intellectualists will counter that the background of Asians biases their views and only Americans are capable of objective decisions. In reality, that’s not bias, but sound hard experience. Some of these people have been through hard realities of oppression and are trying to teach the lesson that its further expansion must be recognized and stopped by military opposition. But, experience, knowledge, and ability are dismissed as bias if they confront entrenched ideology or bureaucratic mentalities.
Nevertheless, Their Lordships with titles for middle or first names were determined to move steadfastly onward into disaster as the only self-qualified people in the universe. They’d already lost China, so that would have qualified them to continue as experts on Viet Nam.
In the European period when family titles were transferred by primogeniture, the first-born son inherited the lands and title of nobility, the second went into the military, and the third entered the clergy. In many cases it didn’t do much for the military, and it probably didn’t improve the clergy. We developed a kind of parallel caste and status system in this country where descendants of the wealthy eschew the family business or concrete provincial personal industry, attend a socially-correct left-wing college, then pursue the soft pretentious grandiosity of politics or government. What evolved was, and in some cases still is, a country club social stratum in appointive government along with a coordinate system of social climbing within government. Participants have the correct family backgrounds, or have had contact with people from the correct family backgrounds. They attend the correct schools and make the correct contacts. They have the correct manner, eloquence, and a superficial impressiveness. But underneath all this, they were, at the time of Kennedy, and still are, soft formless dilettantes lacking the depth and realism necessary for competence. Social acceptability or validation has been obtained or measured by association with, or acceptance as one of, the elite in government. Club members are quick to defend each other’s mediocrity and create an exclusive need for each other. They network each other into positions over their heads. It has not done much for the government of this country.
(To a serious extent the above system is now in a state of disrepair as the Clintons have sought across family and social lines to fill their administration with people at their own subtle level who represent a quantum leap in coarse raucous degeneracy. It’s safe to say that for the remainder of recorded history neither the Clintons, nor anyone remotely associated with them, nor even any of their descendants will be viewed as having had, or even understanding or wanting, even the slightest pretense of any class. The prospect of going into government as a validating aristocratic venture, or a social step upward, is now contraindicated. Combined with what we have in the Senate and House of Representatives, the condition is becoming total and not apt to be reversible in the near future.)
The McNamara Hysteria of the 60s
Any time McNamara or anybody else refers to what they think is, or wants us to believe is, “McCarthy hysteria of the 50s” or similar, it is a danger signal. It is an attempt to apply the halo effect of McCarthy’s abrasiveness to dismiss what was systematic communist undermining and subversion of the United States at the time. Such reference is too often diagnostic of a left-wing problem child who has bought into something that is trouble and is trying to sell something that is trouble. That, and McNamara’s being an admirer of socialist leaders such as Norman Thomas, raises a red flag signaling a mentality that I neither trust nor want in a position of responsibility or authority.
McNamara was too ideologically conflicted or aloof, too much in non-critical sympathetic touch with the left, too conversant repeating leftist jargon or propaganda, and too vague in political judgment. My primary impression is McNamara lacked a strong sense of appropriate moral and intellectual commitment. His role in the war was more that of one performing an ego-involved intellectual and technical demonstration than deep philosophical commitment to America as it was classically considered to be in the Jeffersonian model. On this basis, I would consider McNamara a security risk—not in the sense of giving away national secrets, but in the more subtle form of obstructionism, or misdirection, or of failure to be as creative and aggressive as the situation required. This is in addition to what I view as lack of personal maturity as well as limitation of capacity and breadth of mind. (In fact, I would view most of the people surrounding Kennedy as risks for similar reasons.)
In my opinion McNamara advocated too many twisted, subtly destructive or undermining concepts, and evidenced a pattern of too many highly rationalized mistakes that no well-adjusted person of his supposed brilliance would make. The explanation of this resolves down to incompetence, and/or deliberation, whether the source of that deliberation be ideological or a distorted quirk of mental functioning. In listening to, reading, or hearing about McNamara I have received the feeling I’m both under subtle attack and being played for a sucker in some kind of narcissistic, manipulative, almost sadistic, game of destructive intent and demonstration of cleverness.
On page 35 McNamara says his introduction to the problems in South East Asia came at a meeting between Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their respective cabinets, the day before Kennedy was to take office. If I read the recounting correctly, this was the passing of information that was apparently new to the Kennedy team. On the bottom of the page is an additional McNamara comment:
The meeting illustrates a weakness in our form of government—the lack of an effective way to transfer knowledge from one administration to another—and suggests the heavy price we pay. In parliamentary systems, a new government’s ministers have usually served as opposition shadow ministers for several years before they take office. I recall, for example, dealing with Denis Healey of Great Britain and Helmut Schmidt of West Germany when they became defense ministers of their countries. Both had been trained, in effect, for their responsibilities by serving as opposition party leaders and studying their country’s security issues for many years. I, in contrast, came to Washington from having served as president of Ford Motor Company. The meeting between Eisenhower and Kennedy teams was a poor substitute for such training. John Locke was correct when he said “No man’s knowledge can go beyond his experience.”
While this grand pronouncement sounds wise and impressive, with some name-dropping thrown in, the weakness was not anywhere similar to being as McNamara described–and again we see that twist. This bit of instruction is designed to preclude looking at a more serious truth.
It was not necessary to have a meeting between Eisenhower and Kennedy the very day before Kennedy took office, or ever. Kennedy already knew everything about everything, including far more than Eisenhower, or anybody else, did about anything. There should be no doubt of that because Kennedy crusaded throughout the country trumpeting it during the entire year before the election. Somewhere between the day before the election when he knew and had glib answers for everything, and two days before he took office, perhaps there was an erasure of his mind such that he suddenly had to scurry about to find out what the presidency seriously required. (I say this with some sarcasm in case readers lacking subtlety misinterpret it.)
There is a more fundamental issue that McNamara missed, and has been determined to cover up for nearly 40 years. When a motor-mouthed, immature psychopathic 43-year-old not-too-bright high school kid whose primary concern has been his sex life and who has no serious background, manipulates and charms his way into the presidency, it results in serious difficulties. There is no way of making up the deficit. When he surrounds himself with posturing airheads, the fundamental deficiency is not improved, but compounded. Forget about quoting John Locke. It’s not relevant.
There was a host of people in Washington, and in the military, with qualifications superior to McNamara’s–or to Kennedy’s. McNamara was no more qualified to be defense secretary than he was qualified to be a concert violinist. To someone of Kennedy’s mentality, it wasn’t a consideration. McNamara was chosen by a superficial, immature kid to fabricate a superficial image of intellectuality to his administration.
If Kennedy had wanted to serve the best interest of the country, he absolutely would not have run for the presidency and then had to assess the seriousness of the job afterward. His ambition was more important to him than was the condition of the country. There is little doubt that if Abraham Lincoln or Madison had come back to life and had been available, Kennedy would not have moved aside or stopped disseminating sacks of money to rig the election. Jack Kennedy was a spoiled kid who wanted something he should not have been given. His photogenic affability got it for him, to the detriment of America.
Just Say No
If McNamara had had the best interest of the country in mind, he wouldn’t have accepted the job of defense secretary. Despite his mythical brilliance of mind, he wouldn’t be able to acquire the knowledge and background necessary for being defense secretary in a week, a month, a year, in ten years. From the life he had led, he would need to go back nearly to childhood and live life all over again to learn what he needed and to acquire entirely different attitudes.
McNamara should have had the depth and character to see whom he was dealing with in Kennedy (as Harold Laski did 19 years earlier), then refuse to participate in the whole charade. However, the mental conditions of superficiality and immaturity differ strikingly from physical conditions. Two people with debilitating physical conditions recognize each other as having debilitating physical conditions. But, two superficial and immature people rapidly conclude that what they see in the other is not defect but, rather, similar genius. Robert McNamara was no Harold Laski and would never see Kennedy accordingly.
The issue of absence of transfer of knowledge and experience should not be argued as relevant when the ambitions of people involved make every effort to sidestep looking at such qualifications.
The Coup Against Diem
What follows is another of the five critical acts determining the loss of the Viet Nam war. McNamara says that on August 24, 1963, “the United States set in motion a military coup” against President Diem’s regime in South Viet Nam (p. 52).
According to McNamara, within the top levels of the Kennedy administration there were two groups of people. All of them were brilliant intellectuals. One of the groups was in favor of keeping Diem as president of South Viet Nam. The other group was in favor of overthrowing Diem, although they weren’t certain who or what would take his place. Kennedy wasn’t certain of what course of action to take. While some of the pro-Diem people were out of Washington, the anti-Diem faction, apparently led and pushed by Averell Harriman, another aristocrat who afflicted the country with his leadership after escaping the world of more mundane involvement in the family railroad business, drafted a letter of instruction supporting a coup. It was sent to Kennedy, vacationing at Cape Cod. Kennedy signed it. It was sent off to the American ambassador to Viet Nam, Henry Cabot Lodge, another one with a fancy middle name from a dynasty. According to McNamara, “The day after Lodge received it, he called a meeting to consider how to organize a coup.” According to Bobby Kennedy, John passed the letter off too quickly, thinking it was cleared by pro-Diem people. He later regretted signing the letter.
It shouldn’t have made any difference who did or didn’t clear the letter prior to Kennedy. At high policy levels, including such minor items as overthrowing friendly governments, a president should be expected to have formulated his own policy and to use serious judgment. But, Kennedy had never needed a policy, or judgment, with his ability to charm and mesmerize crowds during the presidential campaign. He thought the country would run itself, or that a brain trust could run it, while he traded banter with reporters and jumped three or four women a day.
It’s clear that here was a weak president dependent upon poorly chosen advisors from moment to moment. The advisors were in constant disagreement with each other because of lack of contact with concrete reality, as well as pursuit of personal ambition, and might do anything. The president might approve anything. There was nobody in charge. Various factions within the Kennedy administration were trying to outmaneuver and trick each other. An ally and his government were to be overthrown without any policy or direction being formulated, or adequate consideration of long-term consequences. In fact, the reasons for overthrowing Diem were primarily inventions and speculations by the debaters without serious reference to anything outside the room where the debate was taking place. There wasn’t enough depth, sense of reality, or intelligence to devise a rational policy while a little kid (the president) ran around like a televangelist giving dramatic speeches that raised people’s eyes to the stars. While eyes were directed to the stars, down on solid earth there were some real problems that were going to get worse.
Once the coup was set into motion there was continuing discussion, but in a very short time there would be no way of stopping it. President Diem was overthrown and killed while the Kennedy people were at a meeting discussing it. It is universally said by all historians that Kennedy was shocked when he found out Diem was killed instead of being bowed out the door with a gold watch and lifetime tickets for the Norwegian Cruise Line. The idea that coups were involuntary actions in which people were killed hadn’t been real to him, even though people are routinely killed in coups throughout the world.
What essentially happened was that what can be euphemistically termed a group of empty-headed dilettantes who were overimpressed with their own intelligence wrote a letter instructing violent overthrow of a friendly government. They gave it to an incompetent, mentally teenaged president who read it and signed it. Some people were killed, a critically-needed government was overthrown, and the President of the United States looked up and said, “Did I do that? What happens now?”
Diem Had Too Much Respect
Why was Diem killed instead of simply allowed to leave office? There’s a defining statement in the McNamara book on page 84 which is glossed over, but is absolutely pivotal in serious analysis of the Viet Nam war. It is one of the five most important defining statements of the Viet Nam war. One of the coup leaders, General Don, said, “We had no alternative. They had to be killed. Diem could not be allowed to live because he was too much respected among the simple gullible people in the countryside.” That was a poor basis for Washington to have him assassinated. The “simple gullible people in the countryside” constituted most of the population of Viet Nam and lived where the war was taking place. Their respect and support was absolutely necessary to win the war. The coup was a United State betrayal and alienation of those people. So the only thing Diem had going for him was respect and support from critically needed people, which was an inconvenience to pouting elitists in Saigon who wanted power, and was irrelevant to elitist intellectuals in Washington.
An old Korean proverb states, “When whales do battle, shrimp are crushed.” The Vietnamese people, including Diem, were at the mercy of caprices of immature pseudo-intellectuals and ideologues in Washington, of the caprices of a similar group of alienated elite in Saigon, of the machinations of Ho Chi Minh and Moscow—all of whom regarded the Vietnamese as toys to be played with in games of ambition and narcissism in which the toys were viewed as simple ingrates for not being capable of understanding the game.
The coup leaders knew something Kennedy and his advisors should have found out. However, in the latter’s self-absorbed brilliance such concerns were beneath them, and certainly not a necessity. The truth about Diem didn’t appeal to various prejudices and misconceptions that were important to them.
Thence forth, the political side of the Viet Nam war was destroyed. There would be a succession of governments in the South, with seven in the first year. In testifying before a House of Representatives subcommittee in 1964, McNamara proclaimed: “Among the conditions required to win such a war is a strong stable, and effective government which has the full loyalty and support of the people.” Time and time again, for the remainder of the war, there would be complaints about the absence of a South Vietnamese leader who could establish respect from the people in the countryside. There was anger directed at the South Vietnamese who were accused as being unstable, fragmented, unmotivated, and fickle. In fact, there had been such a leader, Diem, but the United States ended that when a group of left-wing intellectual kooks handed an incompetent president instructions to have Diem killed, and he signed it. Having the qualifications of leadership was a dangerous business that could get you killed by Kennedy and his intellectuals, and later betrayed by Johnson who was also surrounded by the same kooks. The South Vietnamese, who were in fact victims of Washington’s best and brightest, were skillfully blamed for the consequences.
The Amusement of Chairman Mao
Ho Chi Minh was elated by the coup and believed his side would probably win the war as a result of it. Chairman Mao was quietly amused. According to page 158 of Colby:
Some days later, one of their (the Vietnamese Communist) representatives in Paris commented to an American that they had been surprised and shocked at our action against the strongest and most effective opponent they faced. The leader of the National Liberation Front, Nguyen Huu Tho, later called it a “gift from Heaven for us.”
The gift wasn’t from heaven, it was from self-infatuated mindless fops in Washington who mistakenly viewed themselves as intellectuals instead of immature incompetents or subversives or criminals. In a master stroke of brilliance and academic creativity, a group of pseudo-intellects managed to accomplish, through cunning sabotage or incompetence, what was a necessity for the communists that the communists had not been able to do for themselves. They destroyed the best possible Vietnamese government and eventually broke the backs of the Vietnamese people. To this day they write books about themselves, or books congratulating each other explaining how clever they were, or how they knew the war was hopeless before anybody else did, and generally devise fascinating rationalizations. They blame the South Vietnamese while crediting, to the point of barely-contained enthusiastic glorification, the North with fantastic motivation and capacities as part of this intellectual exercise and proof. People of similar mentalities, who dominate publishing, TV, and academia, are thrilled to death with the demonstration of the supposedly brilliant intricacies of rationalization. It has been catastrophic that any of it has gone seriously unchallenged for so long. It’s hard to get a word of refutation in edgewise.
On page 136 of his book Colby states the overthrow of the Diem government was the first great mistake of the Viet Nam war. Colby was correct. Well, almost correct. Installation of Kennedy, McNamara, Bundy, Harriman, and the other self-absorbed conceited incompetents was the first great mistake. From that, all else followed.
To be an American cognizant about military and national-international political affairs between 1960 and 1968 was to wake up in the middle of the night screaming. It wouldn’t improve greatly until Reagan.
Thence forth, there could be no trust of America by foreign countries, and there would be reluctance to align themselves with Americans–for very good reason. One would need to be insane to do it. Whether in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, in Viet Nam, or anywhere else, it might get you betrayed and killed, often for amusement or demonstration of superior intellect of immature dilettantes in Washington.
The Buddhist Problem
Part of the argued necessity for Diem’s overthrow was the Buddhist problem, which was completely misunderstood by the Kennedy administration and was exploited by the political left in this country. The Buddhists were looked upon as being oppressed by Diem. In reality, the Buddhists were would-be oppressors. The only things that would have made the Buddhists happy would have been suppression or expulsion of Vietnamese Catholicism, the Buddhists becoming a major directing force in the Vietnamese government, and going back 200 years in time.
William Colby describes meeting with Buddhist leaders. When asked what they wanted or what the problem was, they had nothing concrete to say. Basically it would have been embarrassing for them to admit, or even understand, that their day had come and gone and that fewer people among the general population were interested in them any more. The Buddhists were in the same shape as people who still insisted on believing the world was flat, or in medical bloodletting as it was practiced 200 years ago. Educated people weren’t buying it. A few Buddhists burned themselves up with gasoline in protest. The left-wing media would pick it up and assert it was terrible that conditions in South Viet Nam were so oppressive that people were burning themselves in protest. The Buddhists weren’t oppressed, they were only having a tantrum.
Finally, Diem became exasperated at the bad press he was getting because of their antics and roughed them up a bit, but not badly. They were destroying support for his country.
The Buddhist conversations Colby described included large amounts of rambling arcane mystical incoherence. What he described could be classified as group-standardized institutionalized self-perpetuating schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a difficult policy for any government to satisfy. Passive schizophrenia might play well in a temple, but it wasn’t realistic in dealing with a war in which armed insurgents who were uninterested in the benefits of mystical psychobabble were pouring down from the north and killing people. Buddhist influence in government direction would insure conquest of Viet Nam from the north. While it might be a colorful facet of Vietnamese culture in time of peace, Buddhism was as big a threat as the communists were in this situation.
Buddhists might look upon communist terrorism as an opportunity to demonstrate their committed detachment from the mundane physical world while hastening their voyage to the next level of consciousness in another life or whatever under the anesthesia of spiritually-induced schizophrenia, but for others less schizophrenically oriented and less inclined to make the trip on instant notice from terrorists, Buddhist demands for a national policy of such spiritual detachment were not acceptable. It was looked upon as suicide in which those who committed suicide demanded to take everybody else with them.
Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu was the acting first lady of South Viet Nam who had an incisive mind, damned little patience, and a sharp tongue. Her belief was firmly anchored around an orientation toward prolonged inhabitation of this life rather than floating about in oblivious schizoid detachment in preparation for the next. She had little sympathy for a group of unworldly nut cases complaining because they were no longer the cultural power they once were as they walked about in flowing robes like Hari Krishnas at American airports. As far as she was concerned, if they wanted to burn themselves up in protest, there would be fewer of them to be bothered with. She referred to the self-emolations as Buddhist Barbecues and offered to pay for more gasoline. The consequences of what were described as her tasteless comments were explosive. There were hysterical seizures by the political left in this country about her insensitivity. Washington was horrified and polarized from the Diem government.
“What a Lovely War!” said the Intellectuals
Something should be said about genteel rarefied armchair intellectuals, pacifists, schizoid philosophies and war. There’s an old humorous British song describing the view of war from different army ranks. The privates at the bottom do the fighting. March! March! March! say the sergeants. What a lovely war! say the generals when you get to the top ranks—who are also at the greatest distance from grimy reality. Reference to this song is not meant to impugn the reputation of someone such as a General Norman Schwartzkoph who, as a relatively senior officer, was capable of going out in a mine field to rescue a scared army kid. But the song should be amended to say, “What a lovely war! said the intellectuals.” War is not a place where intellectuals can demonstrate their cleverness and have tantrums when the realities of conflict fail to conform to their preconceived notions which have resulted from their inhabitation of a protected overly bland world.
Pacifists and adherents to schizoid philosophies tend to be parasitic, egocentric, and very childish. They don’t want reality to disturb the comfort level of a self-centered immature world. They want a free ride. They want the benefits without the duties and responsibilities. They want to be breast fed. They want the right to live according to their desires, but they don’t want to defend those rights for themselves, or everybody. They don’t need to take that responsibility if other people can be made that responsibility for them.
Schizopacifistic adherents sit in childish rebellion with feelings of superiority, while arguing that if everyone shared their view, there would be no conflicts or wars. The reality of the adult world is that, whether we, or they, like it or not, there are, and always will be, other people who don’t share that view and who are just as dedicated to the enslavement of others as schizoid adherents are dedicated to their view. That must be accepted as a part of growing up and accepting mature adult reality.
Schizopacifists argue that the beginning of a better non-violent world must start somewhere, and they are making that start. The reality is, that is not a start, but a finish. It produces increased violence as it confers confidence in unopposed success upon criminal elements in the world. Aside from debate about basic nature of human goodness or badness, there are people who by accident of warped background, by genetic predisposition, or by character disorder, become dedicated to imposing destruction upon those around them on individual or organized levels. Had the schizopacifistic view been prevalent to the point of a resultant non-opposition of Hitler, as was actually advanced by Gandhi, virtually every Jew in the world would have been eradicated and, from a reading of Mein Kampf, Hitler would have gone on to make the Catholics wish they had been Jews. Stalin killed 70,000,000 people to firm up communism in Russia, and if unopposed would have killed another 200,000,000 elsewhere. Mao killed millions in his first revolution, millions more in the cultural revolution, and if he had not been opposed, would have killed hundreds of millions more. Ho Chi Minh killed millions in North Viet Nam. After the fall of Viet Nam and South East Asia, Pol Pot killed 25 percent of the Cambodian population in pursuit of the ideal communist society. That is a reality schizopacifists demand not to face while they demand to remain in rebellion of not leaving their child’s world. They leave other people to face the realities. However, they should bear responsibility for the deaths they ultimately cause.
Schizopacifists can play a sadistic oppositional-defiant game from the security of knowing others, in order to save themselves, will protect the schizopacifists from suffering the consequences of their own thinking.
During the Viet Nam period an extensive pacifist movement developed in the United States which had an exquisite component of sadism, was less than genuine, had purposeful lack of thoroughness and consistency in its reasoning, and was morally bankrupt. It was declared that, “War was bad and to participate in war was bad.” Within this construct, defense against attack or enslavement was participation in violent action that placed a defender in evil moral parity with those attacking him. Thus, the victim was victimized twice, once by the criminal, and again by the pacifists and their accusations. This led to the absurdity that in the supposed unconditional reverence for life, the individual who attempted to save his own life, or the life of others, from senseless unprovoked attack was labeled a villain. Absurd or not, during the 60s there developed a sadistic sport of protesting the actions of those who defended themselves.
In the moral, sane adult world there is a temporal sequence of events that determines moral culpability. Those who are subjected to unprovoked destructive or lethal acts and must defend themselves are not, and must never be considered to be, on a moral parity with the individual or political system that initiates destructive or lethal acts. The victim is not to be accused of the crime.
Communists Kill Pacifists
Participation in war or violence is not necessarily a matter of volition. You don’t need to actively go to war. War can come to you, whether you want to participate in it or not. History is replete with marauding thugs who wantonly killed or enslaved people who wanted to be left alone and weren’t bothering anybody.
It is interesting to note that American anti-war protesters conveniently protested only American involvement, in America, where they were assured safety under enjoyable conditions and marginal commitment accompanied by the music of left-wing folk singers. In November of 1965 somewhere between 50,000 to 65,000 protesters from throughout the country converged on Washington. If they were really sincere, they could have instead gone to South Viet Nam to interpose their vulnerable nonviolent bodies between the Viet Cong and the villagers so as to protect the villagers from terrorists. That way the villagers would be protected and assured of living as they wanted without interference from anybody. The U. S. Army could have gone home, leaving the protesters with enough food and toilet paper for ten years. A just peace would have been achieved through nonviolence. Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. An arrangement could have been made to transport the protesters in at no expense using planes that were taking U. S. soldiers out. That would have been well-directed, incisive, intelligent and sincere commitment to pacifism.
Of course the communists would have killed them all in a month, and they damned well knew it. The South Vietnamese who were being attacked by the Viet Cong were unarmed and pacifistic in nature, but it didn’t save them. It got them more easily slaughtered by the communists and the anti-war activists and pacifists knew it. Anti-war and dedication to pacifism was never what any anything was about.
That is a bit of a diversion from the main subject, but fits in here. Let’s go back to the fork in the road.
Sadistic in intent or not, when it comes to the point where schizopacifism obstructs realistic necessary attempts of other people to defend themselves from murder or enslavement, adult patience runs thin, and words become heated. In some cases such obstruction becomes de facto collusion with terrorism, murder, and enslavement.
Madame Nhu’s words were the exasperation of an angry adult who refused to pander to childishness. If a group of over-aged, self-centered children declared they would go out in the garden and eat worms and die rather than grow up or be allowed to destroy the country, then let them go do it. It was their decision. It was made clear there would be no remorse over their exiting either unto the heavens or the nether regions, and preferably the later. There were villages being attacked by terrorists and millions of other people in the country who had real problems that were more important. Survival, itself, was more important.
This was regarded as insensitivity by Americans who had never had the nasty experience of having organized left-wing death squads running around in the middle of the night killing people randomly on a continuous and large scale. What doesn’t seem to have occurred within the intellectual exercises in Washington was that foreign governments had very good reason to be disgusted and exasperated with spoiled twits in Washington who showed no empathy for what those governments and people were suffering. In recent decades Americans have expected other governments and people fighting for survival to baby destructive or childish elements within their societies, as well as in American society, the same way too many Americans have been babied all their lives here. This is particularly true of American intellectuals whose entire lives are spent comfortably suckling on the teat of universities.
Neither are such governments spectacularly thrilled with the soft third and fourth generation left-wing spoiled kids of aristocratic families who have formed a powerful effete social club and perpetual summer camp in American government and politics.
Communists Destroy Buddhism
If the Buddhists thought they had problems under Diem, they were about to find out what they had been protected from by Diem. According to Podhoretz : “The Buddhists, who were so effective an element in their opposition to Diem, soon learned that there were worse regimes than his.” After the South fell to the communists, Buddhist pagodas were torn up or confiscated. The monks were forbidden to travel or preach. Buddha’s birthday was prohibited as a national holiday. They were to be expunged. And “whereas the self-immolation of a single Buddhist monk in 1963 attracted the horrified attention of the whole world, the self-immolation of 12 Buddhists nuns and priests on November 2, 1975, in protest against Communist oppression, received scarcely any notice either in the United States or anywhere else” (p.203).
Concern about Buddhists had never been anything but a sham temporarily affected by the radical left as a method to impede resistance to communism. When Buddhists were oppressed or slaughtered to consolidate communism, it was suddenly of no concern or was interpreted as understandable severe measures necessitated by the exigencies of schooling by wise schoolmasters. Feigned concern over Buddhists could vary 180 degrees overnight to create whatever virtual reality was needed to support world socialism.
Probably 20 percent of the entire population of Southeast Asia was eventually killed off by the communists. Undoubtedly many of those killed were Buddhists. I have yet to hear serious condemnation expressed over any of it by people who were critical of Diem. In the leftist world, the murder of 20 percent of an entire population by leftists is looked upon as acceptable and ignored justifiable necessity. Fighting back or enduring any discomfort necessary to avoid becoming one of those 20 percent is melodramatically interpreted as being as criminal an act as possible.
Another issue concerned South Viet Nam’s elections. Diem had the habit of selectively encouraging his supporters to vote, using government workers as campaign workers. It was also argued to be corrupt that Diem’s brother, Nhu, was prominent in government. A clearly exasperated William Colby replies on page 107:
I found it significant that none of the vigorous and widespread official and media critics of Diem’s dependence on his brother Nhu for counsel that he could trust was able to divine any parallel in the American President’s appointment of his brother as Attorney General in order to bolster both the official weight and propinquity of counsel the president could trust. I also found the questions about the vagaries of the Vietnamese voting process perhaps different in degree, but not in kind from the situation in such American communities as Boston, Chicago, and substantial areas of the South.
The Best President Bribes Could Buy
It also might be added that the criticisms came from an America in which, along with having a vice-president who was well-known for having openly falsified Texas elections, also had a mafia paid directly by a candidate to help throw the previous presidential election—and there were FBI wire taps to prove their involvement. Much of it was widely known by the same people who criticized Diem. In the case of Kennedy, it was all winked at as necessary to position a leader of absolute integrity who inspired the best in America. To insure further integrity, Bobby Kennedy, the kid from Massachusetts, would soon run for the senate from the state of New York. In the case of Diem, who was a novice by American Democratic Party standards, there would be no winking or rule-bending, but instead, melodramatic display of moral outrage. Nothing would be forgiven, and the smallest infractions born of the greatest necessity would be exaggerated. It’s no wonder that the Vietnamese or anybody else were confused and were even barely able to tolerate stern lectures from Americans.
On page 221, McNamara says infiltration of north Vietnamese regiments from the north into the south had increased from three regiments per month in 1964, to nine per month in 1965.
This was in accompaniment to the cheering of the American political left. There was now no serious government in the South after Kennedy signed the coup orders. McNamara poured a standing army of 470,000 American military into Viet Nam to be cut to pieces under his own amateurish plans.
We will examine military science, tactics, and strategy in the next installment.
 William Eagan Colby, with James McCargar, Lost Victory, Contemporary Books, Chicago, 1989. Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Times Books, New York, 1995.
 Norman Podhoretz, Why We Were In Viet Nam, Simon and Schuster, 1982.