Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Vietnam - Robert S. McNamara & General Curtis LeMay

Studying the USAF’s early days inevitably leads to a focus on a surprisingly small number of men who played key roles in its development from just after the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk. The picture above is a visual link between General Hap Arnold, one of the first Army aviators to take a Wright flying machine into the air, to the formation of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), led by another remarkable USAF commander, General Curtis LeMay.

In the c.1945 picture, taken at the close of WWII, Arnold was the commander-in-chief of the Army Air Force and LeMay had commanded the Third Air Division of the Eighth after rapidly rising from the position of an Air Force Major at the start of the war. LeMay moved from the ETO to the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater in August 1944, later taking command of the final aerial assault on the Japanese home islands.

About the time we graduated from EHHS, Air Force Chief of Staff General LeMay, 57, and Secretary of Defense, Robert Strange McNamara, 47, were involved in epic clashes over the direction the defense of this country should take. LeMay was a highly experienced combat commander with an incredible service record; McNamara was a former “Whiz Kid” at Ford Motor Company, who had been a low-level statistician during WWII, ultimately working for LeMay in that role. After commanding the Berlin Airlift and leading the formation of the Strategic Air Command after WWII, LeMay, who was once McNamara’s Army superior, became McNamara’s subordinate when JFK came into office, bringing McNamara with him as Secretary of Defense.

McNamara’s culpability in taking our generation into Vietnam is told in the following article published in the AIR FORCE Magazine, August 2009, not long after McNamara died. LeMay retired in 1965, some would say in disgust.

”The No-Brainers of Robert S. McNamara

By Robert S. Dudney, Editor in Chief

His lack of integrity was deeply troubling, but it was the world-class arrogance that did the real military damage.

It should be evident to all that Robert Strange McNamara (b.1916), to paraphrase a line from the 1940 book Guilty Men, was among the worst selections for high office since Caligula chose to make his horse a consul at Rome. He died July 6, 2009, at age 93. Today’s officials can profit from studying his career.

McNamara, the Pentagon chief in the Kennedy and Johnson years, showed sketchy character on many occasions, but nowhere did he do this more baldly than in his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. My predecessor, John T. Correll, dissected it in an editorial, “The Confessions of Robert S. McNamara.” I cannot improve upon it. He wrote:

‘Robert S. McNamara could give duplicity a bad name. In his new memoir, ... he says that the Vietnam War was a mistake and that he knew it all along. We should have gotten out in 1963, when fewer than 100 Americans had been killed. When he and other US policymakers took us to war, they ‘had not truly investigated what was essentially at stake.’

“McNamara was Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 in the Kennedy Administration, which led the US into the Vietnam adventure, and in the Johnson Administration, which widened the involvement to a war in which 58,000 American troops died. He was not some star-crossed functionary who went passively along with a policy he opposed. He was so fiery an advocate that Vietnam became known as ‘McNamara’s War.’ His actions then and his statements now cannot be reconciled with honor.

“The duplicity has another dimension. News accounts bill In Retrospect as a stark admission of guilt, but an actual reading of it tells a different story. McNamara does, to be sure, acknowledge that he and his colleagues were ‘wrong, terribly wrong,’ but the admissions account for relatively little of the book’s substance. The bulk of it explains how these were honest mistakes and not altogether the fault of McNamara and his friends.”

Correll went on to point out a startling blind spot in the book:

“Somehow, it is not altogether surprising that McNamara comes close to ignoring the rank and file of the US armed forces. In the entire book, there are just four brief instances, one of them in a footnote, when the troops cross his mind. The best he can bring himself to say for those killed in action is that ‘the unwisdom of our intervention’ does not ‘nullify their effort and their loss.’”

Damning as these passages are, it is what comes next that most clearly spotlights McNamara’s biggest failing. Correll wrote:

“McNamara never learned the real lessons of the war. In Retrospect ticks off ‘11 major causes for our disaster in Vietnam,’ but they run mostly to philosophical mush like, ‘We misjudged then—as we have since—the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries,’ and, ‘We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions.’

“Incredibly, McNamara recalls—but regards it as insignificant—that the service Chiefs told him in 1964 that the US had not defined a ‘militarily valid objective for Vietnam.’ With similar arrogance, McNamara continues to believe that his strategic and tactical abilities were better than those of the military professionals and that his micromanagement of the war was a good idea.”

In short, his lack of integrity was deeply troubling, but it was the world-class arrogance that did the real military damage. Many have testified to the pervasiveness of this arrogance. One who experienced it up close and personal was Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, USAF Chief of Staff in the years 1961-65. LeMay was the greatest combat commander the Air Force had ever produced, yet it counted for little in the lounges of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Warren Kozak, author of a new biography, LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay, notes that, “Robert McNamara had very clear ideas of what he wanted to do at the Pentagon. ... He was determined to take control.”

Faced with such brash confidence, LeMay and the Chiefs didn’t have much of a chance. McNamara killed key service programs. He halted the supersonic B-70 bomber that was LeMay’s top priority. The Pentagon chief forced on the Navy and the Air Force the dual-service TFX—later F-111. Most especially, LeMay quarreled with McNamara over the latter’s embrace of “gradualism” in Vietnam. LeMay was proved right.

The New Frontiersman saw little reason to consult with the Chiefs. They “sensed this and felt that Kennedy and the people under him simply ignored the military’s advice.” LeMay was “especially incensed” when McNamara brought in a group of young statisticians as a buffer between him and the military. LeMay referred to them with the dismissive term “whiz kids.”

Bombs Away


Anonymous said...

Thank God for McNamara.If Le May had his way in Cuba,
Armageddon could have broken out.
To me Le May cuts me as a mankind monster killer.
He would have been branded a war criminal and executed
if the IS had lost the war.

Gus said...

Sorry Anony...please check the copyright info of your history book...does it read, "CCCP" ? Cowardly lib/prog/dems have always couched their fears with "could have...might have...would have" etc. Lib/prog/dem track records for being wrong is a matter of long-standing experience. That LeMay was a warrior's warrior is a matter of fact; and that being so, he, like Sherman, knew that the strongest force he could bring to a conflict had the best chance of minimizing our own losses and ending it as quickly as possible. Those of us who served had the chance to see the theory in action; those who never served didn't.

Here's another fact that is difficult to find in print...about 85% of our 58,000 Vietnam soldier deaths were suffered under your hero, Robert McNamara's (& LBJ's) watch. It's reasonable to assume that LeMay foresaw this and left rather than be a part of the incompetence that followed.

Interesting to contemplate that under the much maligned Richard Nixon's watch, losses were on the order of 15% of the total, isn't it?