Knowledge Was Power in Vietnam


In the last few posts in my Vietnam series, I argued that American foreign policy was crippled by the fact that senior officials were fed a steady stream of misinformation. Positive news about the war flowed easily up the chain of command and reached the Secretary of Defense and the President. Negative information, in contrast, was systematically filtered out by the official reporting channels. As a consequence, senior officials were working with a limited and distorted view of the “facts on the ground.”

An obvious question is why the senior leadership didn’t anticipate this problem and take steps to correct it by seeking information from outside the chain of command. To some extent they did. In 1962, for example, Pres. Kennedy asked Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to visit Vietnam and give him an independent assessment of the situation (p. 208):

Mansfield skipped some of the official briefings provided for him and had instead spent a four-hour lunch with American reporters, a lunch which confirmed his own doubts. The next day at the airport, as he prepared to leave, he was handed a statement drafted for him by the embassy (a small courtesy on the part of the ambassador in case the Senate Majority Leader did not know what to say. Mansfield, however, rejected it; and his own farewell speech, by its absence of enthusiasm, reflected his disenchantment. When he returned to Washington he gave Kennedy a report of mild caution for public consumption, but in addition he gave him a private account that was blunt and pessimistic about the future of it all. Kennedy had summoned Mansfield to his yacht, the Honey Fitz, where there was a party going on, and when the President read the report his face grew redder and redder and his anger mounted. Finally, he turned to Mansfield, just about the closest friend he had in the Senate, and snapped, “Do you expect me to take this at face value?” Mansfield answered, “You asked me to go out there.” Kennedy looked at him again, icily now, and said “Well, I’ll read it again.” It was an important conversation because it showed that if the policy had not fooled anyone else, it had deceived the deceivers.

Knowing that the war is going poorly in general is one thing. But if you want to change policy, you have to craft a credible alternative, and that requires a lot of information. During internal debates over Vietnam policy, war skeptics found themselves systematically outmaneuvered by the military bureaucracy, which kept tight control over information that could have been used to build an argument for alternative policies:

In September [1963], with the bureaucracy as divided as ever, Kennedy decided to try and get information from both Lodge and Harkins on a long list of specific questions.

The [Henry Cabot] Lodge [Jr.] report was thoroughly pessimistic, while the [Paul] Harkins report was markedly upbeat, filled with assurance, but also bewildering because it seemed to be based on the debate in Washington rather than the situation in Saigon. In it, the puzzled White House aides found a reference by Harkins to an outgoing cable of [Maxwell] Taylor’s. They checked out the number of the Taylor cable, but could find no record of it in the White House. Sensing that something was wrong, one of the White House aides called over to the Pentagon for a copy of the Taylor cable, giving the number, though being careful to call a low-ranking clerk, not someone in the Chairman’s office who might have understood the play. The young corporal was very co-operative and came up with the answer the aides wanted, a remarkably revealing cable from Taylor to Harkins explaining just how divided the bureaucracy was, what the struggle was about… and then outlining which questions to answer and precisely how to answer them.

Teletype Machine-1966 by Providence Public LibraryThe cable had been unearthed just before a key National Security Council meeting. The White House staff was very angry and felt that Taylor had been completely disloyal, although Kennedy himself was more fatalistic than upset, perhaps being more aware of the conflicting pulls on Taylor’s loyalty… In the intensity of the debate the incident quickly passed, although it did convince some of the White House staff members of what they had suspected all along, that Harkins’ response and attitudes were being almost completely controlled by Taylor, with Krulak acting as something of a messenger between them, and with [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara’s own position thus limited by his necessity of going along with what were deemed to be military facts. Later the civilians asked to have a set of cable machines in the White House so this sort of thing could be monitored, and the military readily agreed. The next day some fourteen machines were moved into the White House basement, grinding out millions of routine words per day, and the civilians knew that they were beaten by the sheer volume, that it was impossible to monitor it all. They surrendered and the machines were moved out, almost as quickly as they had been moved in.

Theoretically, the military provides objective reports to the president and dutifully carries out his orders. In practice, the president and his staff are deeply dependent on the military for the information they need to craft the orders in the first place, and at least in the 1960s they used that power aggressively. In my next post I’ll look at the role of the State Department, which is supposed to serve as an alternative source of expertise about foreign affairs, but failed to avert disaster in Vietnam.

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1 Response to Knowledge Was Power in Vietnam

  1. Rhayader says:

    Damn, this stuff can be depressing. Very interesting though, keep them coming.

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