In my search for a biography of Robert Strange McNamara at the local library this was the only book that came up. Written by a Major in the military who saw combat during the Gulf War, the book covers the period that led to full American involvement in what later became known as the Vietnam war.
The book shows in impressive detail how Lyndon Johnson unwittingly (really by deluding himself) plunged the United States into a full blown war. With the help and advice of Robert McNamara, who was Defence Secretary, LBJ pursued a ‘middle course’ (what you might call today ‘third way’) of not technically being at war, while all the time covertly escalating aggression against North Vietnam.
Robert McNamara had had a great success with the Cuban missile crisis. His theory was ‘graduated pressure’. You ‘communicated’ to the enemy that if they’d didn’t do as you wished, there would be consequences. Thus, being rational beings, your enemy would see that it was not in their best interests to pursue their course. It's almost as if McNamara saw the enemy as an organ that could be played to the desired effect, like film director Hitchcock said he wanted to play his audiences. However, graduated pressure could not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Applied to a totally different situation, Vietnam, it ended in disaster. Namely, bit by bit, small decision by small decision, McNamara helped plunge the US, before it even knew it, into war. What was worse, he ignored overwhelming military advice that it would take huge numbers of troops and some 5 years to actually win the war. (Think of Donald Rumsfeld today, and his doing war on the cheap.)
Ironically, LBJ went to elections as a ‘peace candidate’. He didn’t want the truth about his intentions for Vietnam to get out because it would interfere with his Great Society legislative programme – a liberal, left of politics programme. (One thinks of parallels with Tony Blair.)
Also stressed in the book is how the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose job it is to give honest advice, were sidelined by McNamara and Co. in favour of their ‘systems analysis’. Actual wartime experience was scoffed at by McNamara, who said this was a new war, needing new methods.
The rest is history.
This is a first class book. It shows in minute detail how delusional leaders deluded even themselves into a full blown war. LBJ wanted to have his cake and eat it too – he wanted a war without actually having a war. This is a perfect example of magic thinking at the top.
If these guys were running a company or public utility or something like, they’d all be in prison now.