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The November, 1965 momentary show of moral courage by the Joint Chiefs in a meeting with President Johnson

Posted by John Reed on

The Joint Chiefs’ meeting with President Johnson

During intermission between two real estate investment-related speeches I made in San Francisco on 4/3/07, a son of a recently-deceased West Point graduate introduced himself and told me of an article about a meeting in November of 1965 between the U.S. military joint chiefs (the five top military officers) and President Lyndon Johnson.

Not fighting the war correctly

The Joint Chiefs thought the Vietnam war was being conducted incorrectly and urged the President to change course and let them initiate prompt massive bombing of Hanoi and mining of Haiphong Harbor. They had gone over the head of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara who opposed the change in strategy.

The article by Lieutenant General Charles Cooper, USMC ret., which you should read, is at

World War III

Generally, it says that the four generals and one admiral were unanimous in their recommendation and that Johnson turned them down on the grounds that it might start World War III and he did not want to take that risk. The article focuses greatly on the fact that Johnson acted like a bully and a total jerk in the meeting, but that’s really not the issue.

President Johnson’s fundamental position was arguably correct at the time—, although after the Cold War ended we learned that the Soviets and Chinese were bluffing when they suggested they would enter the war if we attacked North Vietnam. The generals sensed instinctively that the big Communist powers were bluffing, but they could not be certain of that. At the time, the CIA said they could not tell whether the big Communist powers would go to war over Vietnam.

Soviets and Chinese

The Soviets and the Chinese were nuclear powers. Neither was insane or driven by promises of 72 virgins in the afterlife. They would not commit suicide by using their nuclear weapons against the U.S. in order to help a Third-World ally-of-convenience take over a place as insignificant as Vietnam.

Also, if the U.S. could be caused to lose every “war of national liberation” by the Soviets and/or Chinese rattling their nukes, then we might as well have just run up the white flag from the start and not sacrificed 58,0000 lives. Implicit in the decision to go into Vietnam to begin with is the policy that we will see it through to a victory and that we will ignore any Communist nuke rattling.

During the subsequent Nixon Administration, they belatedly followed the 1965 Chiefs’ recommendations. They seemed to work quite well, but they were too little, too late, and they did not last long enough. The 1965 Chiefs had emphasized that the actions needed to be taken quickly.

Iran and North Korea

In the current situation with nukes in Iran and North Korea, my sense is that Kim Il-Sung is not nuts. Clinton Secretary of State Madeline Albright also said that Kim Il-Sung was not nuts after meeting with him.

Accordingly, if we tell him he’s got 30 days to lose the nukes and let us inspect thereafter, he will bluster but comply. We should do that because he will sell them to bad guys who will use them if we do not stop him. We should also do it because there will be no World War III as a result but there may be if we let him produce more nukes and long-range missiles. The Soviets and Chinese had plenty of nukes so it was a different equation then.

Iran, on the other hand, is an immature, irresponsible government that seems to be run by a warring set of groups including the irresponsible Revolutionary Guards who kidnap U.S. and British citizens and the nutty mullahs who think everything, including World War III, is God’s will and that they will be better off after they have been vaporized by our weapons than they are now.

Their current president enjoys trash talking the world about the Holocaust and buddying around with Venezuelan dictator and fellow U.S.-baiting trash talker Hugo Chavez. For many years and perhaps still, the Iranian government proudly had an international terrorism line item in their federal budget. They need to be taken out now because various factions there are nutty enough to use their nukes and again, they are not going to get any weaker by us giving them more time to build them.

My perspective on the 1965 Chiefs-President meeting

I want to add my own perspective to your reading of the Cooper article. First, I had ever so slight, indirect contact with a couple of the participants.

When I was doing a sort of “internship” with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY in July of 1966, the whole post had to line up in formation and President Johnson came and “trooped the line” (drove by us) in a jeep on the airport tarmac in the rain. He wore a raincoat. We were not permitted to. He was the only president I ever saw.

‘My uncle’

I briefly dated McNamara’s niece while I was a cadet at West Point. Noting her last name just after we met at a dance in New York City, I asked her mostly jokingly, “You wouldn’t be related to our Secretary of Defense by any chance would you?” “Yes. He’s my uncle.”

I almost had a heart attack. West Point cadets are active-duty military personnel. So her uncle was the second highest guy in the chain of command above me—, way above me. She later came up to West Point for a football weekend with me.

When I got back to my cadet room after meeting her and casually mentioned her name to my roommate, he asked, “She any relation to the strange McNamara?” (Secretary Robert McNamara’s middle name was Strange——really.)

“Uncle,” I said nonchalantly.

‘Whiz kids’

McNamara, who had come from Ford Motor where he was CEO, was a Harvard MBA. He brought with him the so-called “whiz kids.” I got a Harvard MBA in 1977 and my wife got one in 1978. McNamara’s “whiz kids” were all World War II Army Air Corps veterans and buddies who were executives at Ford Motor Company.

We Harvard MBAs regard the phrase “whiz kids” as a manifestation of the ignorance of non-Harvard MBAs with regard to the education we acquired there. That is, we did not regard ourselves or our Vietnam-era predecessors as “whiz kids.

When I was at West Point, we studied some Harvard MBA stuff ever so briefly. I surmised at the time that it was because the career military officers who were working with the “whiz kids” felt somewhat intellectually or educationally inferior and wanted us cadets to learn some of that stuff so we could be better able to hold our own when we encountered the “whiz kids.” In particular, I remember it had to do with figuring out how many bombers we had to send at the Soviet Union assuming a certain shoot-down rate. Common sense to me and other Harvard MBAs, but apparently a radical new way of thinking to the military at the time.

Many hold McNamara and his “whiz kids” responsible for the loss in Vietnam. It may or may not be true. The military also had plenty to do with the loss, as did the Presidents and war protesters

Harvard MBA knowledge would greatly benefit the military now or back then. I am not the only West Point grad-Harvard MBA. Twenty-two of my West Point classmates also have Harvard MBAs. Most West Point classes have a similar number.

Like everything else, the Harvard MBA education has its limitations and its proponents can get into trouble if they use it beyond its capabilities. I said similar things in these Web pages about the over-hyping, overestimation of the value of, and over-use of so-called “elite” troops like the paratroopers and Rangers.

All academy guys

The joint chiefs of staff in November, 1965 consisted of:

General Johnson’s connection with my West Point class

General Johnson’s son was my classmate at West Point. I never knew him. He did not graduate from West Point.

Supposedly, once, when the son was a plebe (freshman) at West Point, he was sitting at a mess hall table with another unit. Such plebes were called floaters and they existed because of the number of cadets in the company not being an even multiple of ten. Our tables were ten-man tables.

Not an airborne ranger

An upperclassman at the table in question, not having any idea who plebe Johnson was starting asking the plebes if their fathers were career military. Johnson said his was. The upperclassman asked each if his father was an airborne Ranger— the epitome of Army gung ho during the sixties, but not so during World War II when General Johnson was a young officer.

Johnson said his father was neither to which the upperclassman is reported to have said, “Well, your father’s a pussy!” Then the upperclassman asked each of the Army brats (son of career military person) what his father’s current job was. When Johnson said his father the “pussy” was “Chief of Staff of the Army,” the upperclassman reportedly asked Johnson if he knew the upperclassman’s name. When Johnson said no, the upperclassman excused himself from the table and retreated to the barracks.

I don’t know if that really happened. Sounds like a West Point urban legend, but like all urban legends, it’s fun to contemplate.

Graduation speaker

When my class graduated on June 5, 1968, two and a half years after these officers met with President Johnson, General Johnson was our commencement speaker and shook each of our hands and gave each of us our West Point diplomas. (Democrat presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was assassinated the day we graduated.)

A photographer was positioned to photograph each of us at the moment of the handshake. I still have that photo. The diploma he handed me is on my home office wall. I thought it must have been a tough day for him being a West Point grad and the father of a member of my class who did not make it to graduation.

Sent us to the war he thought was not being fought correctly

However, he was also sending us to the Vietnam war that he protested two and a half years before was not being conducted correctly. Twenty of my classmates whose hands he shook that day died in Vietnam. As did 58,000 other guys. I was almost killed there twice.

Do I appreciate what he and his fellow Chiefs did, or tried to do, that day in the Oval Office? Yes. But I most certainly do not appreciate that he and they failed to follow through as they were duty- and honor-bound to do in my opinion.

Should have resigned

They should have resigned their commissions en masse on the spot and told the public why as soon as the law permitted. Furthermore, the Long Gray Line of other West Point grads in the Army should have done the same at the same time along with the grads of Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. Had enough of them done so, we would have either won the Vietnam war as a result of the appropriate changes in strategy or ended it sooner.

There are too many people in prominent positions for whom just being in the position seems more important than exercising its power. They want to be the big shot but they don’t want to do the difficult things the big shot is supposed to do, especially acts of conscience that would cost them their big shot jobs.

It is fair to wonder if General Johnson was one of those. His job, according to General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur was to “win our wars.” General Johnson presided over the first war the U.S. ever lost from 1964 to 1968 as Army Chief of Staff. He thought we were not prosecuting the war correctly, had his advice to that effect rejected, yet continued to preside over it. That suggests he regarded presiding as more important than winning.

In that meeting with the President, he and his fellow Chiefs were subjected to a profane, unfair, humiliating tongue-lashing that no self-respecting human being would tolerate regardless of the rank of the lasher.

Yet in spite of the incorrect prosecution of the war and the tongue-lashing, General Johnson stayed in that job for two and a half more years after that meeting. I cannot conceive of any excuse for his doing that.

General Wheeler was chairman of the Joint Chiefs for longer than Johnson stayed on—from 1964 to 1970—four and a half years after the meeting! General Greene lasted two years after the meeting as Commandant of the Marines. Air Force Chief McConnell lasted three and a half years after the meeting; Navy Chief McDonald, one and a half. Shame on all of them. They sinned by silence when they should have protested and the nation and tens of thousands of its soldiers, airmen, and Marines were greatly hurt by that sin.

‘Position, Pension, and PX Privileges’

The motto of West Point, and arguably for the entire military, is “Duty, Honor, Country.” The behavior of these officers after that meeting with the President sounds more like, “Position, Pension, and PX Privileges” than “Duty, Honor, Country.”

John T. Reed

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military 

Succeeding book


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