The Life and Wars of General Curtis Lemay, Part IV: Vietnam and President Johnson

From what deep wells of events flow the rivers of our time? By what path did the muse of history arrive here, at our front door? Where are the roots, for example, of monetary inflation? What pushed the U.S. into its modern de-industrialization? Along what road did the world travel to reach the cusp of Peak Oil?

There are so many questions. There are so many ways to explain things. And lately I’ve been looking at our modern world by focusing on the remarkable life of a relatively unknown man — unknown to most people of recent vintage, at least. Indeed, he’s been dead for 19 years, and he died at a ripe old age. Yet his legacy is still with us. I refer, of course, to General Curtis Lemay of the U.S. Air Force.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” I noted in the previous articles. And the U.S. endured many hard hours during the Second World War and the Cold War. In the worst hours of the most troubled times, Mars, the god of war, gave the U.S. Lemay, a knight of the sky. But knights need swords and steeds. In Roman mythology, Jupiter had Vulcan to forge mighty weapons. In mid-20th Century America, Lemay had a U.S. industrial base that could crank out big bombers.

In Lemay’s case, he had some very big bombers. With the big bombers of World War II, Lemay blasted Germany and burned Japan. With the bigger bombers of the Cold War, Lemay encircled the Soviet Union and kept the Red Army behind its own lines. Lemay’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) was critical to the Western doctrine of “containing” the Soviets. In the annals of American arms, Lemay was a mighty eagle with talons of hardened steel.

Pres. Johnson Chooses His Advice

But times change, and times changed in a big way after the death of Pres. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Vice Pres. Lyndon Johnson moved into the Oval Office.

One can ably argue that Johnson put his broad, Texas shoulders to history’s wheel, and set events in motion that created the modern world. Yet one can also capably argue that Johnson was rolled by history, like a drunk in the hands of a seasoned mugger.

One thing you cannot argue is that Johnson lacked choices and options. Because one of the privileges of the office of U.S. President was (and remains, of course) that the National Executive may choose his advisers. And when you choose your advisers, often as not you choose your advice.

Tough Advice from Lemay

From the Kennedy administration, Johnson inherited Lemay as Air Force Chief of Staff. As far as Johnson was concerned, the military man, Lemay, did not offer the kind of advice that the politician from Texas wanted to hear. In particular, Gen. Lemay gave Pres. Johnson politically tough advice about waging war in far distant Vietnam. Johnson, to be sure, needed a lot of advice on that subject.

That is, Vietnam was a complex place. Leaving aside most of the last thousand years of history, there was plenty of modern mischief in play. In the late 19th Century the French colonized Indochina and ran it until 1942. Then in World War II the Japanese Empire conquered the region and spoiled the party for the colonists. “Asia for the Asians,” said Japanese propaganda, expressing an idea — if not an ideal — that took deep roots despite the irony of Japanese lording it over Vietnamese.

Post-war, the French returned to rule. “Not so fast,” said many locals. Within a decade the French were defeated and driven out by Vietnamese nationalists and Communists. It was tough going. The main road through Vietnam was, in the words of professor Bernard Fall, a Street Without Joy.

The French defeat in 1953-1954 (or Hell in a Very Small Place, also by Bernard Fall) was followed by a north-south division and a festering civil war. The Communist North was slowly, but effectively, invading the South. There was much meddling by outside powers, to include the U.S. Indeed, the CIA — under orders from Pres. Kennedy — sponsored the murder of the president of South Vietnam. And that was just the start.

Lemay understood military power, but he also understood limits to power. Lemay told Johnson that it would be difficult and expensive to wage a defensive war in South Vietnam against Communist-armed insurgents, and regular troops from the North. Vietnam was at the tail end of U.S. logistical lines. It would take years for counter-insurgency operations to work – if they worked, and there was no assurance of that. Would the American people accept years of warfare in a distant land? Especially a land to which the U.S. had no longstanding historical attachments or vital national interests?

Bomb ‘Em? Well…

Sure, Lemay told Johnson – after Johnson asked – the U.S. could bomb Vietnam. But to be effective, the U.S. would have to “carry the war to the north, and really carry it there” (Lemay’s emphasis).

The way Lemay phrased it, if the U.S. decided to bomb Vietnam, “We must throw a punch that really hurts.” To Lemay’s way of thinking, this meant “Knock out all their (North Vietnamese) oil. … This immediately brings a lot of things to a halt.” This from the man whose bombers wrecked Germany’s liquid fuel production in World War II, thus grounding the Luftwaffe and stopping German tanks in their tracks.

Lemay also counseled Johnson to “(knock) out the harbor at Haiphong,” and mine the seacoast to halt weapons imports from the Soviet Union. This too was sound military advice from an experienced military man. Lemay’s historical parallel was what his B-29s had accomplished — and what had worked so well — in World War II against Japan.

Time Is No Ally in War

For all his gruff exterior, Lemay was an intelligent and serious man. He was a keen student of technology, and an even better judge of human ability. Lemay could (in fact, he did) hold his own in a discussion of the principles of radar with engineers from MIT. And the fact is that Lemay ensured the success of his own career, over 25 years in senior command positions, by selecting thousands of the right people and placing them into the toughest jobs in wars hot and cold.

Sure, Lemay had the outward, aggressive spirit of a bomber pilot. Heck, he WAS a bomber pilot. “I’ll tell you what war is about,” Lemay once said to Sam Cohen, the inventor of the neutron bomb. “You’ve got to kill people. And when you kill enough of them, they stop fighting.”

But as a military planner Lemay was deliberate. When it came to the business of fighting, Lemay the warrior believed in scrupulous training and exacting preparation, followed by speed and lethality in the execution.

It’s not just that Lemay was a zoom-zoom, go-fast airplane pilot. Silk scarf or no, in Lemay’s comments, writings and actions, he echoed military scholars from Sun Tzu to Carl von Clausewitz. Lemay understood that the essence of war was to prepare carefully and then act quickly and decisively to defeat an adversary. In warfare, time is no ally.

Clausewitz on War

Consider what Clausewitz wrote on the subject of war, for example. “In war more than anywhere else,” wrote the Prussian, “things do not turn out as we expect. Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance.” Thus, per Clausewitz, it’s imperative to adapt to the enemy, hit hard, do your business and finish things rapidly. If not, then time degrades one’s ability to reach objectives. Don’t drag things out. “Everything in war is very simple,” said Clausewitz, “but the simplest thing is difficult.”

Damn right. Lemay could have told stories of how “simple” things become immensely complex in wartime. Like getting 500 bombers off the ground from multiple bases in England. Then rallying them over the North Sea. Then driving them in formation across hundreds of miles of defended airspace to bomb a target that’s obscured by clouds and smoke. Then bringing the aircraft home, through more flak and fighters, to land in a night-time fog. And accomplish it all within a drop-dead time-frame (literally) constrained by onboard fuel supplies. Simple, right?

Or if a skeptic fails to appreciate Clausewitz, perhaps the words of Clausewitz’s better-known opponent will work. “Ask me for anything,” Napoleon said to his subordinates during the Russian campaign. “Anything but time.” As he crossed the plains of Russia, Napoleon knew that there were time-imposed limits to weather, supplies, manpower and political will at home to support the expedition.

Thus it’s not difficult to understand the advice that Lemay offered to Johnson when the man in the Oval Office asked the Air Force chief for options. Lemay was blunt, as befits a scholar of warfare. “Apply whatever force it is necessary to employ,” he stated, “to stop things quickly. The main thing is to stop it (i.e., the North Vietnamese-backed insurgency). The quicker you stop it (Lemay’s emphasis), the more lives you save. … The quicker you complete the military action, the better for all concerned.”

Stating the Military Truth

Distilled to its essence, Lemay presented Johnson with a military campaign plan that also served as a strategy for confronting and defeating the North Vietnamese Communists. Lemay counseled that if the U.S. committed its armed forces to war — a presidential and Congressional decision, to be sure — then the troops should be authorized to move quickly and hit North Vietnam with everything, up front.

Lemay knew that the threat to South Vietnam was not a bunch of philosopher-farmers toiling out in the rice paddies, spouting Marxist drivel. The threat was not “agrarian reformers” who wore black pajamas.

No, the threat to South Vietnam was Soviet weaponry funneled into North Vietnam, and then shipped south to supply a well-trained invasion force. Thus Lemay’s war plan was to use U.S. air power to smash and strangle the logistical underpinnings of the slow Communist takeover of South Vietnam. Would it make the Soviets mad? Sure, but that was another issue — and it was what SAC was for.

In Lemay’s opinion, an air campaign against North Vietnamese harbors, and related mining campaign against the seacoast, would strike the North Vietnamese center of gravity.

Center of Gravity? Lemay offered Johnson a practical tutorial on pure Clausewitz, via overwhelming air power dropping steel rain on an adversary. It was the military truth, according to Lemay, and in this world very few people have the ability to state the military truth.

Looking for Different Advice

Unfortunately in this world, a lot of people don’t want to hear the truth, military or otherwise. Johnson was one of them. Johnson saw things differently. The U.S., of course, had immense military power at its disposal. But Johnson lacked the will to use it.

Johnson didn’t want to go all out against North Vietnam, and then have to explain to the voters why he was committing the nation to a large conventional war in a far off place. “I’m not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home,” said Johnson, “to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” No. Of course not.

Johnson saw his presidential legacy in a domestic political agenda. He was going to enact Medicare for senior citizens. He was going to build a “Great Society” at home. He was going to push for civil rights, and rebuild America’s cities from the inside out.

Johnson didn’t want to spend political capital waging a costly war in Asia. Sure, he was obliged to suck it up and confront Communism on the foreign front. There are some things that American presidents HAVE to do. But deep down, Johnson just wanted to cut a political deal with the North Vietnamese, not bomb them.

So Johnson needed different advice than what he was getting from Lemay. Johnson looked around and — it being Washington, D.C. — he found other advisers more to his liking.

Telling Johnson What He Wanted to Hear

The new counselors were no fools. Working for a U.S. President would be good for their careers. So they told Johnson that the U.S. didn’t have to make a rapid, costly, all-out bombing effort against North Vietnam. No need to bomb Haiphong, or mine the harbors, or seed the coastline with mines. Nope, not at all. Forget that center of gravity crap from Clausewitz. What the hell did Clausewitz know, anyhow?

No, said the new advisers to Johnson. There was another way. If Johnson would only pursue a strategy of turning the heat up gradually on North Vietnam, the Communists would change their ways. After all, weren’t the North Vietnamese rational people?

Moving step by step, said the new consiglieri, Johnson could escalate on the cheap until he found just the right level of force at which the Vietnamese opponent would bend to his Texas-sized will. Now THAT was the kind of advice Johnson wanted to hear.

In short, Johnson looked at the complexity of Vietnam. He had a difficult set of choices, and wanted to make it all easy. Johnson wanted to “do Vietnam,” but on the cheap. In one memorable use of his astonishing powers of rhetoric, Johnson referred to Vietnam as a “coonskin.” And he wanted to “nail it to the wall.”

Lemay, the old World War II bomber-general, just didn’t fit into Johnson’s inspired vision for confronting and defeating the North Vietnamese. Hit them hard, up front? Not when you could hit them less hard, and escalate gradually. To Johnson, at least, it made sense. Johnson heard what he wanted to hear. Johnson saw what he wanted to see. Thus in the ancient ways of Washington, Lemay’s clock ran out.

Ushered into Retirement

Johnson kept Lemay on the Air Force payroll through 1964, always with an eye on the upcoming election in November. Even before the nominating conventions, Johnson had a hunch that he would be running against Barry Goldwater. Johnson used the FBI and CIA to dig up dirt to use against Goldwater. Basically, Johnson was paranoid about the election, and he didn’t want Lemay to retire and campaign alongside the old Army pilot from Arizona.

But after the election, in early 1965, Johnson was long past listening to Lemay talk about massive bombing of North Vietnam. So Johnson told his war-bird to retire as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.

Oh sure, it was Lemay’s time to go, everyone agreed. He’d had a long career. It was time for Lemay to hang up the uniform and, as the saying goes, “spend more time with his family.” Yes. Sure.

In true Washington fashion, there was a splendid farewell ceremony. Everyone smiled. The troops paraded. The brass shone. There were fine speeches. The Air Force Band played ruffles and flourishes. Thundering jets roared overhead. Pres. Johnson pinned a medal on Lemay’s chest – as if Lemay needed any more medals. Lemay’s “faithful, zealous and obedient service to America” was “gratefully acknowledged and deeply appreciated.”

And then Lemay passed to others the baton of war and peace. Lemay didn’t mind, or so he said. He had groomed many a capable successor within the ranks of the Air Force. It was time for Lemay to pack up and get out of Washington.

Lemay left town. He went west and took a job in Los Angeles. He settled into private life. Indeed, Gen. and Mrs. Lemay even bought a lovely home in upscale Bel Aire. (Bel Aire? An eyebrow rises at that one.) Things were going well, except for that issue about “gradual escalation” over in Vietnam.

We’ll never know about the advice “not taken.” But we can ponder the “what ifs.” In another article, I’ll discuss Lemay’s post-retirement life, including his 30-day candidacy for U.S. Vice President in 1968. Thanks for reading.

Until we meet again,
Byron King

October 12, 2009