Tuesday, April 10, 2018

1962: How American Government Works

1962: How American Government Works
P. Schultz

            The year is 1962, John F. Kennedy is president, Robert Strange McNamara is Secretary of Defense and they confront a war in Vietnam. Now, in the conventional understanding of how our government works, these men, and others, are trying to decide what would be the best course of action for the United States and to make that decision they – and others – are investigating, making assessments of “the facts” from which they can draw conclusions.

            Well, would that it were so. But it wasn’t. As the book by John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power, makes clear, there were many involved in this decision who were willing to deceive, engage in intrigue in order to ensure that the United States would commit its soldiers to the war in Southeast Asia, and President Kennedy was apparently not among them. And this deception, this intrigue came to a head in 1962 at McNamara’s fifth SECDEF conference, which was, as Newman concludes, “a watershed event in more ways than one.”

            At that conference, with the approval and participation of General Harkins, who was the head of our effort in Vietnam, “The Secretary of Defense was purposely misled on nearly all of the crucial aspects of the war: the size of the enemy; the number and quality of enemy operations versus the number and quality of friendly operations; the territory controlled by the enemy versus the territory controlled by friendly forces; the number of desertions from South Vietnam’s armed forces; the success of the placement of U.S. intelligence advisors; and the problems with [South Vietnam’s] Self Defense Corps. The maps, the statistics, and briefings he was given led him to remark at a press conference after the meeting that ‘every quantitative measurement . . . shows that we are winning the war.’” [p. 255]

            And there is more. At an earlier SECDEF conference, there was ambiguity about the enemy’s “order of battle,” that is, about the number and disposition of the Viet Cong’s and North Vietnamese forces. Of course, the order of battle is probably the most crucial information to be had in a war as it establishes how many of the enemy there are, where they are, the weaponry they possess, their ability to resupply their troops, and their morale. So McNamara ordered that a special group be formed to come up with a definitive account of the enemy’s order of battle. Such a group was formed and they concluded after an intensive investigation that the strength of the enemy in numbers was 40,000 hard-core troops in the Viet Cong.

            Now, as this figure was considered far to high by the Air Force colonel, a Col. Winterbottom, who had given an earlier and much smaller estimate of the enemy’s strength, he told the men who had arrived at the 40,000 figure that they had to lower it. “As the middle of April [1962] neared, the order of battle team ‘had a figure which we were fairly firm on,’ Benedict [a team member] reports; ‘the local force battalions and recognizable guerrilla units were over 40,000.’ This figure simply ‘blew away’ Winterbottom. He ‘flat said that was unacceptable.’ To their amazement, Winterbottom ordered them to come up with a lower one.” [p. 242] But because most of the members of the order of battle of team were military, they felt that they had to obey Winterbottom’s orders. They then concocted a scheme by which they could lower the 40,000 number to 20,000 “confirmed” enemy, with another 10,000 being “probable,” and with another 5,000 being “possible.” But this number “was still unacceptable to Winterbottom, who was after a much lower number.” [243] And because two members of the order of battle team were a threat to Winterbottom, one who was a civilian and the other who worked in the Pentagon, Winterbottom had these two men taken “off the order the battle study and assigned other duties.” [243] The final number that was presented to McNamara was 16,305!

            In another little drama, just before McNamara arrived for his SECDEF conference in May 1962, a multi-colored map had been prepared to show the Secretary of Defense, red representing “VC in ascendancy,” blue representing “VC controlled areas,” yellow depicting “GVN ascendancy,” and white representing “neither VC or GVN control.” As Newman describes the event: “[General] Harkins apparently assumed that since he had cut the enemy hard-core forces to just over 15,000, the map would reflect this figure, and he never actually looked at it until the night before McNamara’s arrival. That evening he presided over a rehearsal of the briefing he would give to the Secretary the next morning. Harkins and his entourage entered the room and took their seats. ’Oh my God!’ Harkins blurted out, spotting the map. ‘We’re not showing that to McNamara!’ The map got ‘edited’ then and there. Winterbottom stripped off large portions of acetate depicting enemy areas, and replaced it with acetate depicting neutral or government areas. Allen [the civilian member of the team], who witnessed the entire event, recounts General Harkins directed while Winterbottom physically removed and changed ‘large chunks’ of the acetate overlays. In all, Harkins and Winterbottom removed about one-third of the ‘enemy-controlled’ areas, and converted about half the ‘neutral’ areas to ‘government’ control. [The falsified ‘measles map’ was declassified at the author’s request in 1988.]” [249]

            So, there you have it. A little peek into how our government operates, even at the highest levels. And with this peek you will understand why I use to tell students in my classes, “Don’t believe anything the government tells you, unless you have confirmation from other, independent sources.” And what was cost of these lies? At least 58,000 + American military deaths, hundreds of thousands of maimed and crippled Americans and Vietnamese, and millions of Vietnamese deaths. And no one was held responsible.


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