When General H.R. McMaster replaced General Ray Flynn as National Security Adviser just a few weeks into the Trump Administration, commentators made much of the book he had written as a doctoral candidate 20 years ago, Dereliction of Duty, and what it boded for his tenure. Published in 1998, that book argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-1960s had failed to give Lyndon Johnson their honest opinion of what was needed to win the Vietnam War, and that that had led to catastrophe. As it happens, I was finishing my own book on the origins of the Vietnam War, American Tragedy, at that very moment, and I did not see what McMaster had in the same sources. The problem, I thought, was not that the Generals didn’t tell President Johnson what they thought, it was that neither the military nor the civilians had a realistic idea of how to win the war. No one, however, could argue with the principle that he was advocating: that it was essential for military leaders to give their civilian superiors honest and sound military advice.
Unfortunately, it is not clear that General McMaster, Secretary of Defense (and retired general) James Mattis, and Joint Chiefs’ Chairman General Joseph Dunford—by law the President’s principal military adviser—managed to pass that test during the crisis over chemical weapons in Syria. Ironically, their retaliatory strike and the ways in which they have defended it are extremely reminiscent of one of the most unfortunate episodes of the Vietnam era, the first major air strike on North Vietnam in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident in early August 1964.
On August 2, 1964, American destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf were attacked by North Vietnamese p. t. boats, who it turned out were acting without authorization from higher authority. Officially the destroyers were making a routine patrol; in actual fact they were coordinating with a South Vietnamese paramilitary strike against the North, partly to test North Vietnamese radar. Such attacks had been taking place since early that year, and the Joint Chiefs had anticipated that they might lead to North Vietnamese retaliation and full-scale American involvement in the Vietnam War. Johnson was now preparing for his re-election campaign against hawkish Barry Goldwater, who had already been nominated, and his National Security team had already been waiting for some time for a pretext to introduce a Congressional resolution authorizing the use of military force in Southeast Asia. In the days after the attack Johnson authorized another South Vietnamese operation against the North and another patrol for August 4, and on the morning of that day, he discussed possible retaliation against the North with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The patrol on the evening of August 4, it was later established, did not encounter any North Vietnamese opposition, but at least one destroyer initially reported sonar contacts suggesting that it had. McNamara and Johnson swung into action without waiting to make sure what had happened, sending an air strike against the base from which the August 2 PT boats had come. Johnson asked for his resolution authorizing war, and received nearly unanimous support from the House and Senate. The US took a giant step towards the war that Johnson and McNamara had already anticipated after the election. In the first week of March 1965 it began in earnest.
We must now face the possibility that the Syrian crisis, like the Tonkin Gulf strike, is based upon misinformation. Professor Ted Postol of MIT, a hard boiled skeptic for whom I have great respect, has gone on record that the photographic evidence we have does not support the idea that the gas was dropped from a plane. It does not seem at this point at least that the Administration’s leaders see the strike as a step towards a larger war. But what is most striking is the very similar way that the two strikes have been justified: as “signals” designed to intimidate and deter the enemy from undertaking further hostile acts.
The idea of using military force to signal one’s intentions, and thereby to affect the behavior of adversaries without resorting to full-scale war, was elaborated by an economist, Thomas Schelling, in his book Arms and Influence, which appeared less than two years after the Tonkin Gulf incidents. This was the era of the Cold War, when American strategists were searching for alternative strategies to an all-out nuclear exchange, and Schelling claimed to have found one. Both the Cuban missile crisis and that retaliatory attack after the Tonkin Gulf incidents, he argued, were “signals” that had persuaded, and might persuade, adversaries not to challenge American power. He praised the quarantine of Cuba in 1962 and the 1964 bombing as “proportional” moves that would allow an adversary to rethink his strategy without risking all-out war. That was music to the ears of American policymakers—but unfortunately, we now know, it did not reflect the facts of those cases.
The reason that Nikita Khrushchev decided to remove his missiles from Cuba, we now know, was that he could not stop the American invasion of Cuba that would have begun within just a few days if he did not—nor could he risk nuclear war against an overwhelmingly superior United States. We have also learned that the effect of the Tonkin Gulf strike on the North Vietnamese was disastrous. Until it occurred, Ho Chi Minh—the most diplomatic of all the Communist leaders of the twentieth century—had hoped to work out a deal with Washington that would have avoided war. But Ho and his government knew what the American people did not—that the second attack for which we had retaliated had not taken place—and he decided, correctly, that the Americans were determined upon war, and that he would therefore give it to him. The strike did not in the least deter Ho: it encouraged him. With the help of Chinese and Russian allies, he eventually prevailed.
It now turns out that the Trump Administration’s decision to warn the Russian government about our impending strike turned it into a completely symbolic act. The Russians in turn warned the Syrians, who evacuated the airfield, from which they have now resumed conventional attacks. The Russians have also reaffirmed their solidarity with the Assad regime and stopped the exchange of information with the US government about military moves. Although Assad may avoid further chemical attacks, the incident will do nothing to change the basic course of the conflict in Syria. It will only put more pressure on the Administration to take further action as Assad continues to consolidate his power against the rebels. And indeed, high officials are already talking as if Assad must be removed--something they lack the means to make happen.
In 2017 as in 1964, the foreign policy establishment has applauded the Administration’s use of force to show American resolve. This in my opinion is the kind of illusory gain that military leaders should warn civilians against. President Obama refused to take similar action against Syria because he did not believe American military power could affect the situation for the better. With Russia firmly behind Syria, that situation remains unchanged. Symbolic attacks only foster the illusion of American power—the illusion that led us to the greatest foreign policy tragedy of the twentieth century in Vietnam.