June 18, 2014

1967. The US Military's Inter-Service Rivalries

A Memo Regarding the Pentagon
From Wikipedia: A U-2 aircraft

To: Elmer Lower 
17 Jan. 1967

From: Bill Downs

RE: News Management memo

Although LBJ seems to have recognized the reality of failure and down pedaled his so-called "consensus" politics, at the Pentagon Secretary McNamara has made "consensus" the keystone of his regime—to such an extent that Pentagon reporters find themselves hung up high and dry on the top-most boulder.

For example. it's common knowledge that the Navy wants more nuclear-powered ships. The Army wants an improved nuclear tactical ground weapon. The Air Force is crying for the Advanced Manned Bomber. And all three services, fearful of facing another Pearl Harbor hearing, want to make a start, at least, on the controversial Anti-Missile defenses, potentially the most costly weapons system ever devised.

In In the past—BM (Before McNamara)—Defense Dept. reporters would be churning out reams of copy on the military policy debate raging between the Services. Generals and Admirals would wine and dine reporters, junkets would be laid on for Congressmen, contract-hungry lobbyists would be pouring martinis into everyone in sight. On the not incorrect theory that government policy can be sold to the public like cornflakes, the story of the inter-service struggle for specific slices of the budgeted Defense pie would be spread throughout the news media. BM, the Pentagon budget was roughly blocked out 40% Army, 40% Air Force and 20% for the Navy. The separate services then set out to sell their viewpoints to the public and the Congress through broadcast and newspaper headlines.

The history of this process of arriving at national security was varied. It was effective in the struggle for a separate air force even though Billy Mitchell had  to undergo court martial first. On the other hand, Pearl Harbor is an unforgiving monument to inter-service rivalry and the dangers of trying to determine defense policies by public debate and the headline.

It's probably correct to say that McNamara is the first man who has attempted to manage and control the Department of Defense. BM, the Cabinet Secretaries have variously acted as "referees" between the Services or at most, as Chairman of the Board for national security. Considering his background, it was natural that M. would apply industrial management techniques to the job—although privately he says he's still not sure they will work since it's impossible to bring a business with more than 3 million items in its invoice under central control.

McNamara, in private conversation, has mentioned time and again how appalled he was at the depth of the division between the Military Services when he took the Pentagon job. His favorite example is the Navy's effort to impress the new Defense Secretary with the sensational under-water Polaris missile. When M. asked the Admirals how the submarine missiles shared their target assignments with the Air Force's ICBMs, the Navy had no answer. M. refused to look at the thing until the Admirals came up with one.

This basic failure of inter-service defense planning would have made one hell of a news story at the time. Whether its disclosure would have endangered the nation's security is now moot. I cite the story as background and illustrative of McNamara's insistence on a "consensus" policy at the Pentagon.

As a footnote, the Polaris story also is illustrative of his methods of getting the Generals and Admirals to comply. None of the Admirals concerned were fired, none were publicly reprimanded—but none of them nor their Army and Air Force colleagues ever made such a strategic error again. (Off the record—there was a parallel case last year during the hullabaloo over the re-purchase of some formerly-surplus bombs from a German firm. It was an Air Force goof since the re-purchase and shipment of the bombs far exceeded their worth. Yet McNamara went before two Congressional committees and took the rap.)

The above illustrates McNamara's justification for his "consensus" policy—and with the resignation of Arthur Sylvester, the new Asst. Secretary of Defense for Public Information Phil Goulding, the same policy is going to be even tougher.

One of the reasons for this is the ever-present bugaboo of military intelligence and secrecy. M. absolutely refuses to discuss the subject with reporters—but he was so shocked at the half-hazard security precautions around the Pentagon building itself that he classified the DOD telephone book, which incidentally listed names, rank and sometimes assignment offices of all Military Intelligence personnel on duty in Washington at the time. M. also had a traffic study made of the Pentagon corridors and found which of the buildings' outside doors could be closed off—openable only in an emergency.

However the topper for the new Defense Secretary came shortly after he took a job during the Cuban invasion fiasco. Although the details have still to be made public, it's now clear that it was a CIA financed and sponsored affair with the Pentagon in an advisory capacity which left room for a US military takeover if so ordered by the President. When JFK finally realized the enormity of the mess he had inherited, he pulled out as much as he could with the resultant failure of the invasion. McNamara knew of as little of the operation as did the President and still feels resentful at being mousetrapped in the affair. Then in the follow-up Cuban missile crisis, when a CIA U-2 finally located Russian-built SAMs almost too late, McNamara insisted on expanding Army, Navy and Air Force intelligence operations to give him a back-stop and check out on subsequent CIA intelligence estimates.

Here, too, he demands "consensus"—and in the latest shakeup out at Langley, Va., it's significant that the No. 2 man to the new CIA director Dick Helms is the former head of Combined Military Intelligence at the Pentagon.

Footnote: Art Sylvester finally got the Pentagon telephone book unclassified. However subsequent phone books have eliminated the Military Intelligence sections.

To assure McNamara's consensus in the Pentagon, orders have gone out for both military and civilian personnel to report every conversation they have had with a reporter—in person or by telephone. For either background or on-the-record interviews, most DOD officials insist that a PIO officer be on hand. This has become SOP mostly, I think, because it relieves the interviewee from having to take the trouble to detail the questions and answers. Even McNamara imposes this limitation on himself—at least in his Pentagon office.

This presents a dilemma for the Pentagon reporter. In my case, I have made friends with many officers in my years of covering WWII, Korea and various other operations. Yet I am reluctant to use these men as news sources lest I ruin their careers (for a story which might not make DEF or the Jennings show). This self-censorship resulting from M's "concensus" is in a way more damnable than the real thing. Sometimes I think the inhabitants of the press room near the Mall look like characters out of Kafka.

During the past year it became clear that there was some kind of agreement between McNamara and Rusk that all but the strictest of US military news about Viet Nam would be channeled through the State Dept. The Pentagon would seldom go beyond the Saigon communiques concerning military operations. But the news about SAM missiles in North Viet Nam, about Chinese labor cadres, Soviet technicians, military targets in the North...all came from State. Obviously this was Military Intelligence in consensus with Diplomatic Intelligence and coordinating with the CIA.

McNamara has not forgiven himself for being trapped in one of those off-hand, airport predictions a couple of years ago when he said the Viet Nam war "might be over with by the end of 1965" (I think it was.) He obviously believes that the only way to run the DOD is to have the competing services wash their dirty shorts in private. The mule-headed and the brave who run to the Senate and House committees with their arguments find themselves eased out of town—or accepting reluctant retirement—viz: Curt LeMay. Any public debating of Defense Policy will be done by the President, or by McNamara himself before the proper Congressional committees. All else is "consensus" with a vengeance.

McNamara has found another way to placate (in part) the DOD correspondent. Every Thursday there's a "background conference" in which he technically is not there. Only "US officials, plural," Sylvester insists, are present. There were 17 of these backgrounders in 1966...totally about 10 hours of direct contact and Q. and A. In addition, M. and Deputy Secretary Cy Vance had over 120 individual interviews with Washington and visiting correspondents. By contrast, McNamara and Joint Chiefs Gen. Earl Wheeler [sic] spent some 210 hours last year giving testimony before Congress.

But most significantly, the Secretary of Defense during 1966 did not hold one single on-the-record, no questions barred open news conference. Silence, after all, is the most effective method of news management.

Hope some of this is useful—please excuse the length

Bill