During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump said that he knew “more about ISIS than the generals.” This statement, aside from being unfounded in reality, displayed a key feature of Mr. Trump’s character: arrogance. After dispensing with Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security advisor and designating Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as his replacement, President Trump now has on his team a renowned historian who can attest to the trauma arrogance can beset upon a nation. Such folly was amply documented in H.R. McMaster’s masterwork on the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. President Trump would be wise to heed the lessons gleaned from said history.
Dereliction of Duty, along with The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam and Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Gordon Goldstein, stands out as one of the most vivid and insightful retellings of policymaking failures in the run-up to the Vietnam War. Among the incidents McMaster noted in conveying the process of ramping up the Vietnam War is a series of war games. These ominously portended and predicted U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia.
In 1964, the Defense Department organized a series of war games entitled SIGMA I and SIGMA II. They intended to determine how Hanoi would react to increased air power and how Hanoi’s response would in turn affect U.S. military and diplomatic operations. The exercises involved experts from within and outside the government. According to H.R. McMaster, Sigma II (which reached the same conclusion as SIGMA I) indicated the following:
“At the game’s conclusion the United States had deployed more than ten ground combat divisions to Southeast Asia and was contemplating an amphibious invasion of North Vietnam. Ultimately, SIGMA II predicted that the escalation of American military involvement would erode public support for the war in the United States. Continued political instability in Saigon drew into question the worthiness and dependability of America’s ally, and the subtlety of the Communist strategy made it difficult for the U.S. government to sustain its case for military intervention. The Red team (the participants simulating Hanoi in the war game) concluded that the American public would rather pull out of South Vietnam than commit to a protracted war.”
Despite the rather striking findings of the SIGMA games, William Bundy, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the time, recalled that “the effect of the game on him and others charged with responsibility for Vietnam planning ‘was not great.’” After disregarding the SIGMA analyses, the administration proceeded inexorably with a strategy of “graduated pressure.” Within two years, just as predicted, the country found itself in a political and military quagmire.
The men tasked with formulating policy on Vietnam—Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Director of Policy Planning Walt Rostow—were all brilliant. They had encountered and earned enormous success in the fields of business and academia. They were in David Halberstam’s iconic and ironic phrase “the best and the brightest.” Yet, almost none of them had executive government experience. Also, neither of them was an expert on Southeast Asia or counterinsurgency, nor did either observe the counsel of those who were. When Undersecretary of State George Ball warned them that the French had attempted to pacify Vietnam too and were driven out in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, they responded by blithely quipping that the French were also unable to defeat the Nazis and complete the Panama Canal. What lurked beneath the confidence of these men was something more insidious: arrogance.
President Trump may know about real estate, but ability in one field rarely translates seamlessly into another. Judging from the chaos that ensued from his botched travel ban executive order as well as the reported cavalier manner in which he ordered a raid in Yemen resulting in the death of Chief Petty Officer Owens, the president has not mastered the procedural peculiarities of carrying out the responsibilities of his office.
When formulating policy, President Trump and his team would be smart to bring in outside experts and grill them until all parties are satisfied. The president and his staff should not assume they always know best. They should engage dissenters in good faith. They should be deliberate and reconcile themselves with facts that challenge their ideological priors.
Military and diplomatic crises, whether on the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, in the Middle East, or in Eastern Europe, are likely to arise in the next four years. May president Trump learn from the past, and may he avoid the dangerous mistakes H.R. McMaster described.
Image: Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Director of Concept Development and Experimentation at U.S. Army Training & Doctrine Command, speaks to senior officers and non-commissioned officers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division following his presentation as the first guest lecturer in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, at Fort Bragg’s Hall of Heroes Sep. 18, 2009.
Marco F. Moratilla works for New Magellan Venture Partners, LLC, a venture capital firm. He has experience at the National Security Archive and the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in International Affairs Review. A native Californian, he spent his formative years in Madrid, Spain.