The middle of July was an embarrassing time for Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. On July 13, Coats warned in a speech that, like intelligence signals of a terrorist attack before 9/11, “the warning lights are blinking red” about “the possibility of a crippling cyberattack against our critical infrastructure” by Russia. Coats said that “Russian government actors” are already attacking “government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors.” He bluntly declared “we saw in 2016” that Russia interfered in U.S. elections.
Three days later, however, President Trump stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and sided with Russia. The fracas roiled on: Should Putin be invited to the United States? Coats said bad idea, but Trump did it anyway. Should Trump meet one-on-one with Putin again? Coats said bad idea, Trump still wants it.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and others on Trump’s national security team have similarly been embarrassed by Trump, triggering a swirling debate about whether these officials owe it to themselves, and the country, to resign. At what point are senior advisers enabling policies they disagree with by remaining in their jobs?
Before these or other high officials walk out the door, however, they might consider the example of Robert McNamara, secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968. McNamara managed the Vietnam War effort, though he only partly believed in it. Later, when the full story emerged, many argued that he should have resigned. His dilemma reveals the complexity behind such decisions.
McNamara was a much-admired CEO recruited to whip the Pentagon into shape, a confidant first of John F. Kennedy, then Lyndon B. Johnson. He helped the United States dig in to defend South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam’s incursions, even as the war morphed into a bloody nightmare. McNamara only left office in February 1968, after Johnson eased him out.
But to use Coats’s phrase, McNamara saw the “red lights blinking” in 1965 soon after U.S. troops directly engaged the enemy in the Vietnamese countryside. Contrary to predictions of early decisive success, U.S. commanders immediately asked for drastically more troops. McNamara went to Vietnam that November. At the end of his top-secret report, he wrote “the odds are about even that” even with 600,000 U.S. troops deployed, “we will be faced in early 1967 with a military standoff at a much higher level.”
Nonetheless, he recommended that the president send more troops.
This and his later warnings shocked Americans when the Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971. By then American opinion had turned against the war, which was ripping apart the country and both Vietnams. Once McNamara’s warnings were published, many declared that McNamara should have quit in ’65, ’66 or ’67. The logic went that if McNamara “knew the war was wrong,” he should not have continued to prosecute it.
Quitting would have allowed him to salvage his honor, this argument goes. He should have gone public with his concerns that the war was not winnable. His bluntness would have awakened Congress and the public to reality at a time when most saw light at the end of the tunnel.
The war’s defenders, on the other hand, claimed (and still do) that McNamara should have quit for the opposite reason. They argue that he prevented victory by forcing the United States to fight one-handedly. He should have stepped aside for someone who would let us fight with two.
So why didn’t he quit?
In interviews for my 1993 biography of him, McNamara told me he doubted that “victory in the military sense” was possible. But he did believe the American war effort would drive up the costs for the enemy and make them receptive to a political solution. To him, only if he believed there was no chance of progress on either the military or political front should he have resigned.
Instead, he pushed for a political resolution. At a time when negotiation was anathema to American war leaders who claimed the United States was winning, he arranged for Henry Kissinger to visit Hanoi, secretly, dangling a deal that Johnson later proffered in a speech in San Antonio.
In my interviews, McNamara said he had an obligation to share his doubts with the president that the war could be won militarily, as well as his hope for a political settlement. But “the alternatives in 1966 and 1967 were not clear-cut at the time . . . The situation was full of grays.”
In reality, once McNamara helped unleash American forces in 1965, he could not have extracted the U.S. military from Vietnam. The American war machine was mobilized and committed. The administration had repeatedly told the public that stopping a communist takeover with military action was urgent and that success was achievable.
If McNamara had resigned and voiced his doubts publicly, he would have emboldened the enemy, who was as determined as ever and on the verge of succeeding. Had the former U.S. war leader thrown in the towel, North Vietnam’s forces would have “danced down the highway” to Saigon at huge cost to 20 million South Vietnamese.
And it’s not clear that resigning would even have moved American policy in a less hawkish direction. McNamara quitting would also have cleared the way for Johnson’s other advisers, hawks such as Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk, to guide policy. The next secretary of defense would have needed Senate confirmation, and senators had heard from the military chiefs that American power must be unleashed. They would have wanted a secretary in line with the chiefs, not fighting them.
By staying on, McNamara moderated the number of American troops exposed. While the numbers of troops deployed was massive — 184,000 in late 1965 and 500,000 in late 1967 — McNamara had walked back the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s requests for more. He and others persuaded Johnson to bomb less than air war leaders wanted. In 1967, McNamara testified that even an all-out bombing campaign would still let the enemy smuggle enough supplies to sustain the war in the south.
McNamara also accomplished crucial non-Vietnam initiatives in his last two and a half years as defense secretary. Examples: He advanced the debate over nuclear arms that led eventually to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaty in 1972. He helped NATO adopt a coordinated war-fighting doctrine called flexible response. He continued myriad Pentagon changes based on the program planning and budget management system he and aides had introduced in 1961.
McNamara’s experiences offers two takeaways for today’s national security officials: A bad national activity doesn’t vanish when a top leader resigns. In fact, when moderate leaders resign, the brakes can come off and the bad activity gets worse. And a leader resigning in protest allows other important projects and priorities to fall by the wayside.
Our country needs and deserves public servants — especially in top operational jobs — who engage the full range of issues and threats, staff out these problems and then follow through.
Today’s high officials whom Trump rebuffs or compromises must make their own judgments about whether to stay or go moment by moment, as crises unfold. The rest of us, and history, will judge at leisure whether their choices were the right ones.