In preparing to interview former national security adviser H.R. McMaster about his new book, I recently read his much-acclaimed 1997 book on the Vietnam War: “Dereliction of Duty.” It is difficult not to apply the lessons of the United States’ haphazard, stumbling and ultimately terribly destructive commitment to gradual escalation of military force in Vietnam to what we have experienced in the very different crisis presented by covid-19. McMaster’s study of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’s strategy in the war’s early years shows government officials responding to a crisis in a way that guaranteed a collapse in public trust and a deepening domestic political division. Similar mistakes are being made today in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
The differences between the two crises are obvious: The enemy now is a virus, not communists in Vietnam backed by the Soviet Union and China. Almost all the victims then were young men, while covid mostly kills older people or those with underlying medical conditions. Covid is far more deadly — 870,000 Americans and counting against the 58,220 Americans who died in Vietnam. While the war’s terrible cost was concentrated on the U.S. military and its families, the virus’s impacts have been felt more equally throughout the United States. And while the Constitution designates the president as the commander in chief, the “police power” — which includes the government’s inherent authority to protect citizens — is lodged with state governments.
But the similarities are surprising and striking. There was little expertise in the United States about Vietnam in 1961, and none about covid in 2020. “Fighting the last war” weighed heavily on decision-makers in both cases. There was a change of presidents early in the escalation of both national responses. And at the heart of both responses were charismatic, confident professionals who did not hesitate to bend the narrative. Johnson’s and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s dramatic willingness to lie was astonishing. Criticisms of Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are likewise rooted in misrepresentations he’s made about masks and in his often changing guidance, unleavened by any willingness to accept responsibility or acknowledge errors. Deep interdepartmental rivalries marked both eras; internal dissent was suppressed; and mainstream media suspended disbelief for Democratic and liberal views.
As McMaster demonstrates in his book, McNamara maintained complete confidence in his own judgment and his commitment to continually escalating force against the Viet Cong and their patrons in Hanoi. Working with Maxwell Taylor, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McNamara cut the Pentagon’s service chiefs off from Kennedy and then Johnson, and stacked every decision tree with carefully preselected acolytes. Johnson cared only for the politics of the situation, McNamara for his own vindication. But dissent didn’t vanish. It grew in an embittered senior military leadership and eventually broke into public view with publication of the Pentagon Papers. Public quiescence vanished slowly and, as costs escalated, the famous “credibility gap” grew. Disaster awaited with collapse of support for the war and for South Vietnam.
We have begun to see a similar deterioration of the public’s trust in public health and education authorities, and a deep, never-before-experienced suspicion of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Part of this is the result of misinformation and anti-vaccination points-of-view that unfortunately have taken deep root. I was a strong and early supporter of vaccines and boosters and remain convinced that the best means of persuading the “vaccine skeptical” is engaging with them and calmly reviewing the evidence of effectiveness — not shaming, dismissiveness or caustic declamations.
But it is the “Fauci as McNamara” comparison that has now settled in my mind. A new NBC poll asked respondents: “Do you trust what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says?” 44 percent said yes; 43 percent said no. That’s a crisis of trust in public health authorities, a new “credibility gap,” and it is itself a public health crisis.
Getting out of the Beltway brings you into contact with many who would answer that poll question in the negative. A few are vocal anti-Fauci influencers, driven by personal animus; others are longtime students of bureaucratic ineptness. But many more are hugely impatient parents, distressed by school district policies from masking to quarantine rules. They take seriously the vast accumulation of data on the vaccines’ efficacy. Yet the refusal to level with the public on all subjects at all times or to engage with serious critics has crushed public health agencies’ and school districts’ abilities to persuade. We are in the middle of a domestic equivalent of the Vietnam catastrophe brought about by the latest iteration of “the best and the brightest.”