John McCone Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Reflections on a Life in Government Service: Conversation with John A. McCone; former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; 1987-88 by Harry Kreisler

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What does the record teach us about the role of intelligence in the conduct of a war like Vietnam?

Well, had the people responsible for the operation in Vietnam listened to the intelligence analysts, they'd have avoided a great many mistakes. As an example, and this is just one example, we were losing one man -- killed or injured -- almost on a man-for-man basis with the North Vietnamese. This created great questions as to what our ultimate commitment to Vietnam would be, and what our casualties would be, and so forth. We came up with an estimate that one year there were going to be some 240,000 new North Vietnamese recruits that would reach military age, and therefore the analysis of the CIA analysts was that the need for men on our side and the possible casualties were very large. Now this type of thinking by the CIA analysts was not readily accepted by the military and the secretary of defense and even the president himself.

What do you do in a situation like that? Just keep bringing the same information back again and again?

That's right. You have to do your best to persuade those who are not willing to accept your analysis that they are wrong and ought to take a second look.

Would it be your contention that the CIA was giving this kind of analysis very early in the game?


Why did you lose the argument for the president's mind?

Because the president took the advice of the secretary of defense and the secretary of state. If you read President Johnson's book written shortly after his retirement, he said that I had given him some very persuasive advice as to the conduct of the Vietnam War, but he decided to take the advice of Secretary McNamara and Secretary Rusk.

And their advice was based on what?

Military analysis.

Why did he believe Rusk and McNamara over you?

Well, I think that President Johnson was willing to take the appraisal of the situation from his secretary of defense and his chairman of the joint chiefs rather than the appraisal of the intelligence analysts.

Was the communist challenge in Vietnam different from the communist threat in Korea in the early 1950s?

In both cases it was an action of the communists to violate an agreement despite a United Nations - established arrangement with division of those two countries. Now in Korea it was just an out-and-out invasion. The troops of the North Koreans just walked in to South Korea without warning, very suddenly, and despite the mandate of the United Nations. In South Vietnam, there was an infiltration, and there was no overt march of the North Vietnamese armies into the South. There was an infiltration of communist cadres into areas of South Vietnam where they would take over control or persuade the local South Vietnamese to revolt against the government that had been established. Do you see the difference?

What should Johnson have done differently in his conduct of the war?

In the fist place, he should not have conducted it. You see, Kennedy made a mistake when he accepted the recommendations of Walt Rostow and General Maxwell Taylor to violate the 1954 agreement which restricted the military assistance group provided for the South Vietnamese to, I think, 850 military personnel, and that is the number Eisenhower held to. He said, "An agreement is an agreement, and we're not going to increase that military assistance group." And Eisenhower stood steadfast against the recommendations of the joint chiefs of staff, who were insisting that it be increased.

Eisenhower, among other things, in addition to standing by the treaty, said: "If you increase the United States presence in South Vietnam, then it will become our war. It won't be the South Vietnamese; they will walk away from it." Now Kennedy won the 1960 election by a narrow margin, and one of his cries was that Eisenhower had been soft on communism in Vietnam and soft on communism in Cuba.

The first thing that he did was send Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow over to examine the situation in South Vietnam. And they came back recommending that the military assistance group be increased from 800 or 850 up to 25,000. Kennedy embraced that, but after a year he saw the folly of that agreement. He was prepared to withdraw a very substantial amount of our presence in South Vietnam -- possibly getting down to 850. I don't know.... If my memory serves me correctly, he had ordered the first 1,000 men withdrawn. But I am not sure about that. But Johnson, on the other hand, ignored all of this, and he just accepted it as a war that we had to win.

He gradually built up to about 50,000 over there in small increments. From 25,000 we built up to about 50,000. I was very unhappy about the first 25,000, and I was desperately unhappy about the build-up, and then when Johnson, in response to some North Vietnamese actions against some of our bases, agreed with the recommendation of McNamara that he put our troops on the offensive, that is when I parted company with them.

Is this finally why you left the CIA and the Johnson administration -- the frustration over the non-receptivity to the information you were providing?

No, I didn't leave the CIA in any pique or because I was cross with anybody, but I had repeatedly told the president and the secretary of defense that he was engaging in an operation he could not win because of the way it was being waged, and from which he could extract himself only with the greatest of difficulty. I was always critical of President Johnson for building up the Vietnam War to the proportions to which he built it up, and at the same time not using our military facilities to a point where we'd win the war. I took the position that if you're gonna be in a war, you'd better win it! But President Johnson was very loath to make any moves that he thought might cause the Chinese communists to become engaged.

What did Johnson tell you?

President Johnson's attitude was very much different from mine. He felt that he had a war on his hands, and he had to win. As he told me personally, not once but a number of times, "I'm not going to be the first American president to lose a war." So the war became a different philosophical problem than any of us had ever dealt with. It really became Johnson's war. So rather than withdrawing the 25,000 or any part of them, we started to build it up.

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