Hope as a Method: Maxwell Taylor and America’s Cold War
Ingo Trauschweizer, Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War: From Berlin to Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 2019).
There is an inherently aspirational quality to strategic planning. Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gordon R. Sullivan may have famously argued that “hope is not a method,” but strategy still centers upon hoping to achieve or avoid possible outcomes. Surely, due to the chaos unleashed when armed forces apply military power, there are few guarantees in war. As Colin S. Gray, one of the most thoughtful students of strategy, observes, “before undergoing trial by battle, no one really knows how effective military power will be. … A capability that appears lethally effective in peacetime exercises will not translate automatically into a violent elixir to solve political problems.”
Nowhere was this truer than in the Cold War, as American policymakers and senior military leaders grappled with the problems of nuclear warfare. And throughout these tense years of superpower rivalries and global hostilities, few U.S. Army officers stood more firmly in the center of debates over strategic planning than Maxwell Taylor.
In Ingo Trauschweizer’s accomplished hands, readers are treated to a rigorous and satisfying treatment of the American general. We accompany Taylor through his assignments as the U.S. commander in Berlin after World War II, his stint as the Eighth Army commanding general in Korea, and his tenure as the U.S. Army chief of staff. Trauschweizer, though, pays special attention to Taylor’s time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in the early 1960s, in many ways because this monograph is “equal parts intellectual biography and a study of the national security state.”
And yet, at its core, Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War is a work about hope: hope that a more efficient and capable military bureaucracy could produce a U.S. grand strategy that best served the nation’s global political objectives.
Indeed, this aspirational quality of strategic planning seemed to pervade Taylor’s career from Berlin to Vietnam: hope that armed forces could survive, fight, and win on a nuclear battlefield; hope that airpower could achieve political aims in foreign revolutionary wars; hope that interservice rivalries would not impede, if not completely undermine, sound strategic decision-making. And hope that war, when entered into, would deliver.
Trauschweizer, an associate professor at Ohio University, demonstrates, however, that such hopes were consistently dashed during the 1950s and 1960s. Taylor thus emerges as a sort of Don Quixote character, tilting at strategic windmills despite his glittering military record and the respect he commanded because of that service. Not that Taylor was a visionary theorist or a master strategist. Indeed, Trauschweizer holds his subject accountable in an admirably dispassionate manner. This is far from a work of hagiography, refreshingly impartial when compared, for example, to biographies of Taylor’s contemporary, Creighton Abrams. Moreover, judging from his endnotes, Trauschweizer has done his homework in a wide array of national security archives.
As a brief aside, then, we might consider the imprimatur from the Association of the United States Army and ask how well this monograph fits within their “American Warrior” series. The series’ aim is to examine the “unique historical contributions” of those “whose legacies serve as enduring examples for soldiers and civilians alike.” Without question, Taylor served the nation with honor and distinction, but, upon reading this work, readers may question the general’s lasting legacy.
In this way, perhaps we should follow Trauschweizer’s lead and not be so adoring of our senior military leaders. Taylor was a complex figure. He was patriotic, intellectually inclined, and a selfless servant to the nation. Yet he was prone to over-optimism when evaluating the potential impact of military force, especially airpower. He was a micromanager and seemed, at least to some of his peers, as more of a political operator than a military general. And he advocated for using military power in Southeast Asia even as he remained uncertain how that power would translate into political constancy within the South Vietnamese regime.
Two decades before America’s full entry into the Vietnamese war, Taylor served as West Point’s superintendent, and it is here that Trauschweizer really begins his story. World War II is given short shrift and readers without a base of knowledge of Cold War history certainly would profit from a primer like John Lewis Gaddis’s classic work before tackling this book. In particular, Trauschweizer presumes readers have at least a working understanding of Cuba, Laos, and other Cold War hotspots.
Yet Taylor’s assignment as the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from 1945 to 1949 emerges as a useful starting point for larger questions about professional military education. How do we teach war in a way that is historically grounded, yet relevant for thinking about current and future war? In short, what is the purpose of military education? As Thomas E. Ricks has pointed out, far too many senior officers coming out of the Vietnam War intent on “rebuilding” the Army concentrated on tactical training rather than developing future generations of innovative, strategic thinkers. Such a focus may have been necessary for the task at hand, but was hardly sufficient for considering the deeper aspects of war and its consequences. Thus, even while Trauschweizer gives Taylor high marks for overhauling a West Point curriculum too heavy on engineering, he still suggests that thinking historically was a skill that eluded senior officers. Later in his career, for instance, Taylor optimistically held faith in a Korean War armistice repeating itself in Vietnam. History, though, never works out so neatly.
As Trauschweizer moves his subject from the halls of West Point to the Cold War’s frontiers, he delivers a compelling case for why conceptualizing grand strategy is so hard, especially in an era of persistent conflict. Rebecca Friedman Lissner recently has done fine work articulating these challenges and Trauschweizer adds to this discussion by showcasing Taylor’s role as strategic thinker and practitioner. The general’s tour in Cold War Berlin highlighted the importance of propaganda and messaging in crafting strategic narratives, as well as the difficulties in finding the right balance between planning and crisis management. Service in Korea confronted Taylor with the real-world challenges of limited war and there, the general’s predilections for checking enemy forces with firepower were reinforced. Yet in the months following the 1953 ceasefire agreement, reconstruction and rehabilitation of South Korea came to the forefront of Taylor’s command priorities.
All of this unfolded as the very definition of war, at least for some, seemed to be changing. Here, Taylor the critic emerges, as a detractor of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s supposed absolute reliance on nuclear weapons. (Taylor held little back in his 1960 The Uncertain Trumpet, calling for a full reassessment of U.S. defense strategy.) Trauschweizer, though, makes clear Ike held a far more expansive definition of “war” and saw utility in employing military force below the nuclear threshold. He was not alone. For example, Adm. Robert Carney, Eisenhower’s chief of naval operations, argued in a January 1955 National Security Council meeting that “if we tailored all our military forces to a single concept of warfare, it would be unsound. The U.S. forces should have sufficient versatility to enable them to meet various circumstances short of general war, as well as general war itself.” Thus, Trauschweizer rightfully challenges popular conceptions of Ike’s total reliance on nuclear weapons and a commitment to what later would be dubbed “mutually assured destruction.”
There is still much to consider in the Taylor-Eisenhower debate. Those who elevate massive retaliation as the cornerstone of 1950s U.S. defense policy miss the obvious. Ike’s emphasis on covert action, psychological warfare, and collective security show a president who believed he had few options but to confront communist expansion. Yet Eisenhower also believed that the Soviet leadership had tempered its ideology with pragmatism, much as the United States had. Thus, Ike argued it would be best for the nation to use nuclear weapons only in a retaliatory manner. The employment of covert operations and political warfare in places like Iran and Guatemala — not to mention the incredible growth of the CIA — indicate that Eisenhower was not solely reliant on nuclear war as a means of policy.
Taylor, however, articulated the president’s grand strategy in far more simplistic terms. In advocating for what would become known as “flexible response,” the general reduced Ike’s grand strategy to an overly reductive formula that suggested nuclear deterrence “left the world vulnerable to limited and local aggression.” Here, Trauschweizer implicitly asks us to consider deeper questions about the use of force. Strategic planners often are proficient at analyzing capabilities and considering how military systems might fare in future war, or extracting supposed “lessons” about what should have been done in the last war. Far too few, however, ask how war can accomplish stated political goals. Arguably, even fewer think deeply about the potential long-term consequences of American interventionism abroad.
Trauschweizer doesn’t say if Taylor fully grappled with these important considerations. Instead, what surfaces is a senior military leader deliberating the ways in which the U.S. Army could effectively employ firepower on the modern battlefield. The general, for instance, believed that “limited war” included the use of tactical nuclear weapons. By the 1960s, now as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Taylor argued vociferously for using airpower to solve a host of political and military problems that might offset the need for ground combat troops. Thus, Taylor appears as a contradiction. For an intellectually-minded officer promoting a “flexible response” to the problems of modern war, Taylor comes out a military leader wedded to traditional conceptions of industrial warfare.
To be certain, the military bureaucracy did not help matters. In all these debates, Trauschweizer describes — at least from Taylor’s vantage point — a dysfunctional national security apparatus rife with service rivalries that undermined a clear conception of grand strategy best suited for the era of limited war. Those familiar with the works of Robert Buzzanco and H.R. McMaster likely will not be surprised by this Cold War infighting. Protecting service budgets has become an inherent part of the American way of war. The 1950s and 1960s were no different. Indeed, even after Taylor retired from active service he was lobbying senators for funding so the Army could wage his conception of limited war. Yet, in the global Cold War context, we might ask how these localized threats posed an existential danger to the United States.
And, to be sure, determining how best to respond to the threat of nuclear war made these service rivalries even more unsettling. Once more, Trauschweizer’s sketch of Taylor offers valuable insights. Talking about nuclear retaliation requires placing that instrument of national power into context. You can propose the development of a capability but that does not necessarily mean you want to solely rely on that capability, or that the capability is even relevant to policy.
The U.S. Army, for example, possessed a wide range of competencies during the Cold War era, including, supposedly, fighting and surviving on a nuclear battlefield. Yet did the operational planning and training for nuclear war mean that nuclear weapons had strategic utility? As a tactical instrument, perhaps not. As a strategic deterrent, moral issues aside, arguably so. What Trauschweizer shows is the difficulty service-oriented officers faced in distinguishing between nuclear weapons as a deterrent and as a battlefield capability, especially when deterrence itself was tied to capability and intentions.
Taylor’s own assignment in President John F. Kennedy’s Camelot seemed only to complicate the discomfited nature of U.S. civil-military relations. While Taylor lambasted the national security system, his brief role as JFK’s “Military Representative,” a presidential advisor outside the formal chain of command, left unclear who exactly was formulating the nation’s grand strategy. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unsurprisingly resented having a “watchdog” in the White House. Worse, the former general appears in this accounting ill-equipped to deal with the threats of revolutionary warfare. Trauschweizer likely will leave many readers wondering how the advocate of “flexible response” appeared so out of step in crafting effective, meaningful countermeasures to local insurgencies.
Indeed, the last 100 pages of Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War focus on the general’s struggles to find an appropriate response to the challenges inside South Vietnam. Here strategic aspirations arguably entered the realm of wishful thinking. For Trauschweizer, Taylor’s optimism lay at the heart of a broader American search for local governmental stability that would allow the South Vietnamese to carry a greater load. And yet despite repeated disappointments, the general-cum-ambassador never wavered in believing American credibility was at stake in Southeast Asia. He, along with many of Lyndon Johnson’s senior staff, worried that if the United States abandoned South Vietnam as a practical matter, other nations might be less willing or able to resist communist subversion.
Such views persisted even in the face of basic contradictions. “Throughout the Vietnam War,” Trauschweizer shares, “Taylor stuck to the observation that devising strategy was not hard, yet it was impossible to execute in a time span tolerable to the American people.”
Such unexamined optimism — some might call it hubris — may leave readers skeptical of Trauschweizer’s claim that Taylor understood the context of the war in Vietnam. Did he? Did any senior U.S. policymaker, lacking a deep understanding of Vietnamese language and culture, truly observe the undercurrents of local politics in the war-torn and bitterly divided country of South Vietnam? How would Taylor have known, for instance, if there were viable alternatives to political leaders like Ngo Dinh Diem or Gen. Nguyen Kanh? In truth, the U.S. mission never fully explored such options and, arguably, never had the knowledge to do so. As Robert K. Brigham recently has shown, even during the Nixon years, American diplomats never surfaced names of groups or individuals that might have presented a viable alternative to either the communists or the entrenched Saigon government.
Taylor’s views on airpower in Vietnam equally suggest a senior leader planning a war based on hope rather than calculation. In Trauschweizer’s view, the ambassador “believed it was possible to fight a war for limited political objectives with airpower.” Yet such aspirations rested on little to no evidence that bombing could achieve its projected results. In fact, senior planners could not even come to a consensus on what the use of airpower was intended to convey. If Emile Simpson is correct that “force is simply another way to communicate meaning, another language,” it seems clear that U.S. policymakers failed in the basics of strategic prioritization. Worse, when the likes of Taylor began linking military action overseas to American prestige and credibility, the muddled bombing campaign raised some uncomfortable questions. What happened when airpower failed to deliver? Did the United States then look weak on the global stage because it could not break the will of Hanoi’s leaders?
We might question then how much Taylor truly was an “architect” of the American war in Vietnam. Yet evidence suggests it was the U.S. military command rather than the embassy that developed military strategy as the Johnson administration inched closer to committing U.S. ground combat troops to Vietnam. True, Taylor and Gen. William C. Westmoreland maintained a respectful relationship, even as their views diverged on how best to counter the rising threat to the Saigon government. But Taylor never truly figured at the center of key debates, whether on the use of airpower — Trauschweizer says his views were “in the minority” — or on the employment of U.S. ground forces.
Ultimately, we might also question, as does the author, Taylor’s depiction as a “wise man” who fully understood the role of military force in the post-World War II era. To be certain, there was much to consider for any strategic planner — the role of nuclear weapons in limited war; the efficacy of counterinsurgency in civil wars; and the long-term consequences of superpowers intervening in local affairs. Studying Taylor’s career suggests that in many of these areas hope outpaced sensible strategic thinking. How was it, for example, that senior U.S. policymakers “agreed on the need to deploy combat forces in Vietnam even though they did not foresee victory”? Could it be that hope is far too prevalent in how strategy is conceived, even today?
It seems that Taylor never fully wrestled with these questions after Vietnam, instead standing along other military officers who, in their postmortems on the war, placed blame on those outside the military establishment when victory could not be achieved. Perhaps it was just easier to impugn civilians. If the war was winnable, as Taylor believed, then faulting the bureaucracy or the system or the home front en masse left those in uniform shielded from criticism. Or so was the hope.
Trauschweizer concludes with an epilogue that, in itself, acts as a short primer on strategy. It is as pithy as it is thoughtful. Indeed, his four essential themes from Taylor’s experiences — ranging from tensions between individuals and bureaucratic systems to the role of strategy as “connective tissue” between operational art and policy — could serve as the baseline for any graduate course syllabus on U.S. grand strategy in the Cold War era. Perhaps the best compliment after reading this work is that it forces the reader to continue thinking long after putting the book down. And this is because, in the end, Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War leaves the reader asking: Why do we continue hoping that war will deliver as anticipated?
Gregory A. Daddis is professor of history and director of Chapman University’s MA Program in War and Society. He has authored three books on the American War in Vietnam, including, most recently, Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Jesse A. Faugstad is a U.S. Army infantry officer and a graduate of Chapman University’s War and Society Program. His research analyzes the utility of war in U.S. grand strategy during the Cold War era. His next assignment is with the Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York.