Presidents may not know what to do in a military crisis but they have advisors who do. That’s not me speaking but something that came up in a conversation I was having a couple of weeks ago and I had a hard time responding to it in an impromptu fashion. Of course the discussion was political, at this point in time everything seems to be – and I was expressing my strong concerns about one of the candidates who is notorious for talking and acting off the top of his head (well I suppose that gave it away right there). The thing is, the original statement is true – Presidents do have advisors who are on hand and ready to offer experienced advice in contemporary times. Since the early 1960’s, Presidents have also had some level of direct communications with the actual point of the crisis (if they choose to use it).
The thing is that before I researched and wrote Surprise Attack I was a lot more comfortable about Presidential action at moments of crisis than I am now – because they do have resources available. What I learned in doing that work is that their personal agendas and modes of action quite often override everything else including their advisors and what is going on at the crisis point. Their seems to be an intense personal motivation to take control and do so with immediate decisions.
To be clear, taking control can be issuing orders to do something, or orders to stop doing something. That sounds convoluted so a couple of illustrations are in order.
The first takes us to 1964 and the destroyer Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam. Word reached Washington D.C. of a possible attack on the American destroyer and within the span of some three hours President Johnson, with the concurrence of the Secretary of Defense, ordered a series of intense air strikes which essentially committed the U.S. to full scale conventional warfare against North Vietnam. Before those orders could be carried out the U.S. Admiral responsible for the ships advised Washington that he was already receiving information suggesting that the destroyers had actually not been attacked and requesting a delay in any retaliation. A Navy pilot observing the purported attack confirmed by radio that there were no signs at all of North Vietnamese boats anywhere near the destroyers. And on the Navy carrier which was preparing for the strikes, there was general knowledge that it was a false alarm. The carrier commander is on record as being quite clear that the U.S. attack was launched under false pretenses, contrary to advice and requests from the senior on-scene military commanders.
Johnson rejected all that advice, moved forward and the rest is history. Worse yet there was a cover-up of NSA signals intelligence proving no attack had occurred.
The second takes us to the Israeli attack on the Liberty signals intelligence ship in 1967, an attack which killed and injured dozens of Americans. Once aware of the attack in progress, military commanders in the Mediterranean had scrambled Navy jets to defend the ship and repel attacks that continued to go on for hours. When President Johnson was advised of the situation and of the military action being taken, he ordered it stopped, leaving the Liberty alone and undefended. We have copies of the American carrier messages of support to the Liberty, we have confirmation of Johnson’s orders, beyond that we have anecdotal stories that he even considered sinking the American ship over political concerns. Its clearly one of the most damming stories relating to any Presidential action and it was in direct contradiction to all advice from military commanders on the scene, senior military advisors – and ongoing pleas for help from the ship.
Unfortunately these are only a couple of examples, there are far more in Surprise Attack. My problem is that after having written the book and having become familiar with what Presidents do and don’t do under pressure, I tend to become speechless when trying to respond to the point that things will be OK because President’s have advisors. President GWB had advisors as well and after 9/11 swore that the US would act militarily but would never become a policeman or get into nation building – but of course he had advisors too.
Experience makes such a huge difference under crisis situations; you can see it in JFK’s character and in his personal experience in combat and having been involved with almost going to war over Berlin. The other good thing is to have a CIC that thinks a bit before they actually act….
And if you think this is a bit alarmist, just remember that we have ships and planes operating in the South China Sea and in several areas with increasingly hostile contact not just from the Iranians but from the Russians and that the probability is that we will have an aircraft or plane damaged withing the near future, even if accidentally, because the contacts are becoming too close and too dangerous. All that without even weighing in the insanity of the North Korean leadership. A moment of military crisis similar to the Tonkin Gulf or the Liberty is coming to the next President..count on it.
Larry, Right on target as usual. Trump is even crazier than the movement he is leading.
And the president will have to make a decisions in minutes. And the president will need to have an underpinning of knowledge, be analytical and understand the consequences of a decision. This is so one can weave thru BS from advisors. All of these essentials are missing from one candidate… Not Good! A.N. Proto
Absolutely agree, and along with that one of the toughest parts of it all is the temperament to make the toughest decision, which is either to let the field commanders call the shots if actual combat is in play or not to act immediately if its not. JFK was able to hold back while the missile crisis was developing and not take the easy way out and order immediate military action. In contrast, Johnson went so overboard that he actually became involved in planning and approving bombing missions in Vietnam. The same thing was true for Nixon and even Kissinger who became personally involved in ordering certain military missions himself. The CIC has to have the temperament to hold back on military options but then to hand it off and not become personally involved once a military decision is made. Its not that we can ever expect any President to be perfect at these decisions but personal temperament is a leading indicator in judging a candidate. I started to add in a link yesterday to Trump’s remark at a campaign appearance that the U.S. military has no idea who it its bombing in Syria – while bombing mistakes are made the level of American effort and our very expensive smart weapons all involve an incredible amount of attention to targeting and we put folks on the ground in great danger to support that. When you compare our strikes to the Russians its night and day….I can’t imagine anyone in the Air Force or Navy (or the special ops guys on the ground) not being offended by his remarks….
Might be worth just mentioning the very interesting article on Russia’s hack’s of Democratic Party material and its wider information war strategy that is currently on Politicos European Edition. Very consistent with concerns expressed by Mr Hancock and should be a serious concern to all of us.
I’ve been concerned about spending two much time on current Russian activities but I suspect I do need to pursue this a bit further. The larger story is being lost in the current election furor but at the moment Putin is conducting an extremely effective strategic initiative, it combines limited military action, a broad variety of threats and intimidation with a new form of what I would call “media warfare” involving both social media and planted story lines. This is the sort of thing that Stalin’s people did so effectively immediately after WWII in Eastern Europe – with the goal of pushing it further West from Greece through Italy and into France. Stalin’s death precluded that but the tactics are much the same only made far more dangerous through a combination of hacking and media manipulation. Its really quite brilliant in its own way and displays classic Soviet era skills. Its going to take a very clear recognition of how the game is being played (this might just be called The Great Game Version 2.0) and a lot of will power not to become trapped in it. This is a form of shadow warfare that the U.S. never really practiced and when it tried to did unbelievably poorly. On the other hand the Soviets were very good at it and I suspect Putin’s folks have some great tutorials and case studies for reference.
See you in Dallas at Lancer in November.
Thanks Gerry, I’m looking forward to it, we really have strong line up this year and in particular are going to try and get everyone prepared and on board to make the most of the NARA document releases coming a year from now.