There is an all-too common phenomenon among leaders, be it in politics, the military, public, or private sector in which they have a certain pre-conception about how things are and enforce this among their staff through positive and negative reinforcement. This isn’t simply a matter of bosses telling employees to do their jobs, it is a matter of rewarding “yes men” even when the evidence does not warrant said pre-conception and providing negative reinforcement for those who try to tell the truth. This is what I like to call “enforced lying”…lies that are held to be sacrosanct are enforced by leaders, motivating their staff to lie to them lest their careers suffer. This can have catastrophic consequences and my two historical examples lie with President Lyndon B. Johnson and General Douglas MacArthur. Both had very high opinions of themselves and could be difficult to deal with personally.
LBJ, Robert McNamara, and Vietnam
President Lyndon B. Johnson had conflicting agendas as president. On one hand, he wanted political support for his Great Society programs but on the other he wanted to win the war in Vietnam without spending the money and putting the resources needed for winning to even be possible. He would have likely lost sufficient support to pass the Great Society had he done so. Johnson would not heed the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who counseled him that they needed to expand the war and limited who he would heed to three people: Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Dean Rusk. The one he listened to most was McNamara. McNamara was a brilliant man, but was also very opinionated and sure about things. He was also, according to H.R. McMaster in Dereliction of Duty, “a very talented and persuasive sycophant. He sensed what the President wanted and gave it to him. He gave the President what he wanted in the form of this strategy of graduated pressure. He was his front man on it. He lied blatantly to the American people, to the Congress, to reporters on a constant basis.” The war was, from what we know now, thought of even among the war’s planners to be unwinnable. John McNaughton, the head of the Pentagon’s International Security Affairs division, regarded the objective as to “maintain American credibility” rather than win the war for South Vietnam (McMaster). Lyndon B. Johnson’s cloistering of himself with his group of three advisors for Vietnam indicated his unwillingness to be told the truth: that the war should either be fully committed to or the US should get out. The Joint Chiefs of Staff pushed for escalation, but Johnson didn’t heed them, fearing China getting involved and the possibility of a nuclear war.
This is matches up with Pierre Rinfret’s account of his time in the Johnson Administration. He wrote, “President Johnson was paranoiac about winning the war in Vietnam. He was absolutely convinced we could do it with or without the approval of the American people and the Congress. It was a total phobia with him. His problem was that everybody more or less lied to him including the infamous McNamara, who was the worst of the bunch. Most of the advisors around President Johnson told him what he wanted to hear and he could not stand the truth anyway. He would not, refused, to listen to anyone who pleaded the case for getting out of Vietnam. I sat in on occasion with some of the advisors and I was always amazed to discover that he was lied to and mislead by his advisors. If you told him that we could not win the war without a total dedication to war (as we did) he would call you names!” (Rinfret) Ironically, Johnson himself was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry during World War II by the next subject of this post, Douglas MacArthur.
Douglas MacArthur, Charles Willoughby, and Korea
General Douglas MacArthur was overrated, most often by himself. He worshipped himself and sought the counsel of people who went along with him. As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution writes, “He had built an intelligence community in his area of command that listened attentively to what he wanted and gave him intelligence that reinforced his already held views. MacArthur wanted total control of the war and its execution, not second-guessing by his subordinates or outside interference by Washington, especially by the White House and the Pentagon”. MacArthur believed during the Korean War that the Chinese forces would never cross the Yalu River to attack UN forces and stop their supply line, and his intelligence officer, Charles Willoughby, provided him with intelligence that found just that. This ran contrary to multiple intelligence reports that reported this would happen. MacArthur dismissed the other reports and accepted Willoughby’s report. However, there was a major problem: he had fabricated the intelligence to fit MacArthur’s views.
Willoughby viewed his job as pleasing MacArthur rather than providing accurate intelligence. This intelligence fabrication caused the deaths of thousands of UN soldiers at the Battle of Chongju on October 19, 1950 when China invaded Korea…one of the worst battle defeats in American history and has led to Willoughby being regarded as one of the worst intelligence officers if not the worst in American history. The trouble was that “…the general was focused on limiting and controlling sources of intelligence, not allowing contrary or dissenting opinions, and simultaneously surrounding himself with yes-men” (Gady).
Leaders need to have reality checks over their own views and they fail to do so at the peril of themselves and those they lead. In the cases of Johnson and MacArthur, these mistakes came at the cost of the lives of thousands of soldiers under their leadership. For Johnson, it destroyed his presidency and for MacArthur, the very ego that resulted in the disaster of the Battle of Chongju resulted in his being fired by President Truman for insubordination.
Gady, F. (2019, January 27). Is This the Worst Intelligence Chief in the US Army’s History? The Diplomat.
McMaster, H.R. (1998, January 1). Dereliction of Duty. Air Force Magazine.
Riedel, B. (2017, September 13). Catastrophe on the Yalu: America’s intelligence failure in Korea. Brookings Institution.
Rinfret, P. Lyndon Baines Johnson: A President Gone Wrong. Parida.
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