Lyndon Johnson's Tuesday Lunch, Hold the Counterinsurgency

Derek Gregory has a very interesting post on the precedents and lineages of today’s drone executions, which I suggest you read before this piece. I am thinking about this stuff this week in preparation for my presentation at the Social Science History Association annual meeting. Recent reporting has detailed how President Obama personally approves each overseas drone attack even though a wide range of intelligence and defense officials participate in the assessment of threats and identification of targets. Even critics of President Obama’s use of drones for “targeted” assassinations across the globe are likely to see something defensible, if not admirable, in his hands-on approach, whereby he reviews the evidence and orders the killing. Still, supposedly novel in this approach is the “decentralization of targeted killings across the globe and the simultaneous centralization of state power in the executive branch of government.” Through a discussion of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Tuesday Lunch” meetings, Gregory rightly points out that this decentralization-centralization double-movement is not as new as it seems. 

A colleague and I have a joke about historians: any time someone from another discipline argues that something new has happened, a historian chimes in and says “As a historian…” before showing how the newness is not all it is cracked up to be. I guess the joke isn’t that funny. But I will play historian here. In my own work that focuses on two deeply persistent (and persistently interwoven) phenomena in US history—racism and state violence or war—I am constantly struggling with how to periodize, how to define the contours of newness within persistence or to define ruptures and shifts that are not revolutions but might also be simultaneous recrudescences and innovations. Terms like “the changing same,” coined by LeRoi Jones, and frequently applied to antiblack racism, offer a parsimonious theoretical starting point. Can that term be applied to the drone wars? Does it help us understand what is going on now? These questions are in the back of my head as I chime in. 

Gregory argues that the Tuesday Lunch meetings, which brought together a coterie of trusted, high-ranking officials outside the National Security Council (NSC) structure, enabled Johnson to have a hands-on approach to choosing bombing targets as the air war over North Vietnam expanded. I recently read an article (by Guian McKee in The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980) about how difficult it is, even looking closely at his presidential papers, to discern Johnson’s thoughts in response to social movements and other outside events. Instead, historians have access to his aides’ thoughts, which are amply recorded. Tapes of telephone conversations provide some additional insights that the papers lack. But is figuring out what Johnson thought, what may have been behind his bluster and frequently profane drawl, useful for historians? That depends on one’s theoretical perspective, even on one’s theory of the state. In this case, given the concern with the powers that became labeled the “unitary executive” during the George W. Bush administration and the direct decisions of the president on which people to kill in which locations, perhaps the thoughts of the president and his assumption of responsibility do matter. But the structure in which such decisions are made, even at the bureaucratic level, affects them. The Tuesday Lunch emerged as a specific decision-making event-structure in response to difficulties Johnson faced with the NSC, the growing unpopularity of the war, and his own political agenda outside the siting of bombing runs in North Vietnam. It also emerged in response to an inheritance from the Kennedy administration and its own bureaucratic structures. That is my focus here.

Absent from Gregory’s discussion (which is short, so no problem there), as well as from some of the historical literature he cites on the Tuesday Lunch, is any mention of the Special Group (Counter-Insurgency), which I will call SGCI. The shift to the Tuesday Lunch is on the one hand a move away from the SGCI bureaucratically and on the other hand part of a larger shift in counterinsurgency strategy globally and in the prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Kennedy came into office with counterinsurgency on his mind. It was a topic of discussion in his earliest NSC meetings. He had been inaugurated within days of Khrushchev’s speech endorsing “wars of national liberation,” surely a spur to action. The bread-and-butter of counterinsurgency, police and paramilitary assistance, was already ongoing in South Vietnam before Kennedy’s inauguration. Under the aegis of Michigan State University’s police advisory group, President Diem’s regime was receiving aid in modernizing its police forces for the purpose of countering communist infiltration. Under Kennedy, however, a shift occurred: counterinsurgency became the order of the day across the globe. National Security Action Memorandum 124 inaugurated the SGCI in January 1962, which essentially replaced the NSC as the chief policy-making and -deliberating body for military and public safety affairs across the Third World. Kennedy’s shift away from the NSC reflected a desire to be action-oriented, also evidenced in his institutionalization of the Action Memoranda, in the shift in emphasis away from nuclear brinksmanship (which, of course, reached its heights with the Cuban Missile Crisis) that some in the National Security establishment desired, and in his desire to have a hands-on approach. Notably, his brother, the Attorney General, was a member of the SGCI and played a direct, guiding role in it, something that the NSC structure would have made more difficult. 

The SGCI’s area of focus upon formation was South Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, but within a few years, this focus would include approximately 35 countries, all of which received police assistance through US-AID’s Office of Public Safety. The SGCI duplicated efforts that the NSC was already undertaking through its “Counter-Guerrilla Warfare Task Force” (not to mention multiple agency-specific efforts to characterize the threats and define responses) but its remit, again, was more action-oriented. In short time, it published the Overseas Internal Defense Policy (OIDP), chiefly authored by Charles Maechling, Jr., who later described his role, in a somewhat exculpatory vein, as something like running interference between the State Department and the Pentagon. 

Throughout its existence, the SGCI mixed the formulation of geostrategy with the micromanagement of tactical decisions. From the get-go counterinsurgency was characterized by a series of conflations I explore in my dissertation. Cause and remedy, guerrilla and counter-guerrilla tactics, crime and revolution, and modernization or the revolution of rising expectations and communist revolution, oftentimes were mixed together or used synonymously, despite painstaking efforts by a variety of sharp thinkers to parse all of these out. Certainly one problem was that agencies with different goals and charges came to work on the same issues. Another was simply a lack of clarity in the minds of officials, including President Kennedy, about what the problem was. A third was the changing global situation they faced, which was in flux due to their own buckshot counterinsurgency approach. The situation in Vietnam, particularly after the end of the Michigan State program and the coup against Diem, rapidly was changing. And other countries, also in upheaval due to the global revolutionary anticolonial tide, were being added to a list, maintained by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of locales that were “insurgency ‘critical’” or “potentially critical.”

As a result, there is some disagreement in the scholarly literature about when counterinsurgency as such came to an end. Is it a doctrine or an era? One marker is the end of the Strategic Hamlet program. Another marker is the demise of the SGCI in 1966. Another is the folding of the Public Safety Division in South Vietnam, which was under civilian control, into Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) under Pentagon control, around the same time. But this shift also coincided with Robert W. Komer’s becoming Johnson’s head of “pacification.” He had been a key member of the SGCI but he effectively outlasted it and provided a thread of continuity. Under his watch, “pacification” was expanded and the Phoenix Program took flight. So there are questions about whether it is accurate to label as “counterinsurgency” efforts undertaken by CIA or even by the Army and Marines. An important recent article by Jeffrey H. Michaels, using some of the same sources as my own research, makes a strong case that current-day analogies drawn between Iraq and Vietnam within the National Security apparatus misconstrue Vietnam. Its counterinsurgency experience, particularly post-Diem, was exceptional. Most counterinsurgency took the form of police assistance and the creation of paramilitaries: in effect counterinsurgency proper for the United States is never direct but always via proxy. 

By 1965, the SGCI was forced to confront the problems that were written into its DNA, so to speak. A couple interesting declassified documents I have been reading give us clues to the rise of the Tuesday Lunch, as well as to the end of the SGCI and its replacement by the Senior Interdepartmental Group (SIG), which had a broader charge but also enabled some striking continuity with the initial SGCI vision, as detailed in the OIDP and a multitude of other analyses, reports, and doctrinal statements. For example, General Maxwell Taylor wrote to Governor Averell Harriman, of the SGCI, late in 1965 that it was time to abandon the term "counterinsurgency." (If you have access to the online Declassified Document Reference Service via a university library, here’s the document number: CK3100073314.) In a roundabout way, he makes the case that counterinsurgency was virtually coeval with US geostrategy in the Third World by that point, and it had ceased to refer to the efforts to root out guerrillas in rural areas of developing countries. He writes, “If, in coping with subversive aggression, we include in the task the elimination of all conditions conducive to a favorable environment for subversive aggression, the scope of the problem becomes virtually coincident with the entire body of foreign activities in the developing nations.” Thus, not only is he advocating using the term “counter-subversion” instead of counterinsurgency, he is suggesting that the effort cannot be one simply of putting out fires but of removing kindling and fuel entirely. In the context of the formation of the SIG and the Tuesday Lunch, Taylor poses the following question and answer:

Q: Is there any advantage in bringing the National Security Council actively into the procedures under discussion?

A: Much of the problem we are considering results from the absence of a focal point below the President capable of dealing with complex matters involving several departments. There may be a case for reviewing the National Security Council machinery with a view to overhauling it and reading [sic, probably should be "readying"] it for more effective and extensive use.

It seems to me that the formation of the SIG in 1966, as well as the Tuesday Lunch structure, followed from this recommendation. The NSC was not to Johnson’s liking because of its tendency to leak, its unwieldy size, and its focus on hypotheticals rather than operations, and for various other issues of bureaucratic turf. The SIG, whose membership almost reproduced that of the SGCI, enabled the Johnson administration to maintain control, via Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs George Ball, of counterinsurgency across the globe, while also expanding what constituted counterinsurgency in the face of new problems, namely urban guerrilla warfare in Latin America. The Tuesday Lunch accorded with the new face of war in Indochina: the aerial bombing of North Vietnam and the Pentagon takeover of "pacification" in South Vietnam. The article by Michaels mentioned earlier points out that Taylor seems to have regretted his wish, insofar as the expanded scope of deliberation of the SIG meant fewer discussions of the nitty-gritty of counterinsurgency that took place in the SGCI. Still, whatever the changes in the feel of the meetings on the everyday level, the shift in bureaucracy enabled continuity with the model of counterinsurgency inaugurated in part by the Michigan State advisory program, as well as expansion of counterinsurgency efforts to new areas and under new guises, particularly by the time of Nixon and the start of the war on drugs. But there is more to it. 

If the historical delimitation of counterinsurgency proper is subject to debate, this effort can obscure more than it reveals. First, the history of counterinsurgency requires what I call a “moving map,” and the focus on South Vietnam alone is a mistake. More broadly, the development of counterinsurgency, vigorous police and paramilitary assistance, and a reworked security-development imperative during the Cold War were parts of a broad effort to construct a “flexible” national security posture in response to a world apparently teeming with variable threats. The SIG’s formation encapsulates this effort, insofar as it was forged out of the realization that high-level debates over guerrilla tactics were not necessary to the prosecution of counterinsurgency on a global scale. It is, to my mind, no small matter that the language of flexibility and the practice of “outsourcing” endemic to counterinsurgency, which would mark the global economy in the forty-year period since the 1970s, find their first expression in the realm of geopolitics and security. How might recognition of this phenomenon shift our narratives of Fordism and post-Fordism, or the “age of fracture” that has been discussed so much of late? I believe we have not yet figured out the implications here. Thus, what might be further obscured by debates over counterinsurgency’s proper definition is the more fundamental epochal shift toward a counterinsurgent foreign policy, meaning a flexible, policing-oriented, discretionary foreign policy, and a highly orchestrated domestic police-assistance program. What does this tell us about states and state power, sovereignty, and the global color line? I hope the work I'm doing now for my dissertation will begin to answer these questions.

A primary reason, beyond clarifying my own thoughts on these matters, to focus on the absence of a discussion of counterinsurgency per se in the literature on the Tuesday Lunch relates to the present. We might note that the “need” for Johnson to take control of bomb-run targeting in Southeast Asia via the Tuesday Lunch after 1965 is directly related to the failure of counterinsurgency to achieve its stated goals until that point. Similarly—and I hesitate to make an historical analogy because that got them into the mess in the first place, so file this under polemic not analysis—the necessity of the Obama administration to use drones to kill people across the Muslim world is directly related to the failure of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan to stem the “threat.” This failure was an inheritance from the prior administration, to be sure, but the bureaucratic structure of the unitary executive (dating back not only to Bush but reinvigorated by him) seems to have conditioned the way Obama has been able to respond to an electorate unwilling to support further overseas ground invasions and to the US’s inability to stop itself from generating enemies through its failed global counterinsurgent strategy.


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