General Harold K. Johnson and the
Crisis in Civil-Military Relations During the Vietnam War

Lewis Sorley, freelance history writer

November 4, 1998

Harold K. Johnson was of pioneer stock from North Dakota, raised with a commitment to the work ethic and to religion. He attended the USMA and received his commission in 1933.

In 1941, he was serving in the Philippines with the 57th Infantry Philippine Scouts as a regimental operations officer. When war with Japan broke out, he was promoted to battalion commander, but "only had the battalion long enough to lose it." He was taken prisoner at Bataan and spent 41 months as a POW.

After the war, Johnson went to the Army school at Fort Leavenworth, first as a student, then as faculty. During the Korean conflict, he won the Distinguished Service Cross and was promoted to colonel, after which he returned to Leavenworth as the CO. He then became the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.

In July 1964, now-General Johnson was the 32nd-ranking officer in the US Army. As part of an overall reshuffling of general staffs near the beginning of the Lyndon Johnson administration, General Harold K. Johnson was promoted to four-star rank "overnight." In the words of Stephen Ambrose, "Harold K. Johnson had the bad luck to take over [as Army Chief of Staff] just when LBJ started micromanaging."

Harold K. Johnson was a reticent man who was at his most candid in his letters. Leavenworth had been his favorite tour of duty; at the Pentagon, by contrast, there was "too much heartache." He felt that there was too much centralization in the Department of Defense, that he would have to look after America’s defense as best he could amid legions of civilian managers and economists who wanted not only to control the military, but to command it.

He confided these opinions in General Creighton Abrams, who was the commanding officer in Vietnam at the time. Johnson and Abrams were very different men who found synergy in their personality differences and worked well together. Abrams advised Johnson that at the Pentagon there would be a "reason to quit every day," but that their job was "to hang in there" for the good of the soldiers and the service: "And that’s why we hang on!"

Johnson was an overtly religious man who felt that he had missed World War II as a POW and had to make up for lost time. His range of interests was narrow and intense: work, family, and religion. He had been a Boy Scout and cared deeply for that organization; later in life he became a Mason, as had been both his father and his father-in-law. His favorite books were the Bible and the Boy Scout Handbook: he quoted the Boy Scout Oath at his swearing-in as Army Chief of Staff. He "came in honest, and would endeavor to leave honest."

This would be a challenge. When Johnson was first appointed, Robert McNamara paid him a visit and asked him if he had any questions. Johnson wanted to know if he could testify freely before Congress; McNamara assured him that he could. "I took it as a horse," Johnson later said of this assurance, "and I rode it."

Six weeks later, Johnson was called before Congress to testify about the new budget, specifically on the adequacy of pay scales for the armed services. The day before his testimony, Johnson met with the Secretary of the Army for five hours, who evidently urged him to testify that current pay rates were adequate. Johnson’s response was that "I just can’t do what they want me to do." The next day, he testified before Congress that military pay scales were inadequate: he calculated that he could not send his daughter to college on General Westmoreland’s jump pay.

Johnson’s testimony broke ranks with the Joint Chiefs, contradicted McNamara’s wishes, and resulted in significant increases in military pay. During the controversy, Johnson sought advice from five-star General Omar Bradley, who told him not to resign, that it would be better to work for change within the system.

The following summer, in July of 1965, McNamara told the Joint Chiefs that President Johnson intended to deploy 75,000 ground troops to Vietnam, without calling up the Reserves. The military officers were shocked. All contingency plans called for mobilization of the Reserves, all of these plans had been approved by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and these very plans were often used to deny capabilities to active forces on the justification that such capabilities would cut into the resources available for the Reserves.

The Army was the service most dependent on the availability of Reserves, and as Army Chief of Staff, General Johnson warned McNamara that the consequences of committing large ground forces to Vietnam without mobilizing the Reserves would be severe, maybe catastrophic for the Army. McNamara ignored him, and President Johnson announced the policy four days later. The deployment ballooned to 150,000 troops, mostly draftees; and because of rotation requirements, most units were stripped of their most experienced personnel.

In the wake of this fiasco, Johnson considered resigning or retiring in protest. But mindful of General Bradley’s advice, he did not, and served as Army Chief of Staff until 1968, when he was replaced by General Westmoreland. Johnson wrote a letter to Westmoreland, warning him that civilian control of the military had become civilian command: "There will be efforts to back you into corners, where you will find out that the exits have been painted shut."

In his oral history, Johnson described loyalty as a two-way street that was missing from civil-military relations in the 1960s. Clear recommendations, he said, could only come from accountability, and because the civilian leadership during the LBJ administration was not willing to take responsibility for their actions, "they were intellectual prostitutes."

Lewis Sorley is a freelance history writer who specializes in the American involvement in Vietnam. He is a graduate of West Point who served in the US Army and the CIA, and earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. He is the author of three books. This talk is based on material from his most recent book: Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command (University Press of Kansas, 1998).

Rapporteur: Daniel B. Landau

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