Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press --
Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War: From Berlin to Vietnam by Ingo Trauschweizer. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019. 328 pp. ISBN: 978-0813177007.
Gen Maxwell Taylor, a commanding general in Korea and ambassador to South Vietnam, had a front row seat to two of the Cold War’s hottest conflicts. Yet, he is best remembered for his service as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Cuban missile crisis, when he helped the United States avert world war.
However, Taylor’s track record is far more complex than just this one moment, as Ohio University professor Ingo Trauschweizer shows in Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War, an eminently readable book that is “equal parts intellectual biography and a study of the national security state” (3). Ultimately, Trauschweizer’s book masterfully implicates its vexing subject, leaving readers wondering how Taylor got so much wrong—particularly in Indochina.
Trauschweizer opens by discussing Taylor’s time as a cadet and faculty member at the US Military Academy, in World War II in the 82nd and 101st Airborne, as superintendent of West Point, and as Chief of Staff for the US European Command and Commander in Berlin. Trauschweizer then delves into the most interesting parts of Taylor’s career: his experience in Korea and work on Vietnam.
This is not a hagiography; Trauschweizer describes how the general failed to understand the Vietnam War. At no moment did Taylor, for instance, understand “why it was so difficult to counter Ho Chi Minh’s image as a freedom fighter and champion of national unity and independence from western oppression” (119). He did not understand why, then, his belief “that the American war in Vietnam would not be like that of the French” because “unlike the colonial power, which fought for greed and grandeur, the United States would fight to help a free people resist communist encroachment” (166) never made much sense.
Trauschweizer’s most revealing anecdote is of a 1962 war game that simulated an American war in Vietnam. Taylor led the Vietnamese side, maneuvering his forces “everywhere on the map of Indochina . . . We had overrun most of Laos, and we controlled the countryside of South Vietnam and the cordillera into Cambodia,” as Department of State official William H. Sullivan put it (128). Taylor built his winning strategy on the same blocks that Hanoi later would, including Maoist guerrilla warfare and the acceptance of heavy casualties (128).
While this war game, along with others conducted in 1964, confirmed that a war in Vietnam was unwinnable, Taylor argued instead that “war was unavoidable and it should be fought with a combination of airpower and South Vietnamese ground troops backed by American forces” (128). Readers are left scratching their heads at how Taylor so aptly predicted yet still ignored the future.
The explanation seems to be hubris. Taylor was deeply confident in himself and his nation: He believed in his strategy, and that the United States would certainly defeat the North Vietnamese. However, this hubris, coupled with American intelligence failures (185), prevented him from learning about Vietnam.
Even when information was available, however, he did not listen. When South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Khanh in 1964 related that the “real power” in Hanoi was held not by Ho Chi Minh but by “several of his principal lieutenants, two of whom are Moscow[-]oriented communists rather than Peking sympathizers,” Taylor did not take him seriously (143). Had Taylor listened, he would have appreciated that because Ho—who “never committed himself” “100% to Moscow or to Peking”1—was tilting toward the Soviet Union (which would soon provide the modern arms that China could not),2 and that there was already substantial tension within the supposedly unified Hanoi-Moscow–Peking axis.
Taylor instead drew upon his optimism from the Korean armistice: “history could repeat itself” (159), i.e., bombing North Vietnam would bring Hanoi to accept South Vietnam’s existence (164). Taylor thus had “a false sense that American airpower could again force Asian communists into a compromise peace” (153).
However, the North Vietnamese were violently opposed to yet another foreign regime running parts of their country; their will was not breakable. Taylor, however, “misread communist leaders in Hanoi, or rather he did not read them at all and assumed they were much like the ones he had dealt with in Korea” (171), as Trauschweizer puts it. Yet Taylor based his strategy upon these assumptions, arguing that airpower coupled with ground escalation would break Hanoi’s will (163), thereby deepening America’s commitment in a war its leaders never understood.
Taylor’s approach did not change after he left Saigon in 1965. In 1967, for example, he “did not show much awareness of the ramifications of Le Duan’s  ascent to power in Hanoi” (184). Instead, Taylor suggested that Ho, realizing North Vietnam was not in a position to step up attacks on South Vietnam would retreat and begin negotiations. Taylor evinced no understanding of North Vietnamese nationalism, of the fact that Ho did not hold the power in Hanoi (as Khanh told Taylor in 1964), and, most importantly, of Le Duan’s ascent, “aggressiveness and intransigence” (185). Instead, “this was a case of mirror imaging, assessing what Taylor would have done in Ho’s position, and it showed a troubling lack of empathy” (185).
Trauschweizer’s chapters on Indochina illustrate how the American national security establishment—for which Taylor acts as a stand-in—lacked the necessary cultural awareness to win this war. Taylor was only one of many intelligent men who, despite knowing better, evinced what James C. Thomson in 1968 called Washington’s “blindness to the power and resilience of Asian nationalisms” and its “subconscious sense that, since ‘all Asians look alike,’ all Asian nations will act alike.”3 This blindness led Taylor to mistake Vietnam for Korea, to ignore rising tensions between Hanoi and Peking, and to help construct America’s must unfathomable military defeat.
One might think Washington has left Taylor’s errors in the past, but a similar knowledge gap remains evident: American leaders failed to adequately grasp the obstacles to success in Afghanistan;4 our military, in the early stages of the invasion, had almost no understanding of Iraq.5
Trauschweizer may not discuss these cultural failures in his strategy-focused epilogue, but the costs of unexamined intelligence and unjustified self-confidence are nonetheless apparent. Indeed, upon finishing Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War, readers are left not only thinking about the lessons Trauschweizer gleans from Taylor’s experience—like the need to address civil-military tensions—but also wondering how we keep getting our adversaries, and the countries in which they operate, so wrong.
Mr. Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Francis Fukuyama’s new magazine. A former foreign correspondent, he has reported from Indochina for outlets including The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CharlesDunst
5 Steve Inskeep, “U.S.’s Cultural Ignorance Fuels Iraq Insurgency,” NPR, 28 April 2006, https://www.npr.org/.