One partial exception to these generalizations was the Intelligence Assault Unit, later enlarged and redesignated as the 30 Commando or 30 Assault Unit (30 AU). Its intended purpose was to seize documents and technology of intelligence value to the Royal Navy, ranging from German encryption devices and codes to advanced torpedoes and other naval designs. While specialists from all branches of the military served in this unit to locate and evaluate the desired targets, much of the “muscle” to secure those objectives came from Royal Marine Commandos. As the book’s title suggests, what makes 30 AU particularly intriguing is that it was the brainchild of Commander Ian Fleming, future author of the James Bond novels.
Nicholas Rankin, a freelance writer and reporter, has taken on the task of chronicling 30 AU in three different ways. First is the story of Fleming himself, a broadly educated and worldly young man who never quite succeeded at anything until he joined the Royal Navy special reserve in July 1939. Then he emerged as the indispensable executive assistant for the Director of Naval Intelligence, a position that gave him access to considerable knowledge as well as some influence in the wartime struggle for technology and information.
Although the author includes both flattering and critical descriptions of his protagonist, overall Fleming emerges as a sympathetic character, driven by a desire to emulate his father, who died gallantly in World War I. Fleming remained a staff officer throughout the war, but his desire for adventure was evident, first in his covert escape from France as it collapsed in 1940, later in periodic forays to visit 30 AU in action.
Periodically Rankin digresses to suggest parallels between the Bond stories and Fleming’s real-life experiences. For example, Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming’s boss as Director of Naval Intelligence from 1939 to 1942, had much of the personality and even commanded the same ship as the fictional head of Bond’s Secret Service, M.
The second thread of the story is, of course, the history of this unusual unit. Rankin makes a good case that his protagonist both originated the concept and arranged to have the organization report directly to the naval-intelligence staff throughout the war. The author interviewed ten former members of 30 AU who provided him with a series of fascinating incidents, ranging from capturing enemy radar sites in France to crossing the North African desert to locating the entire archives of the German navy amid the ruins of the Third Reich.
Finally, Rankin integrates his account of this small organization into the broader story of World War II, especially the intelligence war and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Having previously written a book on deception efforts in this conflict, he is well qualified to explain the intricacies of radio codes, espionage, and inter-Allied rivalries. More generally, he has embedded the story of 30 AU into the Allied progress in North Africa, Sicily, France, and Germany.
In short, this is an admirable contribution to popular military history. The author demonstrates a considerable command of both primary and secondary sources, but his real strength is the engaging manner in which he weaves his story together. In a few instances, his desire for a good yarn may have prompted him to exaggerate somewhat the roles played by both Fleming and his brainchild. But overall, this is a tour de force that will entertain general readers without disappointing specialists in this topic.
McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965–1969
Edward J. Drea. Vol. 6 in Secretaries of Defense Historical Series. Washington, DC: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2011. 694 pp. Illus. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $68.
Reviewed by Spencer C. Tucker
Noted military historian Edward J. Drea has, in McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam , produced a thorough study of Robert S. McNamara and Clark Clifford as Secretaries of Defense. The 1960s saw the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis, increasing tensions with Korea, confrontations with the Soviet Union over Berlin and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, the U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic, and war in the Middle East. Yet the Vietnam War dominated. It consumed the attention of McNamara and Clifford and caused President Lyndon B. Johnson not to run for a second term. Necessarily, because McNamara’s tenure was more than eight years, while that of Clifford lasted only 11 months, Drea focuses most of his attention on McNamara.
Historians have not been kind to McNamara. Appointed by President John F. Kennedy on his assumption of office, he served as Secretary of Defense from 21 January 1961 to 29 February 1968. The former president of Ford Motor Company at only age 44, McNamara was determined to take control of the Pentagon bureaucracy and install new budgeting procedures and systems analyses. He and Kennedy also favored increasing conventional forces.
As Drea details, McNamara’s plans for “an efficient and affordable defense” were undone by Vietnam. An early advocate of support for South Vietnam, although he privately had doubts, McNamara routinely supported requests by U.S. commanders for increased troop levels and embraced the concept of “graduated response.” Both he and Kennedy’s successor, Johnson, believed that at some point U.S. pressure, especially through bombing North Vietnam, would force Hanoi to end its support for the southern insurgency.
Not until late 1965 did McNamara began to doubt the possibility of imposing a military solution. Nonetheless, he supported sending an additional 200,000 men and expanding air operations over the North. In May 1967 McNamara finally concluded, and so advised Johnson, that the United States should alter its objectives in Vietnam. But then that July, following a trip to South Vietnam, he again expressed optimism about winning the war. Later McNamara admitted that he had misunderstood the conflict’s nature.
He also came close to destroying the U.S. Army. Because the administration refused to call up the reserves, McNamara was obliged to hollow out forces elsewhere to feed Vietnam. Now at odds with the President, he departed to lead the World Bank.
Drea is scathing in his criticism of McNamara, concluding that his policies of limited war and gradual escalation were failures. While publicly championing the administration’s hawkish positions, privately McNamara worked to limit the war, alienating the Joint Chiefs and U.S. commanders in the field. He simply did not understand Hanoi’s determination and ability to continue the struggle, regardless of the bombing. McNamara also did not understand how his own manipulation of the bombing campaign contributed to its failure. Drea notes regarding his management that it “relied on secrecy, wishful thinking, and the exclusion of contradictory evidence.”
McNamara’s successor at Defense, Clark McAdams Clifford, was a prominent Washington attorney, staunch Democrat, and adviser to four administrations. He held the post from 29 February 1968 to 20 January 1969. In May 1965 Clifford had counseled Johnson against a major escalation of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam and urged a negotiated settlement, even if unsatisfactory, rather than entering into a potentially limitless commitment. Having lost that argument, Clifford then favored vigorous prosecution of the war and urged Johnson to stand firm.
As Secretary of Defense, he was almost immediately confronted by the Tet Offensive. Although a military failure for the Communists, this prompted U.S. commander in Vietnam General William C. Westmoreland to request an additional 206,000 troops. Clifford set up a special task force to reassess the situation, only to discover that U.S. military leaders had no plan for victory and could not assure success. He recommended a minimum troop reinforcement, sufficient to meet immediate needs. After a thorough review, he decided the United States could not attain a military victory and should begin peace negotiations. He pushed for a bombing halt and talks with North Vietnam, as well as shifting the combat role to the South Vietnamese and drawing down U.S. forces.
Ultimately, both Secretaries of Defense concluded that victory was not worth the price in U.S. lives and treasure. But Clifford’s private and public views were consistent. He clashed with Johnson and other administration hawks in challenging the entire principle of escalation. But Drea finds fault with his obsession on reducing the U.S. role while ignoring the consequences for South Vietnam.
As a whole, this important book will take its place as a major reference source for the study of the Vietnam War. Volume 6 of its series, it is a mine of information—but not for the faint of heart, at nearly 700 pages.
Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama
Jeremi Suri. New York: Free Press, 2011. 358 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Index. $28.00.
Reviewed by Hans Johnson
America’s grand strategy is nation-building. This is part of its past, present, and future, argues Dr. Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas in Liberty’s Surest Guardian . The goal of this strategy is the creation of peaceful nation-states.
Suri analyzes the most enduring American nation-building projects: the country’s own founding, its South during Reconstruction, the Philippines, Germany, Vietnam, and Afghanistan/Iraq. He rejects any distinction between domestic and foreign nation-building, as both efforts involve the other. Each episode influences the subsequent ones, and studying them provides insights into the U.S. way of nation-building and what American expectations should be. His analysis also covers what is most difficult in such efforts: policy change.
There are many reasons for resistance to changing policy, but such unwillingness often comes at great cost. Suri believes that sometimes the United States must simply end a conflict through negotiation and focus on reconstruction, however difficult that may be. He sees five critical lessons that he calls the five P’s: partners, process, problem-solving, purpose, and people.
Rather than using power to dictate, he says, U.S. nation-building works best through relationships that negotiate the differences between various parties. Suri believes “transitional figures” are central to carrying this out and cites David Petraeus as an example of one.
Because these efforts involve trial and error, patience is necessary, along with an acceptance that there will be setbacks and frustrations. The role of the President here is important. Aside from having good diplomats who accurately report the situation, he or she should also encourage debate and educate citizens about the limitations of nation-building, as well as reminding them that it is a long-term process. U.S. flexibility and openness are critical to success, so the notion of “moral clarity” must be rejected. For example, the United States should have cooperated with Ho Chi Minh, rather than refusing simply because he was a Communist.
Successful nation-builders start small and work toward meeting basic needs, which requires a peaceful environment and the willingness to work with members of the previous regime. These small gains create public trust. In the old Confederacy, the Philippines, and Germany, this approach eventually worked, but in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan the outcome was different.
The United States’ purpose in all this is to create a society of nation-states. The country’s citizens need to believe today’s activities will help to meet this goal over the long term—but when politics get in the way, America goes off-purpose. Leaders often feel the need to justify their previous actions, particularly if those have involved casualties. Mindful of the political costs of changing policy after such losses, some U.S. presidents have continued to pursue failed policies. Instead, says Suri, they should rethink their strategy and realign themselves with the ultimate objective of nation-building.
American successes in this area continued through the rebuilding of Germany, as previously remarked. The least successful efforts have occurred since then: Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Suri argues that this is mostly because the United States forgot why it was fighting. The country was at these points off-purpose from its grand strategy. Instead, it should have better incorporated its opponents into the effort and negotiated an end to the conflict with them, as noted pertaining to Ho Chi Minh.
However, a thoughtful and knowledgeable reader will wonder if it is possible, instead, that the United States achieved its greatest nation-building successes by a refusal to negotiate. Instead of negotiating, America’s soldiers continued to kill Confederates and Germans until they agreed to unconditional surrender; only then did rebuilding begin.
In the end, says Suri, it is ordinary people, both in the United States and abroad, who determine whether these efforts succeed. “Large forces do not move history. People move history,” he writes. But he does not question whether nation-building is a proper goal. Suri takes it as a given, stating that Americans simply need to remind themselves why this is their strategy. But with its last real nation-building success some 60 years in the past, perhaps a reexamination is in order.
The author does admit that it will be a struggle to figure out how the United States will continue to pursue this objective. However, he does not elaborate. Explaining that part to a war-weary and very financially strapped country would have been a welcome addition to this book.