May 16

When Dissent was a Common Virtue

Thursday, May 16, 2019 12:01 AM


Admiral Chester Nimitz summed up the Battle of Iwo Jima saying “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Nimitz’s words are inscribed on the Marine Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. The photo of six Marines raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi was the defining image of the Allied victory in World War II, the most often viewed photograph of its time, and its photographer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The heroism and sacrifice of those Marines were never in doubt.

“When dissent was a common virtue” describes the actions of three Marine Generals during the Vietnam War. There was no iconic photo, no Pulitzer Prize for these men, nor for the 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese who were lost in the war.

Operation Golden Fleece, 22 September 1966 (Official U.S. Marine Corps Photograph)

Our failure in the Vietnam War has been studied for 50 years. David Halberstam[1] blamed the hubristic JFK team that mired America in Vietnam. William Westmoreland[2] blamed civilian leadership in Washington, Congress’s failure to resupply South Vietnam, and the terms of the Paris Peace accords. H.R. McMaster[3] blamed Lyndon Johnson; Robert McNamara; and the “five silent men” on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for their weakness, lying, and failure to request the number of troops needed until it was too late. Barbara Tuchman[4] identified the U.S. illusion of omnipotence, wooden headedness (“don’t confuse me with the facts”), and underestimating the enemy’s motivation. Tuchman also cited Emerson[5]: “In analyzing history, do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.” Tuchman believed that power is often abused by ordinary men that are in over their heads.

I add three decisions that contributed to the failure in Vietnam. They were made in 1965 and 1966, several years before the 1968 TET offensive and ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops:

Failure to inform the American public and Congress of the costs of the war, number of troops, war duration, and casualties;

Choosing search and destroy in lieu of the enclave and pacification strategies; and

Implementing DYEMARKER, including the decision to defend Khe Sanh.

The Marine generals dissented against these decisions, but their views did not prevail. The war managers in Washington were over their heads.

This is the story of those dissenting generals.“The risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”[6] I offer profiles of their courage. The heroism and sacrifice of these Marines were never in doubt.


They were two, three, and four star generals. All were “China Marines” in the 4th Marine Regiment, tasked with defense of the Shanghai International Settlement during the Japanese invasion of Nanjing in the 1930s. All were decorated World War II combat veterans. Their awards for heroism include the Navy Cross, two Silver stars, the Bronze Star with Combat V, and two Purple Hearts. All served in important positions during the Vietnam War in the chain of command.

General Wallace Greene served in the Marianas campaign. During a Japanese attack, Greene fought back with just a bayonet and a .45 caliber pistol. General Victor Krulak commanded a Marine battalion in the Solomon Islands. Following a raid, some of Krulak’s wounded Marines were evacuated on a Navy torpedo boat skippered by Lieutenant John Kennedy. Years later, Krulak recalled that event with President Kennedy, sharing a drink of Three Feathers Whiskey with the President in the White House. General Wood Kyle fought with 1st Battalion 2nd Marines at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan. As a 28- year-old battalion commander, he was known to the troops as the “old man.” In Vietnam, he commanded the 3rd Marine Division.

General Wallace Green (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

GENERAL GREENE was Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) from January 1964–December 1967. He served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for all for years, from 1964–1967, the only JCS member to do so. Greene was highly experienced in Washington, a low-key insider and consummate planner. He believed that the Johnson administration underestimated the war’s costs, and spoke out directly to President Johnson and to a congressional Committee. He was ignored, and the American people eventually learned that lesson the hard way.

On 15 July 1965, Secretary McNamara and JCS Chairman General Earl Wheeler were in Saigon reviewing General Westmoreland’s force-level estimates. Greene and other members of the JCS met with the Policy Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) in Chairman Mendel Rivers’ office. The members of Congress were primarily interested in the service chiefs’ views of the estimated number of troops that were required. JCS members’ responses were varied: the Chief of Naval Operations estimated 40,000 for the Navy, the Army Chief replied 250,000, while the Air Force Chief refused to reply. General Greene estimated that 500,000 troops were needed to win the war. Two hours later, Greene was concerned that the message was not clear, and called his old friend John Blandford, HASC chief counsel. Blandford was a Yale Law graduate, had served with the Marines on Guadalcanal, was a major general in the Marine Corps Reserve; as chief counsel, was a close confidant of Rivers. Blandford undoubtedly informed Rivers of the call. Greene reiterated to Blandford that the United States was on the verge of a major war, that 500,000 was a minimum estimate, that the war was likely to last five years and involve a large number of casualties[7].

General Greene repeated his estimates to President Johnson at the White House on 22 July 1965 in a JCS meeting. Halberstam described LBJ’s response:[8]

“President Johnson began interrupting him (General Greene). ‘Speak up! Speak up! I can’t hear what you’re saying. Speak up! Greene waited deliberately, then he looked up at Johnson and said in his carefully controlled voice “You can hear what I’m saying and so can everyone else in this room.” Greene then told the President that winning the war in South Vietnam would take 5 years and 500,000 soldiers and Marines.

In his 28 July 1965 press conference, President Johnson spoke not of required force levels, casualties, or the expected duration of the war. Secretary McNamara also avoided discussing the costs of the war, and told President Johnson that he was “full of confidence” concerning the military leaders’ “handling” of the senators and representatives. In sharp contrast, General Greene glumly observed that the JCS influence “had reached a new low.”[9]

Lieutenant General Victor Krulak (Official U.S. Marine Corps Photograph)

LIEUTENANT GENERAL KRULAK was Commanding General Fleet Marine Force Pacific (CG FMFPAC) from March 1964 to June 1968. Unlike Greene, he was a high profile and controversial military leader. Krulak had extensive experience in counterinsurgency and the realities of Washington and Vietnam—perhaps the best qualified U.S. general in his field in his day. He was described as a “relentless, hard-driving perfectionist … as tolerant of mistakes as a well-oiled mousetrap.[10] Krulak rejected the war of attrition, and advocated a small war approach combined with firepower when it was needed. Like Greene, he failed.

Enclave Strategy.[11] U.S. troops would occupy coastal enclaves, accept full responsibility for enclave security, and be prepared to go to the rescue of the Vietnamese Army as far as 50 miles outside the enclave. Early on, Army Generals Harold Johnson, James Gavin, and Maxwell Taylor argued that the enclave strategy would engage U.S. troops at a relatively low risk. Generals Krulak and Greene believed that the Marines were suited for coastal bases and strongly supported the enclave strategy, also known as “ink blot.” Secretary McNamara thought that ink blot was too slow. The enclave strategy was discussed, but never endorsed by the JCS.

Pacification Strategy.[12] The Marines began their pacification campaign in March 1965. Connected to the ink blot strategy, it relied on Combined Action Platoons (CAP) consisting of 35 Vietnamese, 14 U.S. Marines, and one Navy corpsman. The CAP program aimed at providing security to Vietnamese villages, and grew to 114 platoons and 2,500 Marines. In March 1966, the Army completed their pacification proposal called PROVN. PROVN was not endorsed by the JCS and was never implemented. On 28 May 1967, a pacification program Civil Operations and Rural Support (CORDS) was approved, too late to impact the TET offensive seven months later.

Search and Destroy Strategy. General Westmoreland proposed the search and destroy strategy to seize the initiative from the enemy. The aim was to provide consistent pressure on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, and provide a free hand to maneuver U.S. forces in South Vietnam. Also known as the attrition strategy, it was approved by the President during 1965. In a survey after the war, 58 percent of Army generals that commanded in Vietnam said that the search and destroy concept was not sound either when first implemented or later in the war.[13]

In 1966, the Marine Corps were responsible for three enclaves in I Corps: Da Nang (530 sq. mi), Chu Lai (205 sq. mi), and Phu Bai (76 sq mi). The Marine enclaves excluded the city of Hue, headquarters of the 1st Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Division, located 8 miles from the Phu Bai enclave. Choosing the enclave strategy would likely have included Hue inside the secure Marine perimeter. The 30-day fight to liberate Hue, the destruction of the ancient imperial and cultural capital of Vietnam, and loss of thousands of Vietnamese and hundreds of Marines might have been avoided.

In the final week of December 1965, Krulak wrote a 17 page paper titled “A Strategic Appraisal Vietnam”[14]—a rationale for the enclave and pacification approach. He addressed Vietnam’s geography, population, politics, religion, and economics, and analyzed the consequences of attrition. Using the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s 2.5 million military manpower pool and the Pentagon’s 2.8 kill ratio, Krulak demonstrated that attrition could not win the war.

In the next six months, Krulak discussed his paper with Admiral Sharp, Generals Greene and Westmoreland, Secretary McNamara, Ambassador Harriman, and finally with President Johnson in the Oval Office on 1 August 1966.[15] The President began: “Well General, how are things out there in Viet Nam?” Forty minutes later, the meeting ended abruptly, when the President stood up, put his hand on Krulak’s shoulder and propelled him to the door—without saying a word. After the meeting, Krulak went to the Pentagon and told Secretary McNamara that he would be fired the following day. Krulak was passed over for promotion, and President Johnson ended his career in 1968.

MajGen Wood Kyle (Official U.S. Marine Corps Photograph)

Major General Wood Kyle (Official U.S. Marine Corps Photograph)

MAJOR GENERAL KYLE was Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Division (CG 3rd MARDIV) from March 1966 to March 1967. His negative views on Dyemarker were shared by many Marine generals.[16] Kyle prepared a counterproposal in December 1966, and presented his recommendations to General Greene and Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Baldwin in the first two weeks of 1967. His recommendations were ignored.

Creation of a barrier to block enemy infiltration to South Vietnam had been proposed many times. In January 1966, a barrier proposal to Secretary McNamara was conceived as a potential method to end the war. An April 1966 JCS study turned down the idea as impractical. In the summer of 1966, a group of scientists working with the JASON division of the Pentagon’s Institute for Defense Analyses met at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to study the problem. They concluded that the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign had failed and recommended a barrier to check infiltration from the north. In September 1966, without waiting for JCS approval, McNamara approved the barrier plan. Barrier ownership was split between 1) a strong point obstacle and defile system (Dyemarker) consisting of four strong points along the DMZ including Con Thien, four forward bases, and five combat bases including Khe Sanh (III MAF-Marines) and 2) an air-supported system (Muscle Shoals) in Central Laos (7th Air Force). President Johnson gave the barrier “the highest national priority.”[17] The initial budget estimate was $1 billion.

General Walt, Commanding General of III Marine Amphibious Force (CG III MAF), ordered General Kyle (CG 3rd MARDIV) to prepare the Marine version of the plan. [18] He told Kyle that the plan should state that III MAF disagreed with the barrier concept. Kyle shared Walt’s reservations, and declared that it was obvious that whether there was a defensive barrier or not, at least two divisions would be needed to halt enemy infiltration. A two-division mobile defense force could accomplish the same mission as a barrier without tying down more forces to fixed positions. Khe Sanh was a particular concern: occupying and defending Khe Sanh as a barrier base had already been opposed by the Marines: “When you are at Khe Sanh, you are not really anywhere. You could lose it, and you haven’t lost a damned thing.”[19] Kyle warned against locating any base west of the Rockpile north of Rte 9—the location of Khe Sanh.[20]

Approximately 80 percent of the Dyemarker construction was completed by the end of 1967. Casualties were heavy for the Marines performing the construction and defending the bases. By Oct 1968, the Dyemarker concept was declared no longer suitable and General Abrams, COMUSMACV cancelled Dyemarker. “TET came along and people had something else to think about” said General Cushman, CG III MAF. In 1969, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird admitted that the barrier goals were not met.[21] The New York Times called the barrier “worthless.”[22] The Khe Sanh Combat base was abandoned two months after the siege ended in April 1968. Vandergrift Combat Base at Ca Lu replaced Khe Sanh as the western terminus of the barrier.


General H. R. McMaster ended his book as follows:“The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost of the front pages of the New York Times, or on the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C. … The failures were many … above all, the abdication of responsibility of the American people.”[23] The annual Gallup poll is one indicator of the will of the American people[24]. Gallup’s question: “Do you think the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?

Jan 1967: 32% answered “Yes, a mistake.”

Feb 1968: 46% answered “Yes, a mistake”

Jan 1969: 52% answered “Yes, a mistake”

President Johnson and Secretary McNamara were not honest with the American people. The fight to defend Hue city may have been mitigated by the enclave approach. Pacification was delayed by two years —too late to influence the TET offensive. Most Army commanders in Vietnam admitted that search and destroy was not a sound approach. Many lives were lost unnecessarily along the DMZ, in Hue city and at Khe Sanh. The enclave, pacification and attrition decisions were terrible mistakes. Dyemarker was a flop. The Marines were right to dissent.

President Johnson’s lack of candor and Secretary McNamara’s poor warfighting choices were bad, but may not have changed the outcome of Vietnam War. The American people believed that the war was a mistake, and wanted it to end. The poor warfighting decisions may not have changed the outcome of the war, but many lives could have been saved.


During World War II, most American generals avoided public discourse. Generals Omar Bradley and George Marshall did not even vote in elections. Most of their military colleagues shunned open discussion and dissent. In 1957, Samuel Huntington wrote The Soldier and the State, proclaiming that loyalty and obedience are the highest military virtues. Public dissent by active duty and retired officers was deemed acceptable, albeit exceptionally rare. Today, the situation has changed dramatically for both the military and private enterprise. Dissent is encouraged by the Department of Defense, McKinsey, and the Boston Consulting Group. The War Colleges now teach the importance of dissent among senior officers. McKinsey lists dissent as a key value of the company.[25] In the words of Robert McNamara:

 “From the Oval Office to the boardrooms of Detroit and everywhere in between, fundamental but highly controversial issues often are not surfaced. The reason is that such issues are deemed too threatening to organizational harmony or to individuals’ career advancement. As a result, the validity of a principal U.S. rationale for the Vietnam War, the “domino theory” was never debated at the highest levels.”[26]

[1] David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York, NY; Random House, 1972).

[2] William Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (New York, NY; Doubleday, 1976).

[3] H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty (New York , NY; HarperCollins, 1997).

[4] Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly (New York, NY; Random House, 1984).

[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, MA; Journals ,1820) 23.

[6] John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York, NY; Black Dog & Leventhal, 1955) 17.

[7] H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty (New York, NY: HarperCollins,1997), 310.

[8] David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York, NY: Random House,1969), 437.

[9] Nicholas Schlosser, The Greene Papers (Quantico, VA; USMC history Division, 2015).

[10] Robert Coram, Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, US Marine, (New York, NY: Little Brown, 1976).

[11] The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition Vol 3 Chapter 4 (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1971) 389.

[12] U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968, 3.

[13] Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers (Wayne, New Jersey: Avery Publishing Group, 1985) 170.

[14] Victor Krulak, Strategic Appraisal Vietnam (Quantico, VA, USMC History Division, 1965).

[15] Kinnard, The War Managers; Krulak, Strategic Appraisal, 312.

[16] Jack Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: An Expanding War 1966 (History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1982).

[17] OSD Series Vol 6 the barrier, NSAM 358.

[18] Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam.

[19] Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam; General Lowell English, ADC 3rd MarDiv, 196.

[20] 3rd Marine Division Command Chronology, Dec 1966. Memo for the record Practice Nine Barrier Defense Concept 7 Jan 1967.

[21] OSD Series Vol 6 fn 2:509.

[22] Tim Weiner, “Robert McNamara, Architect of a Futile War, Dies at 93,” The New York Times, 6 July 2009.

[23] McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 334.


[25] “Mission and Values,” McKinsey & Company,

[26] Gary Emmons, “Encouraging Dissent in Decision-Making,” HBS Bulletin,”

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