John McNaughton (government official)

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John Theodore McNaughton (November 21, 1921 – July 19, 1967) born in Pekin, Illinois was United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs[1] and Robert S. McNamara's closest advisor.[citation needed] He died in a plane crash at age 45, less than two weeks before he would have become Secretary of the Navy.[1]


Ivory tower to the Pentagon[edit]

Tall, taut, fast-talking[2] John McNaughton had graduated in 1948 from DePauw University.[3] He began his career as an academic, with some confidence in his intellectual powers. Maj. Gen. Charles J. Timmes reports that when he visited McNaughton and his wife in 1964, as his wife was attempting to describe the complexity of the political and social situation in Vietnam, McNaughton had replied that one could find the solution to any problem "by simply dissecting it into all its elements and then piecing together the resultant formula".

He had been friends with strategic theorist, and now Nobel prize winner in economics, Thomas Schelling since they administered the Marshall Plan in Paris. In 1964, Schelling received a call to come and work at the Department of Defense as both were teaching at Harvard. He sent McNaughton, promising to advise him on weapons and strategy and McNaughton was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

Escalation in Vietnam[edit]

Together, they outlined a bombing strategy to intimidate North Vietnam in the spring of 1964, leading to the first phase of Operation Rolling Thunder (March 2, 1965 - October 31, 1968[4]) which took place between March 2 and 24, 1965.

The conditions for a bombing halt, outlined in a confidential memorandum by John McNaughton to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were that

North Vietnam must not only cease infiltration efforts, but also take steps to withdraw troops currently operating in South Vietnam. In addition, the Viet Cong should agree to terminate terror and sabotage activities and allow Saigon to exercise "governmental functions over substantially all of South Vietnam."[5]

The North Vietnamese did not regard the operation as expressing a real will to win and it did not achieve its objectives. Political reality had proved more complex than the abstract models of game theory. Militarily, the bombing operation couldn't prevent North Vietnam from continuing its war against the South because until March 1972, that was a guerrilla war which was not vulnerable to air attack and required few external supplies, thus negating efforts at air interdiction. Once again demonstrating that leaving target selections to politicians rather than field commanders gives poor results.[4]

In 1966 John McNaughton and his deputy Adam Yarmolinsky had to admit, in a JASON study, that the air strikes had failed.[6]

Toward Vietnamization?[edit]

A pragmatist, John McNaughton understood that only one aspect of the war effort was not a double-edged sword & could make the difference in the long term: the effort to turn South Vietnam into a viable political society, able to withstand the North's assault with U. S. help. In March 1965, McNaughton told President Johnson that while such efforts might not

"pay off quickly enough to affect the present ominous deterioration, some may, and we are dealing here in small critical margins. Furthermore, such investment [was] essential to provide a foundation for the longer run."

McNaughton was referencing the nation-building strategy devised by the Major-General Edward Lansdale, who had become a counterinsurgency expert after defeating the Huk rebellion in the Philippines in the 1950s,[7] Sir Robert Thompson — a British counter-insurgency expert and Roger Hilsman — a former American guerilla in Burma and the director of intelligence for the Department of State in the Kennedy administration. Edward Lansdale had made the point that the South's dependency had the effect to

"place the U. S. in a position of continuing major help [there] for endless years, on the basis that if our aid were lessened then the enemy would win."[8]

Personal life[edit]

He was married to Sarah Elizabeth “Sally” Fulkman (born February 14, 1921). They had two sons, Alexander “Alex” and Theodore “Ted” (born July 23, 1955).


Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, confided privately that McNaughton could have been his choice to replace him as Secretary of Defense.[3] McNaughton resigned from this post of Assistant Secretary of Defense and was to become Secretary of Navy on August 1, 1967 after being confirmed by the United States Senate. But he died in the crash of Piedmont Airlines Flight 22 with his wife and younger son on July 19, 1967.


The major bridge in Pekin, Illinois, carrying Illinois Route 9 across the Illinois River, is named after him.

John T. McNaughton Park is a public park just northeast of Pekin off Illinois Route 98.


External links[edit]