Bad Attitudes, a magazine of culture, politics, art, literature, 
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an excerpt from
Shoot the Moon


Roger Warner
(Steerforth Press, 1996)

Averell Harriman’s former deputy at Geneva, Bill Sullivan, was also in Washington, helping plan the State Department’s position on Vietnam. Since the United States had abstained from major fighting in Laos to be able to fight on better terms in South Vietnam, it made sense to study how a war in South Vietnam might play out, and Sullivan was assigned to help with the staff work.

The Pentagon commissioned the Rand Corporation, a think tank based in Santa Monica, California, to come up with a war game. This simulation of a ten-year Vietnam conflict, code-named Omega, was to be played out in Washington over a week’s time, with government leaders taking the roles of both friendly and enemy commanders. There were two opposing teams. The Blue Team represented the Americans, the South Vietnamese, and their allies. The Red Team represented the North Vietnamese and their Soviet and Red Chinese backers.

Bill Sullivan was appointed leader of the Red Team’s junior-level “action” group, which played the war game all day long. His senior group leader, who set policy and played on occasional breaks from his regular job, was Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the White House military adviser. Taylor cast himself as Ho Chi Minh and Sullivan as General Giap, the tough military commander of North Vietnam’s troops. Taylor/Ho instructed Sullivan/Giap to “accept heavy casualties, exploit propaganda opportunities, and be brazen about disregard for the truth.”

The significance of the war game was that it was played before the U.S. started fighting the war in Vietnam. By the week’s end, when a decade of simulated war reached its conclusion in a make-believe 1972, the red forces were everywhere on the map of Indochina. They had overrun most of Laos, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. They had taken heavy casualties, but their command structure was intact. Most strikingly, the Red Team’s Bill Sullivan recalled later, “We had bogged down 500,000 American troops in the quagmire of Indochina and had involved a large portion of the U.S. Navy and Air Force. We had caused great expenditure of the United States budget on this feckless enterprise and had provoked great agitation and unrest in the American population, especially on university campuses. Moreover, we had all but isolated the United States in the United Nations and in world opinion. We had driven the U.S. Congress to the brink of revolt over the seemingly endless war.”

Some of the Omega players, including John McCone, a conservative Californian who was then CIA director, reluctantly accepted the game’s results. McCone had been policy leader of the Blue Team. His crushing defeat at the hands of the Red Team turned him into something of a closet dove on Vietnam.

Others, however, especially the air force chief of staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, were convinced that the assumptions upon which Omega was based were flawed. In the spring of 1963 a review of the game results was held in the giant underground bunker of the National Military Command Center, the room that inspired memorable scenes in the satirical film Dr. Strangelove. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, various presidential advisers, and junior staffers like Sullivan were there. General LeMay declared that the Rand Corporation had underestimated the air force’s ability to bomb the North Vietnamese into submission. The air force demanded a replay with amended rules.

Another war game, Omega II, was held with the air force included. This time Sullivan was a member of the red policy team, playing the role of a Chinese representative. The results were about the same: The U.S. lost the Vietnam war decisively.

In the years ahead, people who knew about the war games wondered how very bright men like Rusk, McNamara, Taylor, and Sullivan could ignore the evidence of the Omega games. The answer was hard to piece together but Sullivan himself believed that larger geopolitical considerations were the key.

The reasons Kennedy and Rusk decided that the U.S. government should make a stand in South Vietnam, said Sullivan, did not solely pertain to South Vietnam itself. “There was an appearance to us of a sort of coordinated effort going on,” he recalled, between the Soviet Union and mainland China, the two great communist powers. The Chinese were supporting a communist movement in the island nation of Indonesia. The Soviets were providing logistics support to the North Vietnamese. “And had there been a success with both these endeavors,” continued Sullivan, “you would have had a pincer movement that would have cut off all the Japanese sea-lanes to the Middle East and everywhere else. Japan would inevitably have had to accommodate itself to the communists. So the strategic importance of sea-lanes to Japan, and the prospects of a success by the Chinese in Indonesia, and as we looked at it the Soviets in Indochina, together were the compelling things that drove Rusk and Kennedy to think of taking a stand in Vietnam.

“Now, an awful lot of people later got into the act on Vietnam,” added Sullivan wistfully, “who had no comprehension of what the original strategy was all about.”

(Editor’s note: Nixon’s papers reveal that this Rube Goldberg extension of the already shaky domino theory had been shared by the Eisenhower administration, too. White House officials of both parties agreed that it was vital to oppose Ho Chi Minh by any means short of atomic war if Japan was to survive as our noncommunist ally. We no longer need to wonder whether this geopolitical assessment was correct or murderously stupid. History has provided the definitive answer. Millions of lives were lost, Ho Chi Minh won as Sullivan's team predicted, and Japan did not become communist -- Jerome Doolittle)

September, 2002


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle