Taylor, Maxwell Davenport

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TAYLOR, Maxwell Davenport

(b. 26 August 1901 in Keytesville, Missouri; d. 19 April 1987 in Washington, D.C.), U.S. Army officer, presidential adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, who helped shape U.S. foreign and military policy during the Vietnam War.

Taylor was the only child of John E. M. Taylor, an attorney, and Pearle Davenport, a homemaker. He attended public schools in Kansas City, Missouri, where, through accelerated studies, he graduated from Northeast High School at age fifteen. Taylor spent summers on the farm of his maternal grandparents, Milton and Mary Eliza Davenport, where his grandfather regaled him with stories of his service in the Confederate cavalry during the Civil War. As his interest in the military grew, Taylor falsified his age by one year in order to register for the draft in 1918. When World War I ended before he was drafted, Taylor secured an invitation to take the entrance exams for both the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy. He failed the geography portion of the naval exam but passed the army exam and enrolled at West Point in the fall of 1918. Taylor later joked, if the Strait of Malacca had been in the Mediterranean, he might have ended up an admiral instead of a general. As he did with his high school studies, Taylor distinguished himself as an excellent student at the military academy, particularly in the field of foreign languages, and he graduated in 1922, fourth in a class of 102 cadets. On 26 January 1925 he married Lydia "Diddy" Gardner Happer, whom he had met at a Saturday evening dance in 1920. They had two sons.

From 1922 until 1941 Taylor continued his military training at the Army Engineers School at Camp Humphreys, Virginia; the Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; a Japanese-language training program at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, Japan; and eventually the Army War College in Washington, D.C. He also briefly served as a military attaché in Peking, China, and returned to West Point for five years (1927–1932) to teach French and Spanish.

When World War II erupted, Taylor helped organize the army's first airborne division, the 82nd, at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. Commissioned a brigadier general, he traveled overseas in 1943 to participate in the Allied forces landings at Sicily and Italy. While in charge of the 101st Airborne Division in 1944, Taylor became the first major general to land at Normandy on D-Day. Although wounded in Holland later that year, he subsequently led his "Screaming Eagle" paratroopers in the defense of the Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Upon returning to the United States in 1945, Taylor became the thirty-seventh superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he revised the curriculum to include more courses in the humanities. In 1949 he relinquished the post to become the U.S. military governor in Berlin for two years, followed by two years of service as deputy chief of staff for operations and administration of the army. In 1953 he took charge of the Eighth Army in South Korea and led them in the last major battle of the Korean War, as well as assisting in the postwar reconstruction effort.

For Taylor, the 1960s began five years early, as the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam began to escalate following the French defeat in the region in 1954. He served as U.S. Army chief of staff from 1955 to 1959, during which time he became a vocal critic of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "New Look" defense strategy, which stressed the development of an overwhelming nuclear arsenal, as opposed to conventional forces, as the centerpiece of U.S. military might. Although loyalty to his branch of service no doubt colored his opinions, Taylor harbored serious concerns that reliance on nuclear weapons would leave the United States without a conventional option to fight in smaller, regional conflicts that might pose a significant threat to the nation's security, such as the one unfolding in Vietnam. He also emphasized that the Soviet Union's recent development of atomic capabilities diminished the advantage once held by the United States and required a renewed emphasis on developing a stronger conventional armed force. Specifically, Taylor proposed maintaining a well-manned conventional force equipped and trained in the use of tactical nuclear weapons. He explained his view on national security in his book The Uncertain Trumpet (1960). "Flexible Response," he wrote, enabled the U.S. military to handle a variety of threats, from counterinsurgency brush wars to Communist national liberation fronts, as well as nuclear conflicts. Angered by Eisenhower's refusal to consider his proposals fully, Taylor retired from the army when his term as chief of staff ended in 1959.

Following a short-lived stint as president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City from 1960 to 1961, Taylor reemerged on the military and political scene as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Kennedy, who had read Taylor's book and incorporated several of his military proposals concerning regional conflicts and conventional forces into his presidential campaign, saw in the retired general a perfect addition to the "best and the brightest" who surrounded him in the White House, a military intellectual who was as adept in the classroom or with a pen as he was on the battlefield or leaping from a plane. Still suffering from the sting of an embarrassing defeat in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy asked Taylor in April 1961 to head an investigation of the failed effort to unseat Fidel Castro from power in Cuba. After issuing his final report, in which he recommended that the Central Intelligence Agency avoid such major operations in the future, Taylor formally became the special military adviser to the president. Mindful of Eisenhower's previous efforts to brush aside his views, Taylor at first requested the title of "the military adviser to the president." However he settled for the title of "special adviser" and set about his duties.

For his first official task as Kennedy's military adviser, Taylor led a fact-finding mission to South Vietnam. In October 1961 he traveled to Saigon with Deputy National Security Adviser Walt V. Rostow and counterinsurgency expert Col. Edward G. Lansdale to evaluate the threat that Ho Chi Minh's Communist forces posed to the stability of the South Vietnamese government, as well as to offer recommendations for U.S. foreign policy in the embattled region. Taylor subsequently reported that he found the morale among the South Vietnamese army to be very low, President Ngo Dinh Diem's political effectiveness questionable, and the state of military intelligence highly unreliable. Increased U.S. involvement was necessary, he concluded, in order to allow South Vietnam "room to breathe." In short, Taylor described the entire Southeast Asian perimeter as facing a turning point, at which it could easily fall to Communist influences or, with U.S. intervention, weather the storm and deliver a stern warning to the Soviet Union and China in the process. A "limited partnership" was necessary, he stressed, in which the United States would assume a measure of responsibility for the survival of the South Vietnamese government. Specifically, Taylor recommended that Kennedy increase economic and military aid to the Diem regime, send additional support troops and military advisers to the region, and detach a "logistical task force" of 8,000 soldiers. Ostensibly, this force would help with flood relief in South Vietnam, but the more important reason for their presence was to improve morale among the embattled army of the Republic of Vietnam, as well as to serve in combat missions should such a step become necessary. Kennedy approved all the recommendations except for the detachment of a task force, and on 22 November 1961 he initiated the "First Phase of Vietnam Program," which marked a significant escalation in the U.S. commitment to the region, a commitment based largely on Taylor's views.

On 1 October 1962 Kennedy appointed Taylor chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking uniformed military post in the country. During his first month in that capacity, he closely advised Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although not adopted, his initial recommendation was that the president should order the air bombing of the missile sites before they were fully operational, as well as enact a naval blockade to prohibit the shipment of any further offensive weapons to the region. In 1963 Taylor's influence as chairman was more keenly felt when he helped garner crucial military support for passage of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, on a promise from the president that he would continue underground testing and, should the Soviet Union abrogate the treaty, immediately resume atmospheric testing.

During a second fact-finding mission to South Vietnam in September 1963, undertaken with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Taylor concluded that a victory over the Communist insurgents could be complete by the end of 1965, provided the political situation did not deteriorate further. Specifically, Taylor recommended that Kennedy stay the course with Diem and, while simultaneously urging Diem to end his repressive tactics, assure him of U.S. commitment to his struggle to eliminate the Communist threat in South Vietnam. Neither recommendation bore fruit. Diem remained reluctant to bend to the will of the United States and eventually fell victim to a military coup that resulted in his death in November. Three weeks later Kennedy was assassinated, and Taylor found himself serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Two subsequent visits to South Vietnam in March and May 1964 convinced Taylor of the growing difficulties the United States faced there. After each visit, he recommended that Johnson increase the U.S. military commitment to the region short of sending combat troops, and suggested initiating a limited bombing campaign over North Vietnam. By July 1964 Johnson decided to station Taylor in Saigon as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam for one year, in an effort to better coordinate U.S. diplomatic and military efforts in the region, as well as to oversee the work of the 16,000 U.S. military "advisers" stationed there.

During his year of service as ambassador, Taylor continued to support a counterinsurgency campaign to defeat the Communist Vietcong and to win the hearts and minds of the villagers. He also renewed his recommendation to conduct a systematic bombing campaign of Hanoi and other strategic sites in the North. He never believed the United States would become entangled in a major ground war because Hanoi presented such an ideal and vulnerable bombing target. Johnson eventually adopted Taylor's proposals, and in February 1965 the president initiated Operation Flaming Dart to bomb select installations around Hanoi, and a few weeks later Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained, long-term bombing campaign that lasted for the next three years. Despite his reluctance to send combat forces to Vietnam, by July 1965 Taylor reluctantly realized the necessity of such a move, and in his last act as ambassador supported General William C. Westmoreland's request for 100,000 ground troops.

When he concluded his mission in Saigon, Taylor was anxious to return to the United States and continue to work as a military consultant to the president. In his letter of resignation to Johnson, he professed "the essential rightness" of U.S. policy in Vietnam and his faith in "the ultimate success" of the strategy employed. From July 1965, until the end of Johnson's presidency in January 1969, Taylor remained unwavering in his support of the president's decisions and U.S. conduct of the war. During that time he delivered over 125 public addresses in support of the war effort, including a rancorous appearance before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1966. Even in the wake of the disastrous Tet offensive in 1968, which shattered most of the lingering public support for U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Taylor encouraged Johnson to maintain troop levels and continue the fight in order to force North Vietnam to the negotiations table.

In June 1966 Taylor assumed the presidency of the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a military research organization affiliated with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his three-year tenure with the IDA, Taylor supervised numerous projects and wrote his second book, Responsibility and Response (1967), which included several essays on national security. Although he did not serve as a military consultant for the new president Richard M. Nixon, he continued as a member of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in 1969 before retiring. Three years later he published his autobiography, Swords and Plowshares (1972), to mixed reviews, and he continued to speak publicly on issues of foreign policy, as well as remaining active on the boards of several organizations. In his final book, Precarious Security (1976), Taylor presented a series of essays in which he dismissed the threat of Soviet expansion, chastised Congress for its interference in foreign affairs, and identified unchecked overpopulation as the next big threat facing global security.

Taylor died at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gerhig's disease. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Taylor's papers are at the National Defense UniversityLibrary, Fort McNair, in Washington, D.C., although several diplomatic and military memoranda remain classified. Taylor's autobiography, Swords and Plowshares (1972), provides a detailed account of his life through the Vietnam War. Subsequent biographies by Taylor's son John M. Taylor, General Maxwell Taylor: The Sword and the Pen (1989); and former army general Douglas Kinnard, The Certain Trumpet: Maxwell Taylor and the American Experience in Vietnam (1991), continue the story to his death. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 21 Apr. 1987).

Todd J. Pfannestiel

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