Our air power did not fail us; it was the decision makers. And if I am unsurprisingly critical of those decision makers, I offer no apology. My conscience and professional record both stand clear.
--Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, "Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect," 1978
Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command during America's forceful entry into the Vietnam War and who in retirement became a major critic of how the war was waged--and lost--has died. He was 95.
Sharp, who retired July 31, 1968, and launched his onslaught of criticism while the war was still going on, died in his sleep Wednesday at his Point Loma home in San Diego. He had been disabled and in failing health since a fall in October.
The four-star admiral commanded about 1 million military personnel and 450 Navy ships over almost a hemisphere, from the West Coast to the Far East.
He assumed the Honolulu-based command on June 30, 1964, and was on duty the following August when incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to order the bombing of North Vietnam. Coupled with a congressional resolution, the action formally Americanized the war in Southeast Asia.
Although he spoke out long before, Sharp's conversations with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in those treacherous days were not declassified until 1982. Sharp specifically urged the secretary of defense to wait for proof of purported North Vietnamese attacks on an American destroyer in Tonkin and advised delaying the president's public televised announcement of bombing plans.
Sharp remained forever bitter about McNamara's refusal to prevent Johnson--embroiled in a tough election campaign against Barry Goldwater--from announcing the bombing to the American public virtually before his planes arrived over their targets.
"That's a very bad thing to do," Sharp told The Times in 1985 for an article reviewing how the U.S. involvement escalated. "Just doing things like that for political reasons, without considering the lives of our pilots and the lives of our soldiers, you know. The wrong thing to do . . . just as dumb as hell. . . . [It] alerted the North Vietnamese that an attack was going to take place. So naturally, when they're alerted, they're better able to strike at you, and the pilots lose as a result of that. A surprise is extremely important in military operations."
Gives McNamara a Public Tongue-Lashing
Sharp first publicly tongue-lashed McNamara for ignoring his advice and that of his military colleagues in a Reader's Digest article in May 1969 titled "We Could Have Won in Vietnam Long Ago."
Noting that the war could have ended in American victory "perhaps by the end of 1967," Sharp wrote: "All that we had to do to win was to use our existing air power--properly."
In that article, he blasted McNamara for "arbitrarily and consistently discard[ing] the advice of his military advisors" in his handling of the air war. "His insistence that we pursue the campaign on a gradualistic basis," Sharp wrote, "gave the enemy plenty of time to cope with our every move. He was, I submit, dead wrong."
Sharp was particularly angered at orders to avoid a major bombing of Hanoi and the port of Haiphong, noting in the article: "To concentrate on infiltration and to refrain from hitting primary targets--as we were required to do--emasculated our war effort."
The admiral added that he requested permission to bomb additional military targets about once every two weeks and understood "that the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported my position 100%" but that McNamara and other political leaders denied Sharp's requests.
After the war ended with the U.S. pullout and communist takeover of South Vietnam, Sharp extended his comments into the analytical book about the Vietnam War that he published in 1978. Clearly convinced the war could have--and should have--been won with aerial bombing, Sharp hoped his book would help in future military planning.
"Looking to the future, the taxpayer today sees much of his tax dollar going to support military air power, and he may well ask, 'Why should we spend more money on air power? It didn't get the job done in Vietnam,' " he wrote in the book's preface. "My purpose is primarily to tell those who will listen how air power could have done the job if only it had been used properly, and also to justify, thereby, its future utility."
Ulysses Simpson Grant Sharp Jr. was born April 2, 1906, in Chinook, Mont., the son of a man named for his aunt's husband, Civil War Gen. and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The youth was nicknamed "Oley" for his Swedish good looks. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1927, he went to sea as an ensign aboard destroyers and cruisers and soon was commanding them.
Naval Career Spent Mostly in Pacific
After participating in the Allied landings at Casablanca in 1943, Sharp was transferred to the Pacific, where he spent most of his naval career. During World War II, he earned two Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars and other decorations. By war's end, he commanded the destroyer force of the entire Pacific Fleet.
Sharp spent a few years commanding the sonar school in San Diego, attended Naval War College in Rhode Island, and during the Korean War commanded a squad of destroyers and was fleet planning officer for the Inchon invasion.
His first major command came in 1960, when he was named deputy chief of naval operations for policy and planning at the Pentagon. He was made an admiral in 1963 and commander of the Pacific Fleet, and elevated to commander of the Pacific Command the following year.
After retiring to San Diego, Sharp wrote and lectured on military issues, served on the board of directors of San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and was an honorary director of the Holiday Bowl.
He is survived by his wife, Nina Blake Sharp, whom he married in 1987; two children from his first marriage of 56 years to the late Patricia Sharp, Patricia Ann Milham of Woodland Hills and Rear Adm. Grant Alexander Sharp of Alexandria, Va.; a sister, Dr. Margaret Angus of Kingston, Ontario; two stepsons, Ken Blake of Mars Hill, N.C., and Ron Blake of San Jose, Calif.; four grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren.