At just about the halfway point of Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’s monumental documentary on the Vietnam War, an army advisor tells an anecdote that seems to sum up the relationship between the military and computers during the mid-1960s.
“There’s the old apocryphal story that in 1967, they went to the basement of the Pentagon, when the mainframe computers took up the whole basement, and they put on the old punch cards everything you could quantify. Numbers of ships, numbers of tanks, numbers of helicopters, artillery, machine gun, ammo—everything you could quantify,” says James Willbanks, the chair of military history at U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. “They put it in the hopper and said, ‘When will we win in Vietnam?’ They went away on Friday and the thing ground away all weekend. [They] came back on Monday and there was one card in the output tray. And it said, 'You won in 1965.’”
This is, first and foremost, a joke. But given the emphasis that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara placed on data and running the number—I began to wonder if there was actually some software that tried to calculate precisely when the United States would win the war. And if it was possible that it once gave such an answer.
The most prominent citation for the apocryphal story comes in Harry G. Summers’ study of the war, American Strategy in Vietnam: A Critical Analysis. In this telling, however, it is not the Johnson administration doing the calculation but the incoming Nixon officials:
When the Nixon Administration took over in 1969 all the data on North Vietnam and on the United States was fed into a Pentagon computer—population, gross national product, manufacturing capability, number of tanks, ships, and aircraft, size of the armed forces, and the like. The computer was then asked, “When will we win?” It took only a moment to give the answer: “You won in 1964!”
He said “the bitter little story” circulated “during the closing days of the Vietnam War.” It made the point that there “was more to war, even limited war, than those things that could be measured, quantified, and computerized.”