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Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam Later Printing Edition

169 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060929084
ISBN-10: 0060929081
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Editorial Reviews Review

For years the popular myth surrounding the Vietnam War was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff knew what it would take to win but were consistently thwarted or ignored by the politicians in power. Now H. R. McMaster shatters this and other misconceptions about the military and Vietnam in Dereliction of Duty. Himself a West Point graduate, McMaster painstakingly waded through every memo and report concerning Vietnam from every meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to build a comprehensive picture of a house divided against itself: a president and his coterie of advisors obsessed with keeping Vietnam from becoming a political issue versus the Joint Chiefs themselves, mired in interservice rivalries and unable to reach any unified goals or conclusions about the country's conduct in the war.

McMaster stresses two elements in his discussion of America's failure in Vietnam: the hubris of Johnson and his advisors and the weakness of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dereliction of Duty provides both a thorough exploration of the military's role in determining Vietnam policy and a telling portrait of the men most responsible. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The "error not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities" to which Robert McNamara admitted in In Retrospect (1995) leaves out his deceptions that helped plunge America into the Vietnam War. McNamara may not have remembered them in his memoir, but army officer McMaster found them in the Joint Chiefs of Staff's archives for the crucial decision-making years of 1964 and 1965. Distilled to its essence, McMaster's thesis proposes that the plans and advice on Vietnam prepared by the nation's military advisers were systematically sidetracked by McNamara. Two facts exemplify the whole dense forest of facts McMaster explores: the prediction of the Joint Chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps that "victory" would require five years and 500,000 troops only reached LBJ's ears once (he didn't listen, obviously), and the Pentagon war games of McNamara's theory of "graduated pressure" eerily ended in stalemate. McNamara suppressed all such warning signs, theorizes McMaster, because he was responding to LBJ's anxiety to keep Vietnam's "noise level" down until the 1964 election was over and the Great Society safely enacted. As damning of the civilian leaders as he is, McMaster doesn't blithely exonerate the brass. They didn't heed their own warnings and acquiesced in McNamara's incrementalist policy, in the hope of eventually getting the huge force they diffidently advised would be needed to win. Writing about an ocean of memos, meetings, and reports as he does, McMasters delivers a narrative more diligent than dramatic, but his take on pinpointing the architect(s) of the Vietnam fiasco should prove, nonetheless, of high interest. Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Later Printing edition (May 8, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060929081
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060929084
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (169 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #67,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

172 of 174 people found the following review helpful By S. J. Buck on May 17, 2004
Format: Paperback
Of all the books I've read on the Vietnam conflict, McMaster's offers the clearest insight on the political and military policy decisions which sucked America into an unwinnable war. McMaster analyses the decisions and perspectives of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations through to 1966, by which time American troops were fully engaged in Vietnam.
This book should really be read in conjunction with Robert MacNamara's 'In Retrospect', which I thought was a fairly honest account of MacNamara trying to come to terms with the consequences of his (and LBJ's) mismanagement of American policy on Vietnam, which, to his credit, he later recognised as wrong.
McMaster is justifiably harder on both the folly and outright deception of the Johnson administration's actions than MacNamara's version of events and his insights are profound, cool and lucid.
MacNamara's 'Whiz Kids' (Halberstam's 'The Best and the Brightest'), the technocrats from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, emerge from this account as arrogant, ignorant and shallow policy wonks who thought they knew war better than the military and thus kept the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) out of all major policy decisions on the war. They believed that any situation could be resolved through analysis, statistics and 'war as communication'. Tragically, the hubris of these nerds got 58,000 soldiers killed in a war they all clearly knew couldn't be won.
Johnson's determination to both commit to a limited war without the approval of Congress and hide his actions from the American people was breathtakingly cynical, even by US political standards.
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101 of 105 people found the following review helpful By Steven S. Berizzi on July 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
This carefully-researched, highly-detailed study of military policymaking during the formative period of the Vietnam War focuses on events between November 1963 through July 1965, when the Johnson administration made a series of disastrous decisions leading to the commitment of American ground troops, which resulted in over 50,000 deaths during the next decade. H.R. McMaster, a career Army officer with a Ph.D. in history who served on the faculty at the U.S. Military Academy, asserts that President Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff disagreed about policy and then lied to the American people about that policy. Using "[r]ecently declassified documents, newly opened manuscript collections, and the release of the official history of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] during the Vietnam War," McMaster's disturbing narrative of dishonesty and intrigue casts the highest civilian and military officials of the government in a very unfavorable light. McMaster seeks to understand and explain "decisions that involved the United States in a war that it could not win at a politically acceptable level of commitment." It is an a ugly picture.
According to McMaster: "Under the National Security Act the Joint Chiefs of Staff were `principal military advisers to the president, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense.'" However, McMaster writes, McNamara never had a good relationship with the Chiefs because they "were unable to respond to McNamara's demands fast enough, and their cumbersome administrative system exacerbated the administration's unfavorable opinion of them;" and "McNamara quickly lost patience with the Chiefs' unresponsiveness and squabbling.
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55 of 58 people found the following review helpful By John G. Hilliard on May 12, 2004
Format: Paperback
Given all the current talk about how the current Iraq war is or is not turning into a new Vietnam I thought this book would be an interesting read. What I found was a book that described a presidency that was so concerned with their political standing that they were almost incapable of determining a course of action and following it. The author spent time reviewing all the documents and tapes he could get his hands on to try and figure out what really happened with the war and where did the US lose the war. What the reader is shown is that first off the main players in the war strategy, the Joint Chief's of staff verses the President and the Secretary of Defense all distrusted each other and were working toward different ends. LBJ continued to make personnel decisions regarding the leaders of the armed services to put men that he could control instead of the best men for the job. This created a major riff between the players that really need to be working as a close team during a war.
The second item that really came to the forefront of the book was the down right lying that LBJ was doing too basically the whole country. He would tell Congress one story, Military staff another and the public a third story. None of which was too close to the truth. What makes this so interesting to me is that it was this continual shading of the truth that eventually caught up with LBJ and caused the war to become such a mess and his popularity to fall so low. IF he would have been above board and honest there is a good chance that the US would not have gotten so deep into the war and LBJ would have coasted into a second term. If ever there is a case study in how not to conduct a war, at least from the political side, this is it.
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