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Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam Paperback – May 8, 1998
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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 the Audio CD edition.
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 the Audio CD edition.
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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. All his decisions were based on domestic political criteria (the Great Society programme) and he always seemed to believe that his reputation as a deal-maker would allow him to pull any iron out of the fire. As a political bully and shrewd cynical manipulator, he (with MacNamara's active help) was responsible for the shockingly (and knowingly) bad advice he received from his advisors, both political and military. His actions were fully conscious ones, framed by his limited defining perspective of domestic political considerations.
MacNamara's enthusiastic support and encouragement and his willingness to lie about the administration's actions is clinically exposed. The role of the JCS Chairman, and later US Ambassador to Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, exactly fulfils the term 'dereliction of duty' referred to in the title.
The JCS, unable to overcome crippling inter-service rivalry and torn between offering professional military strategic advice (as they were charged to do under the constitution) and loyalty to a President they rightly perceived as authorising military actions which could only have disastrous results, allowed themselves to be marginalised from the decision-making process. They, too, emerge with little credit, clearly seeing the consequences of the administration's decisions but lacking sufficient conviction or backbone to either act or resign, tried to make the best of a very bad job, making a bigger mess in the process.
An extremely well-researched and written book, the conclusions are more damning due to the balanced and cool approach adopted by McMaster. It would be easy to tip into righteous indignation, but McMaster's approach is all the more effective.
Along with Bernard Fall's books and Neil Sheehan's 'A Bright Shining Lie', one of the best on the subject.
What makes this book so valuable is its illumination of how government processes, flawed assumptions, and self-interested actors can create a and organizational dynamic that insures failure. No single actor had an understanding of the enemy, or of how to break the will of an enemy whose will was nearly unbreakable. And the decision makers were unwilling to face the reality that the only alternative to belligerents who won't surrender, as in WWII and the war in Europe, is to utterly destroy and occupy the country of the enemy - an option they would not (for logical reasons) pursue.
So the participants became obsessed with compromise, and doing "just enough" to "communicate" their seriousness to the enemy - an enemy that had already concluded that the US did not have the will or seriousness to carry on an indefinite and never ending war of attrition. Moreover, any attempt by skeptical generals to recommend to the President the use maximum force (or withdrawal) was sidelined, rejected, or water-down.
Another reviewer suggested that the author's conclusion was that the General's knew how to win the war, but the reviewer misread the book's message. McMaster's criticisms are leveled at everyone involved, including the JCS. In particular, the JCS's unwillingness to strongly buck McNamara's and Taylor's forced "consensus", and be candid with Congress, may have facilitated the unfolding disaster. It is clear they did not have the full answer, but some knew that it would AT LEAST require a five year war with 500k to 700K troops - a viewpoint that was discounted or buried by the civilian "experts".
Could the the war have been won? Perhaps. Harry G. Summers book "On Strategy" makes a good case for his alternatives. In the end South Vietnam fell NOT because of the "venality" of the South Vietnamese government nor the sympathies for the North Vietnamese but for conventional reasons - they were defeated in the conventional war by better forces, who were better supplied.
If this book is suggestive of how McMaster's understands 'the right thing to do' as the NSC advisor and will stand up to his CinC and Bannon, he was an excellent choice to replace Flynn. We shall see.
In a period of two years of constant arguing and intrigue the United States found itself hopelessly entangled in a war. Much of the military leaders advised against getting involved in the war. The only White House official who argued against military involvement was George Ball who did not bring his dissent outside the walls of the White House.
H.R. McMaster brings forth the wrong thinking and mistake prone analysis of President Johnson and Robert McNamara who stumbled their way in making a full military commitment. In doing so in a stealthy way and lying to the American public they found themselves fully immersed in a political civil war in which we could not win.