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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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Top customer reviews
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.
There are some who may hold to the premise that Lyndon Johnson and his closest advisors showed real guts in attempting to fight against the Vietnamese Communist threat and to “save American face”. But it does not take any intestinal fortitude or keen intellect to indulge in the deceit and verbal machinations that are delineated in meticulous detail in this book. For those readers who want the raw, naked truth about Vietnam, this book is highly recommended, and its study will reveal that the author has definitely done his homework.
Having its origin in the National Security Act of 1947, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during the Vietnam war is portrayed in this book as more of a collection of “technicians for planners” than a body of individuals who carefully thought out strategies and tactics. Some readers may be shocked as to what little influence the JCS had on actual policy decisions during the buildup of the war and its actual execution in the years that followed. One can only wonder whether this was the result of tacit agreement with those policies or rather from an excess of veneration for the Presidency and his cabinet officers. The author seems to argue for a superposition of both of these, and frequently the JCS is accused of placating the president.
Robert McNamara is rightfully portrayed as an evil demon in this book, as a government bureaucrat who cannot engage in self-criticism and smug in the certainty of his analysis and assessments of progress in the war. McNamara’s dwelling at the time was definitely a cesspool of apodictic certainty as is well brought out in this book, especially in the manner in which he interacted with the president and the JCS.
Johnson failed along with his vision of the Great Society. The JCS failed. Robert McNamara and Cyrus Vance failed. The only success of that time was the drive to end the debacle of the Vietnam war. This book is a microscopic view of these failures, and the biggest lesson to take away from the study of this book is an appreciation of just how removed from reality a government bureaucracy can be, and how uncritical adulation for a president or an idea can result in horrible destruction and heartache.
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.