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Book Review: Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (H.R. McMaster) : VN

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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The Vietnam War was not lost in the field or by the media. It was lost in Washington, D.C., even before it began.

By Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., U.S. Army (ret.)

With his book Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, (HarperCollins, New York, 1997, $27.50), Major H.R. McMaster, a U.S. Army officer, Gulf War combat veteran and former history teacher at the U.S. Military Academy has provided a masterful examination of the roots of the Vietnam War. This valuable work examines the U.S. government's "arrogance, weakness, lying in pursuit of self-interest [and] abdication of responsibility to the American people" during the 1963­65 period when the foundation for the war was being laid.

Begun in 1992 while he was working on his doctorate in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, McMaster's work is based on an exhaustive study of "the thousands of documents that had previously been unavailable…interviews with those close to the decision-making process, taped meetings and telephone conversations, and oral histories and memoirs of top civilian and military officials." The result of his research is a readable and meticulously documented history of how the Vietnam War was lost even before it began.

McMaster is a historian, but he is also a soldier, and that is what led him to this study: "It would be impossible for an Army lieutenant, obtaining his commission in 1984, not to be concerned with the experience of the Vietnam War. I thought that to better prepare myself to lead soldiers in combat [as he subsequently did as the commander of Eagle Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in the Gulf] it was important to learn from the experiences of others, and the most recent U.S. war seemed as good a starting place as any.

"I wondered how and why Vietnam had become an American war–a war in which men fought and died without a clear idea of how their actions and sacrifices were contributing to an end of the conflict." In searching for the answer, McMaster "discovered that the military's role in Vietnam decision-making was little understood and largely overlooked." Dereliction of Duty is his attempt to correct that deficiency.

As Henry Kissinger has said, "Presidents listen to advisers whose advice they think they need." In the Kennedy administration the most important determining factor would not be the advisers' relative position in organizational charts, but instead their "ability to establish a close personal rapport with the President." Thus, "under the Kennedy/Johnson system, the Joint Chiefs lost the direct access to the president, and thus the real influence on decision-making that the Eisenhower NSC [National Security Council] structure had provided."

McMaster says "Diminished JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] access to the president reflected Kennedy's opinion of his senior military advisers. Kennedy and the young New Frontiersmen viewed the Eisenhower JCS with suspicion….The Old Guard in the Pentagon were relegated to a position of little influence." McMaster follows this theme throughout his work, beginning with the rise of General Maxwell Taylor, brought back from retirement to serve as the "military representative of the president" and later chairman of the JCS.

McMaster also traces the rise of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's "whiz kids"–particularly Alain Enthoven, McNamara's point man, whose "flair for quantitative analysis was exceeded only by his arrogance." Enthoven, writes McMaster, "held military experience in low regard and considered military men intellectually inferior." In return, "the military viewed Enthoven and the rest of McNamara's staff as adversaries."

The Cuban missile crisis only deepened the gulf between the JCS and the president. Dismayed by their insistence on using military force, John F. Kennedy said he would warn his successor "to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinion[s] on military matters were worth a damn." But Lyndon Johnson needed no such advice, for like JFK, he had a disdain for the military. "Johnson brought with him to the presidency a low opinion of the nation's top military men and a long history of taking positions on military issues to enhance his political fortunes," says McMaster. Taylor, by then JCS chairman, "demonstrated the same loyalty to Johnson that he had shown Kennedy. The other Chiefs and the JCS as an institution were the losers in status, influence and power."

Defense Secretary McNamara, says McMaster, "would dominate the [Vietnam] policy-making process because of three mutually reinforcing factors: the Chiefs' ineffectiveness as an advisory group, Johnson's profound insecurity, and the president's related unwillingness to entertain divergent views on the subject of Vietnam….He wanted advisors who would tell him what he wanted to hear….McNamara could sense the president's desires, and determined to do all that he could to fulfill them. He would become Lyndon Johnson's 'oracle' for Vietnam."

Later chapters–"From Distrust to Deceit," "A Quicksand of Lies" and "War Without Direction," among others–detail the construction of the flawed foundation that led to the debacle in Vietnam. The war, McMaster concludes, "was lost in Washington, D.C., even before Americans assumed sole responsibility for the fighting in 1965 and before they realized the country was at war; indeed, even before the first American units were deployed."

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