Book review: Dereliction of Duty

  • 21 April 2017
  • NormanL
Book review: Dereliction of Duty

As the saber rattling between the United States and North Korea intensifies, it's worthwhile to understand some of the people advising the President on security matters. One of the key players is National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

We get a window into McMaster's thinking through his 1997 book, "Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam." 

McMaster, then an Army major, began working on the book while studying for his history Ph.D. It grew out of his study of the reasons why the United States found itself involved in a guerilla war in Southeast Asia, including the political and military decisions that resulted in the eventual commitment of roughly 500,000 U.S. troops, and more than 58,000 American deaths.

The problems began early, according to McMaster, including President Kennedy's distaste for the military advisors on the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

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.

Replacing them were men such as Robert McNamara, a former Ford executive brought in to the White House as Secretary of Defese. McNamara was a numbers guy -- he had no military background, and little confidence in the advice the service chiefs offered.

As for the Joint Chiefs themselves, McMaster says they were often more interested in fighting intramural turf battles than providing clear-eyed military analysis. Moreover, Kennedy's appointment of Gen. Maxwell Taylor as chairman of the JCS only further diminished the JCS role. Taylor, who had his own, strong, doubts about the service chiefs, made himself Kennedy's primary military advisor -- almost completely shutting the service chiefs out of any conversation on Vietnam.

After the stand-off with Russia during the Cuban Missle Crisis, McNamara became convinced that military force (combined his own tactical brilliance) was not something to be used to win wars. Rather, it was a form of "communication." And his preferred tactic was something that quickly came to be known as "gradual pressure."

With Lyndon Johnson's assumption of the presidency after Kennedy's death, the wheels already set in motion under Kennedy gained speed. Johnson was eager to keep Vietnam both from marring his chances of winning the November election against Sen. Barry Goldwater, and interferring with his domestic agenda.

And so began the weaving of elaborate lies -- both to cover-up exactly what was happening on the ground in Vietnam, and to keep the war off the front pages. Complicit in it all was the JCS, which was unable, and too often unwilling, to act as a unified, professional, set of advisors to the president.

McMaster writes that the war “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.”

For a commissioned officer to write such a scathing indictment of the civilian and military chiefs who oversaw Vietnam policy is remarkable, and there are those who will disagree with his conclusions.

''Dereliction of Duty'' is not a screed. In it, McMaster offers balance to all sides, even as he dissects the role the JCS, the Secretary of Defense, Lyndon Johnson, and more. His research of the historical record is thorough, and sometimes exhausting.  But it lays bare the thinking, the maneuvering, the lies, deceptions, and the silence that steered the United States into a conflict few officials though necessary, or winnable. 

There are few heroes in McMaster's book. But there is a strong message that any president must have honest, clear, concise views from all of his advisors before committing American soldiers to combat. Lyndon Johnson did not have -- and did not want -- such advice. His secretary of defense ensured such analysis would never reach Johnson's desk...and his Joint Chiefs of Staff did little to change the situation.

America and its military paid a bloody price for it.

We do not know what, if anything, will come of the most recent North Korean situation. But with McMaster playing a leading role in President Trump's strategic thinking, we can be sure the President will be getting advice from all sides -- honest, clear, concise, and unvarnished.

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