The explicit purpose of H.R. McMaster’s groundbreaking Dereliction of Duty (1997) is, as he states in his preface, to understand more fully how and why the key decisions were made by high-level military and government officials that ultimately “involved the United States in a war that it could not win at a politically acceptable level of commitment.” But as the full title of his book suggests, this is very much a book that focuses on the implications of lies and dissimulation on the policy making of this volatile era, and on the dereliction of responsible decision making at the highest levels of government during the critical period of 1964-65, from the Presidential office of Lyndon Johnson through the manipulations by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara Pentagon and the ineptitude of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Not surprisingly, this is a book in which the major themes are not political acuity and respect for the common good but are of a arrogant and willful deception, neglect, political infighting, and an apparently systemic betrayal of public trust. In the end, McMaster concludes, the most important policy and strategy decisions concerning the war — including whether the United States should increase its presence in Vietnam or withdraw with dignity from the region – were rarely if ever discussed within the corridors of power. What mattered in the months leading up to the “disaster of the Vietnam War [that] would dominate America’s memory of a decade” was not idealism or bold policy making but self-interested machinations aimed at sustaining a web of lies, misinformation, and self-serving political gamesmanship.
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A key to McMaster establishing the main theme of his book is to show convincingly that a number of related factors combined in the early 1960s in such a way as to entrench a kind of culture of deception in the administrations of the day (first under Kennedy, then deteriorating rapidly during the presidency of Johnson) and to exacerbate an already existing set of problems fissuring both the subcultures of the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The first, and perhaps most damaging rupture emerged in what McMaster depicts as an era of tense transition that saw the New Frontiersman (the like-minded civilians who coalesced under the leadership of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara) and the Old Guard of the Joint Chiefs, many of whom had been field grade or even senior officers during World War II and who are presented in this book as parochial to the point of fearfulness. Forced together under the Kennedy administration, the two groups remained firmly entrenched and determinedly adversarial as Johnson came to power following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
Put simply, as McMaster does, this was a political terrain almost designed to promote the promotion of a kind of institutional territoriality that would pit the Old Guard Joint Chiefs against what McMaster calls “McNamara’s Whiz Kids,” the group of civilian intellectuals and policy gurus “who shared [a] penchant for qualitative analysis and suspicion of proposals based solely on ‘military experience’.”
Foregrounding his own theme of willful deception and dissimulation, McMaster develops a chronological and thorough indictment of both sides of this fractionalized administration. Beginning with an analysis of the rise of the New Frontier-Old Guard power struggle during the Kennedy years, McMaster moves systematically through chapters that focus on time periods of two or three months, each providing an in-depth consideration of the politics and the personalities of the key figures as well as a intricately constructed cataloguing of the expanding web of untruths, misinformation, and strategies of non-communication that came to define both camps. Indeed, many of the chapters carrying a pithy title that underscores this already primary theme: “From Distrust to Deceit,” “Contriving Consensus,” and “A Quicksand of Lies” to list a few representative examples. This is a staid structure that in lesser hands might prove pedantic and cumbersome, but to McMaster’s credit he carries it off with aplomb; the medium never obscures the message, and as a reader moves through the months from October 1961 to July 1965 the focus remains steadfast on deepening sands building around the high-ranking officials (civilian and military) shaping America’s intervention in Vietnam.
To McMaster, the civilian policymakers led by McNamara and Johnson are isolationist and manipulative, men of arrogance who “disparaged military advice because they thought that their intelligence and analytical methods could compensate for their lack of military experience and education.” Moreover, they saw the collective membership of the Joint Chiefs as “a liability because military officers … based their advice on antiquated notions of war” that rendered their policy suggestions not only “irrelevant” but even “dangerous.” McNamara saw the type of military experience represented by the Joint Chiefs as “irrelevant to the new kind of war” that was being waged in Vietnam, so had no problem in openly misrepresenting their policy suggestions in order to keep them “out of the loop” (to borrow McMaster’s vernacular) of any real political decision making. McNamara’s rise to eminence during this period was fueled, in part, by the aforementioned climate of the day but also, in part, by the ethos of a president who was notoriously distrustful of anyone but his closest civilian advisors.
Inheriting his predecessor’s “clarion call” to “begin anew” with an “era of prosperity and opportunity,” Johnson did little to improve the fractured terrain, and did much, in fact, to worsen it. Asking Kennedy’s civilian team to remain with him, seen by many as a tacit endorsement of current policies concerning Vietnam, Johnson was nonetheless unsure of the path his own policies might take. “’We’ll stand by our word,’” McMaster quotes the incoming President as stating, “’but I have misgivings. I feel like a fish that just grabbed a worm with a big hook in the middle of it.” Into this space of hesitation stepped McNamara and the Whiz kids, whose dismissive attitudes toward the military fit neatly with a president who came to the office with an already well-established “low opinion of the nation’s top military men and a long history of taking positions on military issues to enhance his [own] political fortunes.” Seeing Vietnam as the biggest threat to his presidency as well as a distraction from his Great Society programs), Johnson worked diligently, and with the aid of civilian advisors, to keep both the Joint Chiefs under wraps and, more importantly he believed, the American public “out of the loop” through his own policies of managing Vietnam policy while drawing minimal public and congressional attention. Essential to this plan was “creating the illusion that the decisions to attack North Vietnam were alternatives to war rather than war itself” and that the policies supporting graduated pressure was “the favored means of communication” of military actions. (McMaster, 1997, p.326). Such strategies are, to McMaster, a willful and persistent dissimulation of the highest order and an unforgivable betrayal of the public trust, and his catalogue of Johnson’s “deceptions/lies about Vietnam” (McMaster, 1997, 438) is exhaustive.
To his credit, McMaster’s treatment of the Joint Chiefs is equally condemning. He clearly holds them responsible for the institutionalization of an “inter-service rivalry” that paralyzed any attempts to address many of the most important questions of the war and “from developing a comprehensive estimate of the situation or from thinking effectively about strategy” (McMaster, 1997, p. 328). Again, willful deception seemed the norm, as the Joint Chiefs responded to McNamara’s efforts to keep them far removed from the flow of official (and accurate) information with an equally disingenuous and equally harmful unspoken policy to “not answer the mail” from Johnson’s civilian advisers, as the practice of dissimulation became known in inner-circle vernacular. More telling, still, is McMaster’s contention that the Joint Chiefs betrayed the public trust due, ironically, to their loyalty to an institution that they remained unwilling or unable to recognize as rife with deception. Even with their partial knowledge, the Joint Chiefs as individuals and as a collective body could see that the American effort in Vietnam would take many years, cost millions of dollars and potentially thousands of lives. Yet not one of them, McMaster argues, made a forceful and open stand against the directions that policy was taking. Rather than strategize an effective and sustained challenge to McNamara’s manipulations and flawed recommendations, members of the Joint Chiefs, locked in their own culture of military parochialism, dedicated their energies to protecting their fiefdoms within the political infrastructure. As McMaster concludes by way of iterating his own primary theme, the Joint Chiefs failed the public miserably through their silences and dissimulations. As McMaster summarizes his particularly tendentious epilogue: “Rather than advice McNamara and Johnson extracted from [the Joint Chiefs] acquiescence and silent support for decisions already made.”
And it is in these chapters that McMaster reveals the tragic ironies of such a systemic practice of dissimulation and misinformation as well as pointing to the lessons that need to be learned. As McMaster traces convincingly, both the Joint Chiefs chairman General Maxwell Taylor (1962-1964) and his successor General Earler Wheeler, both of whom were positioned at various times as prototypes of a New Frontier military leader, were complicit in keeping their Joint Chief compatriots in the dark, in misleading or misinforming them as to the workings of the McNamara Pentagon and Vietnam policy development. Positioned post-1964 as Ambassador to Vietnam, Taylor continued his irresponsibility, setting aside his own concerns about intensifying the already heavy commitment of ground troops in order to appease General William Westmoreland, the field commander who believed fully in the benefits to be realized by a full and dedicated ground offensive.
In the end, McMaster’s impeccably researched Dereliction of Duty does make an important contribution to ongoing reconsiderations of America’s involvement in Vietnam, especially in his determination to mine as fully as possible the “thousands of [declassified] documents that had previously been unavailable to researchers and historians.”  His detailed descriptions and analysis of the infighting among the Joint Chiefs, and between the military and civilian factions, is persuasive and compelling. As he states forthrightly in his final sentences of his book:
The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers. The failings were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.
Still, this is not a study without flaws. McMaster is accurate in noting that doubts about American involvement in Vietnam had a long-felt presence in high-level administrative and military circles is one thing, but to claim, as he does throughout the book, that a clear image of the disaster was understood throughout the corridors of power is not supported effectively by the evidence provided. The concerns and predictions of such an insider as Marine General Wallace Greene, for instance, can prove clear-minded and even prophetic in hindsight, but must also be assessed in the context of day-to-day operations, which included, admittedly, an intolerably high level of bickering and political posturing. This is not to suggest that the Joint Chiefs were not often more interested in advancing their own positions for bureaucratic gain than in bringing forward policy suggestions that might bring some sense of clarity and concision to an increasingly muddied and adversarial political process. But McMaster’s recounting of Greene’s insights in his chapter on “Five Silent Men” does raise as many unanswered questions as it does prove a condemnation of the Joint Chiefs: why, for instance, did a Marine General choose to voice his concerns to a mere congressional staffer named John Blanford rather than moving a bit higher up the political hierarchy to make his concerns heard?
At times, too, a kind of political naiveté overwhelms McMaster’s otherwise clear-headed analysis, as when he seems surprised that public opinion and “domestic policy priorities” were often mitigating factors when considering military strategies or that President Johnson “did not conceive of Vietnam as primarily a national security issue…[but] mainly as the issue that could cost him the election.” His “fixation on short-term political goals,” according to McMaster, “combined with his character and the personalities of his principal civilian and military advisors, rendered the administration incapable of dealing adequately with the complexities of the situation in Vietnam.” Finally, and as the previous quotation underscores nicely, despite McMaster’s prefatory promise that “[a]ssessing blame for the disaster in Vietnam…is beside the point,” the tone of this book, and especially its epilogue, is very much an accusatory one, punctuated with such words as “lie” and “liar” far too indiscriminately not to put a visible crack in the veneer of his otherwise stellar historical scholarship; tellingly, McMaster’s index considers “deceptions and lies” a legitimate subheading. Even with these problems, however, McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty addresses a significant lacunae in the scholarly work on American involvement in Vietnam. Equally important, it is a book that serves as a cautionary tale of the power of deception and the deceptions of power.
McMaster, H.R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
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