Book Review: Dereliction of Duty

McMaster, H. R.  (1992).  Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that led to Vietnam.  New York: Harper Perennial Press. ISBN: 978-0060929084 and 0060929081.  Also available in hardback, ISBN 978-0060187958 and 0060187956, and audio book, ISBN 978-0694518517 and 0694518514.  Electronic versions also available.

This book disgusted me.  It sickened me and also angered me to my very core.

Not because of poor writing or research or anything like that.  The book was very well written, superbly researched and documented, and very well organized in a way that made intuitive and logical sense.  McMaster writes in chronological order the chain of decisions and events from 1961 under John F. Kennedy through 1965 and Lyndon B. Johnson.

No, the book was disgusting, sickening, and infuriating for what it reports: the path that led America to its involvement in Vietnam.   McMaster tracks the lies, prevarications, the deceptions, the deliberate withholding of information. That latter happened when the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave information to Robert McNamara that he did not present to President Lyndon B. Johson. LBJ, in turn, did not give the information he had to Congress or to the media.  This happened from the outset of LBJ’s presidency, 1963.  The die was cast early and cost tens of thousands of American lives.

Per McMaster, the war resulted due to terrible neglect on the part of virtually every actor involved.  It was truly disgusting.  Here’s the problem in a nutshell: LBJ kept Congress out of his decision making, McNamara lied early, often, and almost continuously, all the while trying to protect the President rather than serve the American people, and both changed the statutory role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), diminishing them to nothing more than number crunching technicians.  The JCS, in turn, couldn’t get past petty bickering and parochial interests to serve their President properly nor fulfill their constitutional duty.

We read that John F. Kennedy distrusted career military and strove to diminish their role in policy decisions, kind of like freezing them out, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).  Then, after JFK was assassinated in 1963 (ironically enough, in the same month that South Vietnam’s Diem was killed with tacit approval from JFK and American advisors), LBJ further diminished the JCS’ role as military advisers to their civilian superiors.  Where JFK thought the military simply couldn’t be trusted and were too tied to the past and unwilling to try new things, LBJ is portrayed as being insecure as well as untrusting of the military.  He also worked for consensus, reflecting his House and Senate leadership, rather than striving to lead.  He didn’t want dissenting opinions; he all but demanded a single, unified position always reaching him.  Furthermore, he was more focused on his Great Society program that he was afraid to jeopardize it by telling Congress, the American people, and the press the truth.

Then we read that Robert McNamara strove to completely freeze out the military in any sort of advisory capacity, relying instead on civilian employees in the Defense Department (lawyers, yet).  He also thought everything could be quantified which is simply a foolish position to hold.  Regardless, McNamara put in place a requirement that all communication to the White House was to flow through him – and he edited, heavily, the opinions of the military leadership (when he could actually get opinions out of them).  He went along with LBJ’s instructions about consensus building, rather than allowing full and complete discussion to reach him or LBJ.  Much more could be written about McNamara’s sorry, pathetic role in the fiasco that followed but that will suffice for the time being.

Johnson came to rely overmuch on Maxwell Taylor, a retired general (who LBJ brought back to the military to run point with/for/through the JCS).  Taylor, along with McNamara, came to espouse and push something called “gradual escalation,” by which the anti-Communist efforts in Vietnam would be increased by parts, small parts, over time.  The theory held that the United States would show its willingness to fight the Communists and the latter would find it too costly to continue the fight (at least in the South.  Apparently they hadn’t heard Ho’s comment) and would ultimately come to the negotiating table.

The JCS does not escape scrutiny either.  They were too parochial and unwilling to set aside petty inter-service differences to help create a single, unified position that would be to the United States’ benefit.  They failed to challenge the “gradual escalation” theory even though they had serious (some might say ‘grave’) doubts about its validity.  Even after simulation games showed that gradual escalation was a farce, they did not fight against it.  The military (as well as Central Intelligence) had solid estimates on the number of men needed to “win,” but neither really pressed the issue (though the CIA did have greater dissent, and John McCone resigned as head of the CIA in protest).

The resulting policy, and all decisions leading up to it, were designed to produce a stalemate rather than a victory.  In short, America played for a tie or not to lose.  The losers in the whole, sordid affair were the soldiers who had to fight without full support or even a unified policy rationale for acting in Vietnam and the American people.  We sent our fathers, brothers, and sons to fight in a war that had no real underlying reason understood by policy makers and military leaders alike.

The reason Dereliction works is because of how McMaster weaves each of these narratives together in a comprehensive whole.  We read of the interactions between Johnson and McNamara, Johnson and the JCS, McNamara and the JCS, the JCS and the underlings of both Johnson and McNamara as well as their own.  We read of the interactions among all the groups as well.  It is fairly seamless and relatively fast paced. McMaster includes what each of the principals was thinking at the time as well (based on contemporaneous notes or interviews long after the fact).  It’s a very good piece of scholarship and a more than presentable piece of writing.

McMaster’s final paragraph is the best epitaph on this sad chapter in American history:

The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or on college campuses.  It 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. 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 (p. 334, pb version).

The world marches on and nothing changes by looking back with the 20/20 hindsight of History.  But we can learn from the past as a way to prevent past mistakes from being repeated.  This book serves that purpose quite well.  I highly recommend Dereliction of Duty – provided you can fight back the bile that will surely result.


About flatpickingjd

Just your average, liberal vegetarian redneck. Yes, I'm a liberal. Proudly so. I see nothing wrong with that and wear that label with pride. Yes, I'm a vegetarian. I used to be fat, very fat. Then I started taking care of myself, lost a bunch of weight and found it easier to keep that weight off by not eating meat. Or cheese. Or eggs. Or any good stuff. Man, I miss pizza. And, yes, I'm a redneck. I like camping and fishing, listen to bluegrass music and live (from time to time) in the south(west). So, yup, I'm just your average, liberal vegetarian redneck. Serious details about me: I make my living as a lawyer. My practice focus is business law, but I've dabbled in other areas including personal injury, family law, real estate, and water law. I also hold three master's degrees with plans to earn a doctorate. I hope you enjoy your time here, and feel free to comment!
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One Response to Book Review: Dereliction of Duty

  1. Pingback: Previous Book Reviews | fjdsbookreviews

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