Review by Bill Doughty
|Crawling out of a hole in Vietnam in 1967. (Photos from National Archives and/or LBJ Library)|
H.R. McMaster shows how outright lies, obfuscation and "deceit and manipulation of Congress and the American people" brought about the Vietnam War. His carefully researched "Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam" (HarperCollins) was published in 1997. McMaster is the current National Security Adviser.
Now, twenty years after his book appeared – and fifty years after most of the events depicted in this book –McMaster's words ring with new relevance.
"The president's fixation on short-term political goals, combined with his character and the personalities of his principal civilian and military advisers, rendered the administration incapable of dealing adequately with the complexities of the situation in Vietnam. LBJ's advisory system was structured to achieve consensus and to prevent potentially damaging leaks. Profoundly insecure and distrustful of anyone but his closest civilian advisers, the president viewed the JCS with suspicion. When the situation in Vietnam seemed to demand military action, Johnson did not turn to his military advisors to determine how to solve the problem. He turned instead to his civilian advisers to determine how to postpone a decision. The relationship between the president, the secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs led to the curious situation in which the nation went to war without the benefit of effective military advice from the organization having the statutory responsibility to be the nation's 'principal military advisers.'"
|Taylor and McNamara (2nd and 3rd from left) aboard Air Force One headed to Honolulu, 1964; President Johnson in executive seat and robe. Yoichi Okamoto|
LBJ surrounded himself with yes-men. Chief among them was a holdover from the Kennedy in-crowd, military advisor Maxwell Taylor, author of "The Uncertain Trumpet" and trumpeter of the strategies of "flexible response" and "limited war." In Neil Sheehan's comprehensive history of the Vietnam War, "A Bright and Shining Lie," Taylor's "limited war" strategy is called "Maxwell Taylor's rationalization to find employment for an unemployed U.S. Army." LBJ traveled to Honolulu with his inner circle for a conference in early June 1964. "The conference attendees affirmed the basic concept of graduated pressure and agreed to refine plans to support it." McMaster contends that a lack of consensus or clear understanding was part of the administration's plan. "The ambiguity was deliberate, and Taylor played a critical role in preserving it."
|Marine walks through punji gully in January 1966.|
Johnson skipped over Admiral George Anderson in order to install Taylor as chairman of the joint chiefs. Meanwhile, LBJ tried to go after those in his administration who leaked to the press, and he "obscured the cost of the war" both to Congress and the public.
When the early Rolling Thunder air campaign did not succeed, LBJ and other senior military leaders blamed the inexperienced "boys" carrying out the mission. He called himself the coach and told his inner circle a story that was eerily reflected in the 2017 Super Bowl 51, more than 50 years later. Think of LBJ as the future Coach Bill Belichick. (Belichick, by the way, was then 13 years old and would soon to go to Annapolis High School, but that's another story.)
"LBJ told the JCS: 'Now, I'm like a coach I used to know, and you're my team; you're all Johnson men.' Referring to the situation in Vietnam, the president continued with his metaphor: 'We played the first half of the game and the score is now 21-0 against us; now I want you to tell me how to win' ... 'You're graduates of the Military Academy and you should be able to give me an answer. I want you to come back here next Tuesday and tell me how we are going to kill more Viet Cong.'"
|LBJ and McNamara during a Vietnam security meeting July 21, 1966.|
Johnson was fixated in the power of winning – even when claims of victories were increasingly less believable.
This book features nearly three dozen pages of notes and a very extensive bibliography including books, documents and oral histories conducted with witnesses and principals. "Dereliction" is recommended by authors and historians like Paul Fussell, Stanley Karnow and Tom Clancy as well as former uniformed leaders like Col. (U.S. Army ret.) David Hackworth and Lt. Gen. (U.S. Marine Corps ret.) Victor Krulak (father of the 51st commandant of the Marines), among others.
Each chapter begins with an epigraph, none more powerful than this one by Thomas Jefferson at the beginning of Chapter 5, "From Distrust to Deceit." The Jefferson quote is from August 19, 1785:
"He who permits himself to tell a lie often finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, til at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions." – Jefferson
Whether LBJ believed in the logic of his argument or not, he argued midway into the war, that patriotism and support of the troops must be a "lynchpin for greater involvement." In May of 1965 LBJ said a vote against a ramp up and request for an additional $700 million was a "vote against 400 Americans" who had been killed up to that point.
McMaster doesn't blame the New York Times or college campuses for the failure of the United States in Vietnam. He places the blame squarely in "Washington D.C. ... 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 of which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers. The failings were man and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people."
|A Navy Nurse helps a Marine aboard USS Repose, Oct. 1966.|
Parallels are tied to another error in judgment, as defined by historians: President George Bush's foray into Iraq in 2002.
While patriotic Americans honor the sacrifice of the brave service members who went to Vietnam, many believing they were fighting for freedom, McMaster reminds us;
"The war continues to capture the public interest in part because, looking back, its cost seems exorbitant – and would seem so even if the United States had 'won.' The war took the lives of fifty-eight thousand Americans and well over one million Vietnamese. It left Vietnam in ruins and consumed billions of American dollars, nearly wrecking the American economy. Vietnam divided American society and inflicted on the United States one of the greatest Political traumas since the Civil War. indeed, the war's legacies proved to be as profound as the war was traumatic. It led Americans to question the integrity of their government as never before. Thirty (now fifty) years later, after the end of the Cold War, the shadow of the American experience in Vietnam still hangs heavy over American foreign and military policy, and over American society."
|Counting down the days and months in 1968.|
Missing in this dissertation, because of McMaster's narrow timeframe, is an accounting of President Richard Nixon, who used his own subterfuge directly and indirectly with the Republic of Vietnam to attain office in 1968 (and then lied to the American people about domestic affairs, including related to his election) and who extended the war before the American public demanded an end to the conflict in 1973. Interestingly, McMaster mentions Nixon only once and then in the context of John F. Kennedy, who "narrowly defeated Dwight Eisenhower's vice president" in 1960.
"Dereliction of Duty" concludes with this powerful observation:
"As American involvement in Vietnam deepened, the gap between the true nature of that commitment and the president's depiction of it to the American people, the Congress, and members of his own administration widened. Lyndon Johnson, with the assistance of Robert S. McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had set the stage for America's disaster in Vietnam."
The antidote to similar disasters may be, in the words of other senior leaders, "clarity and consistency" and "honesty and accountability" – credible leadership.