H. R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty, and HWP Book Club Selection

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Joined: 17 Nov 2008, 18:31

18 Mar 2017, 19:51 #1


A couple of weeks ago I said I was going to purchase the book Dereliction of Duty by H. R. McMaster and invited others to do the same.  I proposed something like a mini book club where participants could discuss the book as they read it.  Blackirish took me up on my offer and then surprised when he decided to start reading the book sooner than expected -- by about a month.  I got my copy earlier this week, finished reading a novel yesterday and started a different book expecting to get to Dereliction after that.  I just hit the reset button and am starting the McMaster's book today.
So here is the thread for the discussion.
Here is a little info about the book:
Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam is a book written by then Major, currently National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, that presents a case indicting former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his principal civilian and military advisers for losing the Vietnam War. The book was written as part of McMaster's Ph.D. thesis at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
McMaster blamed leaders in Washington for losing the Vietnam War, writing:

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 the 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. . . . [It was] a
uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by
President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisors.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derelicti ... 1997_book)
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.
http://www.historynet.com/book-review-d ... ter-vn.htm
"It'd be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view."
-- Oscar Levant

Joined: 17 Nov 2008, 18:31

18 Mar 2017, 19:53 #2

Blackirish's first comments about the book:
I somehow missed your response that you had ordered the book. I did
something I seldom do and set aside a couple of books I was working on
and started this one. I am on page 200 at the moment. 

My first impression of the book is that it is very thoroughly
researched. In an effort to keep up with where McMaster's information
came from I have been forced to constantly go back and forth between the
references and the page I am reading. It slows me down a little but
puts things in better context I think. As an aside, I vary between
referring to references real time and doing so at the end of a chapter. I
sometimes can wait until I finish the book and then go back through the
reference material. However, in this book the sheer volume of research
he put into writing this book more or less requires constantly going
back and forth to understand context of what people said and when. 

That is a very minor gripe, if indeed it is a gripe at all. I appreciate
well referenced research but I have seldom seen such a large quantity
of it as flows throughout this book. I suppose the very nature of the
material required it but in a larger sense I think it also reflects both
on the circumstances surrounding why and when Mcmaster wrote this book
and the detailed nature of the author himself. I am impressed with the
attention to detail of McMaster displays AND the brutal honesty with
which this book was written. 

It is worth noting that the book started as a PHD dissertation some
years earlier. As a serving officer it took some guts to write this. The
book is probably harsher on the civilian Department of Defense group
that formulated the policies for Viet Nam than it is on the military but
the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military groups associated with them
come in for harsh criticism as well. I am certain this didn't go over
really well with the Army when the book came out. It is worth noting
that McMaster was not yet a general. As a matter of fact I found an
interview as late as 2007 when he was still a colonel even though he was
highly thought of as a leader and combat veteran. 

All of this leads me to think he is an excellent choice as National
Security Advisor to Trump. Having said that, he seems pretty much a
diametric opposite to Flynn in that position. Regardless of how he came
to be put in that position, I like the fact that he is there now. 

The book itself is pretty harsh in its criticism of Johnson and his
advisors. Johnson was first and foremost interested in his domestic
programs and managed accordingly, but McNamara was already in position
when Kennedy was killed. It wasn't as if Johnson brought him in to keep
Viet Nam out of the newspapers but he certainly found a willing
accomplice if that was his goal leading up to the election after Kennedy
was killed. The picture of McNamara, McNaughton, and the Bundy's
orchestrating policy aimed at "sending messages" to an enemy that had no
desire or willingness to listen is one that makes me understand how bad
our policy was from start to finish in Viet Nam. 

I read a detailed history of Viet Nam some years ago, from when it first
appearance as a seperate nation up until the early eighties. I thought
at the time that if US leaders from Eisenhower on up had read that book
we never would have committed troops to the area. We profoundly
misunderstood the driving force in Viet Nam. It was never communism vs.
democracy. It was Viet Nam vs. colonialism and we became the
colonialists when we stepped in to uphold the Domino Effect idea. In
other words, McNamara and company were fighting a conflict that only
existed in their own minds so it is little wonder that they were so
inneffective in doing so because the policy they were supporting didn't
match the situation they were applying it to. 

Still, the ineptitude of our leadership in Viet Nam was appalling on
every level and this book points it out in great detail. It must have
been hard for a career military man to write this book without it having
an even angrier tone than it does. Johnson and Kennedy for that matter
don't come off very well in this book. Of course, I have read similar
criticisms of Roosevelt in WWII. Politicians wage war with one eye on
the outcome and one eye on the voters. It is the nature of how our
system works. Unfortunately, there is politics involved in the military
as well, more especially when one rises to upper levels. That is another
reason I find McMaster and Mattis so appealing. Neither seems to have
ever decided that their career is more important than their duty. 

These are my first reactions to the book along with some musings on the
nature of its author. In truth, I was more interested to learn more
about him than I was to read about Viet Nam but I am enjoying the book
quite a bit and learning a lot at the same time.
"It'd be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view."
-- Oscar Levant

Joined: 09 Aug 2013, 03:20

20 Mar 2017, 14:56 #3

One of the prevailing stories throughout the book is the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in how the Viet Nam war played out. According to McMaster, the JCS was minimalized intentionally by a combination of factors that led to their being of little consequence in the decision making process of the Johnson administration. First off, Johnson wanted the JCS to do their duty and offer military advice but only along narrow lines. McNamara and Johnson formulated policy and then had the JCS advise them within the confines of that policy. From my understanding of what the function of the JCS happens to be, this isn't too far out of line with their prescribed function within our government. 

Second, both Johnson and McNamara, along with their staffs regularly misled the JCS as to what the official goals were in Viet Nam. The JCS frequently pointed out their belief that the policies being utilized were insufficient to realize the goals that were put forward and offered advice as to how to reach those goals. The trouble was that the goals they thought we were working towards didn't match the goals of the Johnson administration throughout the conflict so there was a basic and intentional lack of communication between policy makers within the administration and the JCS. 

Third, Johnson made it plain from the beginning of his administration that he didn't want conflicting advice. McNamara and Maxwell Taylor construed this as making sure that no signs of internal disagreement reached Johnson. While this probably was what Johnson wanted it necessarily blinded him to dissent within and kept him from hearing alternative views of the situation on the ground in Viet Nam. The fact that the JCS could seldom come to agreement amongst themselves was utilized by McNamara and his staff to keep them from having any real input into the decision making process within the administration. 

All of these things led to disaster. One of my issues with this is my understanding that each administration chooses internally how to utilize the tools it is given to work with. The JCS is just one of these tools and since it is supposed to be the group that gives the administration military advice it seems pretty ridiculous that it can be left out of the process of formulating military policy but that is exactly what happened with the Johnson administration. 

On the other hand, what is the JCS to do if the advice they give is ignored? Our Constitution is very clear that he president is the commander in chief. The military and therefore the JCS are duty bound to follow directions of the President and not the other way around. At what point does it become the duty of the JCS to point out that their advice is neither being sought nor followed when it is volunteered? Johnson was notoriously concerned with public opinion so he tried very hard to make sure that by appearance the JCS was in agreement with his policies when they very plainly were not. They couldn't seem to agree amongst themselves on an alternative policy, but they were NOT in agreement with Johnson and McNamara's policy in Viet Nam as to how to conduct the war but this was not something that was public knowledge at the time. 

I am not sure I know the answer to this question. I am sure that devoid of some extraordinarily independent military leaders being involved the JCS could easily find itself out of the loop in any administration when it comes to policy decisions. One of the things that the US military does not tend to enforce or seek out is independent thought; especially independent thought that comes out in opposition to official policy. McMaster has the reputation of being one such independent thinker but that has not exactly been something that helped his career. It is an interesting dilemma in my mind. How does a system built around the idea of civilian control of the military handle an issue wherein the civilian leadership is so concerned with political implications that it ignores the advice of its own military leadership in making decisions?
The increase of misery in the present state of society is parallel and equal to the increase of wealth..... Unknown member of Parliament 1840's

Joined: 09 Aug 2013, 03:20

23 Mar 2017, 13:47 #4

Finished the book yesterday morning. I found it to be very thought provoking. As bad as Johnson and McNamara's decisions were I tend to think they thought they were doing the right thing. That doesn't excuse what they did as they obviously had a profoundly twisted idea of what the right thing happened to be. As is often the case, people can be led to do extraordinarily bad things in the pursuit of goals that are narrow. Johnson strongly believed in his domestic agenda. Most of the decisions he made about Viet Nam were colored by the need to protect his popularity so that he could pursue this agenda.

McNamara truly believed in graduated military pressure as a policy towards political goals. His success in the Cuban Missile crisis convinced him this was a viable means of conducting policy. He never seemed to realize that he wasn't dealing directly with the Kremlin in Viet Nam. Sun Tzu said you must know your enemy. We didn't even begin to fathom our enemy in Viet Nam. Unfortunately, everything flowed from the combination of these two ideologies at the very top of our government. 

It is easy to look back and recoil with horror at the policy discussions in the book. These discussions were often completely devoid of the basic human understanding that lives were being spent without any understanding of the value of those lives, both Vietnamese and American lives. The Powell Doctrine and many other military realities that came from this conflict are perhaps the only legacy we got from Viet Nam. I wonder how long we will remember what we learned. We seem to have already forgotten judging but what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. It does give me hope to realize that McMaster, Mattis and probably many others in the military have not forgotten. 
The increase of misery in the present state of society is parallel and equal to the increase of wealth..... Unknown member of Parliament 1840's

Joined: 17 Nov 2008, 18:31

24 Mar 2017, 00:18 #5

I am 151 pages in.
I think another legacy of this is Goldwater-Nichols and Jointness.
"It'd be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view."
-- Oscar Levant

Joined: 09 Aug 2013, 03:20

24 Mar 2017, 14:22 #6

Probably so. However, I wonder how much things have really changed. 

As I wrote earlier, a lot of the tools created to help the President make the best decisions are more or less voluntary in nature. In other words, the President can avail himself of these tools or not; depending on his inclination at the time. He is still commander in chief and the JCS or any other military group is duty bound to follow his direction as that his how our system was set up to operate. 

Johnson chose to not use the JCS to formulate policy because their policies didn't match up well with his political agenda. He still wanted to give the appearance of utilizing their best advice but had little interest in actually following it.

One of the things that bothers me the most about the idiot we have a commander in chief now is that he has already shown he listens to no one. He much prefers his own "instinctual" thoughts to facts or advice from experts. This is a recipe for disaster on the scale of which we have never seen in this country. Hopefully, we will get rid of this lunatic before a military situation comes up in which he overules facts and advice from the experts in favor of his fantasy instincts.

Failing that, I do feel better knowing that Mattis and McMaster are in the positions they are in because I have some faith that they will not be bulldozed by Trump. Having said that, he doesn't have to listen to them. Will they publicly stand up to him and quit in such a situation? Will they take their case to the American people? Or.... will they follow their training and the law of the land and do what the commander in chief orders? These are very real questions in my mind at the moment. They should be something everyone considers at Trump continues to prove he has a tenous relationship with reality. 
The increase of misery in the present state of society is parallel and equal to the increase of wealth..... Unknown member of Parliament 1840's

Joined: 17 Nov 2008, 18:31

26 Mar 2017, 21:43 #7

Selected passages from chapter 1:
Kennedy's dismantling of the NSC [National Security Council] apparatus diminished the voice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in national security matters.  Under Eisenhower military officers connected with the JCS were assigned to the Planning Board and the OCB [Operations Coordinating Board].  Through these representatives, the JCS could place items important to the military on the NSC agenda.  During NSC meetings Eisenhower considered differing opinions and made decisions with all the Chiefs in attendance.  Kennedy's structural changes, his practice of consulting frankly with only his closest advisers, and his use larger forums to validate decisions already made would transcend his own administration and continue as a prominent feature of Vietnam decision making under Lyndon Johnson.  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 structure had provided.
Diminished JCS access to the president reflected Kennedy's opinion of his senior military advisers.  Kennedy and the young New Frontiersmen of his administration viewed the Eisenhower JCS with suspicion.  Against the backdrop of Kennedy's efforts to reform the Defense Department, and under the strain of foreign policy crises, a relationship of mutual distrust between senior military and civilian officials would develop.  Two months after Kennedy assumed the presidency, tension between the New Frontiersmen and the Old Guard escalated over a foreign policy blunder in the Caribbean.  The Old Guard in the Pentagon were soon relegated to a position of little influence.
Although the president took public responsibility for the Bay of Pigs failure, he placed a large measure of blame for the disaster on poor military advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He thought that his senior military advisers should have been more assertive with their doubts about the operation's chances for success.  For their part the JCS believed that Kennedy's ire was misdirected.  The president consulted the JCS only after he had made the decision to launch the invasion.  The military services had provided personnel on special assignment to the CIA, but remained unaware of their activities.  The Chiefs were skeptical about the operation's chances of success and stated that the landing could only succeed if the landing force controlled the air.  They blamed the president for not consulting them earlier and thought his decision to leave the landing force stranded on the beach reprehensible.  The Bay of Pigs debacle not only exacerbated mutual distrust between the president and his senior military officers but spurred an intense desire on the part of John Kennedy to overthrow the Castro regime.
Smarting from what they believed had been unfair criticism after the Bay of Pigs, the Chiefs were determined that any commitment of U.S. military force not suffer from the indecision and lack of firepower that had been evident in the abortive Cuban invasion.  They told Kennedy unambiguously that military action in Laos [the next crisis point] could involve the United States in a large-scale land war in Southeast Asia and might escalate into a confrontation with China.  They recommended that if any troops were deployed, they should arrived in a strength of at least sixty thousand men.  Army general Lyman Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joif Chiefs of Staff, and Army Chief of Staff George H. Decker warned Kennedy not to take action unless he was prepared to use nuclear weapons to "guarantee victory."  A military commitment to Laos reminded Lemnitzer and Decker of the same sort of limited, costly, protracted commitment that the generals had experienced in Korea.  . . . [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk asked Lemnitzer, "Lem, do you think we can get the 101st [Airborne Infantry Division] in there?"  The general responded, "We can get it in all right.  It's getting out that I'm worried about."
During the Laotian crisis, the president was again dissatisfied with the advice of the Joint Chiefs, whose thinking he regarded as outmoded and unimaginative.  He found the JCS estimate of the number of troops needed excessive and ordered only ten thousand Marines, the stationed in Japan, to prepare for deployment to Laos.  He believed that strategic options in military affairs should give him more flexibility than a choice between inaction and a large-scale commitment.  Meanwhile preparations for the deployment of the Marines, coupled with diplomatic activity, seemed to have a positive effect on Moscow's attitude toward the Laotian problem.  Eventually Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to negotiations aimed at developing a neutral Laos.
The formation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reflected the tension between the need to integrate military advice into the national security policy process and the desire to retain civilian control over the defense establishment.  In January 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt had established the JCS to satisfy the exigencies of America's newly formed military alliance with Great Britain.  During World War II the JCS planned and directed U.S. military strategy, managed materiel and manpower, and coordinated among the nation's military allies.  In 1944 Congress began hearings on postwar defense organization and examined the issue in earnest after the war.  After a two-year debate, Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947 to "provide a comprehensive program for the future security of the United States."  The act and its amendments in 1949 established the CIA, created the NSC to coordinate policy for the president, and created a loose confederation of the armed services under the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD). . . .  The act, which was essentially a compromise between Army and Navy proposals, shifted responsibility away from individual service secretaries and gave OSD authority over the "national military establishment." . . .
Congress designated the Joint Chiefs as the "principal military advisors" to the president, the National Security Council, and the secretary of defense.  The legislators concluded that the most senior professional officers from each service could offer the best military advice to the "national command authority." . . .
However, interservice competition for scarce resources impinged on the Chiefs' ability to cooperate in the interest of national security.  Differences among the Chiefs centered on the definition of "roles and missions" of the services.  The way the Chiefs defined roles and missions determined force size and structure and the research, development, and procurement of new weapons systems.  Conflicts between the services led to inefficiency and redundancy.--
[Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara quickly lost patience with the Chiefs' unresponsiveness and squabbling.  His answer to the mutually reinforcing problems of parochialism and administrative inefficiency became familiar: increased centralization in the OSD.  Kennedy gave his new secretary of defense carte blanche, and McNamara took advantage of it.  Drawing on his experience with analytical methods and statistics, he forced the new management techniques on a reluctant department.  He brought in an army of bright young analysts to assist him, and used the wide latitude given the secretary of defense in the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 to create a staff structure that mirrored military staff functions.  Freed from dependence on the JCS for analysis, McNamara exerted civilian control over what had before been almost exclusively military prerogatives.
McNamara's Whiz Kids were like-minded men who shared their leader's penchant for quantitative analysis and suspicion of proposals based solely on "military experience."  Many of them had worked in think tanks and research corporations, such as RAND, and they were eager to apply their techniques to the problems of the Defense Department. . . .  The two most important offices were Paul Nitze's International Security Affairs (ISA) and Alain Enthoven's Systems Analysis divisions.
Enthoven quickly became McNamara's point man in establishing firm civilian control over the Defense Department.  His flair for quantitative analysis was exceeded only by his arrogance.  Enthoven held military experience in low regard and considered military men intellectually inferior.  He likened leaving military decision making to the professional military to allowing welfare workers to develop national welfare programs.  Enthoven suggested that military experience "can be a disadvantage because it discourages seeing the larger picture."  He and many of his colleagues believed that most people in the Department of Defense simply tried to "advance their particular project or their service for their department."  He was convinced that "there was little in the typical officer's early career that qualifies him to be a better strategic planner . . . than a graduate of Harvard Business School."  He used statistics to analyze defense programs and issues and than gave the secretary of defense and the president information needed to make decisions.  Enthoven saw no limits to the applicability of his methods.
McNamara's autocratic style and the condescending attitude of this young civilian assistants deeply disturbed the Joint Chiefs and other military officers in the Pentagon.  The military viewed Enthoven and the rest of McNamara's staff as adversaries.  Differences arose between the JCS and McNamara's office over new management techniques, the military budget, and weapons procurement.  The officers resented the lack of respect for military experience among those whom they nicknamed derisively McNamara's "happy little hotdogs."  Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay recalled that McNamara's Whiz kids were
the most egotistical people that I ever saw in my life.  They had no faith in the military; they had no respect for the military at all.  They felt that the Harvard Business School method of solving problems would solve any problem in the world. . . .  They were better than all the rest of us; otherwise they wouldn't have gotten their superior education, as they saw it.
Although united in their vexation with McNamara and his staff, the Chiefs remained divided on substantive defense issues.
Historian Robert Divine observed that "Vietnam can only be understood in relation to the Cold War."  Indeed, Cold War crises during Kennedy's first months as president shaped advisory relationships within his administration and influenced his foreign policy decisions until his assassination in November 1963.  Already predisposed to distrust the senior military officers he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, the Bay of Pigs incident and Laotian crisis motivated the president to seek a changing of the guard in the Pentagon.  After the Bay of Pigs, an unsatisfactory settlement in Laos, confrontation with the Kremlin over divided Berlin, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's bullying rhetoric persuaded Kennedy that the United States needed to make its "power credible."  "Vietnam," Kennedy concluded, "is the place."  Vietnam, however, loomed in the background while the New Frontiersmen confronted in the Caribbean what would become the best known of Kennedy's Cold War crises.
Last edited by Flattop on 26 Mar 2017, 21:56, edited 2 times in total.
"It'd be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view."
-- Oscar Levant