An Important Chapter in the Search for Culpability

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, March 2005 | Go to article overview

An Important Chapter in the Search for Culpability


Kingseed, Cole C., Army


An Important Chapter in the Search for Culpability Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. Maj. H.R. McMaster. HarperCollins. 446 pages; photographs; notes; abbreviations; bibliography; index; $27.50.

Editor's note: McMaster's book has taken on a new life in the wake of the extended U.S. military involvement in Iraq and has been frequently recommended to contemporary Army officers, especially senior ones. This review was originally published in the June 1997 ARMY Magazine.

As is evident by the publication of Robert S. McNamara's In Retrospect, the Vietnam War still haunts us. In what is likely to become the most controversial examination of civil-military relations during the period 1963-65, H.R. McMaster has produced a provocative analysis that sheds the veil of secrecy that dominated Lyndon B. Johnson's decisionmaking process. In so doing, he paints a disturbing portrait of McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), particularly Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor. If a historian's job is to challenge the conventions of history, however, McMaster succeeds admirably in exploring the ineffectual role of the Joint Chiefs.

The author, a 1984 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a distinguished hero in the Persian Gulf War, alleges that the Vietnam War was not lost in the field, on the front pages of The New York Times or on college campuses. It was lost in Washington before Congress and the American people realized they were at war. Echoing George Herring's LBJ and Vietnam, the author opines that American defeat was not the result of impersonal forces, but a unique human failure for which Johnson and his principal political and military advisers shared responsibility.

Though this interpretation is not unique, McMaster's analysis of the roles of McNamara and the Joint Chiefs adds an important chapter to the search for culpability. How a chief executive organizes the White House, of course, is a presidential prerogative, and the author's interpretation may not sit well with the majority of ARMY's readers. McMaster alleges that the "five silent men" of the JCS allowed themselves to be "cowed" by their civilian superiors when they had serious reservations about the strategy Johnson employed to execute the war, and they subsequently withheld from congressmen their estimates of the amount of force needed to win in Vietnam.

Furthermore, the author says, when the Joint Chiefs' advice was inconsistent with his own recommendations, McNamara, with the aid of Taylor, deliberately distorted the Chiefs' views in meetings with the National Security Council.

The ultimate test of the Chiefs' loyalty came in July 1965 when their quiet acquiescence to Johnson's decisions for escalation paved the way for the expansion of the war.

Though Dereliction of Duty is a scathing indictment of senior military leadership, McMaster appreciates the professional code that dictates military subservience to civilian authority. If the Chiefs collectively failed to voice their objections, it was in large measure due to the professional code of the officer corps, which prohibited them from actively engaging in political activity, and their personal loyalty to the Commander in Chief. …

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