The Barnes & Noble Review
A decorated troop commander in the Persian Gulf War and former history teacher at the United States Military Academy, Major H.R. McMaster, Ph.D., has written a new book that unearths disturbing new evidence concerning the Vietnam conflict. It deftly proves how America's top leaders in the 1960s and '70s forgot their responsibility to the American public while manipulating the country into a vicious war that it could not win. Major McMaster wrote Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam after reflecting on his service in the Gulf. "As a cavalry troop commander in Operation Desert Storm," he writes, "I was struck by how easily I could connect our unit's actions with the stated war aims of the American government. The contrasts between America's military experience in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf were stark and analogies between the two were evident in public commentary. My experiences in the Gulf and my scholarly interest in recent American history sparked my desire to research and write about Vietnam."
McMaster's research included poignant interviews with key policy-makers of the Vietnam era; he was also one of the first people granted access to recently-declassified audio tapes and documents previously scuttled away in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the LBJ library. The resulting evidence showed how Lyndon Johnson, and his top civilian and military advisors, turned the problem of Vietnam into a full-scale American war that claimed 58,000 American and over1,000,000Vietnamese lives. Lyndon Johnson's role is shown to be much more prominent than he admitted in his own memoirs, and as Washington steadily lost control of the war, McMaster argues how much of it is due to arrogance and political agenda, including deliberate deception of the American public that would ensure Johnson's reelection in 1964 on the platform of a "peace candidate."
Dereliction of Duty is a sobering, well-written account of how the Vietnam War was all but conceded in closed meetings by top officials in Washington, D.C. long before battles in the bush, skepticism in the press, or protest on college campuses. The clear and factual details that McMaster relays reinforces the tragedy of Vietnam, a war essentially without a clear purpose and orchestrated by political figures who sacrificed lives not so much in the name of national security, but political greed. "I want readers to understand," says the author, "that the disaster in Vietnam was uniquely due to human failure and not an inevitable outgrowth of the Cold War mentality of containment. This failure resulted from a fundamental dishonesty, and an abdication of responsibility to the American people, on the part of Lyndon Johnson, top advisors like Robert McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
What gives 'Dereliction of Duty' its special value . . . is McMaster's comprehensive, balanced and relentless exploration of the specific role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. . . . As a result, he is able to explode some longstanding myths about the role of the Chiefs. According to the most popular of these, the Joint Chiefs always knew what was needed to win in Vietnam but were consistently ignored or circumvented by Johnson, Robert S. McNamara and their associates. McMaster shows that the President and his civilian advisers did indeed ignore the Joint Chiefs whenever it suited them, but he also demonstrates that the Chiefs were willing, or at least silent, accomplices in this process. -Ronald Spector - The New York Times Book Review:
Paul F. Braim
This book is an excellent addition to the growing record of inadequacies in
senior leadership during that time of America's travail. McMaster's directcharge: Dereliction of duty by LBJ and his intimate advisors, and culpabilityby senior military leaders, in their commitment of our nation's most scarce and precious resource--our young soldiers--into a war under restrictions that produced high casualties and ultimate defeat for the United States. This provocative book brings the accused, alive and dead, before the bar of public justice. This reviewer's verdict: Guilty as charged! - Paul F. Braim - Parameters (Carlisle Barracks, Pa.)
An impressive study thorough in its research and summary in its judgments. [McMaster] doesn't shy from bold interpretation, or the damning insight, and his analysis, a model of clarity and economy, puts civil-military relations during the Vietnam war in an eerie, indeed Byzantine light.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
An outstanding example of historical research, interpretation, scholarship, and fair-minded analysis.
Four star generals do not normally consult the writings of junior field grade officers for advice about career decisions. But it was widely reported that when Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald Fogelman decided to resign in 1997, he did so at least in part on the basis of a careful reading of H. R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty. . . . "McMaster has written a scathing indictment of America's civilian and military leadership during the early phases of the Vietnam war, and he speaks. . . with unique moral authority. . . . McMaster earned his moral authority under fire. . . . By virtue of his actions [in the Gulf War], McMaster became a hero. . . . "[McMaster] speaks with unusual authority as a symbol of the confident young veterans of the Gulf. His call to his leaders to hold themselves to high standards of professional integrity is, therefore, an important one. No wonder, then, that General Fogelman, himself an acute student of history, would pay close attention to work that on nearly every page excoriates his predecessors for their unwillingness to speak and act as their positions required. . . . "Recently, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, invited Major McMaster to lecture to the most senior generals in the American military about his book.
A stunning book:eloquent and highly effective. The word noble would not be going too far.
Carefully researched and vividly narrated, H. R. McMaster's book adds a new and disturbing dimension to an understanding of the decisions that propelled us into the Vietnam war. It should be read by anyone interested in the origins of one of the great tragedies in American history.
Thoroughly researched, clearly written and forcefully argued.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
A book to boggle your mind with new revelations of ineptness, duplicity, and arrogance amongst the senior-most officials of the United States. . . . McMaster pastes all the puzzle pieces together to reveal a plot Shakespearean in its proportions . . . McMaster's scholarship and presentation is exemplary in Dereliction of Duty. . . The author's arguments are coherent and convincing and important to the historical record.
The Washington Monthly
A fabulous piece of scholarship. This book will open a whole new chapter in our study of Vietnam.
Lately [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General] Shelton has been closely reading a book called Dereliction of Duty. Its thesis:that the Joint Chiefs of Staff lost the Vietnam War by failing to stand up to civilian leadership.
San Francisco Chronicle
Brilliant. . . a penetrating analysis.
McMaster's book has drawn high praise from experts. . His dogged research unearthed thousands of pages of material denied other historians and writers.
Seattle Post Intelligencer
Arnold R. Isaacs
Well-written and full of enlightening new details, Dereliction of Duty adds significantly to the historical record of a great national failure.
Washington Post Book World
Harold G. Moore
Superbly researched, play-by-play, riveting inside story of the genesis of the American War in Vietnam. Assorted firepower explodes on every page.
Joseph L. Galloway
Here's everything you didn't read in Robert S. McNamara's book. Vietnam did not simply happen; it was not an accidental Cold War collision that killed 58, 000 Americans and a million Vietnamese. Men of power and responsibility caused that disastrous war and left their fingerprints all over it'and here are their names and what they did and said and decided in secret. McMaster has mined newly declassified records and, in these pages, sheds fresh light and understanding on how the best and the brightest, shielded by a bodyguard of lies and the words top secret, maneuvered and manipulated our country down the road to war and bitter defeat.
A tough, straightforward and hard hitting account of early decisions that set the course for the U. S. war in Vietnam. H. R. McMaster's book is vital in understanding those times and those critical decisions.
Edward M. Coffman
H. R. McMaster's new Dereliction of Duty stands out as a particularly well-documented, searing indictment of the civilian and military leadership. This is the clearest and most cogent argument as to the basic causes of the disaster.
Harry G. Summers
Invaluable. . . a most readable, yet meticulously documented history.
A book to boggle your mind with new revelations of ineptness, duplicity, and arrogance amongst the seniormost officials of the United States….McMaster pastes all the puzzle pieces together to reveal a plot Shakespearean in its proportion….McMaster's scholarship and presentation is exemplary in Dereliction of Duty….The author's arguments are coherent and convincing and important to the historical record.
Arnold R. Isaacs
Wellwritten and full of enlightening new details, Dereliction of Duty adds significantly to the historical record of a great national failure.
Washington Post Book World
An intriguing analysis that challenges the view that Cold War anticommunism was primarily responsible for American military intervention in Vietnam.
In his first book, McMaster, a US Army major and Persian Gulf war veteran, and a historian who has taught at West Point, zeroes in on the actions of Lyndon Johnson and his top advisers from the time LBJ became president in November 1963 to the July 1965 decision to escalate the war drastically. The author makes a convincing case that domestic political considerations were behind the development of the failed strategy of graduated military pressure. The actions of Johnson, his top civilian advisers, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) were, moreover, characterized by "arrogance, weakness [and] lying in the pursuit of self interest." President Johnson heads McMaster's culpability list, which also includes Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, JCS head and US ambassador to South Vietnam Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Taylor's JCS successor, Gen. Earle Wheeler, and top advisers William and McGeorge Bundy. McMaster's touchstone is the unchallenged fact that Johnson wanted to fight the war on poverty, not the war in Vietnam. McMaster interprets virtually all of LBJ's actions as chief executive in that light. From November 1963 to November 1964 Johnson's overarching goal was to win the presidential election. After that, his main concern was enacting his Great Society programs. The fact that Johnson made Vietnam policy based on domestic-policy implications, McMaster believes, was a recipe for disaster in Vietnam. David Halberstam promulgated similar arguments in The Best and the Brightest (1972). McMaster, using newly released transcripts and other primary source material, pays more attention to the JCS's role. Unsparing in his analysis of the chiefs, McMaster takes them severely to task for their "failure" to provide LBJ with "their best advice."
A relentless, stinging indictment of the usual Johnson administration Vietnam War suspects.
Read an Excerpt
The New Frontiersmen and the Old Guard October 1962
"Allowing for reasonable exceptions and a wide latitude of variation, the typical New Frontiersman is about 46 years old, highly energetic, distinctly articulate and refreshingly idealistic. In short, he has much in common with the man the American people have chosen as their President."
M. B. Schnapper, 19611
The disaster of the Vietnam War would dominate America's memory of a decade that began with great promise. In the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon. Despite a narrow margin of victory, the new president exuded confidence. His clarion call, "Let us begin anew," evoked the prospect of a new era of prosperity and opportunity.Although he was only five years younger than Nixon, Kennedy at forty-three seemed youthful and vigorous compared to his opponent and the "old timers" of Eisenhower's administration. A witty, attractive man, Kennedy was a World War II hero and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who had gained considerable political experience as a congressman and senator. His rhetoric exhorted America's youth to "pay any price" and "bear any burden" to extend the virtues of their country to the rest of the world.The idealism that Kennedy seemed to personify would be lost in a place that, in 1960, was of little interest or significance to Americans.
A campaign issue that Kennedy had taken up with some vigor was that of the need for reform in national defense strategy and the management of the Department of Defense. Truman administration Defense Secretary Robert Lovettadvised Kennedy that reform in the Pentagon would be "painful" but was "long overdue." He told him that his defense secretary should be "an analytical statistician who can . . . tear out the overlap, the empire building."Lovett urged the president-elect to consider the forty-four-year-old president of the Ford Motor Company, Robert Strange McNamara, for the job.
When World War II began, Robert McNamara was serving on the business faculty at Harvard University, teaching the application of statistical analysis to management problems. Initially disqualified from military service because of his inability to pass an eye examination, he became a consultant to the War Department to develop statistical controls within the Army Air Corps supply system. After spending the first year of the war teaching at the Army Air Forces Statistical Control Officers School, McNamara requested an assignment to the Eighth Air Force in England. McNamara arrived in England in February 1943 and, after three weeks, sought a commission as a captain. The professor-turned-military-officer became part of a traveling statistical control group that analyzed maintenance, logistics, and operational problems in England, India, China, and the Pacific. McNamara often met resistance from military officers who discounted his new methods. A lieutenant colonel in 1945, he left the Army an ardent believer in the need for statistical management and control over military organizations.
After World War II, McNamara, with several of his Army Air Corps statistician colleagues, joined Ford. They were known collectively as the Whiz Kids, a term later associated with the young analysts McNamara brought with him to the Pentagon. At Ford, McNamara preferred the academic milieu of Ann Arbor to the corporate culture of suburban Detroit. His drive, ambition, and analytical talents led to his appointment, in November 1960, as the first company president who was not a member of the Ford family. One month later R. Sargent Shriver, John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law, visited McNamara on behalf of the president-elect. Although he intended to remain at Ford, McNamara agreed to fly to meet Kennedy.
Among the qualities that Kennedy admired was self-assurance. During his second meeting with Kennedy, McNamara surprised the president-elect and his brother Robert with his assertiveness. He handed Jack Kennedy a contract stipulating that he be given free rein over appointments in the Department of Defense and not be expected to engage in purely social events. Kennedy read the document and passed it, unsigned, to his brother. McNamara seemed the man for the job. The Kennedy brothers swept McNamara out the front door of the brick Georgetown house and introduced the secretary of defense-designate to the bevy of reporters waiting outside in the freezing cold.
Kennedy worried most over the appointment of a secretary of state. Reluctant to alienate any of his key Democratic constituencies, he settled on everyone's second choice, Dean Rusk. Rusk, a former Rhodes scholar from Georgia, was a professor of government and dean of faculty at Mills College in California, when, in 1940, he was ordered into active military service as an Army captain. He served initially in Washington as an intelligence analyst. With the advent of American involvement in World War II, Rusk left the capital for the headquarters of the China, Burma, and India theater of operations. The quality of the cables that the young staff officer sent to the War Department caught the eye of Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. General Marshall summoned Rusk to Washington, where he joined Col. George A. Lincoln's Strategy and Policy Group to help develop long-range politico-military contingency plans. In 1946 Rusk joined the State Department and, in 1950, became Secretary of State Dean Acheson's assistant for Far Eastern affairs. In 1952 he left the State Department to head the Rockefeller Foundation. During his years of government service, Rusk built a solid reputation for loyalty and trustworthiness within the Democratic establishment. The unprepossessing, introspective Rusk provided a conspicuous contrast to the confident, assertive McNamara. Lovett and Acheson had recommended Rusk enthusiastically, and, after a brief interview, Kennedy decided to appoint him.
Kennedy had considered McGeorge Bundy for secretary of state, but concluded that he was too young. In 1953, Bundy, at thirty-four, was appointed dean of Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His formative years were spent in the best schools of the NortheastGroton, Yale, Harvardand in association with some of the most influential people in the twentieth-century United States. He assisted Henry Stimson (William Howard Taft's secretary of war, Herbert Hoover's secretary of state, and Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of war) in the preparation of his memoirs. He also helped Dean Acheson prepare a collection of his personal papers for publication. Bundy was known for an abruptness and imperious demeanor with those he considered his intellectual inferiors, but he could also be effusive and engaging in a social setting. Kennedy chose him as special assistant for national security affairs (usually called national security adviser).
Kennedy placed a premium on academic qualifications and superior intellect. McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy all shared distinguished academic backgrounds. Moreover Kennedy wanted men who shared his broad interests and could engage in wide-ranging, informal discussions. Perhaps the most important determining factor of each man's relative influence would be his ability to establish a close personal rapport with the president. Rusk, who preferred established procedures and protocol, had difficulty adjusting to the president's freewheeling style. Socially he remained distant from the president and was the only senior official Kennedy did not address by his first name. McNamara and Bundy would prove more adept at securing the president's confidence and affection.
The president's personal style influenced the way he structured the White House staff to handle national security decision making. Having no experience as an executive, Kennedy was unaccustomed to operating at the head of a large staff organization. He regarded Eisenhower's National Security Council (NSC) structure as cumbersome and unnecessary. Immediately after taking office, he eliminated the substructure of the NSC by abolishing its two major committees: the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). Kennedy resolved not to use the NSC except for the pro forma consultation required by the National Security Act of 1947. In place of the formal Eisenhower system, Kennedy relied on an ad hoc, collegial style of decision making in national security and foreign affairs. He formed task forces to analyze particular problems and met irregularly with an "inner club" of his most trusted advisers to discuss problems informally and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of potential courses of action.