“The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or 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, even before the first American units were deployed.”
from Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by HR McMaster (1997)
When General H.R. McMaster became President Trump’s National Security Advisor (NSA) I took a look at his background. Turns out McMaster holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of North Carolina and his doctoral thesis was later published as Dereliction of Duty. The book is a detailed, scathing indictment of the decision making of President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the time of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 to the introduction of large numbers of American combat troops into Vietnam in July 1965.
I decided to read the book to learn more about this period of history, and gain some insight into our new NSA. On the latter point, I came away feeling that McMaster is much better qualified for the role than his most recent predecessors, Michael Flynn and Susan Rice. Of course, writing a book criticizing others does not guarantee you will not repeat their failures when put into the same position.
While McMaster’s research is exhaustive, large parts of this ground have been plowed before, all the way back to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Nonetheless, it is a useful, though depressing reminder of that history, given added impact by McMaster’s outrage as a serving officer on the failure of the Joint Chiefs during that critical time.
I’ve summarized the major points of his argument below (this is an abridged version of a longer review on my personal blog, which you can find here).
McMaster’s focus in Dereliction is the decision-making process and he does not directly address the substance of the preferred Vietnam policy nor does he clearly indicate his belief as to the right policy. I infer from some of his remarks that he may believe that military intervention under any circumstances was doomed to failure but I could be misreading him. Because of the process focus it becomes especially important to always keep in mind the underlying substance. You can get the process right and still be completely wrong on the substance.
Cast of Characters
Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Initiated on an informal basis by President Roosevelt during WWII, it gained formal status under the National Security Act of 1947. In the early 1960s the JCS consisted of the Chairman, the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Marine Corps Commandant. Its purpose was to advise the President, Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council (NSC) on military matters.
JCS Members: 1963-65
- General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman (1962-64); appointed in 1964 as Ambassador to South Vietnam
- General Earle Wheeler, Chairman (1964-70) and Army Chief of Staff (1962-64)
- General Harold Johnson, Army Chief of Staff (1964-68)
- Admiral David McDonald, Chief of Naval Operations (1963-67)
- General Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff (1961-Jan. 1965)
- General John McConnell, Air Force Chief of Staff (1965-69)
- General David Shoup, Marine Corps Commandant (1960-63)
- General Wallace Greene, Marine Corps Commandant (1964-67)
- Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1961-68), former President of Ford Motor Company
- Presidents John F. Kennedy & Lyndon B. Johnson
The Kennedy Prequel
While the critical decisions leading to making Vietnam an American war were during the Johnson Administration, actions by his predecessor paved the way.
JFK held little regard for departing President Eisenhower’s policy of reliance on nuclear deterrence and reduction of conventional military forces. The incoming president was enamored of new ideas around flexible response and unconventional warfare as better strategies to confront the communist threat. One of the best known of the proponents of these new ideas was General Maxwell Taylor. Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne Division in WWII and Army Chief of Staff from 1955 to 1959, retired from active service because of his disagreements with Eisenhower.
Within three months of taking office, JFK faced a humiliating fiasco with the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation designed to overthrow Fidel Castro. Kennedy, furious with what he felt was misleading and ineffectual advice from the CIA and the JCS, asked Maxwell to lead an investigation on the causes of the failure. This led to Taylor’s return to active service as military representative to the President, an irregular position allowing JFK to bypass the JCS, who he increasingly distrusted. A year later the President regularized Taylor’s role by naming him Chairman of the JCS. Along the way, the general became close friends with both the JFK and his brother Bobby (who named one of his children Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy), as he later also did with LBJ.
The contrast between the nature of Taylor’s relationship with the Kennedys, and later LBJ, and that of General George C. Marshall with FDR, is striking. Famously, FDR promoted Marshall to Army Chief of Staff over senior officers, despite the general having been the only military officer to disagree with him during a meeting regarding a presidential proposal (for more on the incident, read Management Lessons). And while Marshall eventually became an admirer of FDR, their relationship during WWII was strictly professional. Marshall and the president never socialized or interacted other than on military matters.
With Taylor’s help, JFK began implementing his new anti-communist strategy and the place he picked was Southeast Asia; first Laos and then South Vietnam, where the number of American military advisers increased to 16,000 by the time of his death in 1963.
The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962 reinforced JFK’s distrust of the JCS, as well as enhancing the prestige of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the auto executive who brought management systems and quantitative analysis to the Pentagon. Throughout the crisis, the president resisted pressure from the JCS for military action against Cuba, instead following the path of “gradual pressure” advocated by McNamara, resulting in a peaceful and successful resolution. “Gradual pressure” referred to step by step ratcheting up of pressure which could be carefully controlled and which would compel an opponent to react in a predictable way until such time as the situation could be resolved.
JFK’s next step in diminishing the role of the individual members of the JCS was to name Taylor as its Chairman in 1962. The combination of Taylor’s personal relationship with the president and his bureaucratic skills allowed him to dominate the JCS. And, according to McMaster, Taylor arranged to have Earle Wheeler appointed Army Chief of Staff (and eventually his successor as Chairman), precisely because he was not a strong personality and leader. McMaster characterizes Wheeler as lacking “the drive and energy to discharge his responsibilities to the fullest”.
The Taylor-Kennedy relationship, and the resulting marginalization of the JCS, as well as of the National Security Council (NSC) is, in McMaster’s view, the fundamental mistake in the structure of the decision making process, one that carried over to the Johnson Administration. In contrast, McMaster thinks the process driven system of the Eisenhower years was a better approach.
Becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Diem regime, both for its military failures as well as alienation of the country’s Buddhist majority Kennedy sanctioned a military coup (an action opposed by Lyndon Johnson) which took place on November 1, 1963 and resulted in the deaths of Diem and his brother.
What many participants failed to realize at the time was Diem’s overthrow would saddle the United States with responsibility for the successor government and the war itself.
The Johnson Years
Two days after becoming President, LBJ met with Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge and asked him to inform the country’s new leader, General Minh, he was “Not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China did“, referring to China’s fall to the communists in 1949. LBJ was haunted by the fear that losing Vietnam would politically destroy his new administration. Johnson’s priorities were domestic, not international – win election in his own right in 1964 and pass Civil Rights and Great Society legislation.
McMaster puts it this way:
“What Johnson feared most in 1964 was losing his chance to in the presidency in his own right. He saw Vietnam principally as a danger to that goal. After the election, he feared that an American military response . . . would jeopardize chances that his Great Society would pass through Congress. . . McNamara would help the president first protect his electoral chances and then pass the Great Society by offering a strategy for Vietnam that appeared cheap and could be conducted with minimal public and congressional attention.”
Johnson would see the Civil Rights Act enacted in 1964, win an overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater that November, and obtain passage of the Great Society legislation the following year, but by mid-1965, Vietnam had grown from a nuisance to a land war in Asia with 150,000 US troops on the ground or enroute to that country. It would ultimately cost LBJ his presidency, and nearly 60,000 Americans their lives.
Over that 20 month period all of the critical decisions were made leading to the war and its result. In McMaster’s telling it took a president unsure of himself, distrustful of others (his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy later wrote, “he was . . . the wariest man about whom to trust that I have ever encountered“), and unwilling to think long-term, always focused on Vietnam as a tactical, not strategic issue; a defense secretary too sure of himself and contemptuous of military advice; and an ineffective JCS, riven by interservice rivalries, too wary of confronting civilian leadership with the implications of its policies and too cowardly to resign when they knew those policies would fail, that together led to the failure in Vietnam. In the end, they didn’t just deceive Congress and the American people, they deceived themselves.
It is striking how clearly in 1964 and 1965 civilian planners rationalized that committing the US military to a war in Vietnam and losing would be preferable to withdrawing, “They believed that if the US demonstrated that it would use military force to support its foreign policy, its international stature would be enhanced, regardless of the outcome.” This was expressed most directly by NSA McGeorge Bundy at a White House meeting on February 7, 1965 when supported sending American combat troops even though a favorable outcome was as low as 25% because he was 100% sure that, even if it failed, the policy would be worth it to preserve American credibility.
For a president who saw both withdrawal and major escalation as politically problematic, McNamara’s strategy of “gradual pressure” seemed ideal. Its successful application in the crisis of October 1962 misled officials to believe it would work in very different circumstances in Southeast Asia. The Secretary was convinced that traditional military conceptions of use of force were irrelevant, “Aim of force was not to impose one’s will on the enemy but to communicate with him. Gradually intensifying military action would convey American resolve and thereby convince an adversary to alter his behavior.” McNamara believed he could precisely calculate the amount of force needed to achieve American objectives.
There were two different world views in play;
Those who believed in the application of systems analysis to military strategy thought it incorrect to argue that the enemy “will do his worst”. Instead planners should assume that the enemy “is in much the same position as we” and will “adapt his behavior”.
McMaster writes of the view that controlled, rational application of military force would result in the United States and its adversary reaching “simultaneously a judgment about what is the most reasonable choice for us to make and what is a reasonable choice for him to be making“. As he concludes, they “failed to consider that Hanoi’s commitment to revolutionary war made losses that seemed unconscionable to American white-collar professionals of little consequence to Ho’s government“, or, as lead JCS planner, Lt. General Goodpaster told McNamara in the fall of 1964:
Sir, you are trying to program the enemy and that is one thing we must never try to do. We can’t do his thinking for him.
The JCS never forced the issue, despite its misgivings, leading to the situation McMaster describes:
Instead of considering what deepening American involvement in Vietnam might ultimately cost or voicing individual doubts, the Joint Chiefs compromised, listing actions that would contribute to the war effort, and contented themselves with gaining incremental approval for them. Everyone – the president, his closest civilian advisers, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff – had taken the path of least resistance. As a result the most difficult questions about the nature of American involvement in Vietnam remained unanswered . . .
Much of what later happened in Vietnam was predicted by several of the participants.
The Army and Marine Corps JCS members independently concluded it would ultimately take 500-700,000 US troops and several years to prevail under gradual pressure, yet the JCS itself never undertook such a detail analysis and never informed the president of these views (though McNamara was aware).
JCS war games in April and September 1964 concluded that gradual pressure would hand the initiative to the communists, that air attacks would have minimal impact, escalation on the ground would occur, the U.S. would suffer significant casualties and support for the war would erode in the U.S. McNamara rejected the results because they did not meet his criteria for systematic and quantitative analysis.
After an intelligence briefing newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey was concerned enough to send a memo to LBJ pledging that while he would support any decision made by the president he was concerned about deepening American involvement. He said there was little hope for success and the United State would become “prisoner of events” and unable to maintain public support, citing the example of the Korean War. Humphrey suggested the president’s November landslide victory put him in a strong position to distance himself from Vietnam. LBJ’s response was to block any further intelligence briefings of the VP and exclude him from any deliberations on Vietnam.
In April CIA Director John McCone told that president that unless the US was willing to take out North Vietnamese airfields, aircraft and infrastructure ground troops should not be committed. Once again LBJ rejected the advice and McCone resigned in frustration several weeks later. It is at this point JCS Chairman Wheeler should also have resigned, in the opinion of McMaster.
A month later, McCone’s successor, William Raborn sent a memo to the president advising that by sending combat troops, the US would be pinned down and face only bad choices. The president forwarded the memo to Clark Clifford, presidential advisor and elder statesmen. Clifford responded that troops should be kept to a minimum, warned Vietnam “could be a quagmire” and urged LBJ to pursue a negotiated settlement.
Johnson himself recognized the risks very early, telling McGeorge Bundy in May 64:
. . . looks like to me we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of this. It was the biggest damn mess that I ever saw . . . It’s damn easy to get into a war, but . . . it’s going to be harder to ever extricate yourself . . .
The March 1965 Viet Cong attack on the American base at Pleiku in the central highlands region, near the Cambodian border, killing 8 servicemen and wounding 115, triggered the next step. By the end of the month, Johnson approved the introduction of combat troops though, once again, there was no true strategic discussion between the president and his advisers. The JCS limited itself to discussing tactical matters and as to the president, McMaster writes:
The president, however, would refuse to consider or even to acknowledge the consequences of his decisions, and thus still imagined that he could pursue a policy of gradual escalation without involving the US in a major war.
By April 13, the president ordered a change in the mission of ground troops from providing security to offensive operations but directed this be kept secret from Congress and the public. In a meeting that month, LBJ instructed General Wheeler, “. . . to come back here next Tuesday and tell me how we are going to kill more Viet Cong.” Marine Corps Commandant Greene wrote of that meeting, “the president does not seem to grasp the details of what can and cannot be done in Vietnam!” Nonetheless McMaster notes, “Killing more Viet Cong was a tactical mission which the JCS accepted“.
Throughout this period, the administration denied any change in the mission of ground troops. This was not the first case of misleading by the administration. The prior August, after the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the administration and McNamara specifically misled and lied to Congress about the background of the incident and American involvement in South Vietnam attacks in the north.
Then, on June 8, a state department official asked about the mission responded that US forces would be used in offensive combat operations, prompting a NY Times editorial expressing surprise that “the American people were told by a minor State Department official yesterday, that, in effect, they were in a land war on the continent of Asia“. In response, White House Press Secretary Reedy stated “There has been no change in the mission of US ground combat units in Viet Nam in recent days or weeks“.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground was becoming so desperate, General Westmoreland cabled Washington asking for even more troops to avoid a disaster. At a June 11 NSC meeting, the president approved an increase to 123,000. His remarks illustrate continuing confusion about the situation and America’s goals:
We must delay and deter the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as much as we can, and as simply as we can, without going all out. When we grant General Westmoreland’s request [for 175,000], it means that we get in deeper and it is harder to get out. They think they are winning and we think they are. We must determine which course gives us the maximum protection at the least cost’.”
All of which begs the question, for what purpose?
Events moved to a climax in July.
In late July, in advance of a press conference at which the president would announce the deployment of additional troops, he met with Congressional leaders. One of the concerns was the potential budget impact on the deployment. The administration was aware it would cost an additional $12 billion (at a time when the entire Defense budget was only $55 billion), a figure which could endanger the planned spending for the Great Society. At the meeting, the budget increase was understated by $10 billion. As presidential aide Jack Valenti later wrote, “the last thing that Lyndon Johnson wanted was to make public his strategy about the Great Society and the war.” Further at that matter McNamara lied about the number of troops being deployed (cutting it in half) and denied troops were already engaged in combat operations. General Wheeler sat silent during the briefing.
On July 28, Lyndon Johnson told America of the troop deployment but assured the country that his action “did not imply any change in policy whatever“. By the end of 1965, 200,000 American troops were deployed in Vietnam.
McMaster quotes a very insightful comment by Idaho Senator Frank Church on President Johnson’s approach to Vietnam.
He [LBJ] played a role between the doves and the hawks, and he did it much the way he used to conduct his majority leadership. He did it on the notion that here was some middle ground, always, on which the majority of the votes could be secured. That was true in the Senate where you have to find that consensus in order to enact legislation. But I think the role of the president is different from that of a senator and that this was a matter of policy that could not be cut down the middle.
Earlier I mentioned a contrast between FDR and JFK/LBJ in their use of advisers, including the JCS. There were other contrasts. Roosevelt directly engaged his military leaders and they had some extremely heated and prolonged discussions, Marshall even threatening to resign at one point. Yet the process forced discussion of the essential issues, something missing in the 1960s and it says something for the willingness of Roosevelt to engage and of Marshall, King and Arnold to be much more direct than their successors twenty years later. Roosevelt and the Chiefs also had Harry Hopkins, a figure for which there was no equivalent in the 1960s. Hopkins played a critical role as a back channel, trusted by everyone, who could help resolve issues (for more read, Who Was Harry Hopkins?). Instead, McNamara and Taylor eliminated any back channels; everything was funneled through them, a danger in any organization.
McMaster’s verdict on McNamara:
McNamara refused to consider the consequences of his recommendations and forged ahead oblivious of the human and psychological complexities of war.
And on the JCS:
The Chiefs’ inability to overcome the service parochialism that had plagued the JCS organization since its inception undercut their legitimacy and made them vulnerable to Taylor’s and McNamara’s tactics.
The JCS were unable to articulate effectively either their objections or alternatives . . . failed to confront the president with their objections to McNamara’s approach to the war . . . accepted a strategy they knew would lead to a large but inadequate commitment of troops, for an extended period of time, with little hope for success.
The five silent men on the Joint Chiefs made possible the way the United States went to war in Vietnam.
The result was “American soldiers, airmen, and Marines went to war in Vietnam without strategy or direction.”