Dereliction of Duty

Jan. 1, 1998

H.R. McMaster is the author of Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, published last May by Harper-Collins. He is an active duty US Army major. His book, which he researched and wrote on sabbatical, is extraordinary–if not unprecedented–in the degree of attention, credibility, and influence it has achieved among military leaders and professionals. It is based largely on previously secret tape recordings and transcripts of key meetings during the period 1963-65, and it presents an important new analysis of how the US got into the Vietnam War. It reveals how President Lyndon B. Johnson and his top advisers, insufficiently challenged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, forgot about integrity and followed a course of “arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.” (An exception was Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, whom the author termed a “thorn in the Administration’s side.”) McMaster met on Oct. 29 with the Defense Writers Group in Washington.

All the Way With LBJ

“One of the major themes in the book, resulting from the research, was Lyndon Johnson’s deliberate circumvention of the Constitution of the United States [on war planning]–to deny the people, and their representatives in Congress, a say in whether or not the country went to war.

“One of the things he was most concerned about was that, as our involvement in Vietnam grew, the gap between the nature of that involvement and LBJ’s depiction of it to the American people widened. Over time, he became quite vulnerable to a military officer who would be candid with the Congress of the United States and who would provide information that would reveal the depth of our commitment and the nature of the long-term costs and consequences associated with Americanizing the war.

“[For this reason] Johnson was very much concerned about the civil-military relationship. What’s particularly striking about it is, he didn’t want military advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What he wanted, instead, was tacit approval for decisions already made. And he also wanted to use their uniforms to lend credibility to his policies, even though they really hadn’t had a say in any of these decisions.”

The Coach and His Team

“He wanted to keep the Chiefs on the team. There’s a very compelling chapter called ‘The Coach and his Team.’ It’s a … record of a meeting between Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he says, ‘I’m like a coach … and you all are my team. You’re all Johnson men.’ In that meeting you can see all of the tactics Johnson used to manipulate the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to keep them on the team, and to get them to support his policy.

“He would alternate using threats, lauding them, but principally he would hold out the promise of future action-that, over time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be able to pursue a military strategy in Vietnam more in keeping with their ideas about the use of force, rather than McNamara’s strategy [of slow, graduated pressure].”

What Should They Have Done

“In the book, I don’t say, ‘Hey, these guys [the Chiefs] should have resigned.’ … But they should have given their best advice [to Johnson and to Congress]. They should have said, ‘Mr. President, you’re trying to win this thing with mirrors.’ … Johnson crafted his requests for advice to get the answers that he wanted. … I think if all of them had been honest with him at all times, when he asked their opinion, that would have made a difference. If they had been honest with the Congress, … that would have made a difference. …

“They became [a] party to this. Essentially, instead of questioning a strategy that they knew to be fundamentally flawed, the Chiefs signed up for that strategy and took … a ‘foot in the door’ approach. It was, ‘Just get the first bomb runs off. Just get the first Marine battalions in. And then once we’re in, we’ll have more bargaining power in connection with escalating the war and fighting it in a way more in keeping with our own views.’ “

McNamara’s Strategy

“It [a strategy of graduated pressure] was developed to conform with the President’s domestic political concerns. It was a strategy based on assisting Johnson in getting elected in 1964 and passing the Great Society [legislation] in 1965. …

“The military [in response] made the mistake of engaging in executive and legislative politics by thinking-and this is a quote from [Gen.] Earle Wheeler, when he was Army Chief of Staff and about to become JCS Chairman-‘This war could be lost in the Congress if they lose faith in this.’ This was in the context of him giving instructions to [Gen. William C.] Westmoreland on his way to Vietnam, in essence telling Westmoreland to be really careful of what he says and to portray the war in the most favorable light so that Congress doesn’t lose faith.”

Admiral McDonald’s Case

“[Parochial service interest] was a huge problem with the Chiefs during the Vietnam period. The Chiefs were loyal to their services more than they were, I think, to their duties as principal military advisers.

“One example was Adm. [David L.] McDonald, Chief of Naval Operations. He was very adamant in private meetings within the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the flaws in McNamara’s strategy of graduated pressure. Forces were not used to destroy the enemy’s capabilities [but to] signal intentions, to hold out the prospect of greater damage in the future. …

“Admiral McDonald thought this was doomed to failure. He was quite adamant about it in meetings within the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But when he met with the National Security Council or with the President, he was silent, strangely silent. I had this question in my mind, as to why he would behave this way.”

McDonald’s Motives

“In his oral history at the Washington Navy Yard, he stated that McNamara backed him when no one else would back him on a matter of importance to the Navy. That [matter] was: Who was going to succeed Adm. [Harry D.] Felt as CINCPAC? [Commander in Chief, Pacific, always had been a naval officer.]

“The Chiefs had voted on whom it would be, and it was Air Force Gen. Jacob Smart. … The Commandant of the Marine Corps even voted against McDonald, which he [McDonald] would hold against him for the rest of their time together.

“McDonald said in his oral history, ‘After that [McNamara’s decision to support the Navy and nominate Adm. Ulysses Grant Sharp instead of Smart], I always felt indebted to McNamara, on Vietnam and other issues.’

“He also said after that, reflecting on his behavior and his suppression of his own views, ‘Maybe we were all weak. Maybe we should have stood up and pounded the table. I was part of it, and I’m sort of ashamed of myself, too.’ “

Lack of Debate

“What’s astonishing is that … debate [over Vietnam strategy] did not occur until after we were at war. So no one had really assessed what it would take, or talked to the President certainly, or debated what it would take to win in Vietnam, to define what win would mean, and then develop a strategy to achieve that policy goal or objective. …

“You have the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who think that it’s going to take 500,000 troops and five years just to stabilize the situation, including a ground invasion. You have the President and the Secretary of Defense who are determined to severely limit the American military effort for a number of reasons-domestic political concerns [first the 1964 Presidential election and then the 1965 Great Society legislative effort] and also the fear of escalation in connection with China.

“So, if they had sat down to try to reconcile their views, they could not have helped but come to the conclusion that the effort would be futile. What happened is that the President, instead of defining a goal and objective, kept it deliberately ambiguous.”

“Mr. McNamara’s Bank”

“The President decided what level of force was going to be politically palatable in the short term and then he made that available to the Joint Chiefs.

“[In early 1965], the Chiefs came in with a watered-down proposal-three divisions, which is about one-fourth of what they thought would ultimately be required [to hold the line in Vietnam]. They sat in with the President and told him, ‘Three divisions.’ This is the Chairman, Earle Wheeler.

“McNamara was sitting next to him, tallying up the numbers, including those that were already in Vietnam. He came up with a number of 150,000 troops. Johnson said, ‘No, dammit, I can’t give you 150,000 troops. Women will come out of their pantries and take their aprons off’-meaning there was not enough public support for this effort.

“So then, he turned to [Army Chief of Staff Gen.] Harold K. Johnson and asked him the same question, ‘How many troops do you think it’s going to take?’ He said, ‘Three divisions.’

“And Johnson said, ‘Now, dammit, I’m not going to give you three divisions.’ He said, ‘Let me tell you a story. Imagine you’re all businessmen, you’re businessmen down in Johnson City, Texas, and you need a small business loan to keep your business afloat because you’re having some financial problems. You go to the bank, and it’s Mr. McNamara’s bank. You say, ‘I need $150,000 to keep my business afloat.’ And the banker says, ‘I can’t give you $150,000, but I can give you $5,000.’

“Then he looked at the Chiefs and he said, ‘What do you do? Do you take the $5,000 and do the best with what you’ve got, or do you let your business go under?’ “

5,000 Marines

“Then he [Johnson] turned to the Commandant of the Marine Corps [Gen. Wallace M. Greene Jr.], who believed it might take 700,000 troops, and he said, ‘General Greene, what do you think? You had some good ideas when you were here last time.’ He was patronizing; it was the whole Johnson treatment, keeping him on the team.

“General Greene said, ‘Hey, I think 5,000 Marines would do a hell of a lot of good in Vietnam.’ He [Greene] saw Vietnam as an opportunity to create a second Army, to increase the size of the Corps.”

Tactics-Strategy Disconnect

“What you had was activity without any idea how that military activity was connected to progress in the war effort. You see this in personal accounts of the war as well-the frustration, the lack of understanding about how the risks that individuals are taking, the sacrifices they are making, relate to any sort of end state in this thing. And so you have bombing North Vietnam, and you have killing Viet Cong in South Vietnam. It’s activity that’s automatically equated with progress, but of course it doesn’t mean progress at all.

“The President reinforced this because his focus was short term. He wanted to show improvement in the situation. He wanted to pursue his domestic agenda. So he told the Joint Chiefs, ‘I want you to kill more Viet Cong.’ This was in April 1965. He encouraged this focus on tactics, instead of strategy. He focused the Chiefs away from their principal responsibilities and tried to keep them on the team.”

“Lessons” of Vietnam

“This research really convinced me that Vietnam was the result of a unique interaction of personalities and circumstances. [The most crucial personality] was Johnson, by far. And I would say McNamara as well.

“Gosh, how do you talk about Johnson’s personality? We could have a week-long seminar on that, right? There were so many aspects of his personality, but the most overwhelming was his profound insecurity, his constant desire for reassurance, his associated fear of dissent, and his associated fear of leaks to the press.

“Johnson was almost paranoid about the people around him. So just when the situation in Vietnam was demanding a wide debate and an examination of alternatives, he was shunning his advisers, drawing his adviser circle closer and closer, and relying principally on three people–McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and Dean Rusk.

“Of those three, who dominated? It was McNamara.

LBJ’s Lapdog

“McNamara was, in essence, a very talented and persuasive sycophant. He sensed what the President wanted and gave it to him. If you doubt this, listen to the tapes [of telephone and office conversations secretly recorded by LBJ]. They are very compelling–not just for content but for tone. I mean, it’s really sometimes [sickening]. … He [McNamara] sensed what the President wanted to hear, and what he needed, and then reassured him completely.

“On the tapes, for example, you’ll hear a couple of times where he [McNamara] starts to raise a question. The President is saying, ‘Well, look, I think we’re going to have to make a stark choice one time, one day, between war and disengagement in Vietnam.’ He [McNamara] is about to say, ‘I think we are at that point now,’ and then Johnson shuts him down. Johnson comes in and starts talking, overwhelms him, essentially. And then, McNamara says, ‘Yes sir, that’s right. That’s exactly right. This is what we need to do.’

“He gave the President what he wanted in the form of this strategy of graduated pressure. He was his front man on it. He lied blatantly to the American people, to the Congress, to reporters on a constant basis.”

The Continuing Cover-up

“He’s still doing it [lying]. His book [In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam] was really astonishing to me. It was astonishing to me because I had been through the research, I had all the material, and I think I was writing about chapter six or seven. And so I could see, as I was reading the book-I was pulling documents down, saying, ‘Look, this doesn’t match. This is wrong! This guy’s being completely dishonest!’

“McNamara [in his book] said, ‘We were wrong, terribly wrong'[about Vietnam] but that he and others were prisoners of the Cold War ideology of containment. So they had no flexibility. It didn’t matter who the President was, who the Secretary of Defense was, who the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were, because they were compelled by the ideology of the time.

“What this new evidence shows dramatically is that these were men who not only should have known better but who did know better. It also shows that the war, far from being inevitable, was only made possible by the deliberate deceit and manipulation of the American public, the Congress, and members of Johnson’s own administration.”

The Sins of the Chiefs

“The military, on the other hand, engaged in a mutually deceitful relationship, in that they did not question a strategy that they knew to be fundamentally flawed and instead went along with the game. …

“[During a July 1965 meeting with the House Armed Services Committee], they [the service chiefs] were asked point-blank, ‘Is mobilization going to be necessary in Vietnam?’ Johnson was not there. McNamara was not there. … They asked point-blank about mobilization, how many troops it was going to take.

“Gen. Harold K. Johnson was very evasive. [He said nothing about mobilization, even though] he had all the plans. He had already issued orders to prepare for mobilization because the Chiefs assumed that there was going to be mobilization. … That is one example of how they were not forthright.”

Bob McNamara, Superhero

“This whole [graduated pressure] strategy was based on the assumption that this force-it was essentially a show of force, both in the form of bombing North Vietnam and the deployment of troops into South Vietnam-would compel North Vietnam to withdraw its support from the insurgency in the South. They never thought about it [how a war might unfold].

“They just assumed that it would end like the Cuban missile crisis, and this is what McNamara thought. Talk about a bad analogy or a poor use of history: His only experience with the employment of military force was in the Cuban missile crisis, and he assumed that that experience was directly relevant to Vietnam. Our military forces and naval forces quarantined and blockaded Cuba, placed what he later called graduated pressure on Cuba with overflights and threats of the use of military force, and Khrushchev buckled. That’s what McNamara took away from it. …

“He sort of pictured himself as Robert McNamara, superhero, savior of the world, and then thought that he could do the same thing with Ho Chi Minh–with this graduated pressure–and thought that Ho Chi Minh, eventually, would just, you know, sort of give up.”

Defeatist From the Start

“The conventional wisdom on Vietnam is … America was overconfident, thinking that American power was relevant in all areas of the world, ignorant of the difficulties.

“Far from it. In fact, those who were charged with the planning of the war were in fact defeatist. John McNaughton, who was the [Pentagon’s] International Security Affairs division chief, thought this was doomed to failure. … But he still had to plan under McNamara’s strategy. So what he did was he justified that by changing the objective of military force, which was no longer to guarantee the freedom and independence of South Vietnam, but it was instead to ‘maintain American credibility.’

“He came to this almost perverse conclusion that to send up to 200,000 troops into Vietnam and lose would be better than doing nothing at the outset. What he said was, ‘We have to get bloodied so that we can show the world that we were’–and here he used another metaphor–‘a good doctor who did all he could for the patient, but the patient died of this incurable disease.’

“So there is this defeatism at the outset and this unclear objective. What is the objective? I mean, can you imagine going to Congress and saying, ‘We don’t really have a way out of this, but we just need to get bloodied?'”

Earle Wheeler’s Silence

“He [Wheeler, the JCS Chairman] had compromised himself, in that he had gone along with the strategy in the hope that, over time, he would be able to pursue a fundamentally different strategy-which was, in essence, the Army’s plans of physically cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail with three divisions and a much larger effort in South Vietnam and against North Vietnam as well.

“In the spring of 1965, … General Westmoreland was complaining about controls on the air campaign and numbers of troops he needed. … He sent General Westmoreland a cable, and he basically said, ‘Don’t worry about any of that now. We will be able to get that over time. What we need to do is break the psychological and political logjam associated with further bombing missions now.’

“So he just wanted to get his foot in the door. Wheeler did not ask for the number of troops that he believed was necessary from the outset, until 1968, after the Tet Offensive.”

You Get What You Ask For

“Ultimately a President, an administration, can get the military advice it wants, depending on whom it appoints to these positions [the Chiefs]. In this case, Kennedy and then later Johnson didn’t really want military advice from the Chiefs. They wanted people who would be acquiescent, who would be malleable. Kennedy kicked himself for appointing [Gen. Curtis E.] LeMay [as Air Force Chief of Staff] early in his Administration. He couldn’t wait to get rid of him.

“And [Army Gen. Lyman L.] Lemnitzer as well and [Army Gen. George H.] Decker as well. Another man who was very strong in character was Gen. [David M.] Shoup of the Marine Corps. Very independent in mind. He believed there should be no land war in Asia again. That was one of the lessons he took from his experience in Korea.”

Tale of Two JCS Groups

“What’s interesting is to look at the Laotian crisis of 1961 [before Kennedy and Johnson had appointed their own JCS], and see the difference in the approach the Chiefs took then, and the approach they took to Vietnam. In 1961, the Chiefs in essence laid it out as [Army Lt. Gen. Matthew B.] Ridgway and others did in 1954, after Dien Bien Phu. They laid out what the long term costs and consequences of this might be.

“The Chiefs really changed out dramatically after that. Lemnitzer was gone, replaced [as Chairman] by [Army Gen.] Maxwell D. Taylor, who was the President’s man, handpicked by Kennedy.”

The Hollow Man

“I was frankly astonished by a lot of it [the secret record] because it did cut against the conventional wisdom. …

“I thought I was going to find just great material about Maxwell Taylor, the soldier statesman. I had admired him. I could not believe what I was finding. I think what I was most shocked about was the lack of integrity and the absolute ease with which he deceived the American public at every turn for short-term self-interest. …

“For example, Hanson Baldwin [the Pentagon reporter for The New York Times] had a lot of meetings with Maxwell Taylor. He was sort of viewed as the enemy. Baldwin was lied to on a number of occasions … by Maxwell Taylor, not just about military plans but about the nature of our involvement in Vietnam.”

McNamara’s Silence

“I did not get McNamara’s interview. I asked him for an interview when he was in the middle of preparing his memoir-his so-called memoir. I got my letter back from him, with a handwritten note, saying, ‘You’re onto a very important topic.’ You know, an encouraging note. I also asked for access to his oral history at the same time. And he said, ‘I can’t help you at this time. And there’s nothing in my oral history that’s relevant to this.’ “