"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."When General HR McMaster became President Trump's National Security Advisor (NSA) I decided to take 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.
from Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by HR McMaster (1997)
(HR McMaster from wikipedia)
I decided to read the book to (1) learn more about this period of history, which I've spent little time on in recent decades, and (2) to 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. His approach to the roles of civilian and military advisers on national security issues is sound and it looks like he will not hesitate to stand up for his own views. 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 albeit 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'd forgotten much of this and don't think I'd ever realized quite how bad the decision making process was.
As an aside, reading Dereliction of Duty reminded me of two aspects of the Pentagon Papers publication. When he learned of the New York Times plans to publish the documents, President Nixon's first reaction was to do nothing, as he felt publication would expose the flawed decision making and deceptions of his Democratic predecessors that had gotten America into the mess which they then left to Nixon to clean up. Ultimately persuaded by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that the precedent of having such top secrets leaked created a bigger problem, Nixon approved the government lawsuit seeking to prevent publication, a claim rejected by the Supreme Court. Nixon should have followed his initial instincts. By filing the lawsuit the focus of the story became the Nixon Administration, not its predecessors. The second point is that the Supreme Court ruling is often misunderstood as a total victory for freedom of the press. In fact, while the Court rejected prior restraint and allowed the publication to proceed, it also made it clear the Times remained subject to potential criminal prosecution as a result. The Nixon Administration sought to bring such a prosecution until the Justice Department was persuaded that no jury in New York City would vote to convict.
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 Baines 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. The early 1960s were the height of the Cold War. Growing up in that time many of us felt a nuclear war was distinctly possible, even likely. In April 1961 saw the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, followed immediately by Fidel Castro's formal announcement that Cuba was a socialist state. Early June was the Vienna Summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev, a disaster for the young president whose weak performance emboldened the Soviet leader. Later that summer was the Berlin Crisis, with Soviet and American tanks facing each other at Checkpoint Charlie, followed by the building of the Berlin Wall. In October, the Soviets tested a 57-megaton H-bomb, to this day the largest explosion ever created by humans, with a fireball 5 miles in diameter, 1,600 times the combined power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, and capable of inducing 3rd-degree burns sixty miles away. The next year brought us the Cuban Missile Crisis. And guerrilla wars were brewing in Laos and South Vietnam.
The tension was reflected in American popular culture. 1962 saw the release of The Manchurian Candidate. That same year two best selling novels were Fail Safe, in which Moscow and Manhattan are targets of atomic bombs, and Seven Days in May, about an attempted military coup in the United States. At the same time, director Stanley Kubrick was beginning work on a movie based on the 1959 novel Red Alert as well as being a satiric take on Fail Safe, released in 1964 as Dr Strangelove, the same year as the film versions of Fail Safe and Seven Days in May.
When JFK took office in January 1961 there were 900 American military advisers in South Vietnam. The French had been evicted from Indochina in 1954 and Vietnam temporarily divided. Planned elections did not occur due to the actions of South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem and the United States, primarily because of concern they would result in a victory for the Communist government of North Vietnam. Although there were attempts at the time and since to portray the Viet Cong insurgency in the south as nationalist led and the North Vietnamese government as more nationalist than communist it is clear from documents and testimony now available that both were much more communist than nationalist, though they skillfully played the nationalist card to gain support from their countrymen. From the beginning, the Viet Cong organization was directed by the communist North and the goal always remained unification as a communist state. For more on the North Vietnamese communist decision making process read Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War: 1954-65 by Pierre Asselin.
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.
(General Taylor from wikipedia)
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".
(General Wheeler from history central)
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.
Despite the growing American presence in South Vietnam, conditions continued to deteriorate and the performance of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) failed to improve. 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. Three weeks later, John F Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald (for more on the assassination read A Cruel And Shocking Act, and you might want to take a look at a fanciful and interesting fictional take on the Diem and Kennedy deaths by former CIA operative Charles McCarry in Tears of Autumn).
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.
From the start there were major problems with the decision making process. The first was the structural one, which marginalized the JCS, allowing McNamara (who comes off worse than anyone in McMaster's account) and Taylor to play them and screen unwanted opinions from the president, including deliberately misrepresenting the opinion of the JCS to LBJ. Taylor and McNamara's efforts were aided and abetted by dysfunction within the JCS; lack of strong leadership and a situation where each member had his own solution to Vietnam involving an enhanced role for their branch of the service. Looming over everything was a fundamental disagreement on objectives and strategy that was never resolved even as the military situation in South Vietnam deteriorated further in 1964 and early 1965.
It is striking how clearly in 1964 and 1965 the goal of civilian leadership had already become merely preventing a communist victory in the short run and maintaining US credibility, regardless of the eventual outcome, in the longer term. 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.
For the JCS, graduated pressure made no sense and would end up creating a worse situation for the United States. As early as January 22, 1964 a JCS memo declared "victory" should be the goal and recommended bombing key North Vietnam targets and mining sea approaches. The memo argued we were fighting in the enemy's terms and would ultimately need to commit US troops. LBJ made it clear he would only commit enough to avoid South Vietnam losing the war.
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.(McNamara from wikipedia)
By November 1964, the frustrated JCS wanted McNamara to tell the president a "disaster" would occur under current policy but were put off by McNamara's promises (never fulfilled) of a change in course. 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 . . .All of which was compounded because "Because the Great Society constrained the exploration of policy options in Vietnam, the probable consequences of the favored course [gradual pressure] - received relatively little attention."
What is appalling is how 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).
In April 1964, the JCS war games division undertook an exercise to analyze the results of gradual pressure against North Vietnam; "In response to US military action, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong raised the tempo of attacks in the South and conducted terrorist attacks on US installations and personnel." The officers who played North Vietnam in game banked on a lack of American resolve to see the effort through. Participants concluded that America was underestimating North Vietnamese resolve and believed there were only two solutions, withdrawal or doing enough to convince the enemy "we really mean business". McNamara rejected the results because they did not meet his criteria for systematic and quantitative analysis.
Another war game exercise was conducted in September 1964 at which observers included McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Under Secretary of State George Ball and Walt Rostow (Director of Policy Planning, State Dept.). The results were similar. Gradual pressure starting with increased air attacks resulted in the North Vietnamese escalating the ground war. Bombing had minimal effect because of the enemy's low logistical needs and it stiffened their determination. By game's end ten American combat divisions were deployed in Southeast Asia and an invasion of North Vietnam was being contemplated. Participants concluded that escalation would erode public support in the US and that America would withdraw rather than risk protracted war. The conclusions were never seriously studied because disengagement and escalation were ruled out (interestingly these were the two options presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was talking about at the same time).
Newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey requested an intelligence briefing on the situation in Vietnam which he received on February 1, 1965. He 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 . . .Yet the president never came to grips with his own misgivings and remained unwilling to discuss the long-term with all of his advisers. He never comprehended the fatal flaw in McNamara's gradual pressure strategy, that once ground combat troops were committed "the actions of the Vietnamese communist forces would determine the level of American effort necessary to prevent a collapse of the South Vietnamese regime." In other words, the initiative would shift to the communists to determine whether and when escalation would occur.
Reviewing the sequence of events, with the growing sense by many of the participants (with the exception of McNamara) that the United States was on the wrong course, reminds me of similarities to Japan's decision to go to war with the United States in 1941 (for more read Japan Decides On War).
As 1965 started the pressures grew even more intense. The president was obsessed with his planned Great Society legislation, which he saw as his legacy, more than ever seeing Vietnam as an issue that needed to be politically controlled resulting in his approaching it as a tactical, not strategic issue, not realizing that his lack of a strategy would result in locking him into a course of action.
Since the summer of 1964 there had been increasing discussions among his advisers about committing ground combat troops, though formal discussion was deferred until the election was over. With LBJ's overwhelming victory, discussions on ground troops moved to the forefront. Maxwell Taylor, by then Ambassador in Saigon, strongly opposed the move believing it would remove any motivation by the South Vietnam government to improve its own military, encourage them to let the United States carry the burden of the war, and transform it into an American war which would not be viewed favorably by most of the South's populace. The ambassador also thought that the rationale for initially introducing combat troops could be used to justify unlimited additional deployments, precisely what happened.
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.(Aftermath of Pleiku attack, from Healy Library, UMass Boston)
And, in McNamara's view, ground troops were just another element in gradual pressure, just like air power.
February also marked the beginning of bombing of selected and very limited targets in North Vietnam. Though Bundy recommended the president speak to the American people about the bombing as a "major watershed decision", he rejected the advice.
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".
Just six days before, LBJ gave a speech at Johns Hopkins University outlining a proposal for Vietnam, North and South, promising American support for Vietnam's own Great Society program, a proposal that was completely delusional in light of the realities and only emphasized Johnson's failure to view Vietnam in anything other than an American context.
(Marines coming ashore at Da Nang, 1965 from Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
In response to LBJ's request, Wheeler recommended deploying an additional 180,000 troops The president, once again seeking the middle ground, authorize 82,000 on April 22. On May 11, with one North Vietnamese division in the south and another on the way, the communists launched an offensive. In early June the unstable South Vietnam government fell in yet another coup.
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 early July, while McNamara and Wheeler were on trip to Vietnam the other members of the Chiefs met with House Armed Services Committee members in the offices of Chairman Mendel Rivers. Under repeated questioning Army Chief Johnson said 250,000 troops would ultimately be needed, half the number he had already privately told others he thought was necessary. Rivers asked why SAM sites and air bases had not been targeted, a question which the Chiefs, with the exception of Marine Commandant Greene, evaded. They generally downplayed the significance of the new troop commitments.
According to McMaster, Greene, "torn between loyalty to the president and responsibility to the American people", called the committee's lawyer later that day and told him the US was on the verge of a "major war" that would involve 500,000 troops, take at least five years, and cause a large number of American casualties.
(General Greene from wikipedia)
In addition, the JCS had recommended a mobilization of reserves occur to backfill American forces so the country would have some ability to respond if urgent contingencies arose elsewhere in the world. The president, not wanting to heighten scrutiny on the significance of his actions, refused. The JCS went along though Army Chief Johnson told McNamara that "the quality of the Army is going to erode to some degree that we can't assess now", another accurate prediction.
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.
Robert McNamara's focus on quantitative analysis led to the public reports that all of us remember from that era. We were given a weekly tally of the number of Americans killed, along with the number of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese killed (always much higher than American), along with some other statistics on pacification. It gave everyone a false sense of what was actually happening in the war.
At the same time, the weekly tabulation revealed the cost to America in the lives of its soldiers. In November 1965 came the first major combat between the US and North Vietnam; a four day battle in the Ia Drang Valley during which 237 Americans were killed and 4 went missing (the battle is the subject of the 2002 movie, We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson).
By early 1968, troops levels were a little over 500,000. Almost 20,000 Americans were dead. At the end of January, the communists launched the Tet Offensive and 480 Americans were killed in one week, with more than 16,000 deaths that year. General Westmoreland requested an additional 206,000 troops to stabilize the situation but President Johnson refused to authorize any further increases. On February 29, McNamara resigned. On March 31, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection in 1968.
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 in this piece 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 result was "American soldiers, airmen, and Marines went to war in Vietnam without strategy or direction."
The five silent men on the Joint Chiefs made possible the way the United States went to war in Vietnam.
Dereliction of Duty has some shortcomings.
You can easily tell its origin as a thesis. It could have used better editing to reduce duplication and simplify the narrative. For instance, as the story moves into 1965 there is a lot of talk about proposals for troop deployment, but the numbers are inconsistent and it is often not clear whether the figures relate to additional troops or include those already deployed. It would help the narrative to have cleared this up.
The book could have also used some additional Cold War context. As bad as the decision making process was, it becomes somewhat more understandable, if not excusable, if you are familiar with ongoing tensions with the Soviet Union and China.
I would have also liked to see more background on the individual members of the JCS to get a better flavor for their personal roles in the debacle. Curtis LeMay, the gruff and outspoken Air Force Chief of Staff was a JCS member until January 1965. My impression from readings elsewhere is that his advice was always aggressive but always focused on enhancing the role of the Air Force. He is not mentioned often in the narrative, and the Chief of Naval Operations is almost absent from the book.