Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H.R. McMaster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a very detailed and somewhat shocking book telling of how America sunk itself into the Vietnam war fiasco, and it’s truly a sorrow to read. I never knew Johnson, McNamara, the Bundy brothers and Taylor were such lying assholes, as well as Rusk, McNaughton and the other civilians in charge of planning the war. They lied to the Joint Chiefs, to Congress, to the American people and to the world (sounds like Bush, doesn’t it?) in order to downplay the role America was taking in Vietnam, all for varying agendas that sometimes met and more often didn’t.
The book starts with 1961 and Kennedy but quickly moves on to Johnson, who wanted his Great Society domestic program passed so badly that he literally flat out lied — continuously — to the Congress and America about his efforts to sink us into Vietnam — without any goals or exit strategies, I might say.
One thing the author, McMaster, hammered home really shocked me. We never thought we could win, never expected to win, and wanted to escape Vietnam just “bloodied.” Excuse me, but WTF??? Why delve into a war if you have no intention of winning? Idiots! From page 184:
“McNaughton, Forrestal, and William Bundy concluded that it would be preferable to fail in Vietnam after trying some level of military action than to withdraw without first committing the United States military to direct action against North Vietnam. They thought that the principal objective of military activities was to protect U.S. credibility…. Indeed, the loss of South Vietnam after the direct intervention of U.S. armed forces ‘would leave behind a better odor’ than an immediate withdrawal and would demonstrate that the United States was a ‘good doctor willing to keep promises, be tough, take risks, get bloodied, and hurt the enemy badly.'”
On page 237:
“For McNaughton the objective of protecting American credibility had displaced the more concrete aim of preserving a free and independent South Vietnam. Even as Rolling Thunder began and Marines landed at Danang, McNaughton continued to plan for failure. He concluded that to avoid humiliation the United States must be prepared to undertake a ‘massive’ effort on the ground in Southeast Asia involving the deployment of 175,000 ground troops. Even if the Communists won, McNaughton believed that the United States would have protected its international image.”
Isn’t that just batshit crazy? Johnson and McNamara didn’t listen to the Joint Chiefs, who wanted to ramp things up immediately and hit North Vietnam hard, because they were afraid if we went after Hanoi, China and/or the Soviets would come to their aid and it would become another Korean War.
As America begins to send troops to South Vietnam to start conducting offensive operations for the first time while refusing to mobilize the reserves, General Harold Johnson, the JCS in charge of the Army, “was to preside over the disintegration of the Army; a disintegration that began with the president’s decision against mobilization. Harold Johnson’s inaction haunted him for the rest of his life.”
McMaster really throws Johnson and McNamara under the bus, but apparently for good reason. He paints the JCS as little more than stooges kept out of the loop of actual military planning. It’s not until the book’s epilogue does he place some blame on the JCS, writing “the ‘five silent men’ on the Joint Chiefs made possible the way the United States went to war in Vietnam.” His ultimate conclusion can be found on page 332:
“Over time the maintenance of U.S. credibility quietly supplanted the stated policy objective of a free and independent South Vietnam. The principal civilian planners had determined that to guarantee American credibility, it was not necessary to win in Vietnam. That conclusion, combined with the belief that the use of force was merely another form of diplomatic communication, directed the military effort in the South at achieving stalemate rather than victory. Those charged with planning the war believed that it would be possible to preserve American credibility even if the United States armed forces withdrew from the South, after a show of force against the North and in the South in which American forces were ‘bloodied.’ After the United States became committed to war, however, and more American soldiers, airmen, and Marines had died in the conflict, it would become impossible simply to disengage and declare America’s credibility intact, a fact that should have been foreseen.”
The only reason why I’m giving this book four stars instead of five is that it stops at July 1965. I would have liked to read more about what went on after inserting troops for offensive operations, how things escalated, what Johnson, McNamara and the rest did in educating America on what was happening (or not), etc. In other words, I think the author cut the book short and that was disappointing. Otherwise, it was a fascinating, while sobering, read and should be required reading of all active politicians to ensure we never repeat the stupid mistakes made during the ’60s regarding Vietnam.