Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book Review - Dereliction of Duty

Posted by Chris at 9/25/2007 8:00 PM ...

McMaster, H.R., Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

H.R. McMaster examines the role of civilian leadership and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States’ direct military involvement in the Vietnam War. Believing they could base all military decisions on a systems analysis approach, the Kennedy administration’s civilian leaders excluded the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the process of developing strategic objectives in Vietnam. The inability of civilian and military leaders to work together to establish achievable goals and a coherent strategy in Vietnam caused the sporadic American military buildup in Southeast Asia and an accompanying focus on tactics rather than strategic objectives. McMaster contends that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the joint chiefs were derelict in their duty to the American people because they based American objectives in Vietnam primarily on domestic political issues and the need to maintain American prestige with allies and opponents. These challenges led civilian and military leaders to deceive Congress and the public about the nature of America’s military involvement in Vietnam.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s election as president in 1960 brought significant changes not only in the civilian leadership of the United States, but in the relationship between the presidency and the military. Kennedy diminished the role of the National Security Council, preferring to meet only with a small group of personal advisers. The new arrangements eliminated the direct access to the president that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had enjoyed under the Eisenhower administration, and prevented them from shaping defense policy. This resulted in a reduction of the military expertise directly available to the president, who filled civilian defense advisory roles, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, with statisticians who had minimal military experience.

Kennedy and McNamara’s success during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where they directly controlled the movements of individual ships, led them to believe that their new strategy of graduated response to military challenges worked, and illustrated the dangers of traditional military methods in the age of nuclear arms. Kennedy’s advisers believed they knew how to handle military affairs better than the joint chiefs, increasing the separation between the president and the Pentagon. President Lyndon Johnson continued to rely on a team of close associates after Kennedy’s assassination.

Johnson placed a high value in consensus on policy decisions. The result was a suppression of dissenting voices. McMaster argues that the Johnson administration extended the suppression of contrary views within Johnson’s staff to include information provided to both Congress and the public. The main goal of suppressing information about U.S. efforts in Vietnam was to quell domestic dissent and to pass Johnson’s Great Society programs by congressional votes. Johnson’s focus on on building consensus prevented the development of strategic objectives and American military forces in Vietnam quietly grew during 1965 with little thought given to the consequences beyond potential domestic political issues.

McMaster makes a strong case that American intervention in Vietnam came about without serious consideration by the Johnson administration of goals, strategy, and costs. The primary evidence for this was the consistent suppression of contrary views by McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, and the collusion with them of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, particularly Generals Maxwell Taylor and Earle Wheeler. McMaster argues that other members of the joint chiefs acquiesced to the misrepresentation of the war and its requirements to the president, Congress, and the public in order to gain favors for their individual services. McMaster indicts their conduct by examining the lies, deceit, and weakness of America’s civilian and military leaders through the use of their own words in the form of memoranda, letters, and declassified government documents, and the recollections of witnesses to the decision-making process.

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