Dereliction of Duty:

Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

Bibliographic Content

H.R. McMaster, Major US Army (now retired Lieutenant General)

1997

HarperCollins Publishers

Kindle, Paperback & Hardback (480pgs), Audiobook (15hrs:58sec)

Synopsis from Author

"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."

—H. R. McMaster (from the Conclusion)


Dereliction Of Duty is a stunning analysis of how and why the United States became involved in an all-out and disastrous war in Southeast Asia. Fully and convincingly researched, based on transcripts and personal accounts of crucial meetings, confrontations and decisions, it is the only book that fully re-creates what happened and why. McMaster pinpoints the policies and decisions that got the United States into the morass and reveals who made these decisions and the motives behind them, disproving the published theories of other historians and excuses of the participants.


A page-turning narrative, Dereliction Of Duty focuses on a fascinating cast of characters: President Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, General Maxwell Taylor, McGeorge Bundy and other top aides who deliberately deceived the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Congress and the American public.


McMaster’s only book, Dereliction of Duty is an explosive and authoritative new look at the controversy concerning the United States involvement in Vietnam.

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Summary of Book from War Is My Business

In Dereliction of Duty, McMaster focuses primarily on the senior civilian and military leaders who steered the United States towards its increased involvement in the Vietnam conflict and the numerous factors that had led them to do so. He showcases the flaws of the men that were ultimately in charge of shaping a nation’s course of action, and how the dynamic relationships that they had with each other impacted foreign policy decisions. With the release of The Pentagon Papers, and their memoirs, McMaster was able to derive the motives and opinions of these men. It provides a cautionary tale for the deciding bodies of business organizations, as much as it does for the United States and other nations.


While reading or listening to Dereliction of Duty you will see common patterns that McMaster was able to identify from the declassified documents and memorandums found within The Pentagon Papers. There is a body of civilian leaders, focused on domestic matters, and convinced of their superiority over their military advisors, in spite of military realities. There is a body of military leaders unable to communicate these realities effectively as a result of their service rivalries, competing loyalties, and the game of politics found in Washington.


What I propose that business leaders, executives, owners, managers, etc. can glean from this book is how dangerous a body of decision-makers and their advisors can be if not unified in their efforts. Imagine what would occur if the chief executive of operations disregarded advice on the distribution of a new product from their primary logistics officer. The problems that might arise if the head of product research and development thought that they knew better about what customers want than the heads of marketing and customer relations. The issues that would occur if key department managers, seeing critical problems and failures that could arise in their areas, were too afraid to voice their opinion or only told the boss what they wanted to hear. In a sense, you get a Vietnam-scenario, in which a deciding body undertakes a course of action that is misdirected and dangerous to the company. More to follow:

McMaster structures his book based on time periods bracketed by key events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Johnson’s First Election. The reason for this is not simply as an arbitrary way to segment the massive amount of unclassified documents that were released to the world, but because of the ramifications that events like these would have on subsequent decisions that senior civilian and military leaders would have to take. Seeing how the machinations of Washington, leading up to an election, might have on foreign policy in Vietnam shows how important, or detrimental, the political world can have on tactical operations half a world away.


Dereliction of Duty is played out in a narrative in the form of a series of observations, meetings, memorandums, and communique between senior officials, staff, congress, and the American people. Events would transpire, and the Johnson cabinet would have to react, and from officials records, we are able to see just how dysfunctional it was. Each person involved comes with their own baggage, and McMaster had the foresight to introduce this baggage to the audience. It made is easier to identify why these important, experienced, and intelligent people, otherwise made such questionable decisions. The dynamics are intense, and otherwise would have been convoluted, but he was able to make sense of everything.


One of the primary friction points that McMaster saw was President Johnson and SECDEF McNamara’s push to utilize graduated pressure against the North Vietnamese government; against the advice of the JCS. The senior civilian leaders, believing that their focus on quantitative analysis and the new nature of counterinsurgency in Vietnam meant that their perspective on how to move forward was more valuable than the decades of military experience that the JCS brought. In time, the JCS didn’t necessarily advise the President on military affairs, but merely acted as technical experts that the civilians would use to assess their plans. The overriding factor for Johnson’s decisions, which were back up by McNamara and General Taylor and General Wheeler during their respective times as chairman of the JCS, was the president’s domestic policy.

“Despite his professed desire to ‘win,’ the president attempted to exact from the Chiefs a recommendation consistent with his desire to maintain domestic political consensus.”


The president delayed making important Vietnam decisions on the lead up to the November 1964 election, because he believed it may sway the voters away from him. After he resecured the Office of the POTUS, he still tried to find workarounds on military matters so as not to jeopardize his domestic policy, “the Great Society” which was a campaign promise of his. Basically, for Johnson, Vietnam was a distraction that threatened his more important domestic agenda, and he disregarded JCS advise to either escalate the conflict and get America on a war footing if he wanted to win in Vietnam or attempt to negotiate for America’s withdraw. Johnson chose neither and committed the nation to a slow escalation of combat operations without giving the military the actual means to win.


There is a lot more to pull from McMaster’s assessment and narrative of the goings-on between all these senior leaders. For the civilians, this included lying to the public, misleading each other for personal gain, toxic environments not conducive to open discussion, and for the military a lack of intestinal fortitude for not standing up when they believed the president was operating under flawed logic, and service parochialism preventing them from coming up with a unified plan.

Dereliction of Duty for Business


The biggest lesson that private businesses can learn from Dereliction of Duty is the dangers that occur when the leaders of an organization aren’t working together in a unified effort. The dangers for owners and executives that don’t take seriously the advice of their subject matter experts, and foster a toxic environment when subordinates are fearful of speaking up about the realities as they see them. How could a company survive if everyone in a leadership position was looking out for themselves and their departments over the interests of the whole organization?


By reading this book you will understand many of the failures that occurred that can serve as takeaways to help prevent similar failures in your organization, but here are two:


Empowering Subordinates to Speak Up: The Joint Chiefs of Staff were cautious about their advice to the president and understood the dangers to their careers if they were too forceful. After General McArthur's relief of command in Korea for questioning President Truman’s foreign policy decisions, these most senior officers were understandably concerned about toeing the line. Added that Johnson and McNamara had a subtle disdain for these career military men, they were slow to voice their concerns to the POTUS. Some of that fault lies with the CJCS and SECDEF for misrepresenting the JCS’s concerns, but there were opportunities for them to speak up and chose not to. If you want an honest opinion and advice, then you mustn’t create an environment where subordinates fear that you will punish them for doing so.


Operational Realities Don’t Heed to Consensus: Johnson was always trying to play the middle road when it came to his policies. This worked during his time as a senator for Texas, where he would need to build consensus with everyone to get legislation passed, but when it came to the execution of conflict, consensus couldn’t work. He thought he could appease the JCS’ and theater commander’s calls for increased military deployments in Vietnam while protecting his domestic policy, the Great Society, by only gradually increasing troop numbers. The problem is that what the JCS was calling for was the numbers and resources, NEEDED TO ACTUALLY WIN, based on their assessments. Anything less would naturally result in defeat.


For a company that has operations in the field; such as engaging with clients, supporting construction and logistics efforts, dealing with government and non-governmental agencies, there will be times in which you will have to chart a course of action and advice will be needed. Those subject matter experts giving advice, if they are truly concerned about the company, will generally provide you with what they see as the necessary requirements to accomplish a stated mission or objective. If there are competing requirements, and the organization lacks the resources necessary to support all efforts, then if you choose to provide less support than requested then you may risk success in that specific department or area. Its failure may result in a failure for the whole operation. You must be cautious in trying to balance competing requirements, lest you weaken one of the pillars of your success. Better to sit everyone down and work with a unified effort towards a comprehensive plan. One in which cooperation between the departments may result in the effective use of limited resources and personnel.


Many of the problems discussed in this book have solutions that are provided by Retired Lieutenant General James M. Dubik in his book Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory. Dubik had looked towards Dereliction of Duty, and the conflict in Vietnam as a whole, to determine why things went so horribly wrong and how to correct for it in the future when serious war waging discussions were going to take place.