DERELICTION OF DUTY: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

DERELICTION OF DUTY: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

Peter Braestrup

By H. R. McMaster. Harper Collins.446 pp. $27.50

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DERELICTION OF DUTY: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.

By H. R. McMaster. Harper Collins. 446 pp. $27.50

In early 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, heir to John F. Kennedy’s commitment to defend South Vietnam, was less concerned about the conflict in Southeast Asia than about the upcoming November election. Summoning the Joint Chiefs to the White House, he listened to their argument that there were only two options in Vietnam, "win or get out." He did not like what he heard. He told them, "I’ve got to win the election...or somebody else has... and then you can make a decision.... But in the meantime let’s see if we can’t find enough things to keep them [Hanoi] off base . . . and upset them a little bit without getting another Korean [war] started."

Then, as later, Johnson tried to deal with Vietnam at the minimum political cost. McMaster, a young Army soldier-scholar and Gulf War combat veteran, draws on newly available documents and interviews to show how, from the start, this approach doomed both the U.S. effort in Vietnam and traditional military-civilian relations. Obscured in most of the literature on Vietnam, it is a chilling tale.

Because Johnson did not want to be accused of "losing" Vietnam, he rejected all talk of a U.S. withdrawal. Yet in 1964 he also did not want to jeopardize his election as a "man of peace" running against the hawkish Barry Goldwater. Nor, in 1965, did he want to mobilize the country for fear of forfeiting his Great Society programs. Johnson’s civilian advisers, notably Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, tailored their proposals accordingly. They figured that "graduated pressure" would help LBJ politically while at the same time persuading Hanoi to back off its goal of "liberating" the South. Each seemingly small military step—covert operations, retaliatory air strikes, an incremental bombing campaign, the first U.S. troop deployment—was seen as an extension of diplomacy, sending a new "signal" to the North Vietnamese.

Was "graduated pressure" working? Johnson often worried less about that question than about a revolt by the Joint Chiefs. Like Kennedy, he scorned and distrusted the Joint Chiefs as old-fashioned and unimaginative. Their traditional role was to offer professional military advice untainted by politics. But LBJ wanted complaisance and agreement. And McNamara, eager to please LBJ and convinced that he and his civilian aides alone should shape U.S. strategy, kept the Joint Chiefs out of the loop.

For their part, the Joint Chiefs complained but, riven by interservice rivalries and parochialism, could not come up with a unified strategic plan. The Air Force’s Curtis LeMay and his successor John P. McConnell, saw an intensive bombing campaign as the answer to Hanoi’s support for the Vietcong guerrillas in the South. The Marines’ Wallace Greene urged a coastal "enclave" strategy. Meanwhile, the Navy’s David L. McDonald vacillated, and the Army’s Harold K. Johnson, who had grave doubts about bombing, lacked the self-confidence to confront either his colleagues or the White House.

Soothed, divided, and isolated by the artful McNamara, the Joint Chiefs grew privately bitter but never challenged the evasive, temporizing, and finally deceptive assertions made by the White House. As the Vietcong guerrillas made steady gains and LBJ achieved his 1964–65 goal of avoiding a political showdown on Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs became known among junior officers in the Pentagon as "the five silent men." The price of their silence—and of Johnson’s policy— was the eventual involvement of a force of more than 500,000 U.S. troops, and 58,000 American dead. McMaster concludes: "The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field nor was it lost on the front page of the New York Times." It was lost in Washington almost before the country knew it had begun.

—Peter Braestrup


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