This article originally appeared at NYTimes.com.
By Ronald Spector.
An Army scholar assesses responsibility for the Vietnam War
For a few months in 1967 I worked in the Historical Division of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon. My boss, a veteran of World War II and Korea, would sometimes stop and run his hand reverently over the thick binders of color-coded papers piled on our desks and remark, ”Yes, there’s a lot of wisdom in these pages; a lot of wisdom there.” By the following year, after several months in Vietnam, I began to develop serious doubts.
Maj. H. R. McMaster, a West Point graduate and University of North Carolina Ph.D. who was an armored cavalry commander in the gulf war, also wondered about the degree of wisdom in those papers. ”Dereliction of Duty” is his assessment of the military’s role in the decisions that led to the direct involvement of American troops in the war in Vietnam.
This is well-trodden territory. It has been intensively, one might even say obsessively, explored by such writers as Larry Berman, Robert Dallek, Lloyd C. Gardner, David Halberstam, Michael H. Hunt and Brian VanDeMark. Readers of these earlier authors will be familiar with McMaster’s picture of Lyndon B. Johnson as a President chiefly concerned about keeping Vietnam from becoming a political issue, and with his portrayal of Johnson’s advisers as men possessing a distinctive combination of arrogance, deviousness and disdain for expertise different from their own.
McMaster sees cold war attitudes and pressures as less important than some of these earlier writers do, and he emphasizes the particular circumstances and human failures of Johnson and his advisers. Strangely, his most telling example of the fatal mind-set of Washington policy makers is to be found in a footnote. During a visit to Vietnam in 1964 John McNaughton, an assistant secretary of defense, was a house guest of Maj. Gen. Charles J. Timmes and his wife. When Mrs. Timmes attempted to describe the complexity of the political and social situation in Vietnam, McNaughton replied that one could find the solution to any problem, in McMaster’s words, ”by simply dissecting it into all its elements and then piecing together the resultant formula.”
What gives ”Dereliction of Duty” its special value, however, is McMaster’s comprehensive, balanced and relentless exploration of the specific role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has doggedly waded through the records of every meeting of the Joint Chiefs concerned with Vietnam, followed every memo and report to its final, usually inconclusive, end and read through dozens of memoirs and histories. As a result, he is able to explode some longstanding myths about the role of the Chiefs.
According to the most popular of these, the Joint Chiefs always knew what was needed to win in Vietnam but were consistently ignored or circumvented by Johnson, Robert S. McNamara and their associates. McMaster shows that the President and his civilian advisers did indeed ignore the Joint Chiefs whenever it suited them, but he also demonstrates that the Chiefs were willing, or at least silent, accomplices in this process. Indeed, the principal villain of the book is Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1962 to 1964. According to the author, Taylor consistently misled John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson about the views of the Chiefs and misled the Chiefs about each President’s true intentions. Taylor’s successor, Gen. Earle Wheeler, is treated somewhat less harshly but receives low marks for his habit of avoiding confrontation and because he ”lacked the drive and energy to discharge his responsibilities to the fullest.”
As for the Chiefs, far from having a unified strategic vision, they could not even concur among themselves on details. For example, in the summer of 1964 the United States Ambassador in Vietnam pressed for a large increase in the number of American advisers. The Joint Chiefs found themselves unable to agree on this issue. The Army and Navy service chiefs supported the request but the Air Force Chief of Staff and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, suspicious of the Army, believed that the ”request represented a surreptitious attempt to expand the Army’s air arm” and opposed it. While they dithered, the question was decided by the President and his civilian advisers.
On another occasion, the Chief of Naval Operations, who was ”particularly adamant” about the need for strong action against North Vietnam, declined an opportunity to present his views directly to McNamara because he felt ” ‘obligated’ to the Secretary of Defense for his support” on the question of whether the next Commander in Chief, Pacific, would be an admiral or a general. McMaster makes a strong case for the view that it was the Chiefs’ inability to surmount matters of service parochialism, even more than the machinations of the civilian leaders, that minimized their effectiveness.
Having drawn up a devastating indictment of Johnson and his principal civilian and military advisers, McMaster apparently believes he has explained the outcome of the Vietnam conflict. It was a war, he says, that was ”lost in Washington . . . even before the first American units were deployed.” The notion that a war like that in Vietnam, which began 14 years before the election of Kennedy and continued for six years after the end of the Johnson Administration, can be satisfactorily explained by reference to decisions made in Washington during late 1964 and early 1965 would seem at best questionable. Yet it is a view held not only by McMaster but by many of the authors who have preceded him. This preoccupation with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and their decisions displays some of the same ethnocentrism, the same assumption of American omnipotence, for which McMaster pillories the leaders of that era. It largely leaves out of account the ideas, plans and actions of the Vietnamese.
There is a story that the Confederate Civil War general George Pickett was once asked ”to what he attributed the failure of the Confederacy in the late war.” ”Well,” Pickett replied, ”I kinda think the Yankees had a little something to do with it.” We may hope that historians of the Vietnam War, having thoroughly studied Presidential decision making, may now move on to discover what the Vietnamese had to do with it.
Ronald Spector, who teaches history at George Washington University, is the author of ”After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam.”