Maj Matt Domsalla

SAASS 601/3

Dereliction of Duty Precis

In Dereliction of Duty, H.R. McMaster, an Army officer with a PhD in American History from UNC Chapel Hill who taught History at West Point and who was a company commander during the Battle of 73 Easting during the 1991 Gulf War, details and assesses the planning undertaken at the national strategic level from 1961 to July 1965 that led to increasing American involvement in Vietnam. He argues that President Lyndon Johnson’s character, motivation, and relationships with his principle advisors led to the American failure in Vietnam. According to McMaster, President Johnson’s “fixation on short-term political goals, combined with his character and the personalities of his principal civilian and military advisors, rendered the administration incapable of dealing adequately with the complexities of the situation in Vietnam.” President Johnson’s primary focus was the passage of the Great Society, his domestic legislative agenda, not on foreign policy; so the administration misled, or was not forthcoming, with Congress or the nation about the cost of American involvement in Vietnam in order to secure passage of the President’s domestic agenda. He levels particularly harsh criticism at the Joints Chiefs, whom he calls the “five silent men,” by arguing that the Chiefs allowed the nation to go to war in Vietnam without providing effective military advice despite their statutory authority as the nation’s “principal military advisors.” McMaster asserts that the Chiefs and Department of Defense civilian leadership became fixated on military tactics rather than focusing on a military strategy that would link to the administration’s policy goals.

In Supreme Command, Elliot Cohen argues that the standard model for political leaders in war is to set precise objectives for the military to meet and then not meddle in the military’s execution of those objectives. For Cohen, this standard model of civil-military relations is the idea that civilian control must be exercised firmly within the political sphere but barely at all within the military sphere. However, drawing from Lincoln, Churchill, Clemenceau, and Ben Gurion, Cohen argues this standard model is misguided. Therefore, successful leaders must have an unfaltering strategic vision with tactical flexibility and understand that wars must be fought with a vision for the peace that will follow the last battle. In the end, war’s fundamental political character required meddling, but its quality and impact cannot be guaranteed.

In The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington proposed the system of “objective control,” which attempts to balance military expertise with civilian political supremacy. Huntington argues that civilian leaders should cede autonomy to the military in tactical and operational realms while requiring military subordination to civilian control in the realms of politics and grand strategy.

In Planning a Tragedy, Larry Berman argues that the “American experience in Vietnam points to the danger of having one fundamental principle – anticommunism – elevated to the status of doctrine for all regions of the world. By elevating a principle to the level of doctrine, further debate of the subject is minimized, thereby reducing the possibility that legitimate dissenting views will receive sufficient attention at the national policy-making level.” Berman further argues that “Johnson’s greatest fault as a political leader was that he chose not to choose between the Great Society and the war in Vietnam.” Additionally, Johnson “used the advisory process to legitimize the decision to political elites and the general public.”

· President Kennedy’s “informal style and structure of decision making did not allow for a systematic review…” of potential policy options. (6)

· National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 55 directed that the Chiefs should fit “military requirements into the overall context of any situation, recognizing that the most difficult problem in government is to combine all assets in a unified, effective pattern.” (16)

· “The divergent civilian and military views on American objectives during the Cuban missile crisis foreshadowed what would become a major obstacle to the development of a strategy for the Vietnam War.” (29)

· “November 1963 marked a turning point in the Vietnam War. The US role in fomenting a change in the South Vietnamese government [complicity in the coup against and subsequent assignation of Diem in November 1963]saddled the United States with responsibility for its successor. Instability in the South presented the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese sponsors with an opportunity to consider deepening its involvement in what had become a new war.” (41)

· “John Kennedy bequeathed to Lyndon Johnson an advisory system that limited real influence to his inner circle and treated others, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff, more like a source of potential opposition than of useful advice.” (41)

· “[Johnson

· Feared that another Communist victory on the mainland of Asia would destroy his nascent administration.” (48)

· “The civilian-military relationship, however, did not permit a candid assessment of the situation or evaluation of possible American actions designed to influence it.” (61)

· “McNamara would dominate the policy-making process because of three mutually reinforcing factors: the Chiefs’ ineffectiveness as an advisory group, Johnson’s profound insecurity, and the president’ related unwillingness to entertain divergent views on the subject of Vietnam.” (61)

· Under McNamara’s concept of “graduated pressure,” the aim of force “was not to impose one’s will on the enemy but to communicate with him.” (62)

· “While lacking a clear understanding of the policy objectives and an accurate assessment of the military situation, the Joint Chiefs set out to break down restrictions on the use of American military force and gain from the Johnson administration a firm commitment to see the war through to a positive result.” (64)

· McNamara believed, because of his experience in the Cuban missile crisis, that “graduated pressure provided a ‘firebreak between conventional conflict and that situation of low probability but highly adverse consequences’ that could lead to nuclear war.” (73)

· “Whereas flexible response envisioned a clear decision to apply military force at a particular level, graduated pressure involved starting the application of force at a very low level and gradually increasing it in scale and intensity. Whereas the tradition objective of imposing one’s will on the enemy still pertained to flexible response, graduated pressure aimed to affect the enemy’s calculation of interests.” (74)

· “McNamara contended that the program of graduated pressure would have to be calculated carefully to minimize the risk of escalation and avoid domestic and international political opposition to widening the war.” (75)

· “The Chiefs’ inability to overcome the service parochialism that had plagued the JCS organization since its inception undercut their legitimacy and made them vulnerable to Taylor’s and McNamara’s tactics.” (82)

· “Each Chief’s desire to further his own service’s agenda hampered their collective ability to provide military advice.” (83)

· “Through their own actions as well as through the manipulation of Taylor and McNamara, the Chiefs missed their opportunity to influence the formulation of a strategic concept for Vietnam, and thereafter always found themselves in the difficult position of questioning a policy that the president had already approved.” (84)

· “The Tuesday lunches further isolated the JCS from the planning and decision-making process.” (89)

· SIGMA I-64 found that “graduated pressure would lead to a protracted military commitment with little hope of success.” (90) However, it “did not appeal to McNamara’s penchant for systematic and quantitative analysis.” (91)

· “Graduated pressure depended on the assumption that the limited application of force would compel the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table and exact from them a favorable diplomatic settlement. There was no need to pursue military victory because negotiations would achieve the same political objectives with only the threat of more severe military action.” (94)

· “Neither the insidious relationship between the leading civilian and military officials in the Johnson administration nor the planning efforts in the spring of 1964 predestined the Johnson administration to escalate American military involvement in Vietnam. Nonetheless, they firmly established in the minds of key decision makes a flawed strategy for fighting what seemed to them a war without precedent.” (106)

· What Johnson wanted and expected from his principal military advisors was “the credibility lent his policy by their uniforms rather than their opinions.” (108)

· “Johnson…did not conceive of Vietnam as primarily a national security issue. Rather, he saw it mainly as the issue that could cost him the election. His principal objective remained keeping Vietnam out of the campaign. Obviously the Chiefs did not conceive of Vietnam in that way, and they were, therefore, useless, and perhaps even threating, to Johnson’s Vietnam policy deliberations.” (117)

· “Rather than reexamine their view of conditions in Vietnam in light of the observations of a trusted member of their circle, McNamara and Johnson were so focused on the election and domestic priorities that they discarded Taylor’s opinions and began to see him as a potential adversary rather than an ally.” (12)

· “Johnson used the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to lend uniformed credibility to his decisions.” (131)

· “Deliberations about Vietnam, conducted in the middle of a presidential campaign, solidified two critical assumptions: first, that the principal difficulty in South Vietnam stemmed from North Vietnam’s support for the Viet Cong; and second, that the gradual application of military and diplomatic pressures on the Hanoi government would persuade North Vietnam’s leaders to terminate that support.” (139)

· “Differences of opinion among the Chiefs stemmed, in part, from their institutional perspectives as heads of their services. It seemed that each of the services, rather than attempt to determine the true nature of the war and source of the insurgency in South Vietnam, assumed that it alone had the capacity to win the war.” (143)

· “Munich taught that the United States had to demonstrate an unyielding determination to protect non-communist governments from communist aggression.” (146)

· The Chiefs “sought an open-ended commitment from the secretary of defense and the president to increase the level of military effort when, as they clearly predicted, the limited measures failed.” (147)

· “The JCS proved adept at providing technical information, but remained unable to respond to question that had broad policy implications, the principal obstacle remaining the debate over the effectiveness of air power as a solution to the problem in Vietnam.” (148)

· “NSAM 314 promised reprisals in case of North Vietnamese or Viet Conge attacks on US units or severe attacks against the South Vietnamese… however, LBJ would later delay or disapprove many of the actions that NSAM 314 ostensibly cleared for implementation.” (153)

· “SIGMA II suggested that graduate pressure could lead to disaster in Vietnam. The president, it seemed, would have to confront a difficult decision between a large-scale protracted war or disengagement under the auspices of a negotiated agreement.” (158)

· “The ability to control events precisely – rather than what effect those operations might have on the enemy – became a principal criterion for approving operations.” (161)

· “Despite SIGMA II’s findings, unrealistically sanguine assumptions about how Hanoi’s leadership would respond to coercive military pressures continued to shape the evolving strategy for the war. The principal elements of the policy of graduated pressure – maximum results with minimal investment, and the belief that the enemy would respond “rationally” to precisely controlled military stimuli – were consistent with the educational backgrounds and professional experiences of those who became the architects of American intervention in Vietnam.” (162)

· “The specific consequences of further military action also went unexplored.” (170)

· “What had been meant as a “signal” of US determination [deployment of B-57s to Bien Hoa] increased America’s vulnerability and forces the administration to consider further military action.” (175)

· “[LBJ’s] grand ambition, the Great Society would provide medical care for the old, educational assistance for the young, lower taxes for big business, a higher minimum wage for workers, subsidies for farmers, job training for the unskilled, food for the hungry, housing for the homeless, income redistribution for the poor, legal protection for African-Americans, and reduced quotas for immigrants. Jonson was determined to pass this social legislation, which he believed would secure his place in history.” (179)

· The civilian advisors “believed that if the United States demonstrated that it would use military force to support its foreign policy, its international stature would be enhanced, regardless of the outcome. Because the civilian advisers conceived of the gradual application of force as a political, rather than a military, operation, they did not seriously evaluate its practical military consequences. The men charged with a comprehensive examination of US policy toward Vietnam were planning for failure.” (180)

· “The Joint Chiefs, and Wheeler in particular, were working within the constraints of graduated pressure rather than questioning its assumptions.” (189)

· “The Chiefs’ preoccupation with minor intensification of the war diverted them from strategic planning and thereby excluded them even more from the policy process.” (189)

· “Vietnam must not divert congressional or public attention from the Great Society.” (194)

· “The planning efforts of 1964 and the president’s promises of future action, which fabricated a consensus behind graduate pressure and postponed difficult decisions, had laid the foundation for the Americanization of the war.” (197)

· “The introduction of American ground combat units…would change the nature of US involvement in the war. Vietnam would become an American war rather than a US effort to help the South Vietnamese fight their own conflict.” (202)

· “The president did not solicit military advice on either the introduction of ground forces or Taylor’s recommendation to begin a regular bombing campaign.” (208)

· “Johnson’s preoccupation with his domestic legislative program led him to obscure from the public and the Congress the extent of the difficulties in Vietnam.” (210)

· “The planning for air action against the North continued without consideration of its possible costs and consequences.” (214)

· “The president’s decision, at the end of February [1965], to introduce US ground combat units into South Vietnam represented an irrevocable commitment to the war. The president, however, would refuse to consider or even to acknowledge the consequences of his decisions, and thus still imagined that he could pursue a policy of gradual escalation without involving the United States in a major war.” (217)

· “Although the JCS thought that the president’s policy was fundamentally flawed, their actions supported and reinforced it.” (217)

· “Bundy shared not only McNamara’s doubts about the chances of success but also his belief that it was better to commit American military force and lose than to forgo acting.” (219)

· “Limitations on the use of force and the centralization of decision making in the White House compounded the difficulties of bad weather, enemy air defense, and the general imprecision of bombing.” (222)

· “[Ball] and others had come to the paradoxical conclusion that to protect their influence with the president, they had to spare him their most deeply held doubts. If they voiced their reservations, they would join Humphrey in exile.” (242)

· “The support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would prove crucial to LBJ’s and McNamara’s efforts to conceal the changed nature of American involvement in Vietnam.” (243)

· “The body charged with providing the president with military advice and responsible for strategic planning permitted the president to commit the United States to war without consideration of the likely costs and consequences.” (261)

· “From April through June of 1965, the president failed to confront the likely consequences of military actions and the Joint Chiefs of Staff continued to recommend an escalation of the military effort without presenting a strategy aimed at forcing an outcome consistent with US interests.” (264)

· “The president had finally begun to recognize [at the end of June 1965] the consequences of the decisions he had made during the previous five months. He had discovered that once Americans were committed to direct combat in the air against the North and on the ground in the South, he had no option but to continue to deepen American intervention and assume even greater responsibility for the war effort.” (298)

· “The application of means continued to escalate without a vision of how military action might actually achieve the goals of the war.” (309)

· “All the Chiefs except Greene suppressed their misgivings about the president’s plans to deepen slowly American involvement in the war and focused on the global political imperative of containing Communism.” (314)

· “Although impersonal forces such as the ideological imperative of containing Communism, the bureaucratic structure, and institutional priorities, influenced the president’s Vietnam decisions, those decisions depended primarily on his character, his motivations, and his relationships with his principal advisors." (324)

· “LBJ sought to avoid or postpone indefinitely an explicit choice between war and disengagement from South Vietnam.” (325)

· “The president’s fixation of short-term political goals, combined with his character and the personalities of his principal civilian and military advisors, rendered the administration incapable of dealing adequately with the complexities of the situation in Vietnam.” (325)

· “The relationship between the president, the secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs led to the curious situation in which the nation went to war without the benefit of effective military advice from the organization having the statutory responsibility to be the nation’s ‘principal military advisors.’” (325 – 326)

· “Over time the maintenance of US credibility quietly supplanted the stated policy objective of a free and independent South Vietnam.” (322)

· The war in Vietnam “was lost in Washington, DC, even before Americans assumed sole responsibility for the fighting in 1965 and before they realized the country was at war; indeed, even before the first American units were deployed. The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisors. The failing were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.” (334)


Dereliction of Duty – McMasters written 1997 by Army Officer, PhD West Point faculty

Theme of civ-mil relations and how strategy is developed.

Kennedy and LBJ with McNamara and the wiz kids running defense and an old slow JCS that is slowly/deliberately made irrelevant. LBJ first wants to get re-elected then wants to get his Great Society domestic agenda through and does both incredibly successfully.

McNamara and Maxwell Taylor (CJCS & Vietnam ambassador) systematically reduce the role of the JCS within the new informal decision making construct of Kennedy then LBJ end up lying to Congress, the President, anyone. McNamara’s strategy “Graduated Pressure” that slowly and with great control uses military send messages/communicate – it worked in Cuba w/ Kruschev so it will work in Vietnam/anywhere. By not making decisions (especially strategic) and putting priority on domestic agenda and political power over Vietnam LBJ commits the country to a war he never wanted to fight. At the end his civilian advisors think it is probably not winnable but better to commit and lose then withdraw for the domino theory perspective.

Isolation and manipulation of the JCS in order to appear together and properly coordinating leads to two different purposes for the war – LBJ, hold, minimize JCS, win.

JCS consumed by interservice rivalry—too slow, easy to frustrate or appease for support.

Story climaxes with 5 silent men JCS lying to Congress and not telling Congress the whole truth in support of LBJs aims.

Lying, severe consequences pg 85 quote; LBJ ends up losing access to info and advice, his people lie to him as they lie to Congress

Service chief and JCS loyalty – to Congress or President?

Were the chiefs/the SECDEF/the President derelict in their duties?

Legacy / Reputation – LBJ, Taylor pg230


Dereliction of Duty – H.R. McMaster


The distancing of Kenney and Johnson administrations from military advice led to the Vietnam disaster. Kennedy initially abolishes JCS system under Eisenhower and sets up more informal “Inner circle” of advisors. Hires McNamara (former Ford president) and Whiz Kids—who dominate OSD. Focused on metrics, numbers, etc… Downplay military advice and are arrogant about own abilities. Gen Taylor figures prominently as JCS and then Ambassador—quintessentially yes man who deceives chiefs to keep his boss happy. Vietnam strategy is one of gradualism…Kennedy’s assassination…Johnson’s focus on Great Society and insecurities and focus on consensus and middle ground—lead McNamara and others to pursue gradualism. Treat it like an alternative to war, when it is war. Un-clear strategy, poor civ-mil relations, complete lack of truth telling across the board (from Johnson on down) leads to disaster.


1. Dissent is important! Not enough dissent and focus on agreeing (bobblehead doll) and you get the Johnson, McNamara vision—a muddled unimaginative un thought strategy. Too much dissent—as between the joint chiefs when giving options

2. Johnson inherited Kennedy’s organization—with its good old boy network and informality. This created a forum in which agreement was more important than truth or trying to get the best plan forward.

3. Kennedy starts the war – yes finally an admission!

4. McNamara applies gradualism success in Cuban Missile Crisis (not exactly the perfect decision making system as set up in thinking in time and leadership books) as a way to win Vietnam. Carry on the ways of the Cuban Missile Crisis—but forget about the process?

5. Military wants to achieve victory – Civ = wants South to take control.

6. JCS has grave reservations, but Navy CNO gives up objections to keep PACOM Navy. Marine Corps gets a bigger force.

7. JCS never united….always prevent service centric solutions….better now.

8. Tuesday Lunches…inner circle, no military. Corollary to 1. And 2. Above.

9. Vietnam policy is so political it ignores military reality. (instead of vice versa) Pol de-linked from mil!

10. McNamara views Vietnam as an experiment—tweak here and there. Can control it just like a factory florr.

11. C2 -- Pg. 161 The ability to control events precisely—rather than wat effects thos operations might have on the enemy became the principal criteria for approving ops.

12. Great Society is LBJs political goal…only views Vietnam (initially) as a means to an end for election. This leads to gradualism—eventually by 1965 LBJ realizes that he hadn’t thought it out.

13. Think Strategy all the way through—committing forces is a big deal.

14. Two War Games eerily predict outcome. Listen to the war-gamers! (Listen to all information).

15. Ben Hoa attack sets up continually pattern (related to Dissent and organization of administration). 1) JCS wants more action 2) White House placates and promises more later 3) Great Society (or domestics ) intervenes and white house renegs.

16. Taylor worse yes man ever. UGH.

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