DERELICTION OF DUTY: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam
By H.R. McMaster. HarperPerennial. 446 pp. $17.99 (1997)
It’s a brutal verdict on the failings so evident in the American president and his top advisers: “arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.”
That is the judgment of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to President Trump. But McMaster is not describing his current boss; he is portraying President Lyndon B. Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-1960s. In his book, “Dereliction of Duty,” published in 1997, McMaster explains how a culture of deceit and deference, of divided and misguided loyalties, of policy overrun by politics, resulted in an ever-deeper U.S. involvement in Vietnam — a war, McMaster writes, that “led Americans to question the integrity of their government as never before.”
Twenty years ago, McMaster authored a cautionary tale. Today, he risks becoming one.
McMaster is one of the few credible voices remaining in a White House that is once again making Americans question the integrity of their government. Even before the Justice Department appointed a special counsel to investigate possible ties between Russian officials and the 2016 Trump campaign, McMaster was defending the increasingly indefensible behavior of the president, such as Trump’s off-the-cuff disclosure of classified intelligence to senior Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting. The general publicly described the president’s actions as “wholly appropriate” (resorting to the phrase nine times in a single appearance), attacked the reporting on Trump by rebutting allegations that had not been made and reminded reporters that he was “in the room” when Trump met with Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister. Message: If you don’t trust the president, you can still trust me.
In “Dereliction of Duty,” which grew out of the author’s doctoral dissertation in history, McMaster accuses the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served Johnson of failing to provide the president and Congress with honest advice on national security and insufficiently challenging the administration’s flawed strategy in Vietnam. Profiles and news stories about McMaster invariably cite the book as proof that he grasps the importance of telling the president things he may not want to hear. But even more than his views on the Joint Chiefs — whom he depicts as torn by interservice rivalries and deliberately marginalized from key policy debates by Johnson and McNamara — it is McMaster’s views on Johnson that feel most relevant when reading the book today.
McMaster displays nothing but disdain for LBJ, for reasons that echo. He was a president with a “real propensity for lying,” McMaster writes, obsessed with loyalty, focused on his political fortunes at the expense of the nation’s needs, paranoid about dissent and leaks, and willing to consume the credibility of decorated military officers to cover for his duplicity. Those around him, however well intentioned, became complicit or compromised, manipulators or manipulated. The Johnson White House found itself sinking in “a quicksand of lies” about the war’s strategy, troop levels and costs, McMaster writes, posing a dilemma for Johnson’s military advisers. “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well or, at least, to withhold the whole truth,” McMaster explains. “Although the president should not have placed the Chiefs in that position, the flag officers should not have tolerated it when he had.”
But how exactly do you not tolerate a president who lies and expects you to back him up? By challenging him and jeopardizing your job? By going public with your disagreements? Or are you the good soldier, staying and hoping to quietly exert some positive influence over a commander in chief and administration that need your help as much as your reputation?
This is a matter of individual conscience, both for Johnson’s advisers four decades ago and Trump’s today. What is clear, however, is that in his book McMaster displays contempt and disappointment toward those who do not speak clearly and honestly, whether in public or in direct conversations with the president and lawmakers. He derides the Joint Chiefs of Staff as “five silent men” for not revealing to Congress what they truly thought about McNamara’s Vietnam strategy and Johnson’s tendency to guide national security policies according to electoral and domestic priorities. (The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Wallace Greene, is one of the few leaders McMaster praises, because he finally told Johnson that he believed it would take 500,000 troops and five years to win in Vietnam — even if he was largely ignored.) And McMaster is particularly damning regarding Army Gen. Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1964 to 1970, whom the president “used” on several occasions to “lend uniformed credibility to his decisions.”
McMaster dwells on congressional hearings in August 1964, shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which Wheeler appeared alongside McNamara as a sort of administration prop, while the defense secretary was less than forthcoming in his description of Johnson’s Vietnam policies. “Although Wheeler did not make any false statements to the senators or congressmen, by not revealing the truth he showed the president that he would go along with his and McNamara’s attempts to mislead Congress and the American people,” McMaster writes. “Sitting silently next to McNamara, Wheeler, dressed in his uniform, the light from the Capitol’s crystal chandeliers reflecting off his brass insignia, lent indispensable credibility to his defense secretary’s remarks.”
Trump, we know, likes to surround himself with generals, perhaps for the macho vibe or because he hopes some additional respect will rub off on him. He has appointed Marine Gen. Jim Mattis to run the Pentagon and Marine Gen. John F. Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security, while McMaster replaced yet another general, the oft-investigated Michael Flynn, as national security adviser. In his book, McMaster recounts how often the Johnson administration would stage presidential photo-ops with generals to create a veneer of consultation, and would trot out the brass to defend positions they had neither formulated nor supported.
“Above all President Johnson needed reassurance,” McMaster writes. “He wanted advisers who would tell him what he wanted to hear, who would find solutions even if there were none to be found. Bearers of bad news or those who expressed views that ran counter to his priorities would hold little sway.” When Vice President Hubert Humphrey expressed concern about the escalation of U.S. forces in Vietnam, “Johnson responded by excluding Humphrey from future deliberations” over the war, McMaster explains, and Johnson’s other advisers reached “the paradoxical conclusion that to protect their influence with the president, they had to spare him their most deeply held doubts.” It became influence without purpose.
Gen. Harold Johnson, the Army chief of staff at the time, “did not resign, resist or object” to the president’s policies, despite his personal misgivings, McMaster writes with clear disapproval. Gen. Johnson later explained his rationale: “What should my role have been? I’m a dumb soldier under civilian control. . . . I could resign, and what am I? I’m a disgruntled general for 48 hours and then I’m out of sight. Right?” Better to stay in office, he concluded, and “try and fight and get the best posture that we can.”
He came to regret the choice, McMaster writes. “Harold Johnson’s inaction haunted him for the rest of his life.”
When Trump announced McMaster as his new national security adviser at a brief Mar-a-Lago event on Feb. 20, the general, in full uniform, chose his words carefully. “I’d just like to say what a privilege it is to be able to continue serving our nation,” he said. “I’m grateful to you for that opportunity, and I look forward to joining the national security team and doing everything I can to advance and protect the interests of the American people.”
Serving the nation, joining the team, protecting the interests of the people. Nothing about working for Trump or joining his administration — McMaster was keeping his distance even as he entered the most inner of circles. And he has established his independence on some matters, such as nudging White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon out of the National Security Council and encouraging Trump, though not quite successfully, to cut back his references to “radical Islamic terrorism.”
But with his strident and unconvincing defense of Trump’s inadvertent intelligence disclosures to the Russians, McMaster has put his own reputation and credibility at risk, especially if Trump enlists him to stamp out future fires. Some observers are now referring to McMaster as Trump’s “shield.” It is the same word McMaster used to describe Wheeler’s relationship to President Johnson, and he did not mean it as a compliment. “Although his influence as a military adviser was low,” McMaster writes, “Wheeler had become a valuable ‘shield’ to protect the administration from attacks on its decisions regarding Vietnam.”
This book makes clear that McMaster has the analytical skills, and not just the war-fighting experience, to serve as national security adviser in times of military and foreign policy crises. It is a shame that he is doing so for a White House in which so many of the threats are internal and the wounds self-inflicted, and in which the main weapon McMaster must wield is his credibility. I can imagine a future officer-scholar writing a dissertation about the dilemmas faced by McMaster and the other generals, both active-duty and retired, serving in the Trump administration. Will they be deemed heroes or warnings?
They could be both. Working for this president might mean not the dereliction of duty, but the duty of dereliction.