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on 17 May 2004
Of all the books I've read on the Vietnam conflict, McMaster's offers the clearest insight on the political and military policy decisions which sucked America into an unwinnable war. McMaster analyses the decisions and perspectives of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations through to 1966, by which time American troops were fully engaged in Vietnam.
This book should really be read in conjunction with Robert MacNamara's 'In Retrospect', which I thought was a fairly honest account of MacNamara trying to come to terms with the consequences of his (and LBJ's) mismanagement of American policy on Vietnam, which, to his credit, he later recognised as wrong.
McMaster is justifiably harder on both the folly and outright deception of the Johnson administration's actions than MacNamara's version of events and his insights are profound, cool and lucid.
MacNamara's 'Whiz Kids' (Halberstam's 'The Best and the Brightest'), the technocrats from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, emerge from this account as arrogant, ignorant and shallow policy wonks who thought they knew war better than the military and thus kept the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) out of all major policy decisions on the war. They believed that any situation could be resolved through analysis, statistics and 'war as communication'. Tragically, the hubris of these nerds got 58,000 soldiers killed in a war they all clearly knew couldn't be won.
Johnson's determination to both commit to a limited war without the approval of Congress and hide his actions from the American people was breathtakingly cynical, even by US political standards. All his decisions were based on domestic political criteria (the Great Society programme) and he always seemed to believe that his reputation as a deal-maker would allow him to pull any iron out of the fire. As a political bully and shrewd cynical manipulator, he (with MacNamara's active help) was responsible for the shockingly (and knowingly) bad advice he received from his advisors, both political and military. His actions were fully conscious ones, framed by his limited defining perspective of domestic political considerations.
MacNamara's enthusiastic support and encouragement and his willingness to lie about the administration's actions is clinically exposed. The role of the JCS Chairman, and later US Ambassador to Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, exactly fulfils the term 'dereliction of duty' referred to in the title.
The JCS, unable to overcome crippling inter-service rivalry and torn between offering professional military strategic advice (as they were charged to do under the constitution) and loyalty to a President they rightly perceived as authorising military actions which could only have disastrous results, allowed themselves to be marginalised from the decision-making process. They, too, emerge with little credit, clearly seeing the consequences of the administration's decisions but lacking sufficient conviction or backbone to either act or resign, tried to make the best of a very bad job, making a bigger mess in the process.
An extremely well-researched and written book, the conclusions are more damning due to the balanced and cool approach adopted by McMaster. It would be easy to tip into righteous indignation, but McMaster's approach is all the more effective.
Along with Bernard Fall's books and Neil Sheehan's 'A Bright Shining Lie', one of the best on the subject.
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on 20 May 1999
As a retired navy flier from the Vietnam conflict era, I became so frustrated with how the war was handled. You never new from one day to the other what was up or down. You would plan a mission and it was canceled -- You would be notified that you where going to launch on a target, no planning, and when you got there -- it was a bamboo bridge. You flew, not when the weather was to your advantage, but when it was clear. Not after the missiles ran out, but when the enemy resupplied. This book has answered most of my questions as to why the war was going the way it did.
This book should be required reading for all cadets at any of the service schools and included in the government classes of our public schools --
Great book, especially for us old vets and for research. Well written, concise and clear. Documentation was excellent.
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on 2 July 1998
I read McNamara's In Retrospect as soon as it was published several years ago. As someone who was born in the 60's & was 11 at the time of the Saigon airlift, I knew very little about the war except what I'd seen on the TV show Mash (actually portrayed Korean War) & the movie Platoon. Despite having relatives who faught in Vietnam, no one every spoke of the war in front of me as a child. McNamara's book gives the impression that he, JFK, & LBJ all meant well, but things got away from them, the slippery slope argument. McMasters provides ample proof of McNamara's complete lack of ethics, & his continuing lying and machinations. No one in his book escapes blame. The Joint Chiefs of Staff continually were selfish & would not fulfill their Constitutional obligations. McNamara's insistence on using "superior" analytical techniques was laughable, as well as his belief that his experience from the Cuban Missile Crisis translated into him knowing better than the military how to proceed in Vietnam. I can't say that I actually enjoyed the book; the content made me angry. But it cleared up misconceptions from McNamara's book & is especially important to people of my generation, who don't know much about what happened in Vietnam. Also, I kept thinking throughout the book that JFK appointing McNamara as Secretary of Defense was a loss for the country, but what a gain for Ford Corporation. I wonder how long it would have taken him to ruin the company with his superior analytical strategies & lack of ethics.
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on 19 September 2003
Author H.R. McMaster masterfully examines historic events that led to the disastrous Vietnam war within the context of two gigantic egos. Early on President Lyndon Johnson is shown to have a long political career of stretching the truth...starting with his alleged heroic air combat role in World War II. Robert McNamara is a towering intellectual who is not afraid to manipulate statistics to support his Cold War position or that of the president. The pattern is contagious as the Joint Chiefs of Staff also maintain upbeat reports that do not properly reflect the reality in Vietnam.
"Dereliction of Duty," is an eye-opening book that documents how powerful leaders in Washington D.C. who were bestowed with an enormous trust by the American people betrayed the young men and women who answered the nation's call in Vietnam. McMaster impressively reviews a painful period in American history and clearly shows how American foreign policy in Vietnam was manipulated for political and egotistical reasons. This book is clearly written and well researched. The conclusions are stunning...Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff [mislead] the American people. One of the few heroes in this book is Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup, who received a Medal of Honor for heroism on the Pacific island of Tarawa and who in November of 1963 strongly advised, "not, under any circumstances, should we get involved in land warfare in Southeast Asia."
Bert Ruiz
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on 20 April 1999
If you only read one book about the Vietnam War, this is the one to read. Burke said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. This book shows in well written, excellently researched detail how good soldiers allowed an arrogant civilian elite to bully them into acquiescing to bad decisions. This is the only book on bureaucratic history that will raise your blood pressure. There was no conspiracy, just bureaucracy, careerism and the sort of hubris that is the Ivy League's chief product these days.
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on 29 December 1998
This book is a must-read for anyone interested in how and why Vietnam became an American War. McMaster does not buy McNamara's explanation that the war was the result of the Cold War ideology of containing communism. The author shows through new evidence that not only was the war in Vietnam not inevitable, but was made possible only by lies aimed at the American Congress, the public, and members of Lyndon Johnson's own Administration. The behavior of the generals, especially the Joint Chiefs of Staff was also surprising and disappointing. If you are interested in what is happening in Washington today there is a sad, important lesson in Dereliction of Duty. The lesson is that character matters in public office and that lies can have disastrous consequences. This book deepened my respect for those who did their duty in Vietnam despite the dubious and dishonest leadership in Washington.
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on 7 December 1997
History is more than the dry repetition of dates and statistics; it must show how the players understood their world. H.R. McMaster demonstrates in " Dereliction of Duty" the instincts of a detective coupled with a writing style that is clear and concise. He spares neither the military or their civilian masters in his analysis of the blundering and scheming that eventually culminated in the deaths of over a million people and the horrible scarring of millions more. This is not a story anyone who loves this country and its military will find easy to read but it is a book which demands careful study. Vietnam in many ways was a civilian's war. Led and directed in the US by amateurs, it inflicted pain and suffering on a civilian population who cared nothing for the high-minded concepts of the elites running the war. One can only grow increasingly angry with the intelligent fools who conducted experiments with people's lives, who thought to send messages with bombs, who so little understood warfare that they thought dedicated revolutionaries reacted like college professors or corporate executives. H. R. McMaster scores hit after hit on the bewildered American leaders; one wonders why he doesn't explore their unwillingness to learn from the successful British response to the Malayasian insurgency. The book will not be well received by those who like their Kennedys saintly and their Johnsons unsoiled. Both presidents wanted to control the military, to reduce its independence, and make it completely subservient to politics. Both presidents succeeded. They encouraged lying; they rewarded lap dogs. They ruined the Army for a generation and instilled in the American people a distrust of their Government. As my grandfather used to say when I had fouled up some task on the farm in a particularly bad manner, it took a real smart fellow to do that. In the case of Vietnam, it took America's "Best and Brightest."
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on 15 May 1997
H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty is one of the most thought provoking - and somewhat frightening - pieces of literature to be published in America in some time. Although this book is about the issues involved with how the United States entered the Vietnam war, on a larger level it gives a sobering view into how the trust and confidence of the American people was shamelessly destroyed by elements of two US Administrations. Some of the policies begun by JFK were seamlessly continued in the LBJ presidency. The book shows how personal self-interest at multiple levels of government resulted in out right, well thought out deciet. McMaster gives the reader a rare opportunity to actually "be there" in the most secret of corridors where decisions were made that ultimately cost thousands of Americans their lives, and on a broader level, caused millions of Americans to lose faith in not only the military, but also in the US Government.
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on 9 August 2015
This book (published in 1997) is written by a Major Herbert Raymond McMaster (who has now attained the rank of three-star general) His career to-date confirms him as the consummate modern soldier. The author’s subsidiary title of his book: “Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the lies that led to Vietnam”. Although it is old history it is important as a detailed report of the still prevailing style of decision making at the top of the Western Alliance.

In retrospect in can be seen that ‘The Truman Doctrine’ of ‘containment’ was just about manageable in Europe. Extending it to apply anywhere in the world was a step too far. To sacrifice young Western Alliance lives to hold and turn back a tide of national self-determination and reaction to colonialism, in the many European overseas possessions, was dangerously flawed. The post-WWII events set in motion by the various Russian and American interpretations of the Yalta (and other) ‘Agreement’ inevitably led to the ‘Cold War’ confrontation. The regional hot-wars (Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan) settled nothing, but filled many cemeteries with the premature dead.

In the Western Alliance political class there was (and still is) a frightening ineptitude. This story of the slow-march to disaster in Vietnam points-up that the leadership of the Western World is selected solely on American domestic considerations. The man who has the power to start atomic war is chosen exclusively on the basis of his attitudes to abortion and similar domestic matters.

Limited involvement in Vietnam was commenced by the Kennedy (JFK) Administration (living in Camelot), but was finally escalated during the Johnson (LBJ) Administration. LBJ was never intended by the Kennedy’s to have any power. He was chosen by JFK’s father to give a shine on the hustings and at Capitol Hill to his son’s presidential campaign. LBJ had substantial domestic political skills, but absolutely no foreign relations experience. On becoming president following the assassination of JFK, Johnson was surrounded by the cabinet of Camelot who had nothing but contempt for him. Robert McNamara decided to use Johnson in his plans and told him very little of significance. He in fact isolated Johnson from all other opinion, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The war in Vietnam was essentially conducted by McNamara throughout, and 58,000 young Americans were killed in action and another 153,000 were injured of which 30% eventually died of their wounds. The total casualties on all sides were 3.5 million dead men women and children and America lost the war.

General McMaster sums up:
“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 advisers. The failings were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.”

Need I say, nothing has much changed since that time?
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on 17 March 1999
I have had the book reviewed by Captain John Denham, USN-Ret., former CO of USS Ozbourn (DD-846) (and former professor at California Maritime) for the Journal of Political and Military Sociology of which I am book review editor. His review is devastating (of the war "leadership," not the book), colored to some degree I suspect by his having lost several men to enemy fire off Vietnam. I also have read the book and support nearly everything Denham said. /Robert C. Whitten Book Review Editor, JPMS
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