Dereliction of Duty Reconsidered: The Book that Made the National Security Advisor


H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (Harper Perennial, 1998).

Dereliction of Duty is a serious book. Thoroughly researched, carefully argued, it tackles a big subject: Who is responsible for the debacle that is the Vietnam War? McMaster concludes that everyone in political and military leadership was: Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, presidential military advisor Maxwell Taylor, the Congress and — especially — the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s not wrong, but this book by the man who recently became President Donald Trump’s national security advisor reveals an innocence about politics at the highest levels as well as some questionable judgments about civil-military relations in the United States.

The book begins with the debacle that was the Bay of Pigs, which soured Kennedy on the judgment of his military leadership. Not long after, the Cuban missile crisis saw the military completely excluded from decision making. By the time the administration got to Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were marginal to policy formation and major decisions. Johnson’s unexpected ascension thrust great responsibility onto an inexperienced and insecure political leader with ambitious domestic policy plans and wariness of looking weak on international issues.

The book reads like a tragedy. Political choices led to an ill-advised commitment that the White House considered too costly to either fully admit or renege on. The Joint Chiefs saw the mistakes but felt they had little influence to correct course. Instead, they tried trimming their sails to meet the politicians’ preferences, resigning themselves to try and make a bad strategy successful. And therein lies the interesting civil-military issue: Should the Chiefs have openly defied the president? McMaster believes they were derelict in their duty for not insisting on the superiority of their views and publicly revealing the inadequacies of the president (his concluding chapter is titled “Five Silent Men”). But the case is grayer than he admits.

McMaster passes stern judgment on the policymakers, saying:

[T]he failings were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in pursuit of self-interest, and above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.

In particular, he makes four incendiary claims: First, he argues that Johnson and McNamara lied to the American people about the costs of the war. Second, he notes that Johnson allowed his domestic political agenda to supersede the war effort. Third, the chiefs misrepresented their views to Congress in order to support the President. And fourth, the Chiefs cravenly allowed themselves to be bought out of their opposition by increases in budget and force size.

McMaster criticizes the president and secretary of defense for not owning up to the requirements for winning the war and specifically for not admitting up front that it would require mobilization and $12.7 billion by the chiefs’ estimates. Yet most presidents underestimate the costs of war and game the electoral consequences of their choices, require the Pentagon to eat near-term costs while promising funding later, and time the release of budget figures accordingly. That doesn’t make them evil, it just makes them normal presidents and politicians. The same goes for McMaster’s objection that, “LBJ’s advisory system was structured to achieve consensus and prevent potentially damaging leaks.” It is unquestionably true that presidents get the military advice they deserve and running the interagency as Johnson did suffocates useful dissent, but many, if not most, presidents organize the interagency to achieve consensus and prevent leaks.

Moreover, the administration was grappling with a daunting set of intellectual challenges so early in the nuclear age. Their approach to warfare was intended to reduce the risk of nuclear war by conveying the limits of our involvement and gradually increasing commitments to reduce the likelihood of miscalculation (rather than using overwhelming force relative to the objective) or precipitating Soviet intervention. Experience has not been particularly kind to those ideas, but the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were dealing with a genuinely difficult problem. McMaster doesn’t give them enough credit for just how unmapped the strategic terrain was that they were exploring, nor how uncertain early applications of the approach would be for resourcing considerations. The chiefs’ consistent advice that warfare allowed no such middle speeds did not admit of much room for their estimates to be helpful in navigating this new approach to war. McMaster objects that, “[D]espite their personal estimates, the JCS never made a recommendation for the total force.” Yet they surely knew doing so would further alienate a political leadership they had already lost influence with. Were they wrong to try and work within the system?

As his own recounting makes clear, the military leadership gave the president and secretary of defense their military advice and that advice was not taken. The chiefs (and in particular the Commandant of the Marine Corps) made clear they did not support a strategy of graduated response that increased the military force incrementally nor the specific application of it to Vietnam. In fact, they voiced their belief that there were no alternatives that could achieve the president’s political objectives. The president and the secretary did consult them, offer significant amendments (more money and troops) to address their concerns. The chiefs fought and lost the arguments, then moved on to do the best they could with the strategy the president selected. At the end of the day, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold K. Johnson’s plaintive defense has some merit: “What should my role have been? I’m a dumb soldier under civilian control.”

McMaster complains they “had become technicians whose principal responsibility was to carry out decisions already made rather than fully participating in the planning and advisory process.” Yet it was the decision of both Kennedy and Johnson to exclude them. The only avenue open to them was public repudiation of their political leaders. And this is, in fact, what McMaster believes they ought to have done: testify publicly that the Johnson and McNamara were misleading the country. That some did so privately with members of Congress gets them no credit. He says, “[A]lthough the President should not have placed the Chiefs in that position, the flag officers should not have tolerated it when he had.” But he gives too little credit to Johnson’s and McNamara’s shrewdness at boxing the chiefs in — another way of saying it is that Johnson was a fine politician, McNamara was no slouch, and the chiefs properly submitted to their authority.

Reading Dereliction of Duty, I was struck at the extent to which McMaster tries to leach the politics out of policy. It is a common attitude among military strategists since the Napoleonic Wars, as Lawrence Freedman’s fine book on strategy makes clear. But not only does militarized strategy very often fail to achieve the political objectives of war, it is not the American way of war. McMaster is witheringly critical that Johnson considered his top political priorities domestic — that getting Great Society legislation passed mattered more to him than the squandering of lives in a failing war. But every American president makes tradeoffs among competing priorities in determining how much blood and treasure to apportion to war — Lincoln did, Roosevelt did, Bush did, Obama did.

Johnson did not have a strategy for winning the war, it is true. He was a poor strategist, but as his passage of Great Society legislation proves, a brilliant tactician. So, it is perhaps not surprising he narrowed in on tactics even with regards to the war effort. Most successful people continue to practice what made them successful, even if those skills are no longer optimally suited to the tasks at hand. One of the most interesting revelations in Dereliction of Duty is the extent to which McNamara preyed on Johnson’s insecurity, rushing him into commitments on Vietnam immediately after Kennedy’s assassination. But the list of villains is long and comprehensive. For my money, Maxwell Taylor deserves more blame than any other, as his elastic judgments correlate most closely with political opportunism. For example, as Army Chief of Staff, Taylor publicly criticized President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his administration pressuring the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accept a “preconceived politico-military line,” but advocated the same when in the Kennedy White House.

McMaster highlights without judgment the personal discomfort both Kennedy and Johnson had with the military leadership. Yet that was one of the most important sources of their failure. Johnson had gilded his wartime experience, and resented the chiefs for their inattention to him as vice president. McNamara, too, brought pathologies into government that would better have been worked out with a pastor or therapist (for supporting data, see the documentary “Fog of War”). Civil-military relations in the United States require a high degree of trust to function well. The chiefs of Kennedy and Johnson’s day had won World War II and lost Korea. Their hard experience of war disinclined them to new theories of graduated response and limited war so fashionable to the political leadership. The administration wanted military advocacy for a “flexible response” the chiefs didn’t support. Good strategy would have been an unlikely outcome even with Eisenhower-era processes. As civil-military expert Peter Feaver argues, the president has a right to be wrong, and can organize his administration any way the American people will put up with. That is why presidents, not military leaders, are ultimately held responsible for winning or losing our wars. At the end of the day, that’s the thing McMaster gets wrong about the tragedy of the Vietnam War: the degree to which it is unexceptional.

Dereliction of Duty is an earnest book written from the perspective of someone inexperienced judging the compromises of their elders. I eagerly await the book H.R. McMaster writes after having lived the experience he critiqued as a scholar. In his condemnation of the Vietnam era military leaders, he has set an exacting standard that as national security advisor he will also be judged by. I hope he will not end up the Samantha Power of this administration — someone who wrote a clear-eyed, condemnatory account of moral and strategic failings that was then condemned to enact the same mistakes as a policymaker. McMaster is surely able enough to bring the processes of interagency coordination and policy evaluation into alignment for the Trump administration. The question is whether good processes can trump the political demands and personality of the commander in chief.


Kori Schake is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. She is the editor, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis of Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military.

Image: LBJ Library