Certainly, there have been many books written about our experience in
Vietnam. Why did you decide to add to the collection, and why did you focus
your study so specifically on the time-period between late 1963 and
Despite scores of books on the subject, the why and how of direct U.S.
intervention in the Vietnam War remained unclear. When I began research as a
graduate student in 1992, I found much of the available literature on the
escalation of the Vietnam War contentious and based largely on conjecture. The
role of senior military advisers in decisions that led to war was particularly
obscure. Only until recently has the full record become available. Recently
declassified documents, newly opened manuscript collections, and tapes of
telephone conversations between President Lyndon Johnson and his closest
advisers made it possible to tell the full story. What I found astonished me.
Much of the conventional wisdom associated with Vietnam was highly inaccurate.
Far from an inevitable result of the imperative to contain communism, the war
was only made possible through lies and deceptions aimed at the American
public, Congress, and members of Lyndon Johnson's own administration. Contrary
to Robert McNamara's claims of ignorance and overconfidence during the period
1963-1965, the record proves that he and others were men who not only should
have known better, but who did know better. These men and the decisions they
made during those crucial months mired the United States in a costly war that
could not be won at a cost acceptable to the American public. I wanted to
answer the question of how and why Vietnam became an American war. It was
during the period from November 1963 to July 1965 that Lyndon Johnson made the
critical decisions that took the United States into war almost without
realizing it. The decisions, and the way in which he made them, had a profound
effect on the conduct of the war and its outcome.
You have written that we went to war in Vietnam in a manner unique in
American history, that the war "slunk in on cat's feet." What do you mean by
Lyndon Johnson was a profoundly insecure man who feared dissent and craved
reassurance. In 1964 and 1965, Johnson's principal goals were to win the
presidency in his own right and to pass his Great Society legislation through
Congress. The Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was particularly adept at
sensing the president's needs and giving him the advice he wanted. Lyndon
Johnson knew that he faced a difficult choice between war and disengagement in
Vietnam. However, because such a decision would alienate key constituencies on
which his domestic goals depended, he sought a middle course aimed at placating
those on both sides of the issue. McNamara developed the strategy of "graduated
pressure" that, along with the profound dishonesty of LBJ and his closest
advisers, prevented a debate on Vietnam until it was too late. America was
already at war long before the American public recognized that fact. Not only
was LBJ's conduct undemocratic, it also removed an important corrective to what
was an unwise policy.
What are we to take from Vietnam about the concept of graduated pressure and
the use of force, particularly air power, as a form of diplomatic
communication? Why not bombs for peace?
There is a grave danger associated with calling the bombing of another
country anything but war. During the period in which Vietnam became an
American war, Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara created the illusion that
attacks on North Vietnam were alternatives to war rather than war itself.
Bombing, particularly from the perspective of the receiving end, is not
"communication." Bombs result in death and destruction. After engaging in acts
of war against another nation, there exists a degree of uncertainty in terms of
the enemy's reactions. War inspires an unpredictable psychology and evokes
strong emotions that defy systems analysis quantification.
Once the United States crossed the threshold of war against North Vietnam, the
future course of events depended not only on decisions made in Washington, but
also on enemy responses and initiatives. Sadly, Pentagon war games predicted
the enemy reaction, a massive offensive on the ground, but McNamara ignored
that advice. Indeed, many people within the administration made compelling
arguments against the assumption that bombing would affect Hanoi's will
sufficiently to convince North Vietnam to desist from its support of the
insurgency in the South. Until the massive deployment of ground troops in 1965
forced him to confront the consequences of his earlier decisions, McNamara
continued to view the war as another business management problem. The notion
that air power alone could solve the complex military and political problem of
Vietnam was based in ignorance and advocacy by air power zealots. It was
obvious to many at the time that bombing fixed installations and economic
targets was not appropriate for Vietnamese communist mobile forces. Curiously,
the definition of the enemy's strength derived from the strategy rather from a
critical examination of the full political, cultural, and military reality in
South Vietnam. Perhaps a lesson is that one should take pause before using
military force for communication, punishment, or catharsis. The application of
military force without a clear idea of how that force is contributing to the
attainment of policy goals is not only unwise, but dangerous.
Why did Johnson's "middle-course" strategy in Vietnam--graduated pressure
and constrained attacks--represent no strategy at all? Is warfare by political
consensus doomed to fail?
Johnson's strategy assumed, with no thought for the nature of the war, that any
military action would constitute progress in the war effort. Without defining a
strategic objective, he told the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Spring of 1965 to
"kill more Viet Cong," a tactical mission. Meanwhile, the air campaign against
the North and in the South continued. It remained unclear how bombing targets
in North Vietnam and using massive airstrikes in the South against an enemy who
was intertwined with the noncombatant population would help to establish
conditions conducive to ending the war. To address the second part of your
question, Lyndon Johnson pursued consensus, which is the absence of leadership.
He so feared dissent that he excluded everyone but his most trusted advisers
from discussions on Vietnam when the situation there demanded a full
examination and debate. LBJ so feared a debate over Vietnam that he often
refused to discuss the subject within his own circle. On one occasion he
threatened to feign illness and leave town for his Texas ranch if his advisers
pressed him further to confront the issue.
While many have long been critical of decisions by the political leadership
during Vietnam, you have leveled a substantial amount of the blame on the
military leadership at that time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff--the "five silent
men." How has the book and its analysis of the Joint Chief's responsibility
affected the current generation of military leaders, many of whom fought in
That is a tough question for me to answer with any degree of confidence. I felt
compelled to tell this story, especially to those who fought in Vietnam under
the most difficult conditions. I have had the opportunity to speak with groups
of senior officers and many have told me that Dereliction of Duty has
helped them think about their responsibilities and difficult decisions they
must make as senior military advisers. My research convinced me that character
was the most important factor in determining how these men discharged their
duties. I imagine that the book affects each person differently.
I believe that the principle lesson one might learn from the "five silent men"
is not to compromise principle for expediency. Other relevant lessons include
the debilitating effect of service parochialism. I would like to also make the
point that Lyndon Johnson ultimately got the military advice he wanted. He and
McNamara were arrogant in their belief that they did not require advice based
on JCS military experience and education. What they wanted instead was silent
acquiescence for decisions already made and the legitimacy lent their policies
by the chiefs' uniforms.
What, if any, lasting impact has the Vietnam experience had on the strategic
debate about "limited warfare"--whether and how to use military force in
pursuit of limited foreign policy objectives?
There is a danger that one can learn the wrong lessons. All warfare is limited
to some degree. There is nothing inherently wrong in limiting the use of force
as long as the means employed are connected with strategic goals and
objectives. The process of determining the means to employ must begin with a
clearly stated policy goal or objective. Senior military advisers and
commanders should then develop a military strategy that contributes to or
achieves that goal or objective. Then, military commanders determine the level
of force necessary to carry out that strategy.
During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson and his advisers did precisely the
opposite. LBJ determined what level of military force was politically palatable
in the short term, made it available to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and told
them to do the best they could with what they got. That is why we had lots of
military activity in Vietnam (bombing North Vietnam and killing the enemy in
South Vietnam)without a clear idea of how that activity represented progress.
That is also why many brave, patriotic men took risks and made sacrifices
without knowing how those risks and sacrifices were contributing toward an end
of the war. That is why, along with the recognition that they had been lied to
for years, many Americans lost faith in the effort.
Some commentators have drawn stark analogies between the Vietnam experience
and our present involvement in Kosovo. Do you agree?
Some are more thoughtful and useful than others. Obviously, no two situations
are completely analogous and there are dramatic dissimilarities between Vietnam
and Kosovo. The people in positions of authority and responsibility in
Washington are different and, as I argue in the book, the failure in Vietnam
was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure. One
conflict took place in the context of the cold war and the other is taking
place in the post-cold war period. The histories and cultures of the two
regions are dramatically different. The military forces and geography are
Yet, I do believe that history can help us to ask the right questions and
think more clearly about the current situation. Studying the history of war has
become more important as some people argue that new technologies have
revolutionized warfare. History highlights continuities and keeps us sensitive
to the enduring, human element of war. I think that the words of eighteenth
century military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz are as relevant today as they
were in his own time: "The first duty and the right of the art of war is to
keep policy from demanding things that go against the nature of war, to prevent
the possibility that out of ignorance of the way the instrument works, policy
might misuse it." The consequences of mistakes in war are most often unforeseen
and disastrous. Another lesson of Vietnam was a failure to think through the
potential long-term costs and consequences associated with each decision to
escalate American involvement in the war.
Major H.R. McMaster graduated from West Point in 1984, and, during the Gulf
War, commanded Eagle Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment's successful ground
campaign against Iraq's Republican Guard in the Battle of 73 Easting. He has
taught at West Point and received his Ph.D. in military history from the
University of North Carolina in 1996. Currently, he is serving as regimental
operations officer of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at the National
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