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lessons of vietnam: a conversation with h.r. mcmaster by rick young
Young  was producer of the FRONTLINE documentary Give War A Chance
In 1997, an Army major published a book about Vietnam that caught the attention of virtually every American military leader. The writer was H.R. McMaster and the book is titled Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.

McMaster's work, in particular his detailed accounting of military culpability for the failure in Vietnam, touched a resonant chord among a generation of service brass, many of whom had served there. For them, the enduring lesson was not just about the conduct and means of war, but also the responsibility of leadership. Through his research, McMaster lays bare the complicity and acquiescence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in accepting President Johnson's fateful approach to the war. "The 'five silent men' on the Joint Chiefs, McMaster writes, made possible the way the United States went to war in Vietnam.

In preparing this FRONTLINE documentary, quite a number of military leaders I spoke with made mention of Dereliction of Duty. I was told that the current Chairman, General Hugh Shelton, has given the book to other members of the Joint Chiefs and to other staff that work for him.


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 mid-1965?

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 that?

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 Vietnam?

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 dissimilar.

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 Training Center.

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