10 June 2010


H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, New York: HarperCollins, 1997, 352 pages.

Even if he had never written Dereliction of Duty, H.R. McMaster would still go down in history as one of the most colorful American military figures of his generation. His exploits as a tank company commander at the Battle of the 73 Easting in the Gulf War, as commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar in the Iraq war (immortalized in Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco), and as a driving force behind the 2007 surge strategy that may well have salvaged the Iraq war (immortalized in Bob Woodward’s The War Within) have already cemented his place in American military lore. His authorship of Dereliction of Duty only adds to his legend. In writing this book, McMaster applied the same super-natural ability to be in the right place at the right time that has marked his military career; just as he began Dereliction of Duty, many of President Johnson’s records and oval office recordings were released to the public . The result is an intriguing, if opinionated, portrait of the decision-makers that lead the United States into war in Vietnam.

Dereliction of Duty covers the critical period between 1964 and 1965 when the Vietnam War transformed from a Vietnamese war into an American war. In his analysis, H.R. McMaster finds plenty of blame to spread around. At the top , “Johnson’s preoccupation with his domestic legislative program led him to obscure from the public and the Congress the extent of the difficulties in Vietnam” (p. 210). Robert McNamara repeatedly “misled the senators and representatives by misrepresenting America’s role” in Vietnam (p. 134). But McMaster reserves his most damning indictments for Gen. Wheeler and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), because “the president’s plan of deception depended on tacit approval or silence from the JCS” (p. 330). In short, the JCS’ failure to speak out when their recommendations were misrepresented amounted to a dereliction of duty.

From the title to the final page, Dereliction of Duty exudes H.R. McMaster’s personality. To the audacious cavalryman, inaction and indecision are even more grievous sins than wrong action or wrong decision. While McMaster gives a very thorough treatment to the public statements of the actors during this key period, he neglects even a cursory discussion of memoirs or private documents that might have yielded a much richer appreciation of the uncertainty and pressures with which they were faced. In his effort to clearly assign blame and argue the guilt of the accused, McMaster loses an opportunity to provide an understanding of the forces that ultimately thrust America into the Vietnam War.

That having been said, Dereliction of Duty makes a compelling case. One can argue with its omissions, but not its scholarship . It is an exemplary work and deserves a place in any Vietnam War collection.

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