Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam

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Date: Summer 1998
From: ORBIS(Vol. 42, Issue 3)
Publisher: Elsevier Advanced Technology Publications
Document Type: Book review
Length: 3,412 words

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By H.R. McMaster. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997. 464 pp. $27.50.)

The Vietnam War continues to plague American politics in both obvious and subtle ways. Bill Clinton's avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War was a serious liability during the 1992 presidential campaign and continues to bedevil him as he tries to exercise his responsibilities as commander in chief, even in the most recent confrontation with Iraq. Vietnam's effect on American politics - especially in killing off that rare bird, the Scoop Jackson Democrat - is also obvious. More subtly, Vietnam also had a profound effect on the American military - especially the U.S. Army. A spate of books has recently appeared that chronicle the impact of Vietnam on the American military and suggest two very different lessons which the U.S. military learned from Vietnam. The first has to do with the proper mission for the military. The second concerns the relationship between the military and the civilian leadership. I will argue that these lessons have very mixed implications for the United States. The primary mission the U.S. military embraced after Vietnam - high technology conventional warfare in Europe and the Persian Gulf - set the stage for the stunning coalition victory in the Gulf War in 1991. However, the military's rethinking of its relationship with civilian authority, also a result of the experience in Vietnam, has reopened long-standing but unsettled questions: to whom does the American military owe obedience and under what conditions?

Robert Buzzanco's Masters of War is a quirky but informative historical investigation of the attitude of the American military involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Buzzanco is unabashedly a man of the Left (the book is replete with approving references to Noam Chomsky and revisionist historians) and he accepts the basic New Left line that what motivated the United States in Vietnam was largely preservation of American capitalism (p. 53). But the core of the book is a detailed, balanced, and fairly nuanced treatment of the attitude of the American military toward intervention in Vietnam. "Put simply," Buzzanco begins, "U.S. military leaders were wary of intervention from 1945 forward and, once committed there, were deeply divided over and offered candid and often pessimistic analyses of American prospects in the war" (p. 4). This finding is not wholly novel; Richard Betts developed a more general argument about the reluctance of military officers to use force in his classic Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises.(1) Buzzanco, however, provides us with an exhaustive historical treatment of how the U.S. military, especially the army, went into the war in Vietnam with its eyes wide open to how difficult would be the task of preventing the fall of a non-Communist government in the Republic of Vietnam. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the book will be to force the American Left to acknowledge that the U.S. military was not solely responsible for the disaster that befell the United States between 1965 and 1973. Oliver Stone and other peddlers of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A20913149