Richard Nisley

No ordinary Joe–Trump's NSA pick
History - American Released - Feb 20, 2017

Today, February 20, President Donald Trump appointed Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster as his new national security advisor, replacing Michael Flynn. Who is he? What can we expect? Below is an indicator. It's review I wrote of his book, “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the lies that led to Vietnam.”

Incompetent, deceitful, arrogant, and wrong ("terribly wrong" as Robert McNamara admitted years later). Strong words, yes, but true words when describing the Washington officials who led America into the Vietnam war. "Dereliction of Duty" by (then) Army Major H.R. McMaster contains much new information about the multitude of mistakes that were made. The men of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration would not tolerate dissent within their own government while making key decisions based on highly-questionable assumptions, decisions that effected the lives of countless thousands of American soldiers, while never doubting for a moment they might be wrong. These were highly educated and intelligent men who lacked simple wisdom and the humility to admit that what they were undertaking might be wrong. It's a tragic story but necessary to understand, if the lessons are to be learned.

The biggest mistake was the very first: entering a conflict without having a clear objective. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson talked of stopping communism from spreading in Southeast Asia, which in fact was more a political than military objective. Wars are fought to be won, not to achieve a stalemate on the battlefield, which in fact was what they were after. At the same time, they were asking American boys to fight and die not to win but to stop an incursion. During World War II, every American soldier from the lowliest cook to the highest general knew what the objective was–to win. The soldiers who were trained, armed and sent to Vietnam to fight and die had no idea of what the objective was, other than to "kill Vietcong." Thus, the U.S. gathered statistics of enemy dead to show progress was being made, which is pointless in a country of 30 million people.

Which brings us to the Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara. He was a master of numbers, and a great proponent of systems analysis, to the point where he trusted his "number-crunchers" more than the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Indeed, one of the main points of McMaster's book is how McNamara prevented the JCS from performing their primary duty–counseling the President of the United States on effective ways of winning the war in Southeast Asia. Both Kennedy and Johnson encouraged McNamara to keep the JCS away. Incredibly, both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations thought they knew more about war than the JCS, and, in point of fact, did not trust them. As a result, their primary source of information on how the war was progressing was from Robert McNamara and his team of systems analysts. McNamara's primary source was data–the number of American and South Vietnamese soldiers employed in combat, the number of aircraft sorties and bombs dropped, the number of guns captured, the number of enemy killed, etc., etc.–which was given to the number-crunchers for processing and analysis, and became the sole indicator of how the war was proceeding. As McMaster points out, McNamara had absolutely no understanding of the enemy or of what they wanted (independence), nor did he care find out.

When Robert McNamara was given numbers that conflicted with his own, he refused to believe them. He only believed numbers that supported his own highly-questionable assumptions. Two examples (1) strategic bombing; after World War II, the "U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey" conducted by the government proved conclusively that the strategic bombing of Germany had not worked; on the contrary, it had intensified the will of the German population to resist (which is exactly what happened in North Vietnam, binding the population to the Hanoi regime), and (2) the graduated pressure McNamara favored didn't work either; the JCS organized a war game (called SIGMA I-64) to test McNamara's assumption that graduated pressure on North Vietnam would turn the tide. In fact, it showed the opposite was true. No matter how the game was played, or who the players were, the outcome always favored North Vietnam. McNamara was given these results but refused to believe them.

Trusting only McNamara's meaningless analysis, Johnson gradually cut-off all other sources of information, including the JCS. Even within Johnson's inner circle, differences of opinions were discouraged and ultimately not tolerated. According to White House special assistant Michael Forrestal, it got so bad "the government was extremely scared of itself. There was tremendous nervousness that if you expressed an opinion it might somehow leak out . . . and the president would be furious and everyone's head would be cut off. . . . It inhibited an exchange of information and prevented the president from getting a lot of the facts that he should have had." The only outside facts to reach the president were being reported in newspapers across the U.S.–reports that American was losing the war–which only infuriated Johnson more. Congress, meanwhile, which approved war funding, relied solely on the Johnson Administration for information. As time went on, the information given Congress was fudged to the point of becoming outright lies.

The irony is, Johnson doubted the war from the outset. He believed that once America became involved, it could not get out. Despite this, he continued to up the ante, deploying as many as 500,000 Americans. In fact, as McMaster's book makes clear, Johnson was never fully committed to the war, was never "all in." Still, he expected 18-22-year old American boys to be "all in," to put their lives on the line in the jungles of Vietnam, while Johnson himself wouldn't put his own political career on the line by doing what he knew was right–to call for a truce and withdraw American forces.

H.R. McMaster has spent time on the battlefield. During the Gulf War he commanded an armored cavalry troop, in combat against Iraq's Republican Guard. He's also a scholar, with an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the time he researched and wrote this book (in the 1990s), he had the advantage of recently declassified documents, newly opened manuscript collections, and the release of the official history of the JCS during the Vietnam War.

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