McMaster structures his book based on time periods bracketed by key events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Johnson’s First Election. The reason for this is not simply as an arbitrary way to segment the massive amount of unclassified documents that were released to the world, but because of the ramifications that events like these would have on subsequent decisions that senior civilian and military leaders would have to take. Seeing how the machinations of Washington, leading up to an election, might have on foreign policy in Vietnam shows how important, or detrimental, the political world can have on tactical operations half a world away.
Dereliction of Duty is played out in a narrative in the form of a series of observations, meetings, memorandums, and communique between senior officials, staff, congress, and the American people. Events would transpire, and the Johnson cabinet would have to react, and from officials records, we are able to see just how dysfunctional it was. Each person involved comes with their own baggage, and McMaster had the foresight to introduce this baggage to the audience. It made is easier to identify why these important, experienced, and intelligent people, otherwise made such questionable decisions. The dynamics are intense, and otherwise would have been convoluted, but he was able to make sense of everything.
One of the primary friction points that McMaster saw was President Johnson and SECDEF McNamara’s push to utilize graduated pressure against the North Vietnamese government; against the advice of the JCS. The senior civilian leaders, believing that their focus on quantitative analysis and the new nature of counterinsurgency in Vietnam meant that their perspective on how to move forward was more valuable than the decades of military experience that the JCS brought. In time, the JCS didn’t necessarily advise the President on military affairs, but merely acted as technical experts that the civilians would use to assess their plans. The overriding factor for Johnson’s decisions, which were back up by McNamara and General Taylor and General Wheeler during their respective times as chairman of the JCS, was the president’s domestic policy.
“Despite his professed desire to ‘win,’ the president attempted to exact from the Chiefs a recommendation consistent with his desire to maintain domestic political consensus.”
The president delayed making important Vietnam decisions on the lead up to the November 1964 election, because he believed it may sway the voters away from him. After he resecured the Office of the POTUS, he still tried to find workarounds on military matters so as not to jeopardize his domestic policy, “the Great Society” which was a campaign promise of his. Basically, for Johnson, Vietnam was a distraction that threatened his more important domestic agenda, and he disregarded JCS advise to either escalate the conflict and get America on a war footing if he wanted to win in Vietnam or attempt to negotiate for America’s withdraw. Johnson chose neither and committed the nation to a slow escalation of combat operations without giving the military the actual means to win.
There is a lot more to pull from McMaster’s assessment and narrative of the goings-on between all these senior leaders. For the civilians, this included lying to the public, misleading each other for personal gain, toxic environments not conducive to open discussion, and for the military a lack of intestinal fortitude for not standing up when they believed the president was operating under flawed logic, and service parochialism preventing them from coming up with a unified plan.