No matter your views on President Donald J. Trump, the one decision he has made since taking office that is most likely to produce tangible positive results for the United States is the appointment of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser.
As bad as was Trump’s initial choice of Michael Flynn for that job — made even though the presidential transition team apparently knew that the retired lieutenant general was under investigation for lobbying on behalf of a foreign government — making McMaster Flynn’s replacement rectified a huge mistake.
McMaster is the consummate soldier-scholar who has not been shy about espousing his unconventional views of the peculiar military-political relationship in this country and its sometimes deleterious impact on national security.
He was so much of a maverick and his views upset so many of his peers that he twice was passed over for promotion from colonel to brigadier general despite a glowing combat record.
The public reason given for his failure to advance was that he did not have enough joint service time, a flimsy excuse at best but one that was convenient for those who disliked him and his views. He eventually got his first star, and later two more, after wiser heads among retired top brass began pressuring the politically hypersensitive promotions board.
To get a sense of how McMaster will attempt to guide Trump’s nascent and to-date somewhat erratic national security policy, one only needs to read his 1997 book “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.”
Originally conceived as a Ph.D. dissertation when McMaster was a major, “Dereliction of Duty” lays bare the incredible mismanagement in the run-up to a war that cost more than 58,000 American lives, all of whom will be honored along with their brethren from past wars this Memorial Day.
The Vietnam War also resulted in the deaths of several million Vietnamese military and civilians while millions more on both sides were wounded.
In the book, McMaster makes it clear that President Lyndon Johnson was as pig-headed and as unreceptive to criticism and disagreement of any sort as apparently is Trump.
Our mistakes in Vietnam did not begin with Johnson, however; they began with John F. Kennedy’s dismantling of the National Security Council, according to McMaster.
That “diminished the voice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in national security matters ... Under the Kennedy-Johnson system, the Joint Chiefs lost the direct access to the president, and thus the real influence on decision making” that had been in place under the administration of Dwight Eisenhower.
McMaster notes that as a result “a relationship of mutual distrust between senior military and civilian officials would develop.”
Exacerbating the tension was the ill-fated invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs, early in Kennedy’s administration. The president complained he had received poor advice from the Joint Chiefs and blamed them for the embarrassment.
Further compounding Kennedy’s — and later Johnson’s — problems with the military, was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who in McMaster’s eyes became the primary obstruction in the formulation of any sensible strategic policy regarding Southeast Asia.
Although McNamara been an Army officer during World War II, he had no combat experience. His forte was statistical analysis and during the war he and his underlings analyzed logistics and maintenance throughout the world.
According to McMaster, McNamara brought an autocratic, cold-blooded management style to the Pentagon and to war planning once he became Secretary of Defense. McNamara believed all problems could be solved through logical statistical analysis and management, not through combat experience or real-life rational thinking.
McNamara surrounded himself with a group of young and eager “like-minded men who shared their leader’s penchant for quantitative analysis and suspicion of proposals based solely on ‘military experience,’” McMaster wrote.
Derisively known as the “Whiz Kids” or “happy little hotdogs,” the McNamara underlings often were dismissive of and condescending toward the Joint Chiefs and other military officers in the Pentagon.
McNamara, meanwhile, frequently censored and often discarded advice from the JCS, allowing it never to reach Johnson’s desk.
The Joint Chiefs grumbled internally and fought among themselves while offering unreasonable and unworkable single-service solutions to the Vietnam problem. They never went directly to the president with their concerns, however, acceding quietly to McNamara’s overbearing management style.
According to McMaster, “McNamara would dominate the policy-making process because of three mutually reinforcing factors: the Chiefs’ ineffectiveness as an advisory group, Johnson’s profound insecurity, and the president’s related unwillingness to entertain divergent views on the subject of Vietnam.”
Thus the Joint Chiefs were rendered impotent by their boss and allowed the military to be dragged piecemeal into a war in Southeast Asia that all of them knew could not be won given the restrictions placed on them by Johnson and McNamara.
McMaster wrote that the Joint Chiefs became known as the “five silent men” and “Rather than advice, McNamara and Johnson extracted from the JCS acquiescence and silent support for decisions already made,” decisions that the president considered politically more important for his “Great Society” domestic agenda than the loss of American lives in Vietnam.
Trump was in danger of something similar happening when he put political adviser Stephen Bannon on the Security Council. Bannon’s presence on the council risked it becoming a political arm of the White House rather than a strategic advisory body on national security and foreign affairs as is its true purpose.
After Bannon was ousted and McMaster replaced Flynn, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs was restored to the NSC, as was the CIA director, the Director of National Intelligence, the United Nations ambassador and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who oversees the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
That puts a more effective and more competent national security team in place for Trump, especially with retired Marine Corps Gens. James Mattis (Secretary of Defense) and John Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security) on board.
Trump is taking advantage of men with extensive combat experience who have seen the threats this country faces and worked to contain them overseas. These are not Kennedy’s “Whiz Kids “or Johnson’s “happy little hotdogs.”
And they will not be silent, if only behind closed doors. Unlike McNamara did with Kennedy and Johnson, they will speak their minds to the president, even if Trump does not want to hear it.
That was evident when a report surfaced recently that Trump got into a shouting match over the telephone with McMaster on some issue on which they disagreed. That actually is a good sign because it shows McMaster has taken to heart the lessons he learned writing “Dereliction of Duty.”
As Mark Perry recently wrote in Politico: “He’s telling the president what he doesn’t want to know and, probably in tones that Trump rarely hears.”
It’s something McNamara and the JCS should have done with Kennedy and Johnson more than 50 years ago.
Ron Martz is a Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia and writes monthly commentaries for The Times.