Vintage Interview with General H.R. McMaster

Did Trump Actually Know Who He Was Picking as National Security Advisor?

HR McMaster
Major General H.R. McMaster speaking at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in 2013. Photo credit: CSIS | Center for Strategic & International Studies / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

President Donald Trump has picked as his national security advisor a man who, at least 20 years ago, believed in the importance of character. A man who believed that presidential advisors should not lie and that they should speak truth to power.

Gen. H.R. McMaster is a scholar, who has delved deeply into the modern history of Vietnam. In his 1997 book about that war “Dereliction of Duty,” McMaster urges presidents and their staff and the military to steer clear of small lies that wind up being compounded and result in bad policy at best, and disasters at worst.

He argues that the disaster of the US intervention in Vietnam resulted from a “perfect storm” of arrogance and ignorance, driven by an insecure president. Complicit in the disaster was the press, which needed to dig deeper early on and report more about what was really happening on the ground, instead of taking the word of self-serving generals and politicians.

I had the pleasure of speaking with McMaster when his book was just published. Our conversation from May 24,1997 captures the vision of a man who profoundly understands the nature of governing and of war. The problem is, that vision is 180 degrees from that of the administration he is about to join.

How McMaster squares this circle may determine the fate of the republic.

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Full Text Transcript:

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Just 20 years ago while teaching at West Point, now General H.R. McMaster, became a scholar of what transpired in Vietnam. A thesis he wrote at the time became the basis of a book entitled, Dereliction of Duty, which was published in 1997. Back then, 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to McMaster about what he believes the mistakes were that both the military and the government had made with respect to Vietnam. When Gen. McMaster was chosen as Donald Trump’s national security advisor, we went back and listened to that tape from 20 years ago. What he said at the time couldn’t be further from what Donald Trump is saying today. It is without question a jaw-dropping conversation, in light of the president that he is about to serve. Given that it’s worth a little time to go back and listen to this conversation with H.R. McMaster from May 24, 1997, let’s take a listen:

Jeff Schechtman: Many of the issues that we talk about on this program, be they broad national issues of policy or be they the most significant issues facing our community, there’s one central and paramount theme that seems to run through all of these discussions. And that theme is the distrust that exists between people and their government. The ability to get things done that need to be done in our country, in our state, in our community, is constantly hampered because citizens have such distrust with their government. Where did this all begin? How did we get to this state? Well certainly one of the most profound influences on the state of affairs was the Vietnam War, in the sense that the citizens of this country were constantly lied to by the government, by the military, and by people that they had come to trust and rely on. To take a look at this issue, H.R. McMaster has written a fascinating book called Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. And it’s my pleasure to have him as a guest here on this Memorial Day weekend to talk about his book, and to talk about how we got to this state of affairs. Good morning, thank you for joining us this morning.

H.R. McMaster: Good morning, it’s a pleasure to be here Jeff.

Jeff Schechtman: First of all let’s, let’s take a sort of broad view for a minute and talk about the fact that your book deals not just with the events of Vietnam, which so many others have written about, but really the lies, of the deception that both the government and the military perpetrated on the American people which created so much of the distrust that we’re paying the price for today.

H.R. McMaster: I think you’re exactly right in your introduction. I think that so much of Vietnam shapes what comes afterwards and how we view our government, how we view foreign policy issues. And this is one of the reasons why I was drawn to the subject, and I think that many Americans are drawn to it, not only those who have lived through it. I found that while I was teaching history, that college-age students are very much drawn to Vietnam for much of the same reasons, because of its profound legacy and how it has shaped how we view our government today.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about why the government, the Kennedy administration, later the Johnson administration, and the military along the way, felt that they could get away with telling these kinds of lies to the American people. And the fact is, the American people at that point, and we have to put this in perspective, we’re talking about the early ‘60s here, that it was a time when there was trust, or certainly a lot more trust, between the government and its citizens.

H.R. McMaster: That’s right, and most Americans believe that their government told them the truth, and that was not the case in Vietnam. And there are many reasons for this. It starts with the Kennedy administration when Kennedy feels under tremendous pressure to portray progress in the war to the American people. If you recall early in his  administration, he was besieged by foreign policy crises in Laos, the Bay of Pigs incident, the Berlin crisis, his embarrassment with Khrushchev in Vienna. And Kennedy says to his advisors, we need a place to make our power credible, and Vietnam is the place. And what he expects from his administration is reports of progress, regardless of what is actually occurring in Vietnam, regardless of whether or not progress is actually being made. And this comes at a turning point of the Vietnam War when the Vietnamese communists are stepping up their efforts in the south. Ho Chi Minh had been preoccupied with consolidating power in North Vietnam up through 1959 and 1960. And when Kennedy comes into the presidency in 1961, there is a fundamentally changed situation in the south, and he deals with this by making Vietnam an experiment in counterinsurgency. And there is a great deal of pressure to show progress in this laboratory for countering communist insurgencies in the Third World. And so his advisors begin, under this pressure, to tell him what he wants to hear, and he makes a deliberate effort to put people in positions of responsibility who will give him  the news that he wants, so he can gain greater credibility in the foreign policy arena with the Congress and the American people.

Jeff Schechtman: One always comes away with the question when one starts to look at this, where the deception really started, in other words, it’s the old story; the fish stinks from the head. Did the deception really start, in that he purposely put in place people that essentially would only give him good news, people that would essentially lie to him, or did the information just filter up and as it got higher and higher up, you know, it’s like a game of telephone, the lies just got bigger and bigger?

H.R. McMaster: Right, I think what your comment, that the fish rots from the head, is true here because the institutional pressure came from the top, and it permeated all government institutions, and in particular the military. Gen. Maxwell Taylor is particularly disappointing in this connection, who was brought into the Kennedy administration while the president was almost distraught over the of the Bay of Pigs incident, to reassure the president in the foreign policy and military arenas. He comes in, in an unprecedented position of military representative to the president, and then later comes out of retirement the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Taylor exerts tremendous influence over the military and put, places people in positions of responsibility who will give the president these glowing reports of progress regardless of what is actually occurring in the field and in Vietnam. So I think it does begin at the top, and it becomes much worse even under Lyndon Johnson. Johnson wants to keep Vietnam on the back burner. He knows in 1964. What is most astonishing about a lot of this new evidence is that, these were men who not only should have known better, but who did know better, and who mired us in a war that we could not win at a cost acceptable to the American public. He knows this in 1964.

Jeff Schechtman: I want to talk some more about Johnson in a minute, and specifically on some of this new evidence and some of these new tapes that have come out and have been revealed, the Johnson library and what have you. But one of the ironies when one looks at the Kennedy involvement is that one of the things that Kennedy gets so much credit for, even within the context of the fiasco, the total fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs, is that he at least took responsibility for it. He got up there before the American people and said, hey we blew it I screwed up I take responsibility the buck stops here. And even within the context of that disaster he got an awful lot of credit for that. He got a lot of well, credibility as a result of that effort. And then to turn around and engage in a policy where the net result was to create deception, upon deception, upon deception, seems to run so counter to what was successful for him.

H.R. McMaster: Yes, well, exactly. While he is publicly stating that he accepts responsibility, he privately places a large measure of the blame on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not being more adamant in their objection to this, to the support of invasion in the Bay of Pigs. The chiefs are very much against a plan for the invasion, but it’s a CIA operation, so they feel that they shouldn’t really be too vehement in their objections to it. Kennedy later on thinks that, blames them for this and they think his ire is misdirected. So this causes a great deal of tension between Kennedy and the professional military.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the things one comes away with reading your book that, really, in addition to the discussion about the lies and the deception, is the degree to which personal peak on the part of generals, and officials in government, and ego and everything else, and power plays within the government, play such a role in creating government policy.

H.R. McMaster: No, that’s exactly right. I think that you cannot neglect the personalities, characters of individuals, and these advisor relationships when you attempt to explain historical events. And I think that it’s so easy to say that impersonal forces determine history. It’s either economics, sort of a Marxist view, or it’s ideological, or it’s culturally determined, or it’s a generational sort of mindset that causes historical events. But, those sorts of interpretations just don’t bear out when you look at the evidence.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian who served in the Kennedy administration, had a great quote. I’m going to have to paraphrase it here. He said that when he first came into government, he believed that these impersonal forces caused historical events. And then after he left the administration, he realized that it had more to do with what a particular person had for breakfast or whether or not he had a fight with his wife that morning – which is sort of a humorous and simplified way of saying what we’re talking about here.

Jeff Schechtman: It really is true, and really what it does is, as one reads through your book, it really takes you, or at least some people, myself included, in a very different direction when one discusses the issue of character, as it relates to politicians and generals in particular. You know, I’ve always taken the view and tried to defend politicians who have gotten various character problems along the way and say, “Look when we go get our car fixed, or we go to the dentist, or we go have open heart surgery, you don’t ask about the personal life of the doctor, or the mechanic, or the dentist, or what have you.” And that that shouldn’t matter. If the guy is smart, he’s qualified. And as one reads through your book, and one understands how this kind of character and personality traits affect policy, and affect the lives in fact of so many young Americans, one begins to take a slightly different view of that.

H.R. McMaster: No, I agree as well. After this research and writing, I’m convinced that character is immensely important. What the book reveals, how this continual dishonesty and lying has consequences and obscures the reality of the situation, prevents wise policymaking and forthright frank discussions within government. In fact, I think more than any other factor, it explains the disaster in Vietnam. It’s the inability of the government over time to tell the difference between the actual situation in Vietnam and this pattern of lies and deceit over a period of years.

Jeff Schechtman: I mean that’s a scary thought when the whole situation becomes very Alice in Wonderland-like, and you know, it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place, and you can’t tell reality from fiction anymore.

H.R. McMaster: No, I think that’s true. In fact, I think that this is the problem with the former secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, and why his memoir generated so much controversy when it came out about a year and a half ago, is that over time, I think, he became unable to distinguish between the truth and a lie.

Jeff Schechtman: I wanted to talk a little bit about Lyndon Johnson. We covered the Kennedy era and how Johnson picked up on all of this, and particularly some of the new evidence that’s come out recently that you alluded to earlier.

H.R. McMaster: Right, well Johnson was a profoundly insecure man, who craved reassurance and feared descent and leaks to the press, and it was compounded by the fact that he was not a president because of the mandate from the American public, but because of a profound tragedy. So he is very concerned about creating an idea and a view of continuity with the Kennedy administration. And he is absolutely preoccupied with winning the election in 1964, November of 1964. So he views everything through that lens, including Vietnam. What is most astonishing about this new evidence is how Johnson foresees, and recognizes that our continued involvement in Vietnam, or Americanizing the war in Vietnam, could only lead to disaster. In a telephone conversation with McGeorge Bundy on May 27, 1964, over a month before the Gulf of Tonkin reprisals that bring us more deeply into the war, and is the first step really in making Vietnam an American war, he says that, “It looks to me that we’re getting into another Korea.” It just worries the hell out of him. “I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of this. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out, and it’s the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.” You know, these tapes really though, raise more questions than they in and of themselves can answer. And the question that I’m sure that’s on your listener’s minds now is then, “Well, why did he do it?” “Why does he do it anyway?”

Jeff Schechtman: Well, why does he do it? Also because his rationale and his political place was very different than where Kennedy’s was when Kennedy started out on this exercise.

H.R. McMaster: That’s right, and one of the things we always need to be sensitive to as well is the situation in Vietnam is continually changing. The situation is fundamentally different. The situation that Johnson confronts in 1964 after the Diem assassination-coup, when we organized a coup that results in the assassination of the leader of South Vietnam, and his brother who was the head of the secret police in November, just three weeks before Kennedy’s assassination. After that, the South Vietnamese government is a revolving door government. It is tremendously rough as the Diem government was before that, but it is absolutely ineffective and only exists because of the American effort to prop it up. And so things are falling apart in Vietnam. The president does confront a much different situation in that regard, and because the Vietnamese communists are stepping up their efforts to try to take advantage of this turbulence in Saigon. So, when we look back and see how did Johnson handle this relative to Kennedy, I think we have to remain sensitive to changes in the situation in Vietnam as well. And Johnson here is so preoccupied with the election, he doesn’t even want to deal with Vietnam. And he’s trying to placate both those who are opposed to a greater American effort in Vietnam, and those who think that we ought to step up our military efforts there. And to placate both sides, he has to build a policy on lies and deceit. And this is what he endeavors to do in 1964. And he does not want to deal with the problem at all. He knows, according to these tapes, and a lot of the other evidence that I use in the book to demonstrate this point, he knows that he has to confront a difficult choice between war and disengagement with Vietnam. But his domestic political goals won’t even allow him to entertain that choice. So he turns to his right-hand man, Robert McNamara, to get him out of the storm. And McNamara, who was a very talented and persuasive man, who senses what his boss wants, and does his best to give his boss what he wants, crafts the strategy for Vietnam, based not on the situation there, not on this ideological imperative of containing communism, but on the president’s domestic political goals – which are the election in 1964 and The Great Society in 1965.

Jeff Schechtman: But again, when we get back to this issue as we talked about before, about the basic innate intelligence of some of these people in Washington, Robert McNamara among them, so much of the information that they were getting had to lead them to the conclusion, as the Pentagon papers showed, as Neil Sheehan talks about in his book, so much of the information made it clear that this was going to be a disaster.

H.R. McMaster: Yes, well, that’s exactly right. There’s so much more evidence now available from 1964 and early 1965 that points in the same direction. And McNamara, one of the most disingenuous parts of his memoirs is when he says, “Well, there just weren’t any expert on Vietnam.” “We sort of wandered into this thing.” In fact, McNamara cut anybody’s head off who came to him with a position that was contrary to this strategy for the war consistent with the president’s domestic political concerns. The strategy of graduated pressure, slowly intensifying the American military efforts to placate those who called for a further introduction of American forces, or the further use of American forces in support of the South Vietnamese government enforcement, and then to always portray Johnson as a man of peace who wants to seek a negotiated  settlement to placate those who are opposed to a further use of forces in Vietnam.

Jeff Schechtman: Unfortunately we only have about a minute and a half, two minutes left, but just touch on in terms of all the lies that came from the government, why wasn’t the press more involved in bringing some of these issues to bear early on.

H.R. McMaster: The press was deceived as well by the government. The press lost the war because it was so critical of the war effort after America is at war. But I would say that the exact opposite is true. The press was not critical enough during this early period. I’ve seen some shocking evidence where The New York Times for example, James Reston, who was The New York Times editor, a Washington bureau editor, calls up George Ball,and says: “George, you know, this doesn’t make any sense.” And George Ball’s the under secretary of state, his policy is not what the president just said a couple of weeks ago. And Ball really talks him out of it, and Reston says, “Okay, I’ll just chalk it up to a bad Monday morning and will postpone this story.” And there are a number of instances in which this occurred. So if the press is, could fall for anything, it’s not being critical enough early on. And the war is not lost by the press, because it should come as no surprise, that after they had been lied to over a period of all these years, after Lyndon Johnson had not only abdicated responsibility, and abdicated leadership in connection with the war by failing to deal with the issue of Vietnam, but had also circumvented the Constitution of the United States, to mire the United States in a war before the American public, or the Congress, even had a say in the matter, it should come as no surprise that the American people also lose faith in the war effort.

Jeff Schechtman: And we’re paying the price, paying the price for all of this today, not only in terms of the distrust of government, and not only as a result of all the lies, but the press looks at themselves, it seems to me nowadays, and has their own guilt about all of this. And they’ve gone from being the watchdogs that they should’ve been then, to overreacting now and becoming attack dogs, or as some people would say, junkyard dog, over every minor issue that maybe they shouldn’t be dredging up.

H.R. McMaster: No, I think that’s true as well, and that’s one of my principle motivations for writing this book, to look with clarity, now that the evidence is available on how and why Vietnam became an American war, and the related question of what goes wrong there so that we can deal with this record and read it, and be saddened by it, and disappointed in it, but recognize that this was not a problem with the nature of American government, or a constitutional form of government. This was not an institutional problem at all. It was the individual failure on the part of individual men who abdicated the responsibility to the American people. Vietnam comes about by this unique combination of people and circumstances, and that’s what I hope people get from this, and they’ll become more cynical about our government.

Jeff Schechtman: Well, the book is Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. The author is H.R. McMaster. Thank you so much for being with us this morning, I appreciate it.

H.R. McMaster: Thank you Jeff, it was a pleasure.

Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from McMaster and Trump (The White House / YouTube).

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