WASHINGTON — As commander of an armored cavalry troop, H. R. McMaster fought in the largest tank battle of the Persian Gulf war, earning a Silver Star in the process. Afterward, the young captain reflected on how different his experience had been from the accounts he had read about Vietnam.
So when he arrived at the University of North Carolina for graduate studies in fall 1992, questions swirled through his head: How had Vietnam become an American war? Why did American troops die without a clear idea of their mission? “I began to seek answers to those questions,” he later wrote.
The result was a dissertation that turned into a book that would become, for a whole generation of military officers, a must-read autopsy of a war gone wrong. Now, as a three-star general and President Trump’s national security adviser, General McMaster will have the opportunity to put the lessons of that book to the test inside the White House as he serves a mercurial commander in chief with neither political nor military experience.
The book, “Dereliction of Duty,” published in 1997, highlighted the consequences of the military not giving candid advice to a president. General McMaster concluded that during Vietnam, officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff “failed to confront the president with their objections” to a strategy they thought would fail. Twenty years later, the book serves as a guidepost to how he views his role as the coordinator of the president’s foreign policy team.
“It’s a history, but he obviously draws conclusions about the need for what you might term brutally forthright assessments by military and indeed also by civilian leaders,” David H. Petraeus, the retired Army general and a patron of General McMaster, said in an interview. “That’s a hugely important takeaway. He has a record of being quite forthright.”
In his first week on the job, General McMaster has already shown an independence familiar to past colleagues. He has begun moving to revise an organizational order issued last month that seemed to downgrade the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence, and he told an all-hands staff meeting that he did not consider the term “radical Islamic terrorism” helpful, even as the president insists on using it.
But those are relatively small matters compared to what may come. Already, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, has led the president to put aside his desire to reinstitute torture in interrogations of terrorism suspects, at least by the military. Mr. Trump places great faith in the generals he has surrounded himself with, but he and General McMaster had never met until a week ago, and the book’s reputation may set a hard-to-meet standard for the general.
“The difficulty is that Trump has a lot of crazy ideas in his head — like we should steal Iraq’s oil or we should kill the relatives of terrorists or we need to ban Muslims from coming here,” said Max Boot, a military historian at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And I’m sure someone like McMaster, like Mattis, understands how crackpot these ideas are.
“So can you say to the president, ‘Hey, Sir, you’re full” of it? Mr. Boot continued. “Or do you have to sugarcoat it and handle him with kid gloves? I suspect it’s the latter, and that’s not been H. R.’s approach. We’ll see if Trump is man enough to take it.”
The book is central to General McMaster’s identity and career. As he embarked on graduate studies after the gulf war, he approached his adviser, Richard H. Kohn, a professor who specialized in civil-military relations, and said he wanted to explore the role of the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam.
Using newly declassified records, General McMaster came to a conclusion that upended the conventional wisdom within the military that it had been betrayed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and undercut by antiwar protesters and never given the chance to win the war.
General McMaster concluded that the chiefs had been absorbed by the parochial interests of their different services and had never adequately pressed their opposition to the gradual escalation strategy favored by Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
After finishing the dissertation, he published it as a book while still a major. It quickly became a sensation. Mr. Petraeus recalled bringing it to the attention of Gen. Hugh H. Shelton after the general took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1997. General Shelton made it required reading for all of the chiefs and combatant commanders. “It is a valuable resource for leaders of any organization,” he later wrote in his memoirs.
Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who served in the Army, said officers of his age all read it. “We took the analysis to heart,” he said. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a Vietnam veteran, called it “one of the very important books that anyone aspiring to leadership should read.”
Still, while praising General McMaster, Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said it may not have made a difference had the Joint Chiefs been more outspoken with Johnson. “It’s not like the president didn’t know they wanted to do more and do it quickly,” he said. “And it’s not like they really had a better idea for winning the war, other than using more violence right away.”
Others said General McMaster’s book had been misread. The shorthand is that generals should have “stood up to Johnson” or even stopped him somehow. Among those who think that is a misinterpretation is Mr. Kohn, General McMaster’s graduate adviser. “McMaster’s book neither says nor implies that the chiefs should have obstructed U.S. policy in Vietnam,” other than by candidly presenting their views, he wrote in the Naval War College Review in 2002.
Peter D. Feaver, a specialist in civil-military issues at Duke University and a national security aide to President George W. Bush, even coined the term “McMasterism” to describe the common overstatement of his thesis.
“They read McMaster’s book as supporting this defend-against-the-civilians role, but his actual argument is more subtle,” Mr. Feaver said. As a result, he added, the misinterpretation may haunt General McMaster. “McMaster’s challenge is that some may hold him to this inappropriate standard, and then he will be open to even more criticism if he disappoints,” he said.
Mr. Cohen agreed that General McMaster would now be held to an impossibly high bar. “This book will hang over him being national security adviser,” he said. “He has to be very aware that he now represents integrity and a forthrightness about speaking truth to power.”
This is not the first administration to find itself absorbed by a book on Vietnam. When President Barack Obama contemplatedsending more troops to Afghanistan, he and his staff read “Lessons in Disaster,” by Gordon M. Goldstein, an account of McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser to Johnson. The book found that Johnson had failed to question the underlying domino theory that the fall of one country to communism would lead to others.
Whether Mr. Trump has read or will read “Dereliction of Duty” and, if so, what lessons he will draw remain to be seen. “This will really be a test of Trump as commander in chief,” Mr. Goldstein said in an interview. “Can he absorb and benefit from the advice of a strong adviser who probably doesn’t share many of his biases?”
He added: “This is why this movie’s going to be really fascinating to watch. I don’t think we know how that conflict is going to be resolved.”
Follow Peter Baker at @peterbakernyt