Mcnamara Rethinks Vietnam Former Champion Of War’s Escalation Now Says His ‘Sense Of Grief And Failure Is Strong’
Robert S. McNamara, once a champion of the escalation of the Vietnam War, says in a memoir to be published in the coming week that he has now concluded that the United States “could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam” in late 1963 after the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem or a year or so later.
In November 1963, 78 Americans had been killed in the war in Vietnam. In late 1964, the total stood at 225. By the war’s end in 1975, it had passed 58,000.
McNamara served as secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968 and pushed so hard for deeper American military involvement in 1964 and 1965 that the conflict in Southeast Asia became known as “McNamara’s War.” Later, he broke with President Lyndon B. Johnson and urged that a diplomatic solution be sought. Convinced that the war was unwinnable, he left the Pentagon in 1968 to head the World Bank.
Identified in the public mind as a cold, calculating “numbers cruncher,” McNamara seems deeply stirred by his literary journey back to the 1960s. He broke down in tears while talking to Diane Sawyer of ABC News for a program that is to be broadcast this week. That profoundly embarrassed him, he said in an interview Saturday, “but the sense of grief and failure is strong.”
The interviews and memoir represent McNamara’s first substantive public comment on the war after almost three decades in which he declined to discuss it. In the book, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” (Times Books, $27.50), he is unsparing in blaming himself and his government colleagues, including President Johnson, for a series of blunders that led to tragedy.
“I want to put Vietnam in context,” he writes, because he believes that Vietnam helped make the American people cynical about their government and because “it is cynicism that makes Americans reluctant to support their leaders in the actions necessary to confront and solve our problems at home and abroad.”
Still highly active at 78, climbing mountains and striding through downtown Washington in a pair of battered running shoes, McNamara offers a limited defense of American policies, arguing that the errors he made were errors “not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities.” But he adds: “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”
He lists “11 major causes for our disaster in Vietnam,” including misjudging the capacity of North Vietnam, underrating nationalism as a force in the world, failing to recognize the limitations of high-tech equipment, failing to level with Congress and the American public and, crucially, poor organization. Like Winston Churchill in World War II, he says, Johnson needed a war cabinet.
Asked in the interview Saturday whether the same mistakes could be repeated now, he responded, “Absolutely, not only can be but are being repeated.” American difficulties in Bosnia and Somalia, he said, involved some similar errors.
In his book, McNamara says the ultimate cause of failure in Asia lay with the South Vietnamese. Echoing what both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson said, McNamara states that it was the Asians’ war, ultimately, to win or lose. By the mid1960s, he says, it was clear that “political stability did not exist and was unlikely ever to be achieved” and “the South Vietnamese, even with our training assistance and logistical support, were incapable of defending themselves.”
Drawing on his own papers and other government documents, some of them just declassified, McNamara insists that American bombing never seriously threatened Hanoi’s capacity to wage war and that American ground operations never established any real, lasting security in the South Vietnamese countryside.
Nor did the pacification program win many “hearts and minds,” he writes.
But he and others, McNamara says, failed again and again to question flawed assumptions and to face basic geopolitical questions as they escalated the war again and again.
Looking back, he writes: “I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand. It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force - especially when wielded by an outside power - cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.”
He identifies repeated occasions on which portents of trouble or opportunities for disengagement were ignored: a dissent on the use of airpower from Gen. H.K. Johnson, the Army Chief of Staff, in September 1964; a cable from Ambassador Maxwell Taylor in December 1964; a warning against escalation from Johnson’s old senatorial mentor, Richard B. Russell of Georgia, in June 1965.
When diplomatic initiatives were undertaken, McNamara says, they were often spoiled by what he terms a “miserable failure to integrate and coordinate our military and diplomatic actions.” Several times, he says, just when Hanoi had been told to watch for signs of good faith, it was subjected to stepped-up bombing.
Finally, McNamara says, he despaired of changing things.