President Clinton, wading into one of the most painful issues in the American psyche, said Friday that the newly published memoirs of former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara vindicate the position of those who marched against the Vietnam War during the 1960s - including himself.
“Those who opposed the war believed the things that McNamara now says are true,” Clinton said, according to his spokesman, Mike McCurry. “I’m not the best person to make this case … but I’ve thought about it.”
McNamara, one of the chief architects of the war under President Johnson, broke a 27-year silence on the issue this week and confessed that he decided as early as 1967 that the conflict was a mistake. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he wrote.
McNamara’s book, in which he says he warned Johnson privately that Vietnam might become “a major national disaster” but remained silent in public out of loyalty to the president, has opened an emotional debate over the war.
“We have never kicked our Vietnam syndrome,” said Stanley Karnow, a historian of the war.
“We debated Vietnam during the war, we’ve debated it for the 20 years since, and we’ll go on debating it for centuries to come.”
The president’s willingness to comment at length on the issue - even though it recalls the controversial question of his own efforts to avoid being drafted - reflected the passion that Vietnam still stirs among Americans, nearly 20 years after the fall of Saigon.
A Vietnam combat veteran in Sacramento, Calif., was angered by the book.
“If he wants to claim it was all wrong, then I think he owes a hell of an apology to the families of the 58,000 men and women who didn’t come back from Vietnam,” said Mark Hite, a former Marine and president of the Sacramento chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
“What he is doing is making meaningless the incredible sacrifices people made,” Hite said. “That’s terribly callous of him.”
Others criticized McNamara for remaining silent when his voice might have helped end the war sooner.
“It sure would have been helpful in May of 1967, when I volunteered for Vietnam, if he had said then that the war was unwinnable,” said Max Cleland, who lost both legs in Vietnam and afterward served as head of the Veterans Administration in an interview.
“The title of his book should be ‘Sorry ‘Bout That,”’ Cleland, who is now Georgia’s secretary of state, added, dredging up an old “grunt” phrase of cynical resignation and frustration.
“McNamara went to the World Bank,” Cleland concluded, “while a lot of other people went to their graves.”
But many veterans report they are pleased with the admission of error.
Several veterans said it shows the soldiers and sailors who fought the war were not responsible for the war’s failure, but were pawns of bad policy.
Sacramento resident Marcello Serna, a former Marine who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, watched McNamara on television this week and said he was moved.
“It vindicates what I’ve been through. The pain,” he said. “We shouldn’t have been there, man. I really respect the man for admitting that.”
Leaders of the antiwar movement of the time, including former Sen. George S. McGovern, D-S.D., and the Rev. Robert McAfee Brown of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., have praised McNamara for his candor.
And Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said he, too, has concluded that the Vietnam War was at least conducted badly.
“I don’t know” if the war was a mistake, Dole said. “If there was a mistake, it was that we just incrementally kept getting involved. It was always 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 more (troops), and it wasn’t a very good strategy.”
The number of Americans who believe the Vietnam War was a mistake has steadily risen in the years since.
“It’s in the range of 80 percent now,” said John W. Mueller of the University of Rochester, an expert on public opinion on foreign policy and war.
“But Clinton seems to get no credit for being right,” he noted. “No political candidate ever campaigns saying ‘I was right about Vietnam.”’