Like a tripwire, Robert McNamara’s belated admission that U.S. persistence in Vietnam was “terribly wrong” has opened old wounds among those who battled in the jungles, rice paddies and tall grass of America’s longest war.
“A lot of people were wrong about Vietnam. But he knew the truth and concealed it,” said retired Col. Harry Summers, editor of Vietnam magazine and a former battalion operations officer in the Army’s First Infantry Division.
“He betrayed the men and women serving under him,” Summers said. “He betrayed the American people.”
McNamara, the secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was the architect of America’s buildup in Vietnam from a small force to a peak of half a million. To many, the 11-year conflict was “McNamara’s War.”
But in his new book “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” and in a tearful prime time TV appearance last week, McNamara said the policy he helped formulate was “terribly wrong.”
McNamara said he concluded the war was unwinnable in the mid-‘60s, yet he did not speak out and continued to dispatch troops into combat, in part because he feared that the appearance of weakness by the United States could have emboldened the Soviet Union and created the risk of war.
The vast majority of the 58,196 names etched in somber black granite on the Vietnam Memorial are those of people who died after 1965.
For many who lost friends, lost limbs, lost their eyesight or lost their innocence while America was being torn apart, McNamara’s mea culpa rings hollow and late.
“You’re damn right I’m angry,” said John Sales, 54, a former Marine who was blinded in 1967 and founded the Blinded American Veterans Foundation.
“It’s a slap in the face to everyone who has worn the uniform. It was McNamara and his ilk that had us fight the war the wrong way. He’s a disgrace,” Sales said.
“No one deserves an explanation for what went on more than actual veterans and family members of those who fought,” said Jan Scruggs, a former infantryman and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
“Most of us are glad he wrote the book. (But) what it shows is a failure of courage on his part,” said Scruggs.
“A lot of my friends were killed there. A lot of them were wounded, and many of them are still in wheelchairs. If it was really unnecessary, and if we could and should have gotten out of there,” Scruggs said, pausing to find the right words, “it’s just kind of tough finding out about it now.”
Peter Addesso, a Marine paralyzed for life in the Tet offensive in Hue, senses that something is still “bugging the hell out of this guy.”
“Every time I hear one of these politicians say they’re sorry, I see the faces of a lot of friends I left there. The politicians can’t see their faces. If they did, they’d share a lot more,” said Addesso, 47, a member of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association in New York City.
“Whatever happened, happened. You have to put the bitterness to rest or it will stab you in the back the rest of your life, but Vietnam vets will never forget. I wish I could,” Addesso said.
It rankles some that McNamara stands to profit from royalties on the book, which is out just weeks from the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to the communists. Some feel the money should be used for scholarships for children of dead GIs, or to fund programs to help veterans deal with the war’s physical and emotional scars.
“He certainly had a great deal to do with creating many of those problems,” said James Brazee, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America.