Even after deciding that the war in Vietnam had become a tragic error, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara said Monday, he kept silent out of fear that speaking out would provide “aid and comfort to the enemy.”
McNamara, who broke his silence only last week with the publication of his memoirs, faced a question that has been raised by Vietnam veterans and a number of critics since the appearance of his book: Why did he not go public if he thought lives were being wasted in Vietnam?
“What should I have said?” he asked in response to a question in a taped interview broadcast Monday. “What should I have said that would not have brought aid and comfort to the enemy? I was the secretary of defense!”
Nor, said McNamara, did he feel he could resign in protest.
“I was a servant of our president. He appointed me; he was elected by the people,” McNamara said. “My obligation to our people was to do what their elected representative wanted.”
McNamara offered his explanation in a taped interview on PBS’ “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.” In his book, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” McNamara said the U.S. war policy he helped formulate was “terribly wrong.”
He said he realized that while still in office. He served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1963 to 1968. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were killed in the war.
The former defense secretary, who rarely discussed Vietnam in the 26 years after he left office, said he shared a distaste for protest resignations with Dean Acheson, secretary of state in the Truman administration.
“He believed and I believe in most cases there is not a place for resigning on principle and then attacking the president,” McNamara said.
“It is not our tradition to do that and, generally speaking, it shouldn’t be,” he added. “Now if you take an extreme case - a war, men being killed; you think you have the answer by which the war could be stopped or they won’t be killed - should you resign? That’s a very difficult issue. That was not the issue I faced.”
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