Vietnam War 'terribly wrong,' McNamara writes VIETNAM IN HINDSIGHT

April 09, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After 27 years of public silence, a key architect of the Vietnam War recounts in newly published memoirs a long series of errors in judgment by himself and others that led to America's biggest and most politically divisive military failure, concluding, "We were wrong, terribly wrong."

Robert S. McNamara, the former Ford executive who became secretary of defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, says in a new, 414-page chronicle that the United States should have withdrawn its forces from Vietnam in 1963 or 1964, before the huge buildup that sent U.S. casualties soaring and American protesters into the streets.

In the book, Mr. McNamara is as critical about his own role as anyone else's in conducting a war that he says "caused terrible damage to America" and ultimately killed 57,000 Americans and left 270,000 wounded.

"People are human; they are fallible. I concede with painful candor and a heavy heart that the adage applies to me and to my generation of American leadership regarding Vietnam," he writes toward the end of "In Retrospect -- The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam."

Mr. McNamara, his colleagues and the two presidents he worked for overestimated the damage South Vietnam's fall to communism would cause to American security.

In addition, those leaders "failed to adhere to the fundamental principle that, in the final analysis, if the South Vietnamese were to be saved, they had to win the war themselves."

Profoundly ignorant about Southeast Asia, these leaders slipped into "quicksand" without seriously addressing fundamental questions, including whether the war could be won, and if so, at what cost in lives and dollars and what other risks were involved, Mr. McNamara says.

And, he continues, the top officials of government, their work crowded by other events of the day, weren't organized to deal with the dimensions of such a prolonged and complex conflict. They also undermined their own peace initiatives by failing to coordinate military actions with diplomacy.

Neither Kennedy nor Johnson managed to overcome deep divisions among top advisers, Mr. McNamara writes.

And Johnson, anxious not to jeopardize his domestic social programs, compounded the disastrous political effects of the war by subterfuge -- keeping hidden from the public the increasing depth of American involvement and what it would cost taxpayers, Mr. McNamara says.

But for all his acknowledgment of policy-makers' errors, Mr. McNamara is equally critical of senior military commanders, who pushed for more troops and an expanded bombing campaign even at the risk of triggering a nuclear war with China.

"Their continued willingness to risk a nuclear confrontation appalled me," he writes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 1967, he writes, they called for "utilizing the nation's full military capability, including the possible use of nuclear weapons."

Retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, chief of naval operations at the time, says that Mr. McNamara's concern that the conflict could escalate into nuclear war was "nonsense" and that the secretary unnecessarily prolonged the war by not allowing the military to make the best use of U.S. technological superiority.

Appearing exactly two decades after the last American diplomats and military personnel pulled out of Vietnam in defeat, the McNamara book adds an important dimension to the history of the conflict -- for it is the first chronicle by one of the principal players to call the war an unwinnable mistake.

"He's the first guy of his stature to come out with a mea culpa and say, 'We were wrong,' " says Stanley Karnow, who covered the war as a correspondent and later wrote a highly regarded history of it.

Neither Johnson nor Secretary of State Dean Rusk, to name two of the most senior policy-makers, admitted serious error during their lifetimes.

Mr. McNamara finally decided to break his long silence and write about the conflict because he was, he says, "sickened" by the level of cynicism displayed by Americans toward their leaders, caused in part by the Vietnam War, and wanted to show that the mistakes were mostly honest ones.

The book, of which Brian VanDeMark, a U.S. Naval Academy history professor, is co-author, is to be excerpted in this week's issue of Newsweek. It draws from diverse source material, some of it recently declassified.

But even now Mr. McNamara is withholding the full story, according to David Halberstam, who covered the war for the New York Times and criticized key administration officials, including Mr. McNamara, in "The Best and the Brightest," perhaps the best-known account of Vietnam decision-making.

Rigged information

The former Pentagon chief omits the extent to which he himself was "a ferocious architect of escalation," Mr. Halberstam says, and how he allegedly rigged information about the war so that "a weak policy would look better for domestic political reasons."

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