McNamara on Vietnam: breaking the silence, hideously

April 16, 1995|By Michael Pakenham

"In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," by Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark. Photographs. 414 pages. New York: Times Books. $27.50

Among the monuments in the city of Washington, there is a polished black stone wall that I have walked to half a hundred times. You know the one. Some day I hope to go there and not break down in tears. I have tried. Each time, I have failed.

About that matter, Robert S. McNamara has written a book. In the last week, it has been much in the news, for good reason: As Secretary of Defense in John F. Kennedy's entire presidency and under Lyndon Johnson until he left the Pentagon to head the World Bank on Feb. 29, 1968, Mr. McNamara was more central to the U.S. war in Vietnam than any other person, with the arguable exception of President Johnson.

Taken as a whole, his book informs us that the American officials responsible for that war neglected exercising even elemental, primitive intelligence or moral judgment. They failed totally this most essential responsibility of leadership: the courage to question fundamental assumptions.

As a young reporter, I covered many of the events in the book. I and many colleagues often thought we knew the war was wrong or failing, but given substantial doubt, we often credited government positions: With their vast access to information and knowledge, the officials had to know better. McNamara now shows the opposite was true.

L In a preface, he declares: "I want to put Vietnam in context

. . . . We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

A partial price of that debt, not detailed in the book: more than 58,000 U.S. military dead and 150,000 wounded; a quarter million South Vietnamese military dead; more than 1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong military dead; at least 2 million civilians dead, north and south. Among the more abstract casualties were Americans' trust in their government and leaders, and almost a generation of domestic tranquility.

Writing this book must be accepted as an act of courage. Mr. McNamara's intent must be taken as righteous. It would have been far pleasanter for him to carry his silence to his grave. Even with its failings, without this book, history would be deprived of a major piece of evidence and a small but considerable wealth of details.

None of this diminishes or exculpates the horror of that evidence, which is Mr. McNamara's disclosure of how the mightiest nation in earth's history came to wage a barbarically bloody, transparently unwinnable and almost entirely purposeless war of conquest against a hapless, implacable nationalist movement.

The book weaves a tapestry of that disclosure, seamless, cumulative. Among many passages that faintly suggest the whole, perhaps the one that does best is this from December of 1964, just after President Johnson's election:

"As the likely failure of our training strategy became more apparent in the months ahead, we tilted gradually - almost imperceptibly - toward approving the direct application of U.S. military force. We did so because of our increasing fear - and hindsight makes it clear it was an exaggerated fear - of what would happen if we did not. But we never carefully debated what U.S. force would ultimately be required, what our chances of success would be, or what the political, military, financial, and human costs would be if we provided it. Indeed these basic questions went unexamined."

Punctiliously, he describes a pounding rhythm: new task force, new study group, gathering of cabinet and sub cabinet people, consultation with experienced outsiders. Step by step, each step is wrong.

No one ever rises to ask: Is this really necessary? Is it worth the costs in blood and treasure, in turmoil at home and alienation abroad?

The origin of the Vietnam policies, of course, was the "domino theory," the fear that if the U.S. abandoned an anti-Communist government in South Vietnam, other small countries throughout the world would fall under the control of Moscow and Beijing. That was disproved, of course, when in 1975 the U.S. finally did withdraw.

Tracing the collective and individual refusals to re-examine that theory, Mr. McNamara builds a narrative of men totally under the control of events they did not understand. Nominal leaders failing to lead, trapped in a whirlpool of warfare.

A few of many distinct points that build the case:

* In January of 1964 "we had no senior group working exclusively on Vietnam. . . . We had not truly investigated what was essentially at stake and important to us [and] we were left harried, overburdened, and holding a map with only one road on it. Eager to get moving, we never stopped to explore fully whether there were other routes to our destination."

* In the winter of 1964, but applicable to many, many other points: ". . . analysis showed that air attacks would not work, but there was such determination to do something, anything, to stop the communists that discouraging reports were often ignored."

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