McNamara's War McCain's Peace

April 18, 1995

Perhaps the most telling commentary about Robert S. McNamara's confession, 27 years after the fact, that "we [the Johnson administration] were wrong, terribly wrong" about the Vietnam War cames from Sen. John McCain.

A POW in North Vietnam for 5 1/2 years after being shot down over Hanoi, a prize prisoner because his father commanded the U.S. fleet in the Pacific, a man who emerged from hell weighing 100 pounds and wounds that gnaw to this day, Senator McCain was in Vietnam urging resumption of full diplomatic relations when Mr. McNamara broke public silence.

"I wish he had not waited so many years to reveal facts that we already knew," the Arizona Republican snapped. "I wonder sometimes if Secretary McNamara's new revelations were more for his own benefit, so he can sleep better at night, than to provide new information to the American people." Right on the mark!

The facts we already knew -- that Mr. McNamara turned skeptic on the war two to three years before Lyndon Johnson sent him off to the World Bank -- were revealed in the Pentagon Papers. That his confession accrues to his own benefit, for reasons of psychology and publicity, has long been signaled in the former defense secretary's penchant for doing good very publicly.

No doubt he will be lionized by those who contend with little evidence that John Kennedy would have withdrawn early from what became Lyndon Johnson's quagmire. But expect no accolades from most of the people who fought that war. Whether hawks or doves in their current thinking, many veterans like John McCain accurately classify Mr. McNamara as the architect of disaster.

It was he, the calculating super-manager, who resisted the pleas of the military for a green light to throw their full conventional force at the Vietnamese Communists. It was he who finally grew to doubt the conflict could be won by his policy of incremental escalation but lied to Congress in supposed loyalty to a president who suspected, with reason, that he had defected to Bobby Kennedy.

"I considered McNamara one of the most unreliable and untrustworthy men in America, and still do," sputtered Barry Goldwater in his 1988 memoirs. From a friendlier source, McNamara biographer Deborah Shapley, came this concluding judgment: "He feels he must decide and then act, whether to save South Vietnam then or save the planet today. Cooler heads may recognize the limits of their powers and decline to change the world."

Now consider Senator McCain's more modest agenda. A hawk conservative, he has been working diligently, year after year, to foster dialogue between his country and his former captors -- even at the risk of offending MIA families insisting on fuller revelations about missing G.I.s. This strikes us as a greater contribution to peace than the belated confessions of the man who gave his name to "McNamara's War."

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