McNamara book shows ignorance of leaders

ON POLITICS

April 19, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It was inevitable, once former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara not simply wrote his confessional Vietnam memoir but then started "promoting" it on television, that the call would come for him, if he was so contrite, to contribute its royalties to Vietnam veterans' causes.

William M. Detweiler, commander of the American Legion, now says, "If Secretary McNamara is sincere about atoning for sending Americans into a war he knew they couldn't win, then he shouldn't profit financially from this sad, tragic, late confession." McNamara's publishers reply that "any charitable contributions he intends to make from the proceeds of this book he would prefer to do privately."

McNamara clearly is in a no-win situation on the matter. Had he announced at the outset that he was giving all royalties from the book to Vietnam veterans' causes, he almost certainly would have encountered criticism that he was grandstanding, or trying to buy forgiveness from the Americans who fought in Vietnam and the families of those who died there.

More significant, however, than what happens to the money earned from the book [McNamara has begun a national book tour] is whether his stated objective in writing it is likely to be achieved. He writes that his main motivation "is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders." Through the book, he says, he hopes to dispel that cynicism and contempt by explaining why he and others in charge were "terribly wrong" in their decision-making, so that lessons can be learned from the mistakes made.

But McNamara then starts out by pleading ignorance at the time -- ignorance of Vietnam's history, ignorance of competition within the communist world, ignorance of the strong nationalistic spirit and determination of the Vietnamese people and, finally, ignorance of the fallacy of the domino theory: that if one country in Southeast Asia were to fall to communism, others would topple, one after the other.

He professes that expert analysis of the area and the people were denied him and other decision makers in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations because "the top East Asian and China experts in the State Department . . . had been purged during the [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s." He named three victims of that hysteria -- John Paton Davies Jr., John Stewart Service and John Carter Vincent.

These men were indeed area experts driven from public service, but the notion that only they were the available sources of expert analysis, in or out of the government, is preposterous. This is particularly so when the country was in a domestic uproar over the misreadings of reality by McNamara and his cohorts. College campuses particularly were awash with Southeast Asia experts seeking to lift the veil from the policy makers' eyes.

Far from dispelling public cynicism, such alibis by McNamara are likely only to increase it. His confession of ignorance flies in the face of the one assurance that presidents of both parties have always given to criticism of foreign policy: I have all the facts. If you only knew what I know, you would not take the position that you do.

That argument has been an easy one for presidents and their chief associates to make, especially when they can say that "national security" requires that certain critical information be kept from the public. And there is without doubt a special persuasiveness attached to the idea that certainly the president and his advisers, with the CIA and all the other intelligence services available to them, "know best."

But now comes McNamara acknowledging that he and the other key advisers to Kennedy and Johnson not only didn't have all the facts, but in their ignorance they misinterpreted the facts they had. How is this confession going to reduce or erase public cynicism and contempt toward those in power who?

Much more than who gets the royalties from the McNamara memoir is raised by its publication and promotion.

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