Arrogance led us into Vietnam

April 19, 1995|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- TO ME, the most compelling passage in Robert McNamara's 30-years-later "mea culpa" over Vietnam is this one:

"I had never visited Indochina, nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture or values. The same must be said, to varying degrees, about President Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy . . . When it came to Vietnam, we found ourselves setting policy for a region that was terra incognita.

"Worse, our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance . . . There were no senior officials in the Pentagon or State Department with . . . knowledge of Southeast Asia."

The cynic is tempted to chime in with, "Hey, nobody's perfect!" Instead, one is forced to add that, as his much-talked-about new book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," confirms yet again, the political and military team that gave us Vietnam was indeed perfect in at least one thing -- the arrogant and willful ignorance behind what they were leading us to!

The book, which is getting so much attention partly because it is really the first serious effort by one of the Vietnam team to try to explain and apologize to the nation, constantly reaffirms the stupidity quotient of our leaders.

President Kennedy's team accepted without question the idea that if Vietnam fell, not only would all Asia fall to communism, but that American power would suddenly be meaningless in the world.

When they toyed with a possible "neutralization" of South Vietnam, "neither then nor at any later time did we carefully debate how a neutral South Vietnam . . . might affect the United States geopolitically."

And when they encouraged the assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, they "had little insight into how the generals planned to run the country if they took control."

The overweening reason given by "whiz kid" Defense Secretary McNamara for such fatal insouciance was a breezy and perverse hubris. "It seems beyond understanding, incredible," he writes, "that we did not force ourselves to confront such issues head-on. But then, it is very hard, today, to recapture the innocence and confidence with which we approached Vietnam in the early days of the Kennedy administration."

What is one to make of this? Robert McNamara is indeed an emotional man (I have seen him, at a Missile Crisis meeting at Harvard, burst into tears and hug Russian officials he thought we had harmed). One wants to ask, "Bob, why didn't you resign when you might have done some good?"

But we have to look deeper. The hubris of the "can-do" leaders of an omnipotently rich and powerful country ranks first in the scale of sins. The willfully ignorant refusal to analyze an enemy ranks second. (Remember, the occupation of Japan went so extraordinarily well largely because the Defense Department paid for and listened to the advice of anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict.) Finally, the all-too-macho idea that American power would be destroyed if we did not stay in a disastrous conflict ranks third.

As sad and plaintive as is the whole Vietnam saga, it is Mr. McNamara's final recommendations that stand out as even more flawed than his wartime record. At the end of the book, he calls for his "vision" of U.N. multilateral leadership in the world. "In a system of collective security," Mr. McNamara writes, "the United States must accept collective decision making."

And so the nation's No. 1 whiz kid and apologizer has moved from one series of disastrous decisions to advocating even more disastrous new ones!

Dear Robert McNamara, in all your agonizing over Vietnam, have you not seen that U.N. "power" in Bosnia has been destroying that innocent little country even more than we destroyed Vietnam?

Has it not occurred to you that, today, the West's utter ignorance of the real "ethnic" roots of the aggression by the Serbian militias (the ruthless ambition of the Serbian leadership) is as tragic as was your ignorance of the impassioned anti-colonial Vietnamese nationalism? Isn't it possible that we are, according to your beliefs, still not applying the right cultural yardsticks and the correct military analyses?

Or do I hear you whispering out there somewhere, "Hey, nobody's perfect"?

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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