ROBERT MCNAMARA says he was wrong to think the United States could achieve its goal in Vietnam. No kidding!
Some critics say he should apologize for his error. But being wrong is really nothing to apologize for. Everybody made mistakes on Vietnam. (I've just re-read a few years worth of our old editorials.) What McNamara should apologize for is that even after he realized he was wrong, he kept saying the goal could be achieved. He said it to the press, to Congress and to the generation of young Americans whose lot it was to fight the war waged to achieve the goal. In effect he recruited teen-agers and 20-somethings to go to Vietnam by telling them the war was justified and winnable, when he didn't believe it.
I was a reporter for a Georgia newspaper in Washington in the early and mid 1960s. My "beat" was state and regional affairs, not global stuff, but the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee were both Georgians. Interviews with them about cotton allotments or a new dam or civil rights often turned to Vietnam.
They were hawks, in the sense that they believed once troops were committed, they must be fully supported. Sen. Richard Russell especially was a skeptic about the McNamara policy from the start. He told his good friend Lyndon Johnson he was making a terrible mistake -- to no avail. "I know from experience," he said in 1965, "that when my advice is in conflict with McNamara's, it is no longer considered."
When I think of McNamara and Georgians of that day, I think not of those powerful committee chairmen, however, but of a young summer intern in the office of a Georgia representative. He was just out of Emory and would soon join the Army. Later he would volunteer for Vietnam duty. That was in 1967, after McNamara now says he concluded the war was unwinnable.
"I wish he had told us that then," Max Cleland said in a telephone conversation Tuesday. He's the secretary of state of Georgia. In 1968 at Khe Sanh a grenade blew off both his legs and an arm. He seems only mildly bitter about McNamara's confession. He jokes that the book should not be titled "In Retrospect" but "Sorry 'Bout That," a cynical phrase of that time and place.
I also asked Max what he thought of President Clinton's assertion that McNamara's book vindicated his draft dodging. An interview that had been rolling right along at a fast conversational clip s-l-o-w-e-d down. In measured tones he said, "I'm not sure I can look back and justify what any of us did, those who served and those who didn't."
Then he said something that I had not really thought much about before: "It was a terribly, terribly difficult time to be a young American male." Yes. In retrospect, I'd say the most difficult ever.
Apologize? What McNamara should do is get down on his knees and beg forgiveness for what he did to that generation.