The Comforts of Hindsight

April 21, 1995|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- There are few things more pathetic than a society poisoning itself with the venom of hindsight blurred by forgetfulness of the circumstances that surrounded an old tragedy.

That is what is taking place in the wake of Robert S. McNamara's mea culpa -- his belated confession that he concluded in 1966 or 1967 that the Vietnam war was unwinnable, and that the U.S. was ''terribly wrong'' to wage it.

That has provoked the commander of the American Legion to talk of prosecuting Mr. McNamara for ''treason.''

William M. Detweiler, head of the 3-million member veteran's organization, has demanded that Mr. McNamara not profit from his book confession and that royalties from ''In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam'' go to veterans' causes.

The New York Times intones gravely that Mr. McNamara must not be spared ''the condemnation of history.'' That is editorial overkill.

President Clinton and thousands of affluent, privileged men who dodged the draft or otherwise avoided fighting in Vietnam have seized upon the ''we were wrong'' lament as justification of their flight from a conflict in which 58,196 of their fellow Americans died. That is illogical guilt-purging.

I must point out that today's furor is an orgy of scapegoating and hatred that is stupidly nation-destroying because this orgy is bereft of meaning- ful memory of the mood of America at the times when Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon led us progressively deeper into tragedy in the paddies and jungles of Southeast Asia.

I was in the Kennedy administration when Ike's ''containment of communist aggression'' was still the national priority. The Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba, the Cuban missile crisis, the recurrent threat of war over Berlin all drove a U.S. public obsession with ensuring that the communists not be allowed to win anywhere.

The sad irony is that the veterans' groups that now want to hang Mr. McNamara are the same groups that fueled fanatic anti-communism in the 1950s and 1960s. Most Americans have forgotten that even in the Kennedy years it was a virtual criminal offense to say hello to a Chinese Communist.

I remember because I sat in the meetings of the U.S. Cabinet and the National Security Council where escalating decisions were made, until we had half a million GIs in Vietnam.

And all the time President Johnson was saying, ''We want no wider war. We just want to bloody their [the Viet Cong] noses a bit and make them leave their neighbors alone.'' Johnson believed, as did his advisers, that they were serving mankind.

When Johnson decided to bomb Vietnam, he told me he had to do it ''because that damn cigar-smoking [General] Curtis LeMay is pushing me, and I gotta let him know that I'm as tough as he is.''

Who now remembers the factor of U.S. ''manhood''?

When I left government in the fall of 1965, neither Mr. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk nor anyone else in those Cabinet meetings said the war was unwinnable, or that the U.S. was ''terribly wrong.''

Why has Mr. McNamara provoked this mindless explosion of guilt-dodging and blame-placing in which all the old players revise history to serve their present-day interests? He says he wants to help Americans avoid making the mistakes of 30 years ago.

Mistakes take on different disguises after 30 years.

The biggest, lasting lesson we learned in Vietnam was that there are stark limitations on the uses of military power in contests of nationalism, civil wars and conflicts over the minds of human beings. We could not win anything without using nuclear weapons, and might have lost everything if we had.

The tragedy of Vietnam has not stopped millions of Americans, including those condemning Mr. McNamara, from proposing U.S. military forays and ''pre-emptive strikes'' to suppress Islamic nationalism and fundamentalism, or pacify Bosnia, or guarantee that neither Iran nor Iraq nor North Korea ever possess nuclear arms.

Recent history does teach us that we learn nothing from history.

8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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