McNamara admission reopens the wounds of Vietnam

April 22, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Robert S. McNamara's confession in his recently published memoirs that the Vietnam War was "terribly wrong" has revived painful memories and shown the country to be almost as bitterly divided about the conflict now as it was a generation ago.

Mr. McNamara, defense secretary under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, has been deluged with criticism on the airwaves and in print for saying only now that the war was unwinnable, instead of saying it at a time when he could have hastened its end.

And if he hoped, in spite of these attacks, to foster a national consensus on how to prevent similar errors in the future, he may have made another misjudgment.

A dramatic exchange earlier this week on the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour" highlighted the deep divisions that still exist. Facing off were former Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who campaigned for president in 1972 on a pledge to end the war, and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese:

Senator McCain: Senator McGovern, those of us in prison did not appreciate it when you said you would go to Vietnam on your knees. We were trying to stay on our feet.

Mr. McGovern: Senator McCain, if George McGovern's policies had prevailed, you wouldn't have been in prison in Vietnam, and we wouldn't have had 58,000 young Americans dead in Vietnam.

Senator McCain: If you had been president, I probably would still be there.

Published 20 years after the last Americans pulled out of South Vietnam and its capital, Saigon, fell to the Communist North Vietnamese, Mr. McNamara's book, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," coincided with a number of retrospectives on the war appearing in print and on television.

Mr. McNamara, one of the principal architects of the war, recounts a series of mistakes that drew this country into a military quagmire. In recent interviews, he has said that one of the chief lessons is that U.S. officials at the time "consistently underestimated the power of nationalism" to propel the Vietnamese Communists to victory and that the United States should stay out of similar conflicts, such as in Bosnia.

"You cannot confront the powers of nationalism with external military force after the state has begun to dissolve," he said on ABC's "Nightline."

But public reaction has focused mostly on his 27 years of silence about Vietnam since leaving office in 1968. With some exceptions, including praise for Mr. McNamara's "courage" from White House spokesman Michael McCurry, it has been overwhelmingly negative.

A biting New York Times editorial noted that 3 million Vietnamese died and 58,000 Americans came home in body bags while Mr. McNamara "got a sinecure at the World Bank and summers at the Vineyard." He became president of the World Bank when he left President Johnson's Cabinet.

The nation's two principal veterans' groups, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, demanded that Mr. McNamara give away the profits from the book.

Jan Scruggs, who led the drive to erect the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, engraved with the names of Americans killed in the war, faults what he calls Mr. McNamara's "complete and utter failure of personal courage when it got to the point where it was obvious to him and the CIA and everyone who studied it that it was impossible to win this conflict."

He praises Mr. McNamara's contribution to history but adds, "To make history rich, veterans receive a bitter pill: 'You guys were really sent on almost a fool's errand.' "

The "information superhighway," the public computer bulletin boards, have become a new forum for abusive protest against him as well as for soul-searching about the war and about President Clinton's conduct.

Strong responses might have been expected from Vietnam veterans and their families, as well as from anti-war demonstrators now in middle age. But Mr. McNamara's co-author, U.S. Naval Academy historian Brian VanDeMark, says now, "Quite frankly, I misjudged the emotional reaction. He did, too."

Both thought they would "heal the wound rather than poke a stick in it," says Mr. VanDeMark. "We had no intention of agitating and deepening the discomfort and grief."

In interviews, Mr. McNamara has affirmed his decision not to go public during the 1960s with his regrets and doubts about the war. In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, he said, "I never thought about doing it, because it was just totally wrong to use, in effect, to use the power that you had accumulated as an official of the government to subvert the policies of the president."

Former colleague McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, said on "McNeil-Lehrer": "I think Bob McNamara has tried very hard to tell it as he now understands it, and you can quarrel with or differ with his interpretations, but I think it's an honest contribution and it will be a very much valued one."

There are other sensitive questions, too.

One is whether the war could have been won at a cost Americans were prepared to accept. Mr. McNamara insists not, arguing that only "genocidal" bombing of North Vietnam by the United States could have worked, and that that would have risked inviting nuclear war with China or Russia.

A prominently voiced military view is that the war could have been won had the administration in Washington had not placed restraints on the armed forces. But Mr. VanDeMark says that the military views are actually divided.

The question is important, partly because Mr. McNamara cites the futility of trying to win the Vietnam War as an argument to stay out of nationalist conflicts, such as those in Bosnia and Somalia.

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