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“In Retrospect” of the Vietnam War

Mr. McNamara’s Other War
Published in the Washington Post, Sunday, April 30, 1995

The bitter controversy unleashed by the publication of former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara’s Vietnam memoir, “In Retrospect,” gives new meaning to the words “McNamara’s war.” Having now slogged our way through the book itself, the outpouring of criticism with which it was met at the moment of publication and some of the relevant history of the time, we conclude the following: In a strange way both Mr. McNamara and those who belabor him for not having either resigned or spoken out at at time when he might have hastened the end of the war are saying the same thing. The critics say he should have done one or the other or both. The author provides a devastating case study of a governmental process, which he did much to create and keep running, that all but guaranteed he wouldn’t. He and the others would instead just keep on improvising, trying one more thing, taking one more step, finding one more reason not to do what both he and his critics now wish he had.

Whatever Mr. McNamara now says about his reasons for not breaking publicly with a policy he believed doomed years and years ago–and while it was still in place and resulting in much destruction, maiming and death–it seems to us that the book itself vividly illustrates and explicitly faults the reasoning that kept him from doing so. Our own misgivings about his position now are different. We think Mr. McNamara goes too far, pushes too much over the side in his mea culpa.

Many of the people who have spoken against Mr. McNamara are veterans of the Vietnam political wars who are at pains to reassert the rightness of the position they ended up with. They say little about the very different positions many of them held on the way to that final judgment. But this omission is misleading. For Vietnam was a war in which definitions of right and wrong and success and failure more than once shifted, as events occurred and people learned more. Many who strongly supported the war–or at least went along–when it looked to be a right-minded and manageable enterprise changed their minds when the battle turned uglier, costlier, less winnable and much more destructive than they bargained for.

Mr. McNamara was in that category. So were many of those now heaping obloquy upon him for his role, which they backed at the time, in getting the United States deep into Vietnam and for his later failure to broadcast his change of heart while the men he sent to war were still at risk. So too was this newspaper to change its perception and its mind more than once. Everyone could use a little humility in this argument. But we are not concerned here to defend our several past positions of 30 and 20 years ago, but to offer our judgment on the basis of what can be understood now.

It was McNamara’s war in the sense that his Harvard Business School problem-solving methodology soon dominated American policy-making, to the general applause. The results, however, were confounding. The South Vietnamese let the Americans take over the fighting, which led many Americans to the dispiriting view that South Vietnam had not invested amply in its own rescue. Meanwhile, the Americans were justifying their own investment on grounds of Vietnam’s indispensability to the overall containment of Communism. To win at acceptable cost was becoming militarily ever more elusive, to lost strategically unthinkable.

Mr. McNamara never resolved this fundamental contradiction. Not that he didn’t try. He moved to bombing, to bring Hanoi to the table, and then to bombing pauses, also to bring Hanoi to the table. But North Vietnam kept insisting that the South’s internal differences be settled “in accordance with the program of” the South’s Communist party. The secretary himself moved toward accepting the idea of a “compromise” or “coalition” solution–in plain talk, a Communist takeover. Lyndon Johnson rejected the idea, and eased his defense adviser out. The American people also rejected the idea, electing a president, Richard Nixon, who promised somehow to pull out but not to abandon South Vietnam.

It is plain in retrospect that the generation in power in the 1960s applied too literally and uncritically the Munich-appeasement analogy and the domino theory and, especially, the patently unhistorical notion that Vietnam was China’s pawn. But there is more to it.

Mr. McNamara, in dismissing the possibility that America’s Vietnam miseries encouraged Soviet adventurism, ignores Afghanistan, Central America, southern Africa and much else. Nor does he examine what happened when Richard Nixon actually consummated his 1968 campaign pledge of withdrawal without abandonment, thereby won landslide reelection in 1972 but then ran afoul of the fierce domestic resistance that his exit escalation tactics (not to speak of Watergate) had generated: Mr. Nixon could not deliver the aid and air support on which his strategy rested, and South Vietnam fell. (As long as we’re talking of who said what when: this newspaper was part of that resistance.) Nor does Mr. McNamara probe the cost of the war and finally of defeat to the South Vietnamese. They bled, died and finally fled in great numbers from a Communist regime whose totalitarian harshness made South Vietnam’s corruption look like an afternoon at the beach.

There was such a thing as communism on the march. It was not a “misunderstanding.” It was a threat to what deserved to be called the free world. The American people were indeed denied timely and full awareness of the illusions and evasions of the Kennedy and Johnson teams Mr. McNamara worked with. But Americans, understanding the basics, had for decades committed themselves to meet the challenge and to pay a price for it. For a reason–because it faced an armed takeover by an outside Communist regime–South Vietnam inevitably became a place where the confrontation was played out.

The United States conducted its Vietnam policy unwisely, not well. The result was terrible casualties, terrible human suffering. The McNamara book is and unrelieved narrative of how and why these things happened and its rewards pondering on this score alone. The book provides a cautionary tale that could be useful for people who are prepared to go beyond self-justifying into learning. Mr. McNamara fully earned his remorse. Retrospect reveals a rich map of roads not taken. But the losses were not futile. They were incurred in a larger, ultimately successful cause worth pursuing, if not in that place and in that fashion. Acknowledging that much is owed those who served.

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