Mcnamara Speaks But Still Doesn't See


By Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark

Times 414pp $27.50

First, cards on the table: There was a time when I hated Robert McNamara. In 1966-67, when he was nearing the end of his tenure as Defense Secretary, I was a student at Columbia University. I bitterly opposed the Vietnam War, and he was so identified with it that many people called it "McNamara's war."

Twenty years later, while researching a book on Vietnam, I found that feelings about McNamara still ran hot. I especially recall one vet who had lost an arm to "friendly" helicopter fire. During our interview, he suddenly broke out: "You know who I really can't forgive? Bob McNamara. Where does he get off running that war and then quitting and never saying another word about it? I mean, who gave him the right to remain silent?"

Well, now McNamara has spoken. His memoir In Retrospect breaks the public silence he has maintained concerning Vietnam for some 27 years, ever since he left the Pentagon on Feb. 29, 1968, to take over the World Bank. The book is an insider's account of what he sees as one of the catastrophes of American history--and while it is disappointing, it is also fascinating.

McNamara is a figure of such stature that the tale of his involvement with Vietnam approaches tragedy. President of Ford Motor Co. at age 44, he was famed as a manager, a genius of systems analysis and quantification. He was arguably the very brightest of "the best and the brightest" whom Kennedy brought to Washington. He presided over U.S. escalation in Vietnam, yet slowly became convinced the war could not be won, making it impossible for him to remain in Johnson's Cabinet.

Unfortunately, McNamara plays down the personal drama of this story, so his book has the personality he projected as Defense Secretary: cool, stiff, and technocratic. His long silence, he says, stemmed from fear that anything he said "might appear self-serving, defensive, or vindictive." So why does he speak now? The main reason "is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders." He rightly traces some of that contempt to Vietnam, and hopes to combat it by showing that he and other officials did the wrong things--but for the right reasons.

It is hard to credit these selfless motives; In Retrospect seems written at least in part to answer Deborah Shapley's unflattering 1993 biography, Promise and Power. But for a memoir by a high government official, it is remarkably self-critical. Tracing the slide down the "slippery slope," McNamara admits he too readily swallowed assertions that given enough troops, the U.S. military could crush the communists. "I had spent 20 years as a manager identifying problems and forcing organizations--often against their will--to think deeply and realistically about alternative courses of action....I doubt I will ever fully understand why I did not do so here."

Not surprisingly, McNamara views Vietnam in no small part as a management problem. One point he makes is that, faced with a plethora of crises--the civil rights upheavals, the Six-Day War--he and the other policy players simply didn't have enough time to fully thrash out fundamental questions about the war. Other "lessons" he cites--that cold warriors were blinded by their ideology and by the domino theory, that policymakers grossly misjudged the Vietnamese, and that they should have reversed course when the Saigon regime's fecklessness became obvious--are hardly fresh, having already been drawn by a generation of scholars.

Still, it is good to have McNamara himself weigh in at last on this side of a still-raging debate over the meaning of the war. He demolishes the notion that the great mistake lay in not "letting our boys win," and refutes the notion, maintained by other geopolitical Big Thinkers, that by taking a stand in Vietnam, Washington stopped communism from spreading throughout Southeast Asia.

McNamara, however, still displays one blind spot typical of most Americans writing about the war: The Vietnamese are virtually absent. For example, he talks of South Vietnam being invaded by North Vietnam as though the two had forever been separate countries, when in fact they had been divided only since 1954. And in the coda to his book, he writes: "By the time the United States finally left South Vietnam in 1973, we had lost over 58,000 men and women; our economy had been damaged by years of heavy and improperly financed war spending; and the political unity of our society had been shattered, not to be restored for decades. Were such high costs justified?"

The paragraph is breathtaking in its Ameri-centrism. Vietnam, a small country, lost an estimated 3 million dead in the war, 50 times the U.S. losses, and its society was "shattered" to a degree that makes America's dislocations look puny. To omit such facts from any tally of the "costs" bespeaks an indifference closely related to the way the war was prosecuted. The central reason for the Vietnam disaster was America's ignorance of the politics and culture of an Asian peasant society, and that ignorance stemmed largely from not giving a damn. But Robert McNamara still doesn't seem to get it.

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