This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 24, 1995. Partner content is not updated.
Seldom has a book provoked the scale of unbridled rage that Robert McNamara unleashed with the publication last week of a confessional memoir on the U.S. war in Vietnam. Initial reactions exposed a furious sense of betrayal. Anger focused on the fact that McNamara, who played a central role in the war as U.S. defence secretary from 1961 to 1968, waited three decades to declare publicly what he said presciently but privately at the time: the purposeless war would poison American society and the U.S. image for a long time.
McNamara, the onetime whiz-kid Ford Motor Co. president who was recruited to federal service as one of the "best and brightest" stars of president John Kennedy's administration, wept over his "grief and failure" while taping a recent TV interview on his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. So he should have, editorialized The New York Times: "His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books of our dead soldiers." Declared Atlantic Monthly magazine editor James Fallows, addressing McNamara in a commentary on National Public Radio: "It would have been better to go out silently if you could not find the courage to speak when it would have done your country any good."
A war hawk who developed doubts about Vietnam policy as defence secretary under presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, McNamara now concedes that Washington should have abandoned its intervention in 1963 or soon afterward. At that time, U.S. involvement was limited to about 50,000 military "advisers." Further, he is now convinced that had Kennedy not been assassinated in November, 1963, "he would have pulled us out of Vietnam." In the aftermath under Johnson, "we were wrong, terribly wrong."
Part of the wrong was a U.S. failure to recognize that "we do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image as we choose." But what McNamara concludes was terribly wrong had mostly to do with military tactics and political strategy. Little is said about the morality of waging a Cold War battle based on public lies and private conspiracies. The errors, McNamara writes, were "not of values and intentions, but of judgment and capabilities."
Immoral or merely mistaken, the war left about two million human casualties - 58,000 of them American dead - in the eight years from the arrival in South Vietnam of the first U.S. combat units in March, 1965, until the last retreat of U.S. forces in March, 1973 (the war closed with a 1975 Communist victory).
But McNamara, now 78, was right, in a private memorandum he wrote in 1967, about the war's damaging long-term impact on the American psyche and on the nation's reputation. By then, U.S. forces in South Vietnam numbered almost 500,000. There were heavy civilian casualties in the combat between U.S. and South Vietnam forces defending a corrupt government against Communist Vietcong guerrillas and their infiltrating North Vietnamese allies. U.S. bombers were then midway through a three-year program that rained greater tonnages of explosives on North Vietnam than had fallen on Germany and Japan together during the six years of the Second World War. Anti-war protests besieged the U.S. home front. And the war was costing the U.S. treasury about $70 million a day. On May 19, 1967, nine months before McNamara left the Pentagon to become president of the World Bank, he expressed his "growing doubts" in a memo to Johnson.
"There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go," he wrote in his memo. "The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one. It could conceivably produce a costly distortion in the American national consciousness and in the world image of the United States - especially if the damage to North Vietnam is complete enough to be 'successful.' "
But the war policy prevailed. Little more than a year before the McNamara memo, Johnson had resisted a Canadian tip that peace talks were possible. As McNamara records it, Johnson confronted - "with much annoyance" - a proposal from Prime Minister Lester Pearson. He had earlier upset Johnson by speaking out against the war. (In 1965, after Pearson had criticized U.S. Vietnam policy in a speech in Philadelphia, Johnson greeted the prime minister on a visit to the president with an accusatory: "You pissed on my rug!")
McNamara, citing events in 1966, reports: "In March, retired Canadian diplomat and old Far Eastern hand Chester A. Ronning travelled to Hanoi and brought back a message from North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong that, if the Americans stopped the bombing 'for good and unconditionally, we will talk.' " The Canadians considered Pham's message "a bona fide peace move," but Washington disagreed. Writes McNamara: "In retrospect, we were mistaken in not having Ronning at least probe the meaning of Pham's words more deeply."
Against McNamara, the critical line suggests that it is one thing to say you're sorry for taking part in a crime against humanity, including your own, because of terrible mistakes. It is another to apologize but attempt to justify the course of action on the grounds that it served a greater goal. But to later admit that it was known at the time to be mistaken, and that its claimed purpose was largely bogus, compounds the crime. McNamara and - partly because of him - America have a lot still to live down.
Maclean's April 24, 1995