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McNamara’s Peace

Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara has written a “Now It Can Be Told” book about the Vietnam War. He does not tell us all we need to know about the war; he has little to say about the battles on the ground and the local situation in South Vietnam, except as they bear on his main subject. McNamara deals almost entirely with how decisions were made at the top of the American command structure in Washington and what they were. We could not wish for a more highly placed witness, except for the presidents whom McNamara served, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, neither of whom left us anything comparable. Though McNamara has produced a personal testament, it is largely based on documentation, some of it unpublished, from the Kennedy and Johnson libraries and government files.

This book commands our attention because the Vietnam War is still with us. It was with us in Somalia where again we tried—and failed politically—to understand and change a people strange to us. It is with us in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we have not ventured, because we are afraid to get into another quagmire in a place we do not understand and do not dare to try to change. It will take longer than a quarter of a century for us to put the Vietnam War behind us and act as if it had never happened.

The key decisions of these wars and near wars were made in Washington, where in the last analysis the president decides. This is why McNamara’s portrait of the presidents he served and their inner circles has much to teach us, because the problems have not changed all that much.

McNamara himself was a most unlikely secretary of defense. He was an Irish American, born in 1916 in San Francisco to parents who had never gone to college; his father did not go beyond the eighth grade. He graduated from high school in 1933 at the bottom of the Depression and went to the University of California at Berkeley, because it was the only first-rate university he could afford. Then came the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, three years teaching a statistical control system in World War II, and soon after the war a job with the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. A few years later, he was head of the Ford Division, the company’s largest unit, and in 1960, president of the entire Ford Motor Company. He made his reputation as a hard-driving executive at Ford and nowhere else.

When the newly elected President Kennedy offered him the post of secretary of defense in December 1960, soon after he became president of Ford, McNamara’s reply was, “I am not qualified.” McNamara knew so little of Washington’s ways that, as he says, he did not know the difference between “off the record” and “on background.” He confesses: “I had entered the Pentagon with a limited grasp of military affairs and even less grasp of covert operations.” He knew nothing about Vietnam—but, as he points out, neither did President Kennedy, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, military adviser General Maxwell Taylor, and many others. Nevertheless, Kennedy told him that there were no schools for defense secretaries—or for presidents. At the age of forty-four, McNamara was the youngest secretary of defense ever, a year older than Kennedy. McNamara’s background may help explain why he was more likely to break away from the official line than others with more bureaucratic experience. In any case, he was the odd man out in the later Johnson years.


The great merit of McNamara’s book is that it enables us to see how and to what extent the Vietnam War was fought and lost in Washington.

The self-inflicted ordeal in Washington began with Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. On January 19, 1961, Eisenhower’s last day in office, he and his chief associates met with Kennedy and his chief designated nominees for office, including McNamara. Eisenhower told Kennedy’s group that the loss of Laos—and by implication South Vietnam—to the Communists meant the loss of all of Southeast Asia.1 Yet Eisenhower had refused to intervene in Vietnam to rescue the French in 1954. Later that year, Eisenhower had put forward his “falling domino’ principle,” according to which “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty that it will go over very quickly.” He specifically applied it to Indochina and Southeast Asia. His advice to Kennedy in 1961 was based on the same assumption.

The falling-domino “principle” haunted the United States throughout the Vietnam War and beyond. It is one of the most insidious ideas in the repertoire of foreign policy. It is a mechanistic theory, because it assumes a necessary succession from an initial starting point to a fore-ordained end. It inflates the importance of any single loss by making it apply to an entire region or even the world. A relatively minor part of the world can be made into a major disaster by theoretically adding any number of other countries to it. But the future is never that determined; the loss of Vietnam did not bring about the Communist takeover of all Southeast Asia. One lost domino may bring down other dominoes, but it may also spread an alarm that will save other dominoes. By its simplicity and fatalism, the domino “principle” makes further thought unnecessary and actually represents a form of abdication as well as a call to arms.

In any case, the Kennedy novices in power were overly impressed by Eisenhower’s authority, even though during his administration he had not shown what to do about Vietnam. In June 1965, President Johnson sent an emissary to get more of Eisenhower’s advice, and he again replied that “we have got to win” and recommended increasing the number of US forces in Vietnam.

Yet Eisenhower believed in something else which undercut his domino principle. He had been convinced that the French could not win the war in Vietnam, because the internal political situation in Vietnam was “weak and confused.”2 Thus he made strong and clear internal Vietnamese political leadership a condition of victory. Later, Kennedy expressed this view as meaning that the South Vietnamese “are the ones who have to win it or lose it.”3 Johnson reiterated that “the South Vietnamese have the basic responsibility for the defense of their own freedom.”4

These two beliefs were incompatible. If the South Vietnamese were incapable of winning a war which only they could win, that war had to be given up for lost. But if the price of defeat was so great that it could not be tolerated, a Vietnam failure was unthinkable and whatever the cost the United States had to take over the war.

McNamara’s treatment of this contradiction, which bedeviled all the presidents during the Vietnam War, tells much about his book. For much of his tenure McNamara went along with the prevailing wisdom; not for nothing was it once called “McNamara’s war.” It took him time to get his bearings and lose his respect for the bitter-end generals. His book is retrospective and does not always represent fully what he thought or did during his period in office.

In effect, McNamara set himself two tasks—to report on what was happening in Washington during the Vietnam war and to say mea culpa for the mistakes that were made. In both cases, he is richly worth attending to.


The critical episode in Kennedy’s period was the plot to get rid of the Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. He had been the prime minister of South Vietnam for almost ten years when his regime seemed to disintegrate as a result of internal disruption by Buddhists, students, and others opposed to him. Raids on the Buddhist pagodas in August 1963 brought his rule to the breaking point. The Americans did not seem to dislike Diem so much as they detested his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, head of South Vietnam’s security forces, and his wife, Madame Nhu, both of whom were considered irrational and uncontrollable.

McNamara goes into the Diem affair in detail, and it is worth the effort. Diem’s downfall may have been the decisive moment of the entire war, and, above all, it showed how Washington acted at cross purposes and did not know how to handle a Vietnamese crisis.

McNamara holds the United States directly responsible for the anti-Diem coup. On August 24, 1963, he says, “Before the day was out, the United States had set in motion a military coup, which I believe was one of the truly pivotal decisions concerning Vietnam made during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.” In September, he adds, the Americans were “already in the process of initiating” a coup. The initiative, according to McNamara, was taken by Roger Hilsman, the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. He was aided by Averell Harriman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Michael Forrestal of the National Security Council staff. Hilsman drafted a cable to Saigon which said that if Diem remained “obdurate” about removing the Nhus, “we are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem.” Hilsman, Harriman, and Forrestal were allegedly determined to send the cable that same day—and did.

Unfortunately, none of the highest officials was present in Washington at that time. President Kennedy was on Cape Cod. Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, was in New York. McNamara was on vacation. The new US ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, had been in Saigon for only two days and had not yet had a serious talk with Diem. As a result, the three so-called schemers succeeded in getting approval of the cable by getting most high-level officials, including Kennedy, to think that others had already accepted it. Lodge immediately sent the CIA station chief to two leading Vietnamese generals to tell them that the Nhus had to go but left the generals to decide whether Diem also had to leave.

Within two days, second thoughts began to trouble Washington. Kennedy regretted his approval. Kennedy’s military adviser, General Maxwell Taylor, was shocked at the move. McNamara merely wanted Diem to alter his policies. Almost everyone but Hilsman changed his mind or could not make it up. Kennedy sent a secret cable to Lodge telling him that the President reserved “a contingent right to change course and reverse previous instructions.”

This, in brief, is McNamara’s story. But, almost twenty years ago, Hilsman gave a much longer and more detailed version of the same episode, and it disagrees with McNamara in some crucial respects. One of the most important is that McNamara had the United States “set in motion” the military coup; Hilsman says that two Vietnamese generals first “contacted American officials” to find out what the attitude of the United States would be if they “felt compelled” to move against Nhu and the regime. The generals said they needed to know quickly. Hilsman also says that he did not draft the cable alone; Under-Secretary of State George Ball, Harriman, and Hilsman allegedly participated in the drafting. Hilsman is as critical of McNamara as McNamara is of Hilsman.5

  1. 1

    This was the gist of several memoranda about the meeting written by participants, including McNamara, now in the Kennedy Library. Eisenhower touched on the meeting in his autobiography, Waging Peace, but tells little about what he actually said. Kennedy was an ardent believer in the domino theory. In September 1963, he was asked whether he had “any reason to doubt this so-called ‘domino theory,’ that if South Vietnam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go with it?” He replied: “No, I believe it. I believe it.” (NBC interview, September 9, 1963.) The most ardent believer in the domino “principle” was Richard Nixon. If Vietnam fell, he prophesied, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia had to be written off; we would have to fight a major war to save the Philippines, the Pacific would become a “red sea,” and the United States would have to face up to Chinese Communist aggression as far as Australia in only four or five years (Congressional Record, January 31, 1966, pp. 21928–21930). That there were deep differences between the Chinese and Vietnamese never seems to have been seriously considered by any of these leaders.

  2. 2

    Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 1953–1956 (Doubleday, 1963), p.372.

  3. 3

    Interview with Walter Cronkite, September 2, 1963.

  4. 4

    August 12, 1964.

  5. 5

    Roger Hilsman, To Move A Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (Doubleday, 1967), pp. 484–487, 507.

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