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The Abuse of McNamara

The vitriolic and protracted campaign in The New York Times against former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his new book, In Retrospect, is largely based on a false premise, one that can be best demonstrated by The New York Times of over twenty years ago.

On April 12, the lead editorial stated: “Mr. McNamara wants us to know that he, too, realized by 1967 that the dissidents were right, that the war had to be stopped to avoid ‘a major national disaster.’ ” Then it goes on: “Even so, he wants us to grant that his delicate sense of protocol excused him from any obligation to join the national debate over whether American troops should continue to die at the rate of hundreds per week in a war he knew to be futile.”

On April 16, the lead review in The New York Times Book Review by Max Frankel begins: “In his 79th year, Robert S. McNamara at long last offers the public a glimpse of his aching conscience. The most willful Vietnam warrior in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, he was also the first at the top to admit defeat, in private.” The words “in private” should be emphasized. Later, Frankel convicts McNamara of refusing “once out of office, to share his policy disagreements with the country.”

Also on April 16, Frank Rich joined in the attack on McNamara who, Rich wrote, “took his charts to Washington, where he used them to prolong a war whose body count totaled 58,000 American and some 3 million Vietnamese lives,” as if McNamara alone had prolonged the entire war.

On April 17, the why-didn’t-he-speak-up-sooner line of attack on McNamara was made even more explicitly by Anthony Lewis. For him, McNamara’s “greater wrong” was in “failing to speak the truth then, when it mattered.” After summarizing McNamara’s thoughts on the war in 1965, 1966, and 1967, Lewis claims: “But Mr. McNamara said none of that in public at the time.” Finally, Lewis charges: “Many have noted that 58,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese died in that war while Robert McNamara and many others swallowed their doubts.”

Again on April 17, the theme was picked up by Robert MacNeil on The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour during an interview with McNamara: “Many people are saying, reviewers, television interviewers, others, that you should have aired your doubts twenty-seven years ago.” McNamara answered: “What should I have said that would not have brought aid and comfort to the enemy?” He might also have answered that his doubts had been aired twenty-four years ago.

In short, the case against McNamara largely hinges on the premise that he did not express his doubts about the Vietnam War while it was going on and that he waited until 1995 to make known his views on “whether American troops should continue to die.”

As I tried to show in my review of McNamara’s book in the last issue of The New York Review, it is open to criticism on various counts. But one thing that cannot be held against McNamara is that no one knew about his views on the war during the war. Anyone who read The New York Times in 1971 knew. In fact, McNamara’s book is not notable for any revelations about the course of the war. Its main interest is in McNamara’s repeated expressions of regret and remorse for what the Kennedy and Johnson administrations did and did not do.

McNamara did not have much new to tell about his disillusionment with the war, because it had already been told in detail in the Pentagon Papers. He was responsible for collecting them in the first place. In July 1967, McNamara asked John McNaughton, his Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs, to collect documents on the war for the use of future scholars. This collection was leaked to The New York Times, which courageously fought off a government attempt to stop it from publishing the documents.

The oddest thing about the highly censorious references to McNamara’s book is the fact that the Times published the Pentagon Papers with McNamara’s knowledge and approval. The Times writers could have read McNamara’s account in his book of how he knew of and approved publication. McNamara tells how the Times‘s then Washington bureau chief, James (“Scotty”) Reston, was dining at McNamara’s home on June 14, 1971. A telephone call came for Reston, telling him that Attorney General John Mitchell was trying to prevent publication of the papers. Reston asked McNamara what he thought. “I said,” McNamara writes, “the Times should continue printing them but should hedge its position by making clear it would obey any order issued by the Supreme Court.”1 Thus McNamara knew in advance that he was going “to share his policy disagreements with the country” (Frankel) and that he was not one of those who “swallowed their doubts” (Lewis).

The New York Times had begun publishing the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. The Vietnam War was still on; the US phase of the war lasted two more years. After publication in The New York Times the entire series came out in book form in July 1971. The book is more easily available to interested readers than the newspaper and is best cited here.2

Chapter 9 is headed: “Secretary McNamara’s Disenchantment: October, 1966–May, 1967.” It is divided into a summary by Hedrick Smith, followed by a section of supporting documents. Smith noted: “Mr. McNamara’s disillusionment with the war has been reported previously, but the depth of his dissent from established policy is documented for the first time in the Pentagon study, which he commissioned on June 17, 1967.” After summarizing McNamara’s efforts to scale down the US effort in the war, Smith states: “The Pentagon study underscores the significance of Mr. McNamara’s break with policy.” McNamara’s failure to sway Johnson is conveyed in these words: “But in a series of decisions on the air war during July and August [1968], the President adopted a course that differed markedly from the strategy of de-escalation that Secretary McNamara had urged on him.”

The documents in the Pentagon Papers are almost exactly the same as those given in McNamara’s book. McNamara’s first misgivings appear in a memorandum to Johnson of November 30, 1965. This was only four months after the announcement by President Johnson escalating the US role in the war. In his memo, McNamara said that the United States faced a “choice” between accepting a “compromise solution” or increasing the US forces in Vietnam as requested by General William Westmoreland.3

On October 14, 1966, McNamara sent Johnson a memorandum in which he struck a note that is a central theme in his book. “This important war,” he declared, “must be fought and won by the Vietnamese themselves. We have known this from the beginning. But the discouraging truth is that, as was the case in 1961 and 1963 and 1965, we have not found the formula, the catalyst, for training and inspiring them into effective action.” Nevertheless, he still expressed hope that some way might be found to turn the Vietnamese factor around.

Finally, on May 19, 1967, McNamara sent Johnson a crucial memorandum, parts of which cover seven pages in the Pentagon Papers. In effect, it virtually gave up on the South Vietnamese and recommended “a politico-military strategy that raised the possibility of compromise.” Some of its passages reveal the tenor of McNamara’s thoughts and feelings at the time:

The Vietnam war is unpopular in this country. It is becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates—causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on the noncombatants in Vietnam, South and North. Most Americans do not know how we got where we are, and most, without knowing why, but taking advantage of hindsight, are convinced that somehow we should not have gotten this deeply in. All want the war ended and expect their President to end it. Successfully, or else.

The use of tactical nuclear and area-denial-radiological-bacteriological-chemical weapons would probably be suggested at some point if the Chinese entered the war in Vietnam or Korea or if U.S. losses were running high while conventional efforts were not producing desired results.

There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States [bombing] to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1000 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.

(1) Our commitment is only to see that the people of South Vietnam are permitted to determine their own future.

(2) This commitment ceases if the country ceases to help itself.4

On November 1, 1967, another McNamara memorandum proposed stabilizing the fronts, halting the bombing of North Vietnam, and seeking to bring about negotiations. It was McNamara’s last word on Vietnam to Johnson.

All this and more has been known since 1971. It is true that McNamara never made his views of 1965–1967 known before publishing his recent book; the fact is, however, that they were made known for him in the Pentagon Papers. Much in his book is merely a recapitulation of those documents. Once he concluded that the United States could not win militarily in Vietnam, he sought for two years, with growing conviction and without success, to persuade the President and his colleagues to pull back from escalating the war and to seek some way out of it by trying to negotiate a compromise. In 1967, he was almost the only voice within the top echelons of the administration to give up the goal of military victory and to seek some way out of the war by negotiation.

McNamara never went so far as to call for withdrawal from the war. He regrets it now. But it is unfair to accuse him of not sharing his policy disagreements with the country, of swallowing his doubts while millions of Americans and Vietnamese died, or to make him the scapegoat for prolonging the entire war. The New York Times enabled him to share his policy disagreements with the country, to reveal his doubts, and to show that he made some effort not to prolong the war.

McNamara’s behavior reflected the political culture of the United States. In this tradition, a cabinet officer is not an elected official and serves at the behest of the President. If he disagrees with the President and decides to leave office, he is expected to do so quietly and with a minimum of fuss. This was the course taken by Dean Acheson in the 1930s and by Cyrus Vance in the late 1970s. For McNamara to have acted differently and to have declared political war on Lyndon Johnson in the midst of the Vietnam War would have represented a breach with the American political culture. He did not take that step for at least two reasons. For one thing, McNamara’s doubts about the war were still not fully developed; they were enough to make him a pariah to the military leaders but far from fully formed enough to send him into the streets. For another thing, he was obviously shaken by his experiences in the Johnson administration and could not shift from supporting the war to actively opposing it.

Whatever McNamara’s shortcomings, it is bizarre to attack him now for the wrong reasons. McNamara was not the arch-villain of the war, and he deserves credit for trying to make amends for the damage that he and his colleagues in the administration did thirty years ago.5

Letters

McNamara & Vietnam August 10, 1995

McNamara & Vietnam August 10, 1995

McNamara & Vietnam August 10, 1995

  1. 1

    In Retrospect (Times Books, 1995), p. 281.

  2. 2

    A cloth edition was published by Quadrangle and a paperback by Bantam. A five-volume edition of the complete papers was issued by Beacon in 1971.

  3. 3

    The memorandum of November 30, 1965, did not spell out what McNamara meant by a “compromise solution.” In his book, McNamara says that it entailed “less than our objective of an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam” (p. 222). Even this formula shows that McNamara was vaguely groping for an alternative to escalation and was merely starting to question the goal of a military victory by increasing US ground forces and bombing.

  4. 4

    These passages are quoted from McNamara’s book, pp. 266–270. Only the third of them appears in The New York Times edition of the Pentagon Papers. Nevertheless, Hedrick Smith commented, “Let there be no mistake, these were radical positions for a senior US policy official within the Johnson administration to take.”

  5. 5

    The reader may wonder why I have written this note. I do not know McNamara and have no connection with him. I happen to have been one of the earliest critics and opponents of the Vietnam War. I contributed articles against the war to The New York Review of Books and Commentary (in its pre-neoconservative phase) in 1966 and 1967, and brought out a book critical of the war, Abuse of Power, in 1967 (Viking). One of its readers was Robert Kennedy, who told his first biographer, Jack Newfield, that Abuse of Power “was one of the very best about Vietnam, even though it isn’t too kind to me and my friends” (Robert Kennedy, Dutton, 1969, p. 132). My sole reason is that I have been dismayed by the abuse of Robert McNamara.

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