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The Never-Ending War

Reporting Vietnam, Part One: American Journalism 1959-1969; Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975

two volumes
Library of America, $35.00 each

Memories of a Pure Spring

by Duong Thu Huong, Translated from the Vietnamese by Nina McPherson, by Phan Huy Duong
Hyperion, 340 pp., $23.95


Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, is famously sorry about American responsibility for the Vietnamese war. When he wrote in his book of five years ago that “we were wrong, terribly wrong,”1 this was universally assumed to be an astounding public apology. In these pages Theodore Draper commented, “With this book, he has paid his debt.”2 Others were less forgiving. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times observed, “McNamara expresses no regret for his greater wrong: failing to speak the truth then, when it mattered.” Rejecting Mr. McNamara’s explanation that he owed loyalty to his president and to his constitutional oath, Mr. Lewis recalled Justice Robert Jackson’s ruling that the Constitution “is not a suicide pact,” and added that an official who foresees “‘a major national disaster’ …surely has a higher obligation to the country than to the President.”3

In one of his often anguished musings, in his recent book Argument Without End, about how the major national disaster in Vietnam might have been averted, Mr. McNamara regrets that during the 1950s and 1960s his adversaries in Hanoi learned about the US from international news agencies and weekly magazines—“not from sources like The New York Times.” But it was Mr. McNamara who could have done the learning. He might have found arresting the following comments in The New Yorker by the fiercely anti-Communist Joseph Alsop, who in late 1954 visited a Communist-controlled area in Vietnam as the French were disengaging after fighting nine years to retain their colony—a struggle 80 percent paid for by the US in its last phase—and Washington was creating its chosen regime under Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon:

It was difficult for me, as it is for any Westerner, to…imagine a Communist government that was also a popular government and almost a democratic government…. The Viet Minh [Ho Chi Minh’s forces] could not possibly have carried on the resistance for one year, let alone nine years, without the people’s strong, united support.4

As for reading The New York Times, that would have encouraged Hanoi, not dissuaded it. Mr. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, regarded the paper’s coverage of Vietnam as subversive, and regularly put pressure on its leading columnists and even on the publisher. Reading the two magnificent volumes of Reporting Vietnam, a collection of dispatches from the field and more discursive essays, reminded me why I came to oppose the war in the early 1960s. In The New York Times in February 1962, Homer Bigart, one of its most admired foreign correspondents, began his analysis from Saigon with these words: “The United States is involved in a war in Vietnam. American troops will stay until victory.” Bigart then noted, “Actually the United States has been deeply involved in the fate of Vietnam since 1949 when the decision was made to subsidize the continuation of French rule against the Communist Viet Minh rebellion.” He concluded:

The struggle will go on at least ten years, in the opinion of some observers, and severely test American patience. The United States seems inextricably committed to a long, inconclusive war. The Communists can prolong it for years.

In July 1962 Bigart wrote again in the Times, and once more Hanoi would not need to have read it:

The United States, by massive and unqualified support of the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem, has helped arrest the spread of Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. But victory is remote…because the Vietnamese President seems incapable of winning the loyalty of his people.

Bigart predicted either the removal of President Diem, whom the Americans had installed in the late 1950s, or the insertion of American ground forces. (Both took place.) If the latter, Bigart went on,

No one who has seen the conditions of combat in South Viet-nam would expect conventionally trained United States forces to fight any better against Communist guerrillas than did the French in their seven years of costly and futile warfare…. Americans may simply lack the endurance—and the motivation—to meet the unbelievably tough demands of jungle fighting.

In Argument Without End, we reenter the morass that invariably surrounds Robert McNamara, who during the war always seemed so certain of facts and views he now regrets having had. In 1964, for instance, he told the public in detail that there had been two attacks by small North Vietnamese boats on the American warships Maddox and Turner Joy in the Tonkin Gulf. This was highly suspect at the time and we now know that while the North Vietnamese acknowledge one attack, there certainly weren’t two. In one of the meetings with Vietnamese leaders which are the occasion for Argument Without End, Mr. McNamara reacts with surprise when he is told there was no second attack—an odd reaction, because he knew the facts in 1964.

He also insists in his new book that American and South Vietnamese sabotage and intelligence-gathering activities, such as Oplan 34-A, were of little “hostile intent” and need not have caused so much concern in Hanoi about the US naval vessels cruising inside what the North Vietnamese considered their territorial waters. Yet at that time, as Fredrik Logevall shows in his compendious and persuasive Choosing War, Mr. McNamara knew of the secret US and South Vietnamese operations, believed they were connected with the single North Vietnamese attack, and said so to President Johnson: “There’s no question [the Oplan 34-A covert operations] had a bearing on it.” Mr. McNamara therefore misled a Senate committee in August 1964 when he said, “Our Navy…was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any…. I say this flatly. This is a fact.”5

To say “if there were any” was compounding the lie. President Johnson himself admitted, “There have been some covert operations in that area that we have been carrying on…. So I imagine they wanted to put a stop to it.” Professor Logevall, a historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara, sums up the evidence we now have:

Ultimately, the question of whether the United States deliberately planned its operations in the Gulf of Tonkin as a means of provoking North Vietnam to retaliate remains elusive…. But there is compelling circumstantial evidence that, at the very least, government officials entered the month of August hoping desperately for a pretext that would allow a show of US strength and determination.

In his American Tragedy, a study of the origins of the war as systematic and as comprehensive as Professor Logevall’s, Professor David Kaiser of the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College says he suspects the White House was hoping for an incident and knew that 34-A operations were afoot. It was a scenario that “the Pentagon had envisaged since January 1964: that South Vietnamese covert operations against the North could lead to enemy retaliation, and hence to American bombing of the North.” Professor Kaiser says of Mr. McNamara’s public statements that he “deliberately lied in order to make the North Vietnamese action as provocative as possible.” In short, he tricked the Senate, led by William Fulbright, into supporting Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf resolution authorizing the widening of the war, a measure opposed publicly only by Senators Morse and Gruening, although other senators like Russell and Stennis, old allies of the President, were worried about the deepening involvement. Professor Kaiser points out that Democrats like Fulbright wanted to ensure Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election by demonstrating that the President, while not a warmonger as the Democrats portrayed the Republican candidate, would react toughly when American lives were in peril.

The secretary of defense, like President Kennedy, had been a keen enthusiast of covert operations in Asia. All those we know of, like the ones in Tibet, were disastrous. The ones that sparked the Tonkin crisis are laid out in detail in Richard Shultz’s The Secret War Against Hanoi. Shultz writes that the covert attacks “appear to have played a key role in Hanoi’s decision to attack the Maddox. The ongoing DeSoto [naval] patrols also likely contributed to that decision.” The CIA’s William Colby warned Mr. McNamara in 1962 that operations inside North Vietnam were doomed: “Mr. Secretary, I hear what you are saying, but it’s not going to work. It won’t work in this [North Vietnamese] kind of society.” “He was throwing in the towel,” Mr. Shultz states. “Denied areas were too difficult to penetrate. It was a staggering concession.”

Now, as all the world knows, Mr. McNamara has done a U-turn. But he remains as dogmatic as ever—and as unreliable. Argument Without End is an account of six meetings in Hanoi between 1995 and 1998, organized by Mr. McNamara, and attended by American and Vietnamese scholars, ex-officials, and retired military officers. There was an additional meeting in 1998 at Bellagio, in northern Italy. Mr. McNamara’s purpose was

to examine a hypothesis that had gradually taken shape in my mind: Both Washington and Hanoi had missed opportunities to achieve our geopolitical objectives without the terrible loss of life suffered by each of our countries…. What lessons can we draw to avoid such tragedies in the twenty-first century?

Top American officials, he admits, knew little about their adversary’s history, views, or even how to spell their names. This is so. Daniel Ellsberg once wrote, “There has never been an official of Deputy Assistant Secretary rank or higher (including myself) who could have passed in office a midterm freshman exam in modern Vietnamese history, if such a course existed in this country.”^6 Mr. McNamara’s conviction, however, that dealing directly with the adversary, patiently and at length, leads to positive results is not made more convincing by the example he gives: Richard Holbrooke’s fifty hours with Slobodan Milosevic in 1998, “thereby defusing, at least for the moment, a crisis in Kosovo that might well have led to military intervention by one or more Western powers.”

The central misconception in Mr. McNamara’s book is repeatedly expressed in italics throughout: There were a great many missed opportunities” to end the war; “…both sides missed opportunities every step of the way.” From this, as he says more than once, he concludes that genuine discussions in “real time” would have prevented the war. But there is hardly any evidence that the Vietnamese thought they had missed opportunities, although Mr. McNamara claims that one Vietnamese participant in the conference, retired Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, said Hanoi missed some. On the whole Mr. McNamara’s Vietnamese hosts stonily reminded the Americans that from the late 1940s Washington had propped up the French, installed Saigon regime after Saigon regime, including that of Ngo Dinh Diem, which began exterminating leftists in 1955; America’s efforts led to the deaths of millions of Vietnamese, Mr. McNamara’s hosts further reminded him. Ex-Deputy Foreign Minister Tran Quang Co twitted Mr. McNamara in English, by using his famous phrase “wrong, terribly wrong” to describe the suggestion that Hanoi could have negotiated while the bombing was going on. “We understand better now that the US understands very little about Vietnam. Even now—in this conference—the US understands very little….”

  1. 1

    In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Times Books, 1995), p. xvi.

  2. 2

    McNamara’s Peace,” The New York Review, May 11, 1995, p. 11.

  3. 3

    Too Late the Phalarope,” The New York Times, April 17, 1995, p. A17. This was not Mr. McNamara’s first apology. He made one in 1991 in Kyoto at the International Press Institute. I asked him if he had any regrets about the war; he attempted to evade the question, but was told to answer by the chairman. Very angrily he replied, “I was wrong! My God, I was wrong!” Mentioned in Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (Penguin, revised edition, 1991), p. 24.

  4. 4

    Quoted in George McT. Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam (Dial, revised edition, 1969), p. 102.

  5. 5

    Logevall, p. 203. The entire Tonkin cover-up has been laid out in Edwin E. Moïse, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

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