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The Never-Ending War

Another curiosity of Mr. McNamara’s book is his apparent determination never to speak ill of his ex-enemies; this means it is impossible for a new reader about Vietnam to know that many middle- and upper-middle-class Southern patriots were deeply afraid of the Communists. There are very few firsthand accounts by such anti-Communist Southerners (as there are few accounts by non-Communist Southerners who joined the NLF) which describe the murderous habits of the Communists in the years before 1954. Bui Diem, who was Saigon’s ambassador in Washington from 1967 to 1972, has written the best such account I know of in In the Jaws of History. He comes from a mandarin family which in the mid-Thirties sent him to the elite Thang Long school in Hanoi. One of his most charismatic teachers there was the future General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose favorite historical character was Napoleon. By 1946, while Ho Chi Minh was negotiating with the French outside Paris, Giap was overseeing the extermination of non-Communist nationalists like Bui Diem. He writes,

Panic struck the [Vietnamese] parties as Giap’s reign of terror swept their ranks with a force that dwarfed previous assassination campaigns the factions had launched against one another. While Ho and the French colonial ministers danced a slow minuet at Fontainebleau, site of the increasingly futile independence negotiations, thousands of nationalists in Vietnam died quietly.

Also unmentioned in Mr. McNamara’s book is the land reform in North Vietnam beginning in 1955 during which “thousands died,” according to Stanley Karnow, or were imprisoned. Ho eventually apologized, but the bitterness was so great that in 1956 a peasant uprising broke out in his native Nghe An province which Ho suppressed with the same ferocity that the French had used during an insurrection in the same place twenty-six years earlier. Yet again there were apologies. Giap admitted, “We attacked on too large a front, and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror…. Worse still, torture came to be regarded as normal practice.”11 Nor does Mr. McNamara mention the almost one million Catholics who fled the North after Geneva in 1954 and 1955. The Americans and French helped them leave for the South, but the impetus for the flight was fear of the Communists. These refugees became strong supporters of Ngo Dinh Diem. I visited Catholic “strategic hamlets” in 1965, where I felt unusually safe at night even though they were sometimes in areas dominated by the NLF.

Not only does Mr. McNamara keep silent on these matters, which were used at the time as justifications for American support of Saigon; he is unwilling to make judgments about them. He now condemns only his own side. By supporting Ngo Dinh Diem, “leaders in Washington, in supporting a despot, betrayed their own stated principles, in the name of fighting communism.”He suggests that

US leaders and citizens should seek to counter their triumphalist urges, their belief that everyone should establish a multiparty system and accept our mores. If Americans do not do this, it seems inevitable that Vietnams—tragedies rooted in mutual misunderstanding—will recur.

But the Americans did not press Diem to establish a democracy; they helped him organize a police state. Mr. McNamara knows well that the United States was not supporting American “mores” in South Vietnam. The nature of the Diem regime, which he admits the US “created,” was plain at the time. Neither Professor Logevall nor Professor Kaiser would support Mr. McNamara’s contention that “the fundamental enemy—the root cause of the agony over the Vietnam War—was mutual ignorance, the inability of Washington and Hanoi to penetrate the outlook of the other side.”

It is irritating to read Mr. McNamara’s repeated breast-beating about “American ignorance of the history, language, and culture of Vietnam.”A quick reading of the Pentagon Papers shows how well informed some of the intelligence agencies were from the late 1940s on. Apart from the voluminous Chinese and French literature on Vietnam’s history of fighting foreigners,12 which were available in translation, there were specialists in American universities, some of them writing in this journal during Mr. McNamara’s time in office, who disputed Washington’s justification for the war. While not accurate in every detail, their analyses, if taken seriously in the White House, would have arrested, if not stopped, the war.13

Mr. McNamara further distorts the record by a historically dubious mea culpa. Leaders, he says,

are supposed to lead,…to understand more fully than others the range of options and implications of choosing such options…. And I believe this is what President Johnson and his associates, including myself, should have done to resist the pressure—from the public, the media, academicians, and the Congress—toward a military solution to the problem of Vietnam.

This is unconvincing. In the pivotal year, which Fredrik Logevall calls “The Long 1964,” there was next to no such pressure on the leaders, except from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Logevall underpins this judgment with conclusive documentation, much of it only recently available. “At no point during The Long 1964 were American leaders hemmed in on Vietnam…. They always possessed real choice. Neither domestic nor international considerations compelled them to escalate the war.” He shows that much of the mainstream press and many in Congress opposed a wider war, as did the public, which voted heavily against Goldwater in 1964 partly because he seemed to be a warmonger. In the international community, Logevall says, almost all of Washington’s allies—the Australians were the main exception—urged de-escalation—although later Thailand, the Philippines, and South Korea (whose soldiers were much feared by all Vietnamese for their bloodthirstiness) sent troops. Moscow and Beijing supported Hanoi but feared a war with the Americans. Hardly anyone abroad and few at home thought that the credibility of the US would be crippled if it backed away from war, especially because of the widely reported fact that most of the South Vietnamese appeared uncommitted to such a struggle.

More important still, Logevall continues, was the “pronounced pessimism” of most US officials. Their intelligence officers told them that Hanoi was prepared for a long contest. The top officials were even aware that the more Americans appeared in the South, the more resentment would spread among the population. But what the highest policymakers refused to do, Logevall shows, was to consider withdrawal, disguised by a fig leaf, such as maneuvering Saigon into asking the Americans to depart. Hence the McNamara myth of the missed signals, about which he reproaches himself throughout his book. A 1965 State Department Intelligence Report said, “Has Hanoi shown any [serious] interest in negotiations? Yes, repeatedly.” Professor Logevall observes, “The same thing could never have been said of the United States.”

In recent years, Robert McNamara has berated himself for his ignorance and arrogance; but he cannot blame the public, the Congress, or America’s allies for their pressure to widen the war. Nor can he continue to claim that American officials were ignorant of Vietnamese realities. One of Professor Logevall’s principal themes is that “American policymakers from mid 1963 onward were not merely skeptical of the possibility of finding an early political solution to the war but acutely fearful of such a prospect and strongly determined to prevent one.”

Far from being pressured by friend or foe, the key officials—Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Rusk—always anxious and pessimistic, and self-pitying because they felt misunderstood, were determined to widen the war. They punished subordinates who warned them about the war’s futility and worked hard to change the minds of skeptics such as Walter Lippmann and James Reston of The New York Times. Along with Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara and his senior colleagues feared that the defeat of Saigon and victory for Hanoi would lead to a collapse of the Asian “dominoes”—Laos, Thailand, and Malaya—and to a neutral Tokyo and Manila. US prestige would be threatened in Taiwan and South Korea.

Bundy reminded Johnson how Truman had suffered politically from the “loss” of China. Only when the US was strong, Bundy said, would it be safe to negotiate with Hanoi. Rusk described all negotiation offers as “phony.” McNamara himself warned that “the stakes in preserving an anti-communist South Vietnam are so high that, in our judgment, we must go on bending every effort to win.” The Pentagon official John McNaughton, a member of a National Security Council Working Group assembled by Johnson just before election day in 1964, in a famous formulation saw the need for a powerful military effort even if it failed. “It would demonstrate that the US was a ‘good doctor’ willing to keep promises, be tough, take risks, get bloodied, and hurt the enemy badly.” Just how badly, as we will see, could include nuclear weapons.

There were officials who disagreed. Undersecretary of State George Ball, however, still admired for being the high official who argued with the president, is dismissed by Logevall for his “unswerving loyalty”; Johnson could always count on Ball to sturdily present the case for the war to foreign statesmen or unreliable columnists. “Ball always talked tough on the war, tougher than almost anyone else.” Logevall describes him as a careerist. “By all accounts, George Ball treasured his position in the administration and sought to do nothing that might jeopardize it…. He hoped one day to be Johnson’s secretary of state.”

Precisely the same ambition for the same post, Logevall contends, is the reason Senator Fulbright supported Johnson by shepherding the Tonkin Resolution, upon which the President depended for bombing the North, through the Senate. But there were other officials who spoke up and finally left the government. Among these was James C. Thomson Jr. of the National Security Council staff. Told about the plan to widen the war by McGeorge Bundy, Mr. Thomson replied, “If we go down this road we will not bring them to their knees, or to the negotiating table. We could bomb them back into the stone age. They will disappear into the jungle and they will wait us out. Because they know something we know deep down, and they know that we know, which is that some day we’re going to go home.” Bundy replied, “Thomson, you may be right.”

As for Johnson, Logevall writes that his “profound personal insecurity and his egomania led him not only to personalize the goals he aspired to but also to personalize all forms of dissent.” Those who worked close to him, if they wanted to stay close, took care not to defy his neuroses.


Professor Kaiser claims that his persuasive and splendidly informed book, American Tragedy, is “the most thorough and best-documented account yet of the American decision to go to war.” It is not better informed than Professor Logevall’s. But its scope is wider—and sometimes frighteningly so. What Professor Kaiser exposes fully is the early American preparation for nuclear war in Southeast Asia and, if necessary, with China. Skeptics may dismiss this as mere contingency planning, but the Joint Chiefs went beyond preparing for a contingency to advocacy; and Kaiser shows how far their superiors were willing to go along with them. In January 1964, for instance, McNamara told the House Armed Services Committee, “The survival of an independent Government in South Vietnam is so important to the security of all of Southeast Asia and to the Free World that I can conceive of no alternative other than to take all necessary measures within our capability to prevent a Communist victory.” In February of that year he asked the Chiefs for recommendations for both a limited war against the North and a wider one including China. The Chiefs replied in early March and, Kaiser writes,

  1. 11

    Karnow, Vietnam, p. 242.

  2. 12

    For example, the words of the Chinese Emperor Qian Long in the late eighteenth century: “The Vietnamese are indeed not a reliable people. An occupation does not last very long before they raise their arms against us and expel us from their country. The history of past dynasties has proved this fact.” Truong Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention: 1858-1900, Monograph Series No. 11 (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1967), pp. 2-3. I discussed the American official denial of Vietnamese realities in “The War That Will Not End,” The New York Review, August 16, 1990.

  3. 13

    An example, with its bibliography of many well-documented sources, which was known throughout the antiwar movement, was The United States in Vietnam, by Kahin and Lewis. On the first page of their preface the authors state: “…The more deeply one probes into the history of the US involvement in Vietnam, the more evident it becomes that a seriously distorted picture has been presented.” I was a coauthor, with Professor Kahin and others, of the American Friends Service Committee’s Peace in Vietnam: A New Approach in Southeast Asia (Hill and Wang, 1966, revised 1967), which provided some of the same information and made the same argument.

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