This deponent has to confess to a deplorable incapacity to avoid returning to the Westmoreland libel trial taking place in Manhattan day after day. Perhaps there are addicts of the ironic occasion as there are of heroin. Otherwise how am I to explain, let alone excuse, an obsession with a suit which General William C. Westmoreland undertook against CBS to prove that he is an honest man, and which he may very well lose because the jury thinks that he is one and that his supporting witnesses are not?

There is no way to say whether former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s appearance in early December was of much service to Westmoreland’s reputation for truth, because McNamara plunged so distractingly into doing damage to his own.

As secretary of defense and our senior authority on the Vietnam War’s progress, he was a public optimist and a private pessimist. Sometimes hints of his private self crept forth from that interior conflict, but in general he maintained the posture of someone who believed that the war was being won, even though he had lost hope of a military victory no later than 1966.

And yet in October 1967, at a press conference when he was pushed to the wall by questions of whether the war had degenerated to stalemate, he answered, “I don’t know of a qualified military observer who believes it is a stalemate.” At the trial David Boies, counsel for the defendant, Columbia Broadcasting System, asked McNamara to explain this flat denial of what was by then a fixed conviction.

McNamara replied that he had been speaking of qualified military observers, which presumably excluded him as only a qualified civilian. He had made one of those fine distinctions unlikely to be caught on the wing, and his auditors understandably reported the next day that the secretary of defense had dismissed any suggestion that the war was at stalemate.

McNamara insisted that he had met the standards of public candor because he had not really thought the war was a stalemate; he was only sure it could not be won. He wished defense counsel “would not put words in my mouth.” It was noticed that the audience had begun to snicker; perhaps he too noticed that it had, because he observed, rather out of the blue, that there is “a hairline difference” between a no-win and a stalemate condition.

There was, in any case, small cause to doubt that Robert McNamara had arrived at a realistic assessment and then dutifully, if sometimes hollowly, blown the smoke of official fantasy whenever his forum was a public one. The mystery was why he refused to avail himself of an explanation entitled to intellectual respect.

From 1966 until President Lyndon Johnson cut him loose early in 1968, he had been telling the White House that the national security adviser, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Westmoreland were wrong in their estimate of the war’s progress.

It had been lonesome work and cruel to his peace of mind, but he carried on with it and perhaps with the not improper excuse that, if he quite, his place would be taken by someone else who was also wrong and would help make matters worse. There are arguments against that decision, but it was by no means a dishonorable one, and it would indisputably have a fairer look than the one McNamara put on in court with his insistence that he had never said a public word he did not think was the unadorned truth.

But he would not offer any such excuse. And so this trial has come to a point where you find out that Westmoreland and the defense secretary were both giving us the same assurances, and that McNamara was certainly saying what he believed to be false and Westmoreland was probably saying what he thought to be true.

It seems curious that the issue here is Westmoreland’s honor and not McNamara’s. But such reflections make ironic occasions so irresistible that it takes a firmer will than mine to keep the pledge to swear off this particular one.

Copyright © 1984 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

January 17, 1985