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 Though McNamara has produced a personal testament, it is largely based on documentation, some of it unpublished, from the Kennedy and Johnson libraries and government files.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
There is a third version of some interest. George Ball says that the allegedly fatal wire of August 24, 1963, was composed by Harriman and Hilsman and that they showed it to him on a golf course. After Ball essentially approved the message, he got in touch with Kennedy in Hyannisport, who went along with it on condition that Rusk and Roswell Gilpatric, McNamara’s deputy, agreed. Ball also pleads that he “signed off” on the telegram, because Harriman and Hilsman said that Ambassador Lodge needed a prompt answer.6
In any case, all these versions attest to the almost chaotic state of the leading circles in Washington. Subordinate figures snowballed their superiors by telling them that someone else had gone along with the scheme. Ball’s story of how he got Kennedy to agree is the most troublesome; the President put the responsibility on two others. Yet it is hard to see how the United States could have “set in motion” the coup if Kennedy and others regretted it two days later and held it up. No coup came soon after August 24; it did not come until November 1, 1963, over two months later.7 Diem and Nhu were murdered after they were captured. “When President Kennedy received the news, he literally blanched,” McNamara recalls. “I had never seen him so moved.”
The Vietnamese coup was clearly less simple than McNamara makes it. It may not have been initiated by Hilsman, but by Vietnamese generals, and it was certainly not “set in motion” on August 24, 1963. McNamara himself says that Kennedy soon regretted it and held it up. When the coup came, over two months later, it was carried out by the Vietnamese generals, who went off on their own. No doubt the generals knew that the Americans had been thinking about it, but that is not the same as “setting in motion” or “in the process of initiating” a coup. On the other hand, those who made the United States altogether innocent of responsibility for the coup have gone too far, because the August 24, 1963, cable was made known to the Vietnamese generals, even if it was regretted soon afterward. George Ball, the opposite pole from McNamara, thought that the cable was a “damp squib” and had little to do with the coup.8
The entire incident still needs to be cleared up, because McNamara’s version is not altogether satisfactory. But something is more important than the details of the coup. Policy-making in Washington was chaotic. Kennedy and his top advisers first made a hasty decision to threaten to overthrow Diem if he did not get rid of the Nhus and then dithered for over two months until the Vietnamese generals took matters into their own bloody hands to the surprise of the Americans. Those Americans who had opposed toppling Diem—McNamara among them—had done so not out of sympathy with Diem but because they did not believe there was a suitable successor to him among the Vietnamese generals. And they were proven right. One Vietnamese government after another collapsed after Diem’s fall. Though Diem had virtually no defenders in the American government, what made the Americans hesitate was that they considered everyone else worse.
Here we come to the nub of the question. Every president from Eisenhower to Johnson said that the war could be won only by the Vietnamese themselves. McNamara comes back again and again to this principle:
Throughout the Kennedy years, we operated on two premises that ultimately proved contradictory. One was that the fall of South Vietnam to Communism would threaten the security of the United States and the Western world. The other was that only the South Vietnamese could defend their nation, and that America should limit its role to providing training and logistical support.
If there is a strong South Vietnamese effort, [US combat troops] may not be needed; if there is not such an effort, US forces could not accomplish their mission in the midst of an apathetic or hostile population.
The cardinal question had never gone away: If the South Vietnamese government, such as it was, could not gain and keep its people’s support and defeat the insurgents, could we do it for them?
Thus the coup against Diem and the demoralization of the Vietnamese regimes after him presented the Americans with a fundamental choice—either to give up the Vietnam War as a bad bargain or to assume full responsibility for it in place of the Vietnamese. Kennedy himself spoke out of both sides of his mouth. On one occasion, he made the South Vietnamese responsible for their own fate; on another, he embraced the domino theory and said, “We should not withdraw.” McNamara thinks that Kennedy, if he had lived, would have pulled us out of Vietnam. It is, in my opinion, doubtful because Kennedy did not have the prestige in foreign affairs to take a step which would have marked him as the president who had lost a war even before the United States had made every effort to avoid such a historic loss.
Forever after in the Vietnam War, the fundamental clash of policy was between the domino theory and the only-the-Vietnamese-can-win-the-war premise. In part, the confusion of US policy resulted because the presidents professed to believe in both, and in a pinch chose the domino theory. The choice underlies the crises that beset the entire war.
Lyndon Johnson had opposed the coup against Diem. His own national security team—including a reformed George Ball and an unreconstructed Dean Rusk—was also deeply split. “Johnson,” according to McNamara, “inherited a god-awful mess eminently more dangerous than the one Kennedy had inherited from Eisenhower.” Johnson was more convinced than Kennedy that the takeover of South Vietnam was a step in the direction of Soviet and Chinese world hegemony. Johnson “wanted to win the war.”
Thus McNamara introduces Johnson into the Vietnam War. In the early years of the Johnson administration and to the end of 1965, McNamara himself backed the prosecution of the war. He agreed to send more troops to Vietnam but had increasingly less hope that they could prevail.
Johnson’s Rubicon was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of September 1964. Again the details are less important in themselves than in what they signify. McNamara reveals that Johnson had contemplated getting a congressional resolution in support of the war as early as May 1964. 9 But two alleged attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats against the US destroyer Maddox took place, the first on August 2 and the second on August 4, 1964. Johnson did not react to the first one but added another destroyer, the C. Turner Joy to the patrol. The second attack was dubious, if not fictitious; even the commander of the Maddox sent word that it was at least “doubtful.” Nevertheless, with McNamara concurring, Johnson ordered sixty-four bombing missions against North Vietnamese PT bases and an oil complex in retaliation.
These were not the only circumstances of the incident. In January 1964, the CIA was authorized to support South Vietnamese covert operations against North Vietnam, known as Plan 34A. Another operation, the DESOTO patrols, carried out electronic reconnaissance of North Vietnam using the Maddox and other US vessels; they stayed more than twenty-five miles off the North Vietnamese coast to protect themselves from attack. On July 30, 1964, a 34A mission by South Vietnamese patrol boats attacked two North Vietnamese islands in the Tonkin Gulf. Both Plan 34A and the DESOTO patrols were engaged in acts of war during a war; it is questionable how much the North Vietnamese could be expected to distinguish between the South Vietnamese and US roles in these operations. Whether or not the second North Vietnamese attack against the US ships had actually occurred, the US retaliated forcibly; the C. Turner Joy sank three PT boats and the Maddox one or two.
But Johnson was not satisfied with this score. He seized the opportunity to press his congressional resolution, which he later claimed gave him a “blank check” in Vietnam.10 McNamara has little patience with this subterfuge. Congress, he says, “did not conceive of it as a declaration of war and did not intend it to be used, as it was, as authorization for an enormous expansion of US forces in Vietnam—from 16,000 military advisers to 550,000 combat troops.” He also admits that he was wrong to tell senators that the Maddox did not know of the South Vietnamese attack on the two North Vietnamese islands.
Nevertheless, McNamara labors to defend the Johnson administration from the charge of having deliberately deceived Congress with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. But he admits that Congress was “misled” and that “Congress did not intend to authorize without further, full consultation the expansion of US forces in Vietnam from 16,000 to 550,000 men.” He seems to rest his case on the proposition that “the problem was not that Congress did not grasp the resolution’s potential but that it did not grasp the war’s potential and how the administration would respond in the face of it.”
It is hard to take this reasoning seriously. If Congress did not intend to authorize the immense expansion of the war, it did not have to grasp the war’s potential. Whatever that potential, it should still have been necessary for the Johnson administration to come back to Congress for further authorization to expand the US forces in the war. Congressional approval of appropriations bills for the armed forces is no substitute for congressional approval of a large-scale war.
McNamara gives the text of a telephone conversation with Johnson on July 14, 1965, months later, in which Johnson said: “We know, ourselves, in our own conscience, that when we asked for this Tonkin Gulf Resolution, we had no intention of committing this many…ground troops.” Johnson added: “And we’re doin’ so now and we know it’s goin’ to be bad, and the question [is]: do we just want to do it out on a limb by ourselves?” Thus Johnson knew that he was going out “on a limb” constitutionally by resting on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. In fact, both the President and Congress acted cravenly during the Vietnam War.
The most unmitigated warriors were the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All they wanted was more troops and more bombing in Vietnam. They put on the main pressure to get Johnson to send more and more forces to Vietnam. For them the domino theory was sacrosanct; when one of their representatives was asked how badly the loss of South Vietnam would shake the faith and resolve of other non-Communist nations, he answered: “Disastrously or worse.” As a result of this view, McNamara writes, more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than on all of Europe during World War II.
McNamara reveals that the Joint Chiefs even contemplated the use of nuclear weapons to avoid defeat. On March 2, 1964, they sent a long memorandum to McNamara in which they reiterated “the overriding importance to the security interests of the United States of preventing the loss of South Vietnam.” The United States should be prepared to destroy military and industrial targets in North Vietnam, mine its harbors, and undertake a naval blockade. China might intervene militarily, but a non-nuclear US response might not be able to force China to stop. They added that “nuclear attacks would have a far greater probability of” doing so, without claiming that even then they could prevent the loss of South Vietnam. McNamara comments:
It was clear: the chiefs recognized that their program involved a change in US policy—including the possible use of nuclear weapons—but they nonetheless urged that it be adopted.
The possible use of nuclear weapons was also mentioned in November 1964 by a “Working Group” made up of senior civilian officials. “The president and I,” says McNamara, “were shocked by the almost cavalier way in which the chiefs and their associates, on this and other occasions, referred to, and accepted the risk of, the possible use of nuclear weapons.” Again, on June 30, 1965, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, referred to nuclear weapons in a way that implied to McNamara that we should consider threatening their use. In 1966, the Joint Chiefs put forward a program which would require “utilizing the nation’s full military capability, including the possible use of nuclear weapons.” And on May 20, 1967, the Joint Chiefs sent McNamara another memorandum that it might become necessary to use nuclear weapons in southern China.
These references to the possible use of nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War have never before been made public and, in fact, have been denied. In his magisterial work, Danger and Survival, McGeorge Bundy stated that from 1965 to 1975 “the nuclear forces always at the president’s command were kept out of it.” He seems to be right that none of the three presidents in the war “ever came close to using a nuclear weapon,” but he may have gone too far in suggesting that no one else in the administrations ever thought of their possible use. The temptation was there, even if it never got far enough to command the President’s attention.11
McNamara’s fall from grace came as he gave up hope for a US military victory in Vietnam. Until then, he had gone along with the US escalation, even if sometimes with misgivings. As the United States poured more troops into South Vietnam, so did the North Vietnamese, with the result that nothing seemed to be gained militarily by merely increasing the numbers. The Americans never understood that the North Vietnamese were willing to fight to the last man, and for this reason were not amenable to ordinary diplomatic bargaining, except on their own terms.
On November 23, 1965, McNamara received a “shattering blow” from the US commander in South Vietnam. General William Westmoreland called for 200,000 more troops in 1966, bringing the total by the end of 1966 to 410,000 instead of the 275,000 previously estimated. Another 200,000 was considered possible in 1967. McNamara flew to Saigon to see for himself; he discovered that “the US presence rested on a bowl of jelly: political instability had increased; pacification had stalled; South Vietnamese Army desertions had skyrocketed.”
On November 30, 1965, McNamara gave Johnson his latest appreciation of the war. He called it a “bleak choice” between a “compromise solution” or Westmoreland’s escalation. By a compromise he meant accepting “less than our objective of an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam.” Just what was less he did not say. This choice received no serious attention. From this point on, McNamara was torn between a political compromise and an increased military offensive. The more he gave up the idea of a military victory, the more he veered over to a “diplomatic solution.” While others in the administration were still optimistic, he was progressively pessimistic. Gradually he estranged himself from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of Johnson’s senior advisers.
Finally, on May 19, 1967, he submitted a critical memorandum to Johnson. It virtually gave up on the South Vietnamese. It admitted that the North Vietnamese “seem uninterested in a political settlement and determined to match US military expansion of the conflict.” It raised the specter of nuclear and chemical weapons: “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 US losses were running high while conventional efforts were not producing desired results.” It showed that McNamara was vulnerable to the antiwar movement mounting in the US: “The Vietnam war is unpopular in this country.” It took into consideration the broader view of the war in the world: “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.”
McNamara urged that US policy be based on two principles:
(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.
Since McNamara had long believed that South Vietnam would not or could not help itself, he implied that the US commitment had ceased. In practice, however, he did not go that far. McNamara proposed “a politico-military strategy that raised the possibility of compromise.” This strategy entailed more restricted bombing and “a more flexible bargaining position while actively seeking a political settlement.” He recognized the dangers in such an appraoch but believed that the military option “could lead to a major national disaster.”
The Joint Chiefs reacted with fury. McNamara’s civilian associates were no less wrathful. His position as secretary of defense became increasingly untenable. In June 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 project resulted in what came to be known as the “Pentagon Papers.” In July 1967, Johnson asked McNamara to visit Vietnam again; General Westmoreland still thought the war was being won but asked for 200,000 more US troops. McNamara himself was momentarily persuaded that progress was being made. In Washington, however, the main issue was whether to increase the bombing of North Vietnam. McNamara argued that no amount of bombing could prevent the North from reinforcing its troops in the South, and that anyway most of its war supplies were coming from the Soviet Union and China.
In the war of words between McNamara and the Joint Chiefs, McNamara did not stand a chance. On November 1, 1967, he gave Johnson another memorandum, in which he recommended stabilizing the fronts, halting the bombing of North Vietnam, and seeking to bring about negotiations. Virtually no one else liked it. This memorandum brought the agony of Robert S. McNamara to an end. Johnson found a way of getting rid of him by sending him to the World Bank as its president.
In retrospect, McNamara is not happy with his record in the Vietnam War. Unlike other books by leading participants, McNamara’s is full of regrets and remorse. He regrets that the most critical questions about the war were never adequately analyzed. He lists the five most basic questions that were never asked: “Was it true that the fall of South Vietnam would trigger the fall of all Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a grave threat to the West’s security? What kind of war—conventional or guerrilla—might develop? Could we win it with US troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should we not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops?”
One reason these questions were not asked is that the Americans knew so little about the country and region to which they were sending hundreds of thousands of their troops. The Pentagon and State Department had no senior officials with intimate knowledge of Southeast Asia, because the top East Asian and China experts in the State Department had been driven out during the McCarthy years of the 1950s. “How were we to know,” McNamara asks piteously, “when we were moving in an alien environment, alongside a people whose language and culture we did not understand and whose history, values, and political traditions differed profoundly from our own?” The American officers long maintained an attitude of optimism, because they were receiving false information from the Vietnamese. CIA Director John McCone later admitted that “the province and district chiefs felt obliged to ‘create statistics’ which would meet the approbation of the Central Government.” The Americans on the spot, without knowing the language or the customs, passed on the same figures to their superiors in Saigon who passed them on to their superiors in Washington.
Nevertheless, McNamara made an effort to cut short the war without a military victory. His problem was that he was willing to go so far and no further. He never advised getting out of the war; the nearest he came to it was to recommend a “compromise” or “political solution,” which he once implied meant a “coalition government.” But this idea was never taken up and probably had no future. He now sees that his memorandum of May 19, 1967, should have called for US withdrawal from South Vietnam “through either negotiation or direct action.” But it did not.
The Vietnam War peculiarly demanded a hardheaded assessment of what it was worth in the national interest of the United States. By itself, Vietnam was a fairly small, remote country, with which the United States had little in common. For this reason, the domino theory was so important in order to make it worth more than it was. The real test of American leadership was to see Vietnam as it was and not as it was multiplied by a theoretical formula. If we were to cut our losses and get out, it was clearly easier and better to do so sooner rather than later. The ideal time would have been after the coup against Diem, when it was shown, as McNamara puts it, that “political stability did not exist and was unlikely ever to be achieved; and the South Vietnamese, even with our training assistance and logistical support, were incapable of defending themselves.”
In retrospect, McNamara now believes that we should have withdrawn from South Vietnam either in later 1963, following Diem’s assassination, or in late 1964 or early 1965, when it became clear that South Vietnam’s political and military weakness could not be remedied. If we had done so, our losses could not have been greater than they were seven or eight years later, and undoubtedly would have been much less. How difficult it was to go from recognizing that a military victory was a mirage to calling for a timely withdrawal was shown by McNamara himself.
McNamara now writes that “we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” With this book, he has paid his debt.
May 11, 1995
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. ↩
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 1953–1956 (Doubleday, 1963), p.372. ↩
Interview with Walter Cronkite, September 2, 1963. ↩
August 12, 1964. ↩
Roger Hilsman, To Move A Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (Doubleday, 1967), pp. 484–487, 507. ↩
George W. Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern: Memoirs (Norton, 1982), pp. 371–372. ↩
Earlier versions play variations on these themes. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., also names Harriman, Hilsman, and Forrestal as the chief wire-pullers against Diem but calls them “the Harriman group.” Schlesinger attributes the first intimations of the coming coup to the Vietnamese generals; Kennedy felt that “he had been pressed too hard and fast” and soon drew back; the coup took place when Lodge and Diem seemed to be reaching some understanding. “It is important to state clearly that the coup of November 1, 1963, was entirely planned and carried out by the Vietnamese.” (A Thousand Days, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, pp. 990–997.) ↩
George Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern, pp. 373–374. ↩
McNamara says that a small group under George Ball submitted a draft resolution to the National Security Council on May 24, 1964, that it was discussed at a meeting in Honolulu on June 1, 1964, and that it was decided to present it to Congress in September. Ball says nothing of this draft resolution. ↩
It was passed in the Senate by 88 to 2, with Senators Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska opposed, and in the House by 416 to 0. The Senate floor leader was Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who at the time said that it did not authorize the landing of large American armies in Vietnam (Congressional Record, August 5, 1964, p. 18403). ↩
McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival (Random House, 1988), p. 536. ↩