In Retrospect, by Robert S. McNamara | Commentary

In 1964, Robert S. McNamara, the whiz kid who at age forty-four came to run the Pentagon for John F. Kennedy via Berkeley, Harvard, and the Ford Motor Company, was asked by a reporter how he felt about the fact that the conflict in Vietnam was being named after him. His reply: “I don’t object to its being called McNamara’s war. I think it is a very important war and I am pleased to be identified with it and do whatever I can to win it.”

As we learn from In Retrospect, McNamara’s Vietnam-era memoir, he subsequently had a change of mind. We do not know precisely when this occurred, but the memoir hints that seeds for it had already been planted by November 2, 1965, the day an antiwar protester, Norman R. Morrison, appeared just outside the window of McNamara’s Pentagon office, poured an inflammable liquid over himself, and lit up—with his one-year-old daughter in his arms. “I believed I understood and shared some of his thoughts,” writes McNamara of Morrison.

By late 1967 the strain of the war had clearly exerted a toll on McNamara. Lyndon Johnson even worried aloud to several of his aides that McNamara too might take his own life, just as Truman’s Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, had done nineteen years earlier. Although McNamara is anxious to put this particular worry to rest, declaring, “I was not under medical care, not taking drugs except for an occasional sleeping pill, and never contemplated suicide,” he left office in 1968 clearly shaken deeply by the direction the war had taken.

For the next two-and-a-half decades, McNamara refrained from publicly discussing Vietnam. In In Retrospect, he writes that he remained silent for “fear that I might appear self-serving, defensive, or vindictive, which I wished to avoid at all costs,” and perhaps “because it is hard to face one’s mistakes.” In a recent interview with the New York Times, he attributed his long silence to overpowering grief and a sense of failure. Speaking about his book on television, he openly wept as he talked about Vietnam. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he now declares.


McNamara’s contrition has, from some quarters, won him praise. President Clinton, for one, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that writing the book “was a courageous thing for him to do.” Asked if he thought McNamara’s admission of error vindicated his own conduct during the war, Clinton responded, “Yes, yes, I do. I know that sounds self-serving, but I do.”

But if applause for the book has been both self-interested and resoundingly faint, a veritable Rolling Thunder of opprobrium has also descended on McNamara for having confessed too little and too late. “Where was he when we needed him?” asked the Boston Globe. “Belatedly,” said USA Today, McNamara has “shown us how to avoid repeating his mistakes.” In the Los Angeles Times he was lampooned in a cartoon picturing him next to the black marble wall of the Vietnam War Memorial, with its 58,196 names, uttering, “Sorry about that.” The New Republic asked, “Has any single American of this century done more harm than Robert McNamara?” and answered, “No one comes readily to mind.” And the New York Times, in what ranks as perhaps the most ferocious editorial it has printed in the past three decades, scornfully declared: “Comes now Robert McNamara with the announcement that he has in the fullness of time grasped realities that seemed readily apparent to millions of Americans throughout the Vietnam war.”

These attacks are matched in frequency and intensity only by those launched by McNamara at himself within his book. Among the charges he levels: “We lacked experience dealing with crises,” “we knew very little about the region,” “we failed to analyze our assumptions critically,” “the foundations of our decision-making were gravely flawed,” and “it is very hard to recapture the innocence and confidence with which we approached Vietnam. . . .”

The sum total of these mea culpas is an argument—fortified with an arsenal of quotations drawn from U.S. government memoranda, intelligence estimates, briefing notes, trip reports, and diplomatic cable traffic—that American policy-makers made a flagrant blunder by applying the doctrine of containment to Vietnam:

We both overestimated the effect of South Vietnam’s loss on the security of the West and failed to adhere to the fundamental principle that, in the final analysis, if the South Vietnamese were to be saved, they had to win the war themselves.

Some aspects of this argument are convincing. The South Vietnamese government never demonstrated the stability or the breadth of popular support that would have enabled it to defend itself on its own. The assassination of Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1963, an action in which the Kennedy administration was deeply implicated—and which McNamara recounts in riveting detail—accomplished nothing except to exacerbate greatly the political weakness of South Vietnam.

The problem-solvers running the Pentagon blithely assumed that instability in the South was just another problem to be solved, and a great deal of misplaced faith was lodged in U.S. army-run training programs and implausible campaigns dreamed up by bureaucrats sitting in dreary cubbyholes in Washington, D.C. and designed to win the hearts and minds of peasants in a faraway land.

McNamara is surely right to say that the Kennedy administration committed an egregious lapse by not thinking long and hard about Saigon’s weaknesses before committing the United States’ blood, honor, and prestige to South Vietnam’s defense. “It seems beyond understanding, incredible, that we did not force ourselves to confront such issues head-on,” he writes.

McNamara also obliquely concedes that his technocratic, problem-solving modus operandi was ill-suited to the vagaries of jungle warfare in Vietnam. While at Harvard he had developed “an approach to organizing human activities” comprised of three precise steps: “Define a clear objective, . . . develop a plan to achieve that objective, and systematically monitor progress against the plan.” But what may have worked at Harvard and later at Ford ran famously aground in the infamous body counts of Vietnam, which McNamara describes in characteristically technocratic terms:

The body count was a measurement of the adversary’s manpower losses; we undertook it because one of Westy’s [General Westmoreland’s] objectives was to reach a so-called crossover point, at which Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain.

This macabre accounting protocol fell victim to the most basic flaw of systems analysis: garbage in, garbage out. “Ah les statistiques,” a South Vietnamese officer once said of McNamara, “your Secretary of Defense loves statistics. We Vietnamese can give him all he wants. If you want them to go up, they will go up. If you want them to go down, they will go down.” As McNamara himself admits, the data reported back from the battle-front as often as not were erroneous, and Washington learned only what it wanted to hear.

Systems analysis also proved of little use to McNamara in grappling with the political dimensions of the war. As Henry Kissinger once observed, in guerrilla warfare of the kind we were fighting, the guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the regular army loses unless it wins. But neither McNamara nor the two Presidents he served ever developed a strategy that aimed for anything but stalemate. Instead of either a quest for victory or an honorable way out, there was only the blind optimism of arrogance that played directly into North Vietnamese hands, as when McNamara declared on one occasion:

The greatest contribution Vietnam is making—right or wrong is beside the point—is that it is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war without the necessity of arousing the public ire.

In ancient Greece generals who lost battles were commonly banished from the polis for twenty years. In Japan they were expected to fall on their swords. In the Soviet Union they were forced to confess to wrecking or sabotage, then shot. McNamara too has confessed—voluntarily—but he has suffered none of these penalties. Yet for the American soldiers whose lives he wasted, and the lasting damage he did to this country, he certainly did not deserve to be rewarded as he subsequently was with the cushioned life in a limousine he lived when appointed president of the World Bank or accorded great respect for his pronouncements on how to avoid nuclear war (pronouncements which, in his unrequited and unrequitable quest for redemption, he has attached as an appendix to this book).


Be that as it may, even as McNamara details the many ways in which he mismanaged the Vietnam war, his bitterest regrets about Vietnam do not spring from this source. Rather, his principal indictment is that it was not worth the cost. “I question,” he writes,

whether either Soviet or Chinese behavior and influence in the 1970’s and 1980’s would have been materially different had the United States not entered the war in Indochina or had we withdrawn from Vietnam in the early or mid 1960’s.

The “what ifs” of history are by their nature unanswerable. Whether McNamara is right or wrong about this neither he nor we will ever know. But in scrupulously reconstructing the evolution of American decision-making to show when and where it went astray, McNamara inadvertently goes a considerable distance toward undermining his own case that American engagement in Vietnam was wholly avoidable, a foolish mistake, or both.

In Retrospect places the Vietnam war in the context of the noble set of beliefs to which his generation of Americans subscribed in the wake of Munich, World War II, the Marshall Plan, and the Korean war: aggression by a totalitarian power, it was widely understood, had to be stopped. And when the Kennedy administration came into office, McNamara writes,

Communism still seemed on the march. Mao Tse Tung and his followers had controlled China since 1949 and had fought with North Korea against the West; Nikita Khrushchev had predicted Communist victory through “wars of national liberation” in the third world and had told the West, “We will bury you.” His threat gained credibility when the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, demonstrating its lead in space technology. The next year Khrushchev started turning up the heat on West Berlin. And now Castro had transformed Cuba into a Communist beachhead in our hemisphere. We felt beset and at risk. This fear underlay our involvement in Vietnam.

Three years later, when America had already suffered more than 1,000 casualties in Vietnam, the dangers facing the United States appeared even graver. Here is McNamara’s reconstruction of the view from Washington after the erratic Nikita Khrushchev, by placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, brought the world to the very threshold of nuclear war:

We saw a world where the Hanoi-supported Pathet Lao continued to push forward into Laos, where Sukarno appeared to be moving Indonesia ever closer to the Communist orbit, where Malaysia faced immense pressure from Chinese-supported insurgents, where China had just detonated its first atomic device and continued to trumpet violent revolution, where Khrushchev and his successors in the Kremlin continued to make bellicose statements against the West. In light of all those threats, we viewed unconditional withdrawal as clearly unacceptable.


There are those who adhere to a revisionist cold-war historiography according to which the dangers enumerated by McNamara were illusory, and the cold war nothing but an American-manufactured sham. Thus, the New York Times editorializes today that back in the 1960’s, “McNamara appeared to be helping an obsessed President prosecute a war of no real consequence to the security of the United States” and that “[m]illions of loyal citizens concluded that the war was a militarily unnecessary and politically futile effort to prop up a corrupt government that could neither reform nor defend itself.” In fact, however, opinion poll after opinion poll shows that the American people in those years understood and supported what their government was doing in Vietnam.

And back then the New York Times also had a rather different cast. One of its editorials from 1965 declared that America “went into Vietnam to contain the advance of Communism in that part of Southeast Asia. . . . The motives are exemplary and every American can be proud of them. . . .” Another Times editorial that year stated that “[v]irtually all Americans understand that we must stay in South Vietnam for the near future” and only “a few pacifists here and the North Vietnamese and Chinese Communists are asking for a precipitate withdrawal.”

We need not wait for the unsealing of archives in the Kremlin, or for that matter in Beijing, to understand that the dangers of the cold war were not an illusion. Nor were Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and Robert McNamara fools, knaves, or “obsessed” for believing that American determination was being tested in Vietnam, and that failure to demonstrate strength and will might well have led to catastrophic consequences in Asia, in the Middle East, in Europe, or in other disputed corners of the earth.


McNamara himself quotes then-New York Times reporter David Halberstam to devastating effect. Halberstam, who today derides America’s role in Vietnam, explaining it as the result of fierce political pressure brought to bear on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from the Right, was telling his readers in 1965 that if America pulled out of Southeast Asia a moral tragedy and strategic debacle would ensue:

[T]hose Vietnamese who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most under a Communist government, while we lucky few with blue passports retire unharmed; it means a drab, lifeless, and controlled society for a people who deserve better. Withdrawal also means that the United States’ prestige will be lowered throughout the world, and it means that the pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. Lastly, withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam.
Considering what happened to the South Vietnamese after America did pull out—hundreds of thousands bidding farewell forever to their ancestors’ sacred graves to flee “reeducation camps” and other appurtenances of Communist rule, and so many perishing at sea at the hands of pirates or with the foundering of their rickety ships, not to mention the even more unspeakable fate suffered by millions in the mass graveyard that the entire nation of neighboring Cambodia became—surely Halberstam’s is the most clear-sighted forecast ever to be quietly disavowed.

As for those participants in the antiwar movement who called for America’s defeat, who likened their country’s conduct to Nazi Germany’s, and who had nothing but praise for Ho Chi Minh and Communist Hanoi, they, like President Clinton, have taken McNamara’s book as a vindication of their cause. But any honest appraisal of this memoir—as opposed to much of what has been written and said in the caustic blaze of hype that accompanied its publication—will lead to the conclusion that these very protesters, along with those whom the New York Times now salutes as “heroes” for having “returned the nation to sanity by chanting, ‘Hell, no, we won’t go,’ ” have the indelible stain of blood on their hands as well. For it was they who gave energetic encouragement to Communist North Vietnam to hold fast, to endure, to continue pouring men and materiel into the conquest of the South.

Even with the passage of 25 years it is too soon to forget that grandmotherly Grace Paley, winner of literary prizes and member of PEN, visited Hanoi in 1969 and explained how magnificent was the treatment accorded American prisoners of war. 1 In the eyes of the Vietnamese, “The pilot in the sky was a killer to be hunted,” she wrote, “but the pilot on the ground was a helpless man in their hands, though certainly a war criminal, to be cared for if sick, and eventually to be rehabilitated out of his American insanity if possible.” Paley was but one of many who provided aid and comfort to those who tortured American pilots and committed other crimes against both Americans and Vietnamese but who has never shed a tear of regret or uttered a syllable of repentance for the infamous consequences of her words.


Even as McNamara concedes mistake after mistake, he never—unlike so many in the antiwar movement—suggests it was morally wrong to attempt to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression. To the contrary, he says in entirely unequivocal terms:

The United States of America fought in Vietnam for eight years for what I believed to be good and honest reasons. By such action, administrations of both parties sought to protect our security, prevent the spread of totalitarian Communism, and promote individual freedom and political democracy.

The fundamental decisions taken by McNamara and the administrations he served, if not the means by which they were carried out, appeared entirely reasonable at the time. Though he would undoubtedly deny it, in his careful reconstruction of the historical record, McNamara makes them appear reasonable today. It is perhaps this unexpected effect that explains the terrible fury that has greeted In Retrospect.

1 See “A Dissent on Grace Paley” by Carol Iannone, COMMENTARY, August 1985.

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