Robert McNamara Faces History and Himself on Vietnam
After decades of silence, memoir brings admission: 'We were wrong, terribly wrong'
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This is true, of course, but it does not satisfy. When McNamara partially blames those ''mistakes'' on the lack of expertise resulting from the State Department purges during the McCarthy era, he is is only half-right.Skip to next paragraph
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If expertise mattered so much, how could such obvious amateurs as, for example, Robert Lowell, I. F. Stone, or the New York Review of Books get it right as early as 1965, while McNamara and the other best and brightest continued to get it wrong? And why did he forgo systematic questioning of the generals once sustained combat began?
One explanation lies in his strange lack of interest in Vietnam itself, apparent in the manner with which he treats the country and its people in his book.
Instead, McNamara writes a primarily Washington-oriented book, which revolves around policy papers, their drafting, modification, and eventual acceptance or rejection. This is the bureaucratic world of ''pushing paper,'' of esoteric initials -- JCS, NSC, BNE, DRV, RVN, etc. -- and of bloodless skirmishes that scholars would later investigate.
But what of Vietnam, the reader keeps asking. McNamara virtually ignores not only Vietnamese society and politics, but the jungle he could see first hand on his seven visits there.
Only Ngo Dinh Diem receives much attention -- and then simply as a problem, an irritant, not as a significant leader. ''His manner was one of at least outward serenity,'' quotes McNamara from an American report on Diem, ''and of a man who had patiently explained a great deal and who hoped he had thus corrected a number of misapprehensions.'' The same words could apply to McNamara's own dealings with the American public.
Behind all this lies a painful deficiency. McNamara only saw trees, never forests. He began as a statistician and was fascinated with mathematics as its own language and elegantly clear vision of life. At Ford Motor Company, he was an operational man, a problem solver in an industry that was riding high; wide-ranging ideas seemed irrelevant.
So it was in his first 2-1/2 years in the Pentagon, while South Vietnam remained quiet, and American policy could ramble along. Suddenly Diem and Kennedy were assassinated, and this changed the course of history, though McNamara unfortunately does not think in those terms.
He does contend -- convincingly -- that Kennedy would have avoided full-dress war, that the president was both emotionally and pragmatically opposed to massive bloodshed, as he had shown at the Bay of Pigs, and in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But it was unthinkable to Lyndon Johnson that the US could be thwarted by a small Asian country, and Robert McNamara shows in this painful book the lack of imagination or awareness that led him to go along, at great cost to his own soul.
Faulkner said it best in ''Absalom, Absalom!'': ''...It was that innocence again, that innocence which believed that the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of pie or cake and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put them into the oven it was all finished and nothing but pie or cake could ever come out.''