Robert McNamara Faces History and Himself on Vietnam

After decades of silence, memoir brings admission: 'We were wrong, terribly wrong'

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IN RETROSPECT: THE TRAGEDY AND LESSONS OF VIETNAM

By Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark

Times Books/Random House, 374 pp. $27.50

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Robert McNamara emerged politically in 1961, a brash, confident secretary of defense who amazed Washington by battling the Pentagon. He raised tough questions, demanded precise answers, brought a management team with him from Ford Motor Company (his ''Whiz Kids'' and their systems analysis from academia), and attacked traditional Pentagon log-rolling. The media and public were impressed, however much the military and their Congressional allies raged.

But mid-1963 brought crisis in South Vietnam, and this secretary of defense rapidly became a secretary of war, the very symbol of American military power. He seemed as confident as ever, though the growing stalemate in 1965 and after brought news media hints that McNamara actually had turned against the war. Nevertheless, he remained until February 1968, resigning only to become head of the World Bank.

Now, at age 78, McNamara has chosen to break his long silence, perhaps in response to Deborah Shapley's fairminded yet critical ''Power and the Promise: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara'' (Little, Brown, 1993). The result is ''In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,'' a selective, heavily footnoted work.

The book's earnest, dullish style is closer to academic prose than to general narrative. It presents McNamara sympathetically, as a man blocked by circumstances from moderating a terrible war, but one who now sets the record straight by confessing the error of his ways and those of his colleagues.

This is not the usual memoir, replete with stories and shrewd insights, but a troubled and self-accusatory book. Its overtones of guilt, confession, and public recognition of them return us to Richard Nixon's Checkers speech and Bill Clinton's statements on his military draft history.

When asked about writing his memoirs, France's Marshall Henri Philippe Petain allegedly replied, ''Why? I have nothing to hide.'' McNamara, of course, has plenty to hide: seven years as defense chief while war escalated.

Why did he wait so long to resign? His explanation is hardly convincing. Dean Acheson, for one, resigned early in the New Deal on a point of principle. Cyrus Vance, for another, quit as secretary of state in opposition to the Iran hostage rescue mission in 1980. And McGeorge Bundy, whom McNamara fervently admires and whose remarks are among the few shrewd insights in the book -- ''The briefings of McNamara [by the military] tend to be sessions where people try to fool him, and he tries to convince them they cannot'' quit his post of national security adviser early in 1966, two years before McNamara did.

Why, then, did he personally support the war? The answer that appears and reappears is: ''mistake.'' We were mistaken; we were unwisely fixated on international communism (especially Chinese communism), and we didn't understand either the nationalist character of Vietnamese communism or the weakness of the various Saigon governments.

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.

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.''

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