THE 20th anniversary of the collapse of South Vietnam and the fall of Saigon was certain to occasion a reexamination of United States involvement in the war. Publication of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's account, ''Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,'' however, adds a new measure of passion.
Mr. McNamara stood right in the middle of US Vietnam policy from 1961 through early 1968 -- the span when most fateful decisions escalating our involvement were made. Now he writes that the military engagement he guided entailed huge mistakes.
In the most basic sense, this is not news. It was evident to anyone who followed public affairs at the time that McNamara left his defense post for the World Bank a broken and dispirited man. Who could have doubted then that he believed he had erred badly?
But now he has put it in black and white. For some critics it is a time to settle scores. In a savage editorial, Howell Raines and his colleagues on the New York Times editorial page write that the former Pentagon chief's regret ''cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry ....''
Many different views on the Vietnam tragedy are found across the country; but this conclusion of the Times editorial writers is surely far from the retrospective judgment of most Americans.
The public accepted the argument of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that ''containment,'' the keystone of US policy from 1947 onward, was generally sound, and prevented the expansion of communist dictatorships that threatened American interests and the cause of human freedom. (The public continues to see our post-World War II policy in that same positive light.)
When the war dragged on, however, and the costs mounted -- first in human lives and second in bitter divisions -- a majority felt that while containment was sound, its application was flawed.
The public did not conclude that the principal architects of our Vietnam policy -- McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Maxwell Taylor, and Lyndon Johnson, in particular -- were evil men operating from ignoble motives. Taunts like, ''Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today,'' were seen by most as morally obtuse. Johnson was not Hitler. We could grant him honorable motives -- even while believing that errors of judgment had forced the nation to pay a terrible price. Together with the loss of life, US foreign policy was for a time enfeebled and communist expansion encouraged.
Neither did most of the public leap from its evolving conclusion that policymakers had erred to a view that disparaged the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who fought in Vietnam. The virulence of some of the war protests, together with the growing conclusion across much of the public that US military intervention had been flawed, led many veterans to believe their fellow citizens did not honor their efforts. But we should know that this conclusion, while understandable, was incorrect.
If a policymaker believed -- as Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk did -- that the actions to which he committed himself in Vietnam were correct, though the end result was tragic, he should say so. Much of the public will accept and respect this -- even if they differ.
But what if he believes, as McNamara does, that he erred badly? He, too, should say so. To be sure, for some of us the McNamara acknowledgment seems of relatively little consequence. If he made with honorable intentions what he later saw to be a huge mistake, what really can he do?
Holding a position of responsibility, especially on war and peace, means that one's errors of judgment are magnified far beyond those of most citizens. What are we to conclude? That people should avoid positions of responsibility? Or, that those who hold such positions should never be wrong?
We should all reexamine decisions we believe were in error, to try to prevent repeating them. For 30 years I've understood the mistake in Vietnam not as one of moral turpitude or bad intentions but as a woeful miscalculation of costs -- in lives, and in diminished capacity for necessary military action -- set against intended objectives or possible gains.
Nothing McNamara can say or do can much affect our national assessment of Vietnam. He adds nothing new. Almost everything relevant is known. Much of the public has long since arrived at their judgments on the war and the errors leading us to and through it.