The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

Robert S. McNamara’s memoir ‘In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam’ offers an explanation of McNamara’s handling of the Vietnam War as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. McNamara’s goal directed as well as logico-mathematical approach to decision-making must be blamed for the failure of the US to stop North Vietnam from winning the war. Bloodshed would have been evaded if merely McNamara had looked at the probable outcome of his decisions on Vietnam. What appears from pages of this book are mechanics of a machine closed in on itself.

It digested just the information that suited its version of reality or served its bureaucratic interests. It unnoticed discordant views, reorganized unlikable facts as well as, when proved wrong, simply redoubled its efforts. It was a machine suited to a military colossus whose directors never doubted their premises or their capability to make reality symbolize the exercise of their power. The book is written down in a manner that brings joy particularly to the hearts of the pacifist crowd even while they criticize him, as its confessions appear to justify their opposition to the war.

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That was Bill Clinton’s self-satisfied response. Thus far the book is extremely superficial in its political analysis — signifying how far in over his head McNamara was in that job from the start. Certainly, it’s high time that someone inquired our country’s inclination of picking big-time industrialists for defense secretary on the theory that it’s just a big management work. Sometimes the job needs a lot more than management talent: deliberate understanding and judgment, which McNamara without a doubt never had.
In justice to McNamara, his long silence had an admirable cause. Given the national shock that Vietnam brought, he feared that any apologia would be expedient and inappropriate. This caginess renowned McNamara from egregious former colleagues for instance Clark Clifford, Averell Harriman, as well as Cyrus Vance, who within months of leaving office were attacking the Nixon Administration with peace proposals also demands for concessions to the North Vietnamese.
The end of McNamara’s book in brief touches non-Vietnam matters — particularly the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the Harvard conferences he has lately attended, which brought together Soviet, American, as well as Cuban veterans of that crisis. The malice of such conferences is established by the breast-beating wrapping up of McNamara and some further Americans that it was our entire fault: Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba for the reason that he feared we were planning one more Bay of Pigs.
Suffering regarding that brush with nuclear tragedy has led to another of McNamara’s recantations his vigorous anti-nuclear activism, proceeding proposals for disarmament and no-first-use of nuclear weapons. He has championed this reason with the same sanctimonious obstinacy with which he once sold us the body counts and wunderkind strategizing in Vietnam, and with which he at present proclaims his confessions of our Vietnam errors. He possibly will never get it right. (Kevin Hillstrom, Laurie Collier Hillstrom, 1998). DEVELOPMENT OF THEME
This book “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” is barely likely to assuage that cynicism. Certainly, it will most likely reinforce it. For what it exposes is a leadership class so in thrall to power, so persuaded of its own intellectual superiority, so cut off from, and even disdainful of, the wider society it has been empowered to serve, that it was eager to sacrifice virtually everything to evade the stigma of failure. The usefulness of McNamara’s book is in the description of that trickery and of that failure.
Much of the documentation has long been accessible in the Pentagon Papers, which he commissioned soon before leaving office, and which were leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. However there is something to be erudite in hearing it from such a highly placed participant. Nevertheless, no one else, at such a level of influence–not Johnson, or McGeorge Bundy, or Walt Rostow, or Henry Kissinger or Richard Nixon–ever openly admitted error or accepted blame. McNamara has at least broken the wall of silence.
And even though he remains protective and largely uncritical of his colleagues, including the most imperceptive, the picture that appears is not one to motivate confidence. What this account noticeably discloses is that at no time did officials in either the Kennedy or Johnson administrations ever seriously think about anything less than an enduringly divided Vietnam with an anti-communist government in the south. The North Vietnamese, for their part, never measured anything less than a unified nation under their, i. e. communist, control. No one was in any doubt about this.
The problem was that the Americans were persuaded that by inflicting unbearable pain they could force Hanoi to desist however they were wrong. It was their country, not ours. In the end it was we who withdrew in the face of unbearable pain. Why did three successive administrations think that Vietnam was so imperative? First, there was the domino theory, which decreed that if Saigon fell to communism, the rest of Southeast Asia would shortly follow. Kennedy himself authorized it. When asked in 1963 by a television interviewer whether he doubted the correspondence, he answered, “No, I believe it. ”
Second, there was confronting of communist-led “wars of national liberation. ” As nuclear weapons had made war too risky between America and Russia, the conflict transferred to the Third World, where a host of impecunious, ex-colonial nations looked up for grabs. Did it matter whether these were communist or anti-communist despotisms? Almost certainly not. Although there was nowhere else the competition could occur, and so there it raged. Vietnam turned into a test case. Third, there was the well-known supposition that Beijing was taking its marching orders from Moscow, and calling the shots in Hanoi.
The truth that China and Russia were already disputing publicly and that the Vietnamese had historically viewed the Chinese as their greatest enemy made no impact whatever on U. S. policymakers. It did not fit into their worldview. Fourth, the world’s greatest military power was not going to confess failure, least of all against what Johnson once mentioned as a “piddling, piss-ant little country. ” It was too mortifying even to contemplate. Beyond all this there was one more reason that neither Kennedy nor Johnson, once the United States so carelessly slid into Vietnam, could easily get out.
The Democrats were the party, in accordance with the Republicans, who had “lost” China to communism. They were definitely not going to offer more fodder for their foes in Vietnam. As Truman had pushed above the thirty-eight parallel in Korea to illustrate that he was tougher on communism than the Republicans, so Kennedy and Johnson felt they dare not lose Saigon to the Reds. This is why the assumption, here thoughtfully echoed by McNamara, that Kennedy would have pulled out of the war had he lived, appears wishful thinking.
Kennedy fans, including McNamara, time and again cite the president’s much-quoted September 1963 statement regarding Vietnam that “in the final analysis, it is their war. There were, certainly, ways out all along, had anyone wanted to follow them. One opened up in the fall of 1963, when Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s influential brother, started secret contacts with Hanoi. Sensing a possibility for a deal akin to the arrangement previously worked out over Laos, French President Charles de Gaulle suggested the amalgamation and neutralization of Vietnam.
However the Americans saw this as an intimidation somewhat than an opportunity. Second-level officials in Washington plotted with the Saigon embassy and South Vietnamese army officers to conquer Diem and replace him with a government more resolute to fight the war. Kennedy could not make up his mind whether or not to endorse the coup. It came anyway in November, ending in the assassination of Diem and Nhu. Three weeks later Kennedy himself was murdered. McNamara now articulates that would have been a good moment to leave.
However at the time he recommended the newly installed Johnson that impartiality was unthinkable for the reason that “South Vietnam is both a test of U. S. determination and particularly a test of U. S. capacity to deal with wars of national liberation. ” This was our war and the Vietnamese were not going to be permitted to get in the way. At present McNamara confesses that “we erred seriously in not even exploring the neutralization option. ” Although at the time there was no way officials would have discovered it, given their view of the stakes at issue.
This was a war they were resolute to win, even against their reputed South Vietnamese allies. So far McNamara cannot bring himself to accept the noticeable insinuations of what he is so undoubtedly saying. He wants to convince us, and conceivably himself, that it is all a problem of management. In other words, he is still the bureaucratic organizer who thinks that all troubles can be reduced to flow charts and statistics McNamara informs us that as early as the fall of 1965 he had doubts regarding the value of the bombing in breaking Hanoi’s will or reducing the flow of supplies into the south.
Sporadically he espoused bombing pauses with the argument that this might influence Hanoi to negotiate. This was a wan expectation, as he was never ready to negotiate what Hanoi sought: a withdrawal of the United States from South Vietnam and communist representation in Saigon. By the fall of 1967 he had lost his value: the Joint Chiefs and the hawks in Congress were infuriated by his antagonism to sending more troops and extending the bombing, whilst Johnson considered him undependable and feared that he might join Robert Kennedy’s camp.
He was pushed out the door with a golden handshake as well as the presidency of the World Bank. However it was all done in a spirit of good fellowship and mutual congratulation, together with an overenthusiastic letter of appreciation he wrote to Johnson that he here reproduces. “I do not know to this day whether I quit or I was fired,” he says of his departure. This was consistent with his not knowing whether he measured the war to be wrong or just badly organized. Certainly he left silently. Almost all of them do. If he felt the war was so “awfully wrong,” why did he not leave in protest and take his case to the public?
20,000 Americans died in Vietnam on his watch, and almost another 40,000 died, along with millions of Vietnamese, after his departure. Did he be in debt something to them? Not it seems that as much as he owed to Johnson, and most probably to Nixon too. It “would have been a violation of my responsibility to the president and my oath to uphold the Constitution” to have publicly protested the war, he explains. Whereas the Constitution says not anything regarding muzzling public officials after they leave office, it is right that complainers are hardly ever asked to come back and play one more day.
Would it have made a difference if McNamara had openly turned against the war? One cannot be certain. It might or might not have ended the war sooner. However it would have justified those who protested against or refused to battle in a war they considered morally wrong, and it might have saved the lives of some of those who went to Vietnam for the reason that they thought that their country wanted to send them there for fine reason. Regardless, the assurance of making a difference is not the issue. We often cannot be certain of the outcome of our actions when we undertake them.
We either do something since we think it is right, or we decide not to do it. McNamara privileged what he supposed to be his duty to Johnson above what many others, but in fact not he, would consider his responsibility to his country. He can live with that, although he must not expect our appreciation. We can be glad that McNamara wrote this book without admiring the man or sanctioning his elusions. He had an opportunity to redeem himself for a war he felt to be wrong. However those opportunities came almost 30 ago, and at present it barely matters.
What is constructive regarding this elusive book is the terrible picture it represents of men caught in the prison of their own narrow suppositions and of their bureaucratic roles. These were men who knew that their strategies were not working, that their actions were driving ever-deeper divisions within the country that they were losing the admiration of several of those whose opinions they most appreciated. And thus far they persevered. Or else they shuffled out without a sound, like McNamara, and found other ways of trying to change the world and of trying to redeem themselves.
McNamara was not unaware to what was happening. In his memo to Johnson of May 1967 quarrelling against a planned major intensification in the war, he wrote: There may be a boundary beyond which several Americans and much of the world will not allow the United States to go. The picture of the world’s utmost superpower killing or critically injuring thousands noncombatants a week, whilst trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on a subject whose merits are fiercely disputed, is not a pretty one.
He was sensitive at least to the bad public relations of the killing, and he acknowledged that the supposed merits of the war were “hotly disputed. ” Nevertheless within the hothouse where Johnson and his advisers met to orchestrate the war, it was merely methods, never eventual aims that were questioned. There was fighting in the streets and good manners in the war room. McNamara’s book presents a sense of how divorced the two realms were from one another. The planners were locked into the academic concepts of “credibility” and the mechanics of graduated intensification.
Although he had doubts regarding the effectiveness of the methods, he never questioned the assumptions. In his defense McNamara makes the amazing complaint that, because of the McCarthy hysteria of the early 1950s, “our government lacked experts for us to consult to recompense for our unawareness” of Southeast Asia. True, numerous Asian experts had been driven from the government for envisaging that Chiang Kai-shek was doomed. However they had not moved to Mars. There were telephones then. They were keen to talk to anyone who would listen.
Hence were other considerate and outspoken critics of the war: scholars for instance John Fairbanks and Hans Morgenthau, columnists for example Walter Lippmann, former diplomats for instance George Kennan. In 1966 Senator Fulbright, smarting at having been snookered by Johnson over the Gulf of Tonkin, sponsored weeks of hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offering a forum for a broad range of experts to inspect the premises and outcomes of American policy. Nowhere in his book does McNamara make reference to these hearings, and hardly at all to outside critics.
The delirious arguments over Vietnam all the way through the country appear never to have infiltrated the glass bubble of the war room. EVALUATION OF THEME McNamara stayed silent regarding Vietnam, repudiating all interviews until 1994, when he wrote his memoirs. The book–In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam–ignited a firestorm of argument upon its release and turned into a national bestseller. Even though McNamara confessed in the book that he had been wrong on the subject of Vietnam, that the United States should never have become involved there, his belated confession did little to endear him to the American people.
The book elevated the ire of veterans’ groups, who blamed McNamara of trying to profit from a war that, in their minds, he had started and that had caused so much anguish. Too much blood was on his hands, they said, for him to try to make money off the war. McNamara’s assertion, in his memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, of having been “terribly wrong” regarding rising the war revive an old query often on the minds of young people at present: Would the U. S. have lost the war in Vietnam had Kennedy lived? The easiest answer is: We cannot know; history happens merely one way.
The more intricate answer is: most likely not. We must not forget the significance of the Cold War and containment. Just as Kissinger’s predictions that the United States would split itself apart over Vietnam did not come to pass, the cause behind American involvement in the war turned out to have been intensely flawed. The position of the United States in the world was not so shaky and that of the Soviet Union and other revolutionary movements not so prevailing that an earlier communist victory in Vietnam would have altered the effect of the Cold War.
We are familiar with this now, and many people came to doubt the significance of U. S. involvement in Vietnam as the war went on. Thus far given the depth of leaders’ commitment to the principles of suppression, it is hard to think that the United States would not have contributed the way it did in Vietnam, at least until 1968. (Kevin Hillstrom, Laurie Collier Hillstrom, 1998). Without a doubt the enthusiasm with which people long for a hero to have lived and saved them from the tragedy of Vietnam makes known how poignant a wound the war left.
When McNamara spoke at Harvard University in the spring of 1995, observers noted how Vietnam appeared to have taken place merely yesterday for the people in the audience over forty. Their feelings were raw. For many, McNamara was a figure out of the past. Ernest May, one of the country’s leading diplomatic historians, gave the most dispassionate elucidation of why he thought McNamara was wrong to have asserted that Kennedy would not have become as intensely involved as Johnson.
McNamara appeared to have forgotten the influential spell of the Cold War. It was as if, May noticed, a Crusader wrote his memoirs without mentioning Christianity. However McNamara maintained his usually cool reserve all through the entire controversy. Reference: Kevin Hillstrom, Laurie Collier Hillstrom (1998). The Vietnam Experience: A Concise Encyclopedia of American Literature, Songs, and Films; Greenwood Press

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