Robert McNamara’s About Face
With the death at 93 of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, moral and ethical questions come to mind. Here is a man who promoted escalating a war about which he had grave doubts.
“In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” appeared in 1995. McNamara disclosed that by 1967 he had deep misgivings about Vietnam – by then he had lost faith in America’s capacity to prevail over a guerrilla insurgency that had driven the French from the same jungled countryside.
Despite those doubts, he had continued to express public confidence that the application of enough American firepower would cause the Communists to make peace. In that period, the number of U.S. casualties – dead, missing and wounded – went from 7,466 to over 100,000.
McNamara finally admitted how wrong he and his administrations were about Vietnam.
“We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong,” McNamara, then 78, told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the book’s release.
But that mea culpa didn’t bring bring back any lives and further angered many Americans who suffered and lost loved ones during that era.
McNamara wrote that he and others had not asked the five most basic questions: “Was it true that the fall of South Vietnam would trigger the fall of all Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a grave threat to the West’s security? What kind of war – conventional or guerrilla – might develop? Could we win it with U.S. troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should we not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops?
McNamara was a bit late in making that analysis.
When U.S. naval vessels were allegedly attacked off the North Vietnamese coast in 1964, McNamara lobbied Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which Johnson used as the equivalent of a congressional declaration of war.
McNamara visited Vietnam – the first of many trips – and returned predicting that American intervention would enable the South Vietnamese, despite internal feuds, to stand by themselves “by the end of 1965.”
That was an early forerunner of a seemingly endless string of official “light at the end of the tunnel” predictions of American success. Each was followed by more warfare, more American troops, more American casualties, more American bombing, more North Vietnamese infiltration – and more predictions of an early end to America’s commitment.
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