What Went Wrong

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Robert McNamara had been president of Ford Motor Co. for only seven weeks when President-elect Kennedy asked him to become secretary of defense. “I am not qualified,” McNamara remembers telling Kennedy.

“Who is?” Kennedy asked. “He rejected the claim that I was not qualified,” McNamara reports, “pointing out dryly that there were no schools for defense secretaries, as far as he knew, and no schools for presidents either.” So McNamara accepted, acknowledging that he “entered the Pentagon with a limited grasp of military affairs and even less grasp of covert operations.”

McNamara provides this account in his highly controversial memoir on American policy-making in Vietnam, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” Faced with a complex and escalating crisis in Southeast Asia, the new administration, according to McNamara, lacked the knowledge to handle it: “I had never visited Indochina, nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture, or values. The same must be said, to varying degrees, about President Kenned)!, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, military adviser Maxwell Taylor, and many others.” The administration, in short, was flying blindly into a war that would claim the lives of 3 million Vietnamese and produce 58,191 American combat deaths. “When it came to Vietnam, we found ourselves setting policy for a region that was terra incognita. Worse, our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance.”

With all the other things on the government’s plate, from Cuba to Pentagon budgeting to Soviet belligerence in Berlin, McNamara asserts that there wasn’t ample time for correct analysis and planning: “Simply put, we faced a blizzard of problems, there were only 24 hours in a day, and we often did not have time to think straight.”

One of “the best and the brightest,” as David Halberstam called the dramatis personae of the Kennedy administration, McNamara wasn’t unintelligent, at least by his own account – he points out that he placed in the upper “one-hundredth percentile for his ability to reason and think” on the battery of intelligence and achievement tests he took at Ford. What he lacked was knowledge and experience. Listing the major causes of the American failure in Vietnam, he cites the follow- ing:

“We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values – and we continue to do so today in many parts of the world.”

“We failed then – and we have since – to recognize the limitation of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements.”

“We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.”

“We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action – other than in response to direct threats to our security – should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.”

“We failed to adhere to the fundamental principle that, in the final analysis, if the South Vietnamese were to be saved, they had to win the war themselves. External military force cannot substitute for the political order and stability that must be forged by a people for themselves.”

In August 1963, McNamara says, “the United States set in motion a military coup” to topple Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of South Vietnam. In retrospect, McNamara acknowledges that Diem’s killing produced only a succession of weaker leaders in South Vietnam.

Now, here’s the contemporary significance of what McNa- mara has to say. South Vietnam, as he describes it, was not unlike today’s Iraq: “South Vietnam lacked any tradition of national unity. It was besieged by religious animosities, political factionalism, corrupt police, and, not the least, a growing guerrilla insurgency.”

“Political stability did not exist and was unlikely to ever be achieved,” he writes, “and the South Vietnamese, even with our training assistance and logistical support, were incapable of defending themselves.” The intentions of the U.S. were right, he contends. “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

As Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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