Dominoes and death tolls

In Retrospect
June 9, 1995

So Robert McNamara has admitted that the Vietnam War was a mistake. That is hardly news, yet considering the American reaction to his memoir one would think he had revealed the Second Coming. When Lyndon Johnson eased out his secretary of defense in 1968, it was no secret that McNamara had soured on the war. By 1967, McNamara's beloved statistics no longer added up and he realised that the Vietnam venture was doomed. But McNamara always found it more difficult to grapple with the intractable fallacies underlying the war. Too late, he realised that geopolitics was something more than a game of dominoes.

McNamara slavishly followed the American religion of anti-communism, of seeing the world only through conflicts between the "Free World" and communism. The policy of containment began benignly enough in 1946, but eventually expanded to include a militant policy of liberation, rollback, and counter-attack. McNamara's patron and benefactor, John F. Kennedy, sounded the overture for Vietnam in his 1961 inaugural address. "Let every nation know," the new president incanted, "that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty. This much we pledge - and more." Democrats carried a special burden. After all, for more than a decade, Republicans had tarred them with the preposterous charge that they had "lost China". That legacy created a special stridency in Kennedy's foreign policy, one which his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, most assuredly continued. The awful wounds of Vietnam - at home and abroad - have scarred the United States for more than three decades.

"Domino theory" poppycock fuelled American militancy. Perhaps the theory had some validity; but the dominoes were of unequal value. When the domino of South Vietnam fell, the heavens did not collapse, and nothing changed geopolitically. What we had was an exhausted, united Vietnam, bereft of friends and isolated by its neighbours. With such "victories", Vietnam needed no defeats.

McNamara knew there was no domino theory to uphold or independence of South Vietnam to sustain long before 58,000 Americans died. He knew that the war was South Vietnam's to win or lose; he knew the war was a political struggle in which the populace invested little in the south's side; and he knew that the loss of Vietnam would not seriously undermine American security. Finally, he realised the validity of CIA directors John McCone and Richard Helm's repeated questions about the prevailing assumptions of American security interests.

As the war fades into the mists of history - and eventually leaves contemporary politics - we must get beyond merely mugging Robert McNamara. He is not the first or only public official to have been so deeply wrong - or to cover up his culpability so long. Undoubtedly, some gain satisfaction in pummelling a man who was so cocksure, so arrogant in the conviction of his rectitude. But rather than dwell on a mistake, the nation might better consider how it was so gullible and so easily seduced into supporting the disastrous policies of McNamara, Johnson, and company. Our vaunted "free press", now so eager to discredit McNamara, eagerly invoked notions of Vietnam as a vital American interest, and readily made itself captive to official press releases.

Are we so historically illiterate that we must vent our rage and anger against just one man? After all, we can arraign a host of others before the bar of history, including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Rusk, Maxwell Taylor, Clark Clifford (before his epiphany), Henry Kissinger, and Richard Nixon, to name just a few at the top. The list is the American establishment. McNamara does not stand alone in the dock and it is ridiculous to speak of McNamara's war. He realised long before others that the war was unwinnable. He accepted casualties in order to avoid a humiliating "political defeat". But who was willing to accept the risks of such a defeat? Certainly not McNamara's superiors, Kennedy and Johnson; certainly not his ambitious political peers; and certainly not lower level civilian and military men who still hoped to make their reputations from the war. Most assuredly not Congress and most of the media, who were reluctant to confront withdrawal before 1968. If public opinion polls tell us anything through 1968, the American public also dismissed such an option.

Early in 1963, Kennedy told one reporter that the war was South Vietnam's to win or lose; a week later, he told television reporters: "I think we should stay. We should use our influence in as a effective away as we can . . . we should not withdraw." Kennedy probably did not have a clue what to do; instead, he allowed events to control policy.

When McNamara left office in 1968, American war dead totalled 16,000. By then, leaders in the American government realised that South Vietnam had neither political stability nor the ability to defend itself, even with American support; that the American strategy of attrition had no marked effect on North Vietnam's capacity or willingness to wage guerrilla and political war; and that bombing had failed to bring North Vietnam to its knees. The folly was not McNamara's alone. Nixon promised not to be the first president to "lose" a war. In 1969, he pledged to end that war on favourable terms. Five years after McNamara resigned - and after more than 42,000 American deaths - Nixon announced that he had achieved "peace with honour". In the memorable words of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Paris Accords offered neither peace nor honour. Two years later, the government of South Vietnam ceased to exist.

McNamara compounded his error by failing to speak out when he left office. His critics insist that he was reluctant to risk Johnson's offer of the sinecure of the World Bank. How self-righteous and cynical. McNamara's response borders on the silly, for he invokes Dean Acheson's quiet departure from the New Deal in 1933 as his model. But that involved depression-era monetary policy, not hundreds of American casualties every month. The chance of making a dramatic gesture may have been wasted, as public and media support for the war remained strong. Still, Archibald Cox's forceful stand against Richard Nixon in October 1973 is instructive, showing that public resistance to a superior or to policy can make a difference.

McNamara says that he has spoken out to counter the prevailing cynicism in American society. Sadly, his book has only inflamed that cynicism. But McNamara's silence was no more damning than Nixon's private admission to an aide: "I've come to the conclusion that there's no way to win the war. But we can't say that, of course." The scars of Vietnam run deep and show little sign of healing.

Stanley I. Kutler is the E. Gordon Fox professor of American institutions, University of Wisconsin.

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

Author - Robert S. McNamara with Brian Van De Mark
ISBN - 0 8129 2523 8
Publisher - Times Books
Price - $.50
Pages - 379

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