Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

Rethinking ‘McNamara’s War’

| Nov. 28, 2017

On Nov. 29, 1967, President Lyndon Johnson announced that Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, would leave his post to run the World Bank. “I do not know to this day whether I quit or was fired,” McNamara wrote decades later. “Maybe it was both.”

It’s actually quite clear: He was fired. But he wasn’t the only one who was confused. The conditions of McNamara’s departure from the Pentagon were murky at the time — and that murkiness speaks volumes about McNamara, Johnson and the domestic politics of the Vietnam War.

Over the previous months, Johnson had become frustrated with McNamara’s growing disenchantment with the American war in Vietnam: his rising suspicion that the air war against North Vietnam was not working and would not work, that political stability in Saigon remained elusive and that therefore the administration ought to seek a negotiated exit. Johnson, raging privately that McNamara had turned soft, also suspected him of secretly scheming to prod Robert Kennedy, then a Democratic senator from New York, to run on a peace ticket in the presidential election the following year, challenging Johnson for the Democratic nomination.

Johnson couldn’t just dismiss McNamara outright, however; doing so risked him publicly defecting to Kennedy and denouncing the war. Better, Johnson determined, to find him a new position where he could be trusted to maintain a discreet silence — a place, that is, like the World Bank.

That McNamara did not consider leaving the administration of his own accord in that grim year of 1967 says much about the man, and about the demands of loyalty in American presidential politics. He had arrived at the Pentagon in January 1961 as a political novice, plucked by John F. Kennedy from Ford Motor Company, where he had risen to president. He was already renowned in the business world for his organizational acumen and quantitative wizardry, and he cut a striking figure as he strode the halls of power, his slicked-back hair and blunt features making him look, in the journalist A. J. Langguth’s apt description, “rather like a snub-nosed bullet.” Immediately, McNamara was everywhere: reorganizing the Pentagon bureaucracy, building up the nuclear arsenal and launching an effort to end racial discrimination in off-base housing.

On Vietnam, too, McNamara moved briskly. On his first visit to Saigon in 1962, during the rapid buildup of the American advisory presence, McNamara said, “Every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, he became still more important in the policymaking, leading Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, in April 1964 to call Vietnam “McNamara’s War.” McNamara did not object.

There was confidence here, and more than a little arrogance. Small wonder that McNamara became the lightning rod for critics, his name plastered all over placards in antiwar marches. In an appearance at Harvard in November 1966, he outraged students with his seemingly blithe acknowledgment that he didn’t know how many civilian casualties the American military had caused. As he tried to leave after the talk, hundreds of jeering students blocked his car and shouted, “Murderer!” McNamara climbed on top of the automobile in his shirt sleeves and declared: “I spent four of the happiest years of my life on the Berkeley campus, doing some of the things you do today. But I was tougher than you, and I’m tougher than you are now. I was more courteous then, and I hope I’m more courteous today.”

“One of the most callous, arrogant men I have ever seen,” remarked one of the students afterward.

Unknown to the angry protesters that day, McNamara’s public bullishness masked a deepening private disillusionment about the war. It had been building for a long time; perhaps on some level it had always been there, waging a battle in his mind against what the “quantitative measurements” surely must show — that America’s technological might would ultimately prevail.

Already in October 1963, McNamara can be heard on the Kennedy White House tapes saying that “we need a way to get out of Vietnam.” Early the next year, he expressed concerns to an impatient Lyndon Johnson about the situation on the ground and future prospects; in these taped conversations, it is Johnson who seems more intent on staying the course (notwithstanding his own fears and frustrations about the conflict), through escalation if necessary. In fact, the deeper one digs into the vast internal record of American decision-making, the clearer a very different McNamara emerges: a defense secretary who by late 1963 had ceased to be — if he ever was — a true believer on Vietnam.

True, McNamara backed the introduction of ground troops in early 1965 and was the main architect of the graduated aerial campaign designed to crack Hanoi’s morale (and stiffen Saigon’s) that began in March of that year. But this gradual strategy was designed to leave options open — to escalate or de-escalate, quicken or slow the pace, depending on the enemy’s reaction.

A fall 1965 visit to South Vietnam left McNamara despondent. He told Johnson that the North Vietnamese apparently “believe that the war will be a long one, that time is their ally and that their staying power is superior to ours,” and added that he saw only a one-in-three chance — or at best a one-in-two chance — that the United States could win militarily. Consequently, he reported, more efforts should go to the negotiating track.

As the war stalemated, his gloom deepened. Influenced by Pentagon deputies such as Paul Warnke, Adam Yarmolinsky and John McNaughton, whose appetite for the war had waned as well, McNamara feared that the war damaged America’s global credibility, as allies and adversaries questioned the administration’s judgment. The war’s destructiveness troubled him, particularly the civilian deaths. By early 1967, McNamara concluded that the enemy’s morale had not broken and that the South Vietnamese political scene was nowhere near stable. The air war was failing — a rural society could not be pounded into submission, McNamara determined — and had cost the administration mightily in domestic and international opinion.

“The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one,” he wrote Johnson in May 1967.

In old age, McNamara would rue his and others’ repeated failure to question the assumptions behind the war. “I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand,” he wrote. “It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force — especially when wielded by an outside power — cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.”

So why didn’t he force that debate? More to the point, why didn’t he resign in protest?

Loyalty to his president was one reason. McNamara served a commander-in-chief who had vowed from his first days in office that he would not be the president who lost Vietnam; McNamara worked to help fulfill that pledge. To countless later critics, this was a misplaced loyalty: What about loyalty to principle, to nation, to people’s lives?

Beyond loyalty, McNamara persuaded himself — as did other internal skeptics such as Undersecretary of State George Ball — that he could better influence policy by staying put. Moreover, he wasn’t absolutely sure in his bleak diagnosis. Maybe, just maybe, things would turn out well after all, or at least stabilize sufficiently to be handed off to the next administration, preserving not only Johnson’s historical credibility but also his own. As Leslie H. Gelb, himself a veteran of McNamara’s Pentagon (and later a member of The Times editorial board), has written, “It is almost superhuman to expect one responsible for waging war” to fundamentally rethink its merits and then to act on the basis of that rethinking. “And so doubts simply float in the air without being translated into policy.”

Late in life McNamara trotted out another explanation for the policy and his own role in it: ignorance. “If only we had known,” became his mantra — about the determination of the enemy, about the systemic political problems in the South, about Vietnam’s longstanding tradition of standing up to foreigners, especially the Chinese. “We had no Vietnam experts,” he self-servingly claimed. The assertion was bogus. McNamara and Johnson had plenty of expertise they could tap merely by picking up the phone. More to the point, they themselves were far from ignorant about the state of affairs in Vietnam. They needed no one to tell them about the deep and worsening problems in the war effort and in the political situation in Saigon, and about the dim prognosis for meaningful improvement. The proof was plain to see, and McNamara had seen it himself during his many visits to South Vietnam.

The ultimate judgment of McNamara’s role in the Vietnam War must be a harsh one, less because he presided over the early stages of America’s military involvement than because he did not act more forcefully on his subsequent apprehensions. One could credit him, as Daniel Ellsberg has done, for working from the inside to limit the scope of the bombings and encourage negotiations, and still argue, as Mr. Ellsberg also does, that he should have aired his misgivings publicly — not in his 1995 memoir, or in a brilliant documentary film (Errol Morris’s “The Fog of War”) in 2003, but in 1965, or after departing the administration in 1968. Instead, McNamara was content to be two-faced, preaching optimism and steadfastness in public (and occasionally in internal policy discussions) even as he brooded privately.

Yet it seems too easy to dismiss McNamara’s later self-analyses and explanations as nothing more than sad (or, for some, infuriating) attempts to wash away a blood-filled personal record and soothe a guilty conscience. There was more to it. Despairing in old age at what had occurred in Southeast Asia on his watch, at all the deaths in the rice paddies and the long grass, he sought, genuinely it seems to me, to learn from the experience and to acknowledge his own role in the debacle.

How many public figures ever make such efforts to atone for their follies and crimes, in this or any other age? Precious few. Henry Kissinger, still acclaimed in some quarters as a grand sage of American diplomacy, has never said, apropos his own Vietnam history, “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” (In Austin, Tex., last year, when asked if he had regrets about the war, Kissinger demurred, admitting only “tactical mistakes.”) Robert McNamara did eventually say it, and for that he deserves, if not our praise, at least our muted acknowledgment.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Logevall, Fredrik.“Rethinking ‘McNamara’s War’.” The New York Times, November 28, 2017.

The Author