What Really Happened in Vietnam
The North, the South, and the American Defeat
Can we honor and respect Robert McNamara? From the time the young California native left a teaching position at Harvard Business School to join the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, McNamara has been a tireless improver and rationalizer of military and industrial institutions, even of the world. But as Deborah Shapley makes abundantly clear in Promise and Power, her eminently readable and cleverly crafted biographical study of McNamara, what the nation needed during the Vietnam War era was not a whiz kid, not a supreme bean-counter, but a leader of vision, moral courage and scrupulous honesty. And here McNamara's flaws overwhelm a lifetime of achievements, for the portrait that emerges from Shapley's book is of a man who was the primary culprit in America's ill-fated military engagement, a historical assessment that is likely to stick no matter how many nuclear arms reduction speeches and articles he churns out. The McNamara story is one of tragedy, for a dedicated public servant and for America, fueled by our frustration that a man of such promise chose, out of a misguided sense of mission, not to tell the American people what he knew about the dim prospects for victory in the Vietnam War when it might have made a difference.
McNamara's government career began successfully; with a few notable exceptions, his record as President Kennedy's secretary of defense was exemplary. J.F.K. had campaigned on a platform charging that the Eisenhower administration's obsession with budget balancing had severely weakened America's conventional and nuclear military strength, and "flexible response" was the Kennedy administration's remedy to Republican policies. McNamara was seen by Kennedy as the ideal implementer of his program, a corporate manager with a well-established reputation for cost-cutting and efficiency to preside over the expansion of military outlays Kennedy's program called for.
McNamara's aggressive efforts to modernize the armed forces and make the Pentagon more efficient were desperately needed antidotes to eight years of laissez-faire management. Upon taking office in January 1961 McNamara immediately demonstrated nerve, mastery of detail and Kennedyesque vigor in trying to weed out waste in the armed services. What other Cold War defense secretary had both the common sense and the iron disposition to say, while in office, that "the military feels it has to have every bright shiny new gadget that comes along no matter how much it costs. I think we ought to buy what we need!" Meanwhile, from 1961 to 1964, he presided over the largest peacetime buildup in U.S. military history.
Following his natural bent for efficiency and cost-effectiveness, first displayed as a hotshot executive with Ford Motor Company in the 1950s, McNamara began his seven years at the Pentagon by refusing to spend funds appropriated for the development of the RS-70 bomber (the pet project of General Curtis LeMay). He went on to veto the construction of nuclear power plants for naval vessels; grappled with powerful congressional conservatives in an attempt to merge the National Guard and the Army Reserves; offered the Tactical Fighter Experiment contract to General Dynamics, even though the military selection boards favored Boeing; and seriously ruptured relations between Washington and London by cavalierly canceling the promised Skybolt mission. McNamara's ability to shrug off the collateral damage of his policies to domestic and international politics allowed him to be presented in a flattering light by the press. The more the public learned of his hard-driving intelligence during the Kennedy years, the more they liked him. From Shapley's account of McNamara's smooth performance during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis, one feels grateful that our nation had such a careful and pragmatic tactician at the Pentagon's helm. By August 1963, when the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by Kennedy, Harold Macmillan and Nikita Khrushchev-an event Shapley wrongly discounts as of little consequence-McNamara was in top form, the most respected and powerful secretary of defense since the cabinet position was created in 1947. McNamara had his detractors then, but they were a cracked chorus of fiscal conservatives and disarmament liberals who saw through the image of penny-pincher and charged that the Kennedy administration's flexible response deterrence strategy, which increased conventional forces by more than 300,000 troops, was profligate.
Yet as Vietnam would demonstrate, McNamara was more of an accountant than a global strategist, more of a technical manager than a man of vision. It is a painful irony that the man who preached the gospel of cost-effectiveness for the nuts and bolts of military hardware failed to comprehend that the Vietnam intervention would become the least effective and most costly military venture in American history. Between 1965 and 1967, spending on the Vietnam War escalated from $1 billion to $20.6 billion. Robert McNamara, it turned out, was penny wise and pound foolish.
THE LEGACY OF VIETNAM
Flexible response, many historians have recently argued, was not only a miserable Cold War deterrent strategy, but a policy that vastly inflated the national debt and led to the Vietnam War. McNamara disagrees. He has countered that the Cuban missile crisis is a textbook study of how flexible response can work, and that just because Vietnam turned sour does not mean the strategy was flawed. Perhaps he is right. It was not the Kennedy administration's flexible response that inevitably led to the Vietnam War, but the Johnson administration's fateful decision in July 1965 to deploy troops in Southeast Asia. One may argue, not very usefully, that had Johnson not had such a large conventional force at his disposal, he would not have done what he did. The more compelling argument is simply that Southeast Asia was the wrong place to deploy them.
McNamara was from the beginning a true believer in the necessity of American intervention in Southeast Asia. "I think it is a very important war," McNamara wrote in April 1964, "and I am pleased to be identified with it and do whatever I can to win it." McNamara got his wish. Historians, likewise, will always identify him with the Vietnam War, and since America failed to win it, McNamara will always be judged a failed secretary of defense, the man most responsible for what historian Paul Kennedy calls "strategic overstretch." What is worse-and it is a point Shapley implies time and time again-McNamara, a profile in courage during the Kennedy years, became during the Johnson years a bookkeeper of a military policy he knew was doomed to failure.
How can future generations of Americans learn to respect McNamara when historians like Shapley point out that as early as November 3, 1965, the secretary of defense knew that the Vietnam War was "unwinnable militarily"? As Shapley puts it, "he chose to deceive the American people by hiding the bad news while raising troop levels to 400,000, then 500,000, when he could have resigned, told the- 'truth' and stopped the American involvement."
Getting information about the Vietnam War out of McNamara is like pulling teeth, although Shapley occasionally succeeds. "I didn't want to bomb Hanoi; I didn't want to withdraw," McNamara told her. "I didn't have the answers. All I knew was we were in a hell of a mess." Yet even though he recognized "the mess," his knee-jerk Cold War response was that resisting communist aggression in Vietnam might be difficult, but the effort was necessary. McNamara had the opportunity to do the right thing, and salvage his personal and historical reputation in the process, in late 1967, when L.B.J. forced him to resign. Robert Kennedy pleaded with McNamara to speak out against the war, but instead of coming clean, McNamara, in Shapley's words, "retreated into silence, confusion, and remorse, which would propel him into his next life and world, in denial instead of self-knowledge."
Leaving government did not mean the end of Robert McNamara's public life. He went on to become the president of the World Bank, dragging Vietnam around like a ball and chain, particularly after the publication of The Pentagon Papers and David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, both of which tarnished his days overseeing the Defense Department. McNamara tried to repackage himself as the ethical good guy selflessly helping Third World nations launch green revolutions in the battle against global poverty, but to a growing segment of the American public he was the villain of Vietnam. If L.B.J. was seen as a tormented president, face buried in his hands, McNamara was Dr. Strangelove-the cold-blooded, calculating computer of death, speaking matter-of-factly in terms of "kills," "body counts" and "search-and-destroy missions." The more people asked for answers about his role in Vietnam, the more McNamara became aloof and silent.
The difficult question Shapley confronts is why an honorable man like McNamara seems to want to obfuscate the public record about Vietnam with evasive rhetoric and the artful dodge. For all her probing, Shapley elicits few illuminating insights from her subject, only a few confessional quotes:"The greatest failure of all was Vietnam." If it were not for the horror and futility of the Vietnam War, one might wish Shapley would just give up and leave McNamara alone.
The more McNamara equivocates about Vietnam, the more it will haunt him. His writings on nuclear issues will ring hollow until he stands up and confronts the war he wanted and lost. Whenever McNamara is asked about Vietnam, his stock answer is, "Let the historians sort it out." If he continues to remain silent, historians like Shapley will sort it out for him. The result may be that over time Robert McNamara will be seen less and less as an enigma and more as an ambitious and disingenuous political operator. That would be a pity, for despite it all, Robert McNamara is one of his generation's finest public servants.