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McNamara's book
Commonweal , May 5, 1995

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Robert S. McNamara's repentant In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Times Books), has exposed a national wound that has not healed, and could not, until he or someone of his rank and level of accountability spoke. Like "McNamara's War" (in which more than 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died), McNamara's book has touched something deep and raw in the American psyche. Interviews, editorials, letters to the editor, TV debates have come even before people have read the book itself. On one side, some supporters of America's longest war have reacted in fury to the McNamara bombshell: veterans' and POW groups, South Vietnamese expatriates, bereaved families. On the other side, some opponents of the war have gloated over McNamara's confession. The New York Times--which disciplined some of its own correspondents for reporting the truth about Vietnam too early--was harshly and unsparingly critical of McNamara for his decades of silence. On all sides, people are still fighting to "win" the war.
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If there is one lesson this reaction to In Retrospect teaches, it is that the divisions of the Vietnam War will never fully die, for even when the nation finally takes responsibility for its mistakes to the degree McNamara has, the echoes of the war will touch our politics and our national consciousness. But President Bill Clinton got it right in his assessment of the McNamara memoir: "I do not believe that the book should be used as yet another opportunity to divide the United States....We should learn from what happened, resolve not to repeat our mistakes, honor the service of Americans, and go forward together."

To reread the official memoranda and documentation (see, for example, Vietnam: A History in Documents, 1981) issued by then-Secretary of Defense McNamara is to see McNamara's fabled quantitative intellect at work during the war years. But to read them in light of In Retrospect is to witness a Janus-like spectacle. The crisply written communiques McNamara sent Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson on the prospects and progress of the conflict--recommending higher troop assignments than even Johnson was willing to order at the time--send a shudder when read in the light of McNamara's reconsiderations. These contradictory perspectives show why the man and the nation were pulled apart; but they help us understand McNamara's remorse, his overwhelming "sense of grief and failure."

We have here an epic struggle of a bright and focused intelligence at war not only with the limits of knowledge but with the intricacies of the heart and the demands of the moral world. It is a personal tracing of the fault lines that lie between matters of state, loyalty to one's leaders, and the requirements of personal integrity. These are questions rarely addressed "in open view" by public officials, and only in the quietest hours of the night by most of us. They are proposed even less often to nations or states by their leaders.

McNamara, ever the public man, writes that he is confessing past failures now because they have contributed to a deep cynicism among Americans about their government. He thinks that cynicism is destructive, and he is right. But it is not entirely misplaced. Witness the Nixon-Kissinger bombing of Cambodia; Watergate; the contra war; Lee Atwater's use of the race wedge; countless ethical investigations of congressmen, senators, cabinet members, and even presidents and Supreme Court nominees. A skeptical vigilance is the price we must pay for democracy.

McNamara's memoir is flawed. Does he still believe, for example, that his and the nation's errors were "Not of values and intentions but [only] of judgment and capabilities"? Or that Kennedy, had he lived, would have altered the course of the war? Nevertheless, he has managed to raise again, almost single-handedly, the questions that still haunt us: What was it that was so rotten about that undeclared war? What did it do to us? How did we slip into the morass, at first supporting and then undercutting dictators of our own making in the South, and all the time disdaining the people of what Johnson called "that damn little piss-ant country"? Why does it divide us still?

Here, McNamara's book has much to offer. Our policy was "wrong, terribly wrong," he writes. It was predicated on faulty assumptions about a country we barely knew and about the possibilities of unlimited American power. It was justified by larger, geopolitical policy assumptions--ones we still hail as having led to the end of the cold war. But Vietnam was largely a nationalist war. That is its importance for the post coldwar world. For the choices that face us today are mostly about how a superpower democracy reacts to the threat of instability or the temptation to impress its will on the longings of others for self-determination. When and how can we act more effectively? Should we strive to be an honest facilitator or a self-appointed judge of the nations? McNamara wisely warns in an interview with Newsweek's Jonathan Alter (April 17): "Don't misjudge the nature of conflict. Don't underestimate the power of nationalism. Many conflicts of the future will be about nationalism. Don't overestimate what outside military forces can accomplish--they can't reconstruct a 'failed' state. And don't act unilaterally unless the security of our country is directly threatened."

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