The Common Good
July-August 1995

A National Sin

by Jim Forest | July-August 1995

Robert McNamara's personal confession.

Twenty years ago, for the first time in its history, America lost a war, beating a hasty and inglorious exodus from Vietnam as Saigon fell with a thud-a scene not unlike Goliath being brained by one of David's five smooth stones. Playing the Who-To-Blame Game has occupied many people-Right, Left, and center-ever since.

Now one of the most blamed persons, Robert McNamara, has ended his long silence about the harrowing events linked with his name. The result is a good deal more than the usual self-serving account or an insider's report of what actually happened at the White House and the Pentagon in the fateful years of 1961-68. McNamara has said something one never hears from those in charge: "We were wrong, terribly wrong." His anguish with what he did and failed to do was all too obvious when, being interviewed about his book by Diane Sawyer of ABC News, he began to weep.

More than a private confession, McNamara's book is a study of how those who aspire to power can become so caught up in the defense of power that vast numbers of people can be maimed and murdered without it occurring to them that they are committing mortal sins.

For McNamara, who previously had been in charge of the Ford Motor Co. and who knew more about grades of steel than about Vietnam, it all began with Dwight Eisenhower cautioning John Kennedy and his chief nominees for cabinet posts (McNamara was one of them) that if Laos was lost to the Communists, all of Southeast Asia would follow. Here was a first reading of the "Domino Theory," an idea that would cause more bombs to fall on Vietnam than rained down on all of Europe during World War II.

During Kennedy's first year in the White House, American military advisers-a mere 400 at the start-were sent to South Vietnam to help prop up that particular domino. A year later there were 11,000. By the time the war was over, there were 58,000 names that later would be carved on the Vietnam War Memorial. No one knows how many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died.

Among actions early in the war that haunt McNamara was U.S. prior approval of the overthrow of the government the United States was allegedly trying to defend. South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was assassinated by his own military three weeks before John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. (The coup wasn't Kennedy's idea, but he hadn't opposed it. When the news of Diem's death reached him, however, McNamara recalls, Kennedy "literally blanched.") Autocratic and inept as Diem had been, heading a government dreaded by the Vietnamese public, every despotic Saigon regime that followed looked almost good by comparison.

IN THE LYNDON JOHNSON years, with America wading ever deeper into the quagmire, it dawned on McNamara that the war was unwinnable, if for no other reason than the South Vietnamese lacked the necessary motivation. How could an army of Americans win a war in the midst of "an apathetic or hostile population"? Within the Johnson administration, McNamara pushed for a negotiated settlement but the Joint Chiefs of Staff were appalled at such "sissy" thinking. Johnson preferred to listen to the generals, eager to believe their reassurances that with just a little more time and another 200,000 troops, America would be victorious.

In 1967, McNamara sent a memo to Johnson in which he warned, "The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants 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. It could conceivably produce a costly distortion in the American national consciousness and in the world image of the United States." The next year McNamara was edged out of the Pentagon, "promoted" to the World Bank, and the war thundered on for another seven years.

It would be easy enough for McNamara to assign blame to others. He could excuse himself for being taken in by professional soldiers who presumably knew what they were doing. What is most striking about his book is his determination to recognize his own guilt. He regrets he never seriously questioned the Domino Theory, which was political gospel in those years. He regrets having failed to recognize the limitations of high-tech weaponry. Still more he regrets his ignorance about Vietnam, its history and culture. "How were we to know," he asks, "when we were moving in an alien environment, alongside a people whose language and culture we did not understand and whose history, values and political traditions differed profoundly from our own?"

Most of all, he regrets he didn't force a debate "about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand. 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."

At least he had the wisdom to launch an inquiry into the secret history of the war, which, thanks to the courage of Daniel Ellsberg, we came to know as The Pentagon Papers. One can imagine McNamara, an athletic man who lives in Washington and enjoys walking, from time to time coming to the Vietnam War Memorial-the Wall-and trying to read through his tears the names of boys who knew even less about Vietnam than he did and who paid with their lives for the folly of men in high places.

"We were wrong, terribly wrong."

I wish he could add, "We were evil, terribly evil." But thank God he has gotten as far as he has in owning up to his personal share in a national sin.

JIM FOREST was in the U.S. Navy before becoming active in the peace movement and was jailed for a year during the Vietnam War for burning draft records. He is the author, most recently, of Love Is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day (1994) and Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (1991) (Orbis ).

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