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Never Again

ARGUMENT WITHOUT END: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy;\o7 By Robert S. McNamara with James Blight, Robert Brigham, Thomas Biersteker and Col. Herbert Schandler; (PublicAffairs: 482 pp., $27.50)\f7

May 16, 1999|STANLEY KARNOW | Stanley Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History," was awarded the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in history. His latest book is "Paris in the Fifties."

Coincidentally yet appropriately, Robert McNamara's middle name is Strange. From 1961 to 1967, as defense secretary in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he was the chief architect and principal promoter of America's deepening involvement in Vietnam. He managed the war the way he had run the Ford Motor Co., his job before becoming a bureaucrat. Just as he had displayed balance sheets to demonstrate to his stockholders that the corporation was registering profits, he regularly exhibited maps, graphs, flip charts, assorted documents and reams of statistics to bolster his claim that we were making progress. But his performance was a sham. While publicly exuding optimism, he consistently warned in his private memos that the situation was deteriorating. Gradually, however, he started to express his pessimism publically, if informally.

I initially discerned the change in him in February 1966 at a conference in Honolulu, one of Lyndon Johnson's periodic conclaves on the war. Though most of his colleagues radiated confidence, he invited a few reporters to his hotel suite for a rare background briefing. I had observed him during his buoyant days in Washington and was shocked by the transformation in his appearance. His face was grayer, his patent leather hair thinner and his voice lacked the strength it had when he had projected his rosy appraisals. The U.S. air offensive against North Vietnam launched the previous year would never succeed, he emphasized. An agrarian society could not be blasted into submission, he said with unaccustomed passion: "No amount of bombing can end the war." In August 1967, he reiterated the thesis in closed hearings before a Senate subcommittee. His testimony enraged the hawkish brass and braid. Worse still, it infuriated Johnson, who circulated the word that McNamara was suffering from a nervous breakdown and ignominiously shunted him shortly afterward to the World Bank.

Following the conflict, McNamara lapsed into silence. Again and again, he refused requests by me and others for interviews. He also rejected the suggestion from friends that he write a memoir, claiming that it might sound "vindictive and self-serving." Then, in 1995, he published "In Retrospect," in which he confessed in an emotional outburst that he and his associates had been misguided or, as he put it: "We were wrong, terribly wrong." Surprisingly, it was a bestseller. But apart from divulging his feelings, the cathartic mea culpa added virtually nothing of value to the vast body of Vietnam literature. It conspicuously omitted any apology for his duplicitous rhetoric during the war; far more important, his remorse offered cold consolation to the nearly 60,000 American and estimated 2 million Vietnamese families whose sons, brothers and husbands died in the conflagration. Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a severely wounded veteran, evoking a sarcastic GI phrase dating to Vietnam, commented that the book ought to have been captioned, "Sorry 'Bout That."

Still, Vietnam continued to obsess McNamara. He had organized a series of symposiums in Moscow and Havana in 1989 and 1992 to reexamine the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and calculated that a similar endeavor would shed new light on the Vietnam experience. I suspect that his goal was, once again, to cleanse his conscience by showing that both protagonists in the tragedy were responsible. But whatever his motive, he mobilized a team of American scholars and former civilian and military officials, and he brought them together with their Vietnamese and communist counterparts in an effort to reassess the war from their respective angles. The prestigious Council on Foreign Relations declined to collaborate on the grounds that it did not want to salvage McNamara's tarnished reputation. The two groups conducted seven sessions in Hanoi and at a center in Italy between November 1995 and July 1998, and their discussions spawned this volume, "Argument Without End." Much of it resembles a Harold Pinter play in which the characters speak to each other in oddly disjointed dialogue. Even so, it contains nuggets that make it worthwhile reading.

The meetings opened with predictable fanfare as McNamara shook hands with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary commander of the Communist forces. The purpose of McNamara's venture was to explore the misperceptions on both sides that had led to the conflict, but Giap spurned him. "I don't believe we misunderstood you," he responded. "You were the enemy; you wished to defeat us. . . . For us the war was a noble sacrifice . . . for our cause of freedom and independence. There were no missed opportunities for us. . . . I think we would do nothing different, under the circumstances." McNamara's only reply was a lame, "Well, General, I hope you'll agree to put issues like that--our mind-sets, yours and ours--on the agenda."

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