Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.
New York. Random House, 1995. 414 pages.

Donald L. Hafner
Political Science Department
Boston College

[I wrote the following review back in 1995, in an effort to clarify my own thinking about McNamara's account of a war I had been studying for many years. Despite the tone of exasperation that infects this review, my frustration with McNamara is tempered by a recognition of the crushing burdens of office and uncertainty that he bore. I would welcome comments from readers, at -- DLH]

As a history of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara's memoir is bound to disappoint. The passing decades have dimmed McNamara's recall of specifics, and so like other historians of the War, he is dependent for his account of events on the Pentagon Papers and key documents pried loose by other scholars. But a memoir is also an account of a life, and McNamara at least potentially might offer something other historians cannot, an account of how he came to think and to do what is chronicled in the documents. On first encounter, In Retrospect  also seems to disappoint as a memoir in this respect, seeming to confirm those characteristics alleged by McNamara's worst critics: that he is analytically shallow, emotionally remote, and unreflectively confident in the truth he happens to hold at any given moment. On the rare pages where McNamara digresses from the War to tell anecdotes of his personal life, he seems merely to exchange one mask for another, never proffering any real intimacy. These personal tales are often trite in the morals they draw, frequently self-serving when laboring for generosity, and occasionally just mawkish.

Yet there is a deeper layer in this memoir, reflecting a deeper struggle by McNamara to reconcile the images of himself that he clearly still cherishes -- the Eagle Scout with deep personal integrity, the Whiz Kid with keen analytic skills, the courageous climber of mountain peaks -- with the image conveyed by the documentary record of a Secretary of Defense deficient in analysis, integrity, and courage when confronting his own doubts about America's Vietnam policy. Unfortunately, a reconciliation of these images would require a degree of candor and introspection that McNamara is either unwilling or incapable of mustering. So regrettably, his account of how he came to think and do what he did again and again leaves off at precisely the moment when he might tell us something that the documents cannot, something about why the inner struggles of a burdened man were always resolved in a way that perpetuated the War.

To be sure, this memoir contains many confessions of error. McNamara summarizes them conveniently as lessons of the War, "eleven major causes for our disaster in Vietnam." The list, set out in barely two pages toward the end of the book, is broadly sensible, including: "We misjudged ... the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries ..., and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions"; "We totally misjudged the political forces within [South Vietnam]"; "We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture"; and finally, "Underlying many of our errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues ... We thus failed to analyze and debate our actions in Southeast Asia ... with the intensity and thoroughness that characterized the debates of the Executive Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis." These are, in the main, unexceptional lessons. They correspond to conclusions reached previously in the books on Vietnam cited in McNamara's own brief bibliography. What the reader wants from McNamara is an account of why such errors were made.

McNamara seems to understand what is wanted: "Readers must wonder by now -- if they have not been mystified long before -- how presumably intelligent, hardworking, and experienced officials -- both civilian and military -- failed to address systematically and thoroughly questions whose answers so deeply affected the lives of our citizens and the welfare of our nation." (277) So he seeks to oblige with a variety of explanations. For instance, why in November 1961 was McNamara "inclined to recommend" an enlarged commitment of U.S. troops to Vietnam, when in retrospect "it is clear that our analysis was nowhere near adequate" and failed to address basic questions about American interests and the prospect of success in Southeast Asia?

It seems beyond understanding, incredible, that we did not force ourselves to confront such issues head-on. But then, it is very hard, today, to recapture the innocence and confidence with which we approached Vietnam in the early days of the Kennedy administration. We knew very little about the region. We lacked experience dealing with crises. Other pressing international matters clamored for our attention during that first year: Cuba, Berlin, and the Congo to name but three. Finally, and perhaps most important, we were confronting problems for which there were no ready, or good, answers. I fear that, in such circumstances, governments -- and, indeed, most people -- tend to stick their heads in the sand. It may help to explain, but it certainly does not excuse, our behavior. (39-40)

Innocence and inexperience are plausible at the beginning of an administration. But why did the errors persist? McNamara deepens the puzzle when he offers his argument that President Kennedy would surely have withdrawn from Vietnam, had he not been assassinated.

He would have concluded that the South Vietnamese were incapable of defending themselves, and that Saigon's grave political weaknesses made it unwise to try to offset the limitations of South Vietnamese forces by sending U.S. combat troops on a large scale. I think he would have come to that conclusion even if he reasoned, as I believe he would have, that South Vietnam and, ultimately, Southeast Asia would then be lost to Communism. He would have viewed that loss as more costly than we see it now. But he would have accepted that cost because he would have sensed that the conditions he had laid down -- i.e., it was a South Vietnamese war, that it could only be won by them, and to win it they needed a sound political base -- could not be met. (96)

Sensing the obvious question -- if JFK could have reached these conclusions as early as 1963 or 1964, why were his advisers so blind that they plunged on into war? -- McNamara suggests that the blindness stemmed at least in part from a scarring historical experience.

The reader may find it incomprehensible that [Secretary of State Rusk] foresaw such dire consequences from the fall of South Vietnam, but I cannot overstate the impact our generation's experience had on him (and, more or less, on all of us). We had lived through appeasement at Munich; years of military service during World War II, fighting aggression in Europe and Asia; the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe; repeated threats to Berlin, including that of August 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; and, most recently, Communist Chinese statements that the South Vietnamese conflict typified "wars of national liberation," which they saw spreading across the globe. (194-195)

McNamara himself used historical analogies to invoke these generational anxieties in a memo to LBJ in November, 1965, arguing that the task in Vietnam was to contain China:

China -- like Germany in 1917, like Germany in the West and Japan in the East in the late-30's, and like the USSR in 1947 -- looms as a major power threatening to undercut our importance and effectiveness in the world, and more remotely but more menacingly, to organize all of Asia against us. ... Any decision to continue the program of bombing North Vietnam and any decision to deploy [more American] forces -- involving as they do substantial loss of American lives, risks of escalation, and greater investment of U.S. prestige -- must be predicated on these premises as to our long-run interests in Asia. (218-219)

Yet again, does this "explain"? McNamara himself apparently doesn't regard this generational shackle as particularly strong, since he imagines that JFK would have broken free of it (the same John Kennedy who, in his senior thesis at Harvard, savaged Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy and later had his boat sunk beneath him in the Pacific war). So elsewhere, McNamara tries another tack. His failure and that of his colleagues to press more deeply in their analysis of costs and likely success in Vietnam "was partially the result of having many more commitments than Vietnam," and of having no senior group working exclusively on Vietnam, "so the crisis there became just one of many items on each person's plate."

When combined with the inflexibility of our objectives, and the fact that we had not truly investigated what was essentially at stake and important to us, we were left harried, overburdened, and holding a map with only one road on it. Eager to get moving, we never stopped to explore fully whether there were other routes to our destination. (108)
Simply put, such an orderly, rational approach was precluded by the "crowding out" which resulted from the fact that Vietnam was but one of a multitude of problems we confronted. Any one of the issues facing Washington during the 1960s justified the full attention of the president and his associates. (277)

As his illustration of such other weighty events, McNamara offers the June 1967 Middle East conflict. In mid-1967, of course, the Vietnam War was already consuming 500 American lives each week and a fourth of the Defense Department's annual budget. Were the threats to American interests really greater in the Middle East? Perhaps they were, but then shouldn't that have called for a reappraisal of whether the United States should be diverting so much American blood and treasure to Vietnam? More to the point, McNamara and others had time and attention enough to pose basic questions about Vietnam in their memos, to hold strategy sessions in Hawaii, Guam, and Saigon where the War's progress was reviewed at the highest levels, and to make decisions committing 550,000 U.S. troops and $150 billion to Vietnam. But not enough high-level time or attention was available to consider thoroughly the basic merit of the policy?

At each turn, it would appear, McNamara offers explanations that are unsatisfying and ought to have seemed transparently superficial, even to him. Yet he resists probing more deeply into his own behavior -- at least explicitly. Most of all he resists pursuing the hints sprinkled here and there that his behavior was the result of powerful interpersonal forces operating among the small circle of top advisers. McNamara concedes that he lacked an adequate background in international politics and history, and he might as well, because his ignorance is often evident. For instance, of his November 1965 memo to LBJ, in which he equated China with Hitler's Germany, McNamara now admits, "Here again, the lack of expertise and historical knowledge seriously undermined U.S. policy." (277) When he learned that President Kennedy, out of dissatisfaction with Dean Rusk as Secretary of State, was considering him for the post, McNamara says he would have declined because "I did not consider myself qualified to be Secretary of State. ... I would have urged him to appoint Mac Bundy, whose knowledge of history, international relations, and geopolitics was far greater than mine." (94-95) Of course, McNamara's personal ignorance does not adequately explain his behavior, since as Secretary of Defense, he in fact had available all the expertise he needed (and he says he consulted with the best). But his remarks do suggest that behind the mask of utter certainty that he wore in public was a man not so confident of what he was doing, vulnerable to the cock-suredness of others, and even now reluctant to confront his responsibility for the results.

All these elements come together in a convoluted passage (46-47) where McNamara struggles to show that as early as 1961 and 1962, he knew that in the absence of political stability in the South Vietnamese government, no military efforts could succeed. Yet as he admits by liberally quoting his own press statements, what he expressed to the public at the time was bold confidence that the military campaign was doing just fine, in the midst of political chaos in Saigon.

Why were my comments about the political situation in South Vietnam realistic while, in retrospect, those about military progress were overly optimistic? The military reports reflected the picture presented by our military leaders at the conferences in Hawaii and South Vietnam. ... I did not then and do not now believe that [they] consciously misled me. It went against their training and tradition. ... they -- as I did -- misunderstood the nature of the conflict. They viewed it primarily as a military operation when in fact it was a highly complex nationalistic and internecine struggle. (47-48)

The last several phrases are unpersuasive. The enemy's reasons for fighting do not logically dictate "the nature of the conflict," and in any case, McNamara is pleased to claim elsewhere that even in 1962 he understood Vietnam as a struggle for "hearts and minds." More persuasive is McNamara's oblique confession that he simply was intimidated by those around him.

The military reports reflected the picture presented by our military leaders at the conferences in Hawaii and South Vietnam. At each, I met with COMUSMACV Gen. Paul D. Harkins. Harkins was tall, handsome, and articulate; he looked and spoke exactly as a general should. He was a protégé of the scholarly Max Taylor, and while he lacked his mentor's intellectual caliber, he was very straightforward and persuasive. (47)

And again, this time writhing uncomfortably with his own responsibility in failing to act on his doubts:

The differences between me and the [military] chiefs [in late 1966] were not hidden, yet they also were not addressed. Why? Most people wish to avoid confrontation. They prefer to finesse disagreement rather than to address it head-on. Also, I speculate that LBJ -- like all presidents -- wanted to avoid an open split among his key subordinates, especially during wartime. So he swept our divergence of opinion under the rug. It was a very human reaction. But I regret that he, Dean, and I failed to confront these differences among us and with the chiefs directly and debate them candidly and thoroughly. (264)

Obviously this is treacherous ground for McNamara, as it would be for anyone. The implication is that McNamara and his colleagues found it easier to perpetuate a doomed policy, at the high price of Vietnamese and American lives, than to appear disagreeable around the Cabinet table. A man lacking McNamara's years might juxtapose this behavior with his cherished image of himself, see the matter as a stark choice, and labor to salvage the image. McNamara would have emerged from these pages as a more mature, redeemed, and admirable figure if he had resisted the choice, embraced the disparity, and bared his soul about why -- with the blood of others at stake -- the Secretary of Defense found it so difficult to do what the Eagle Scout, the Whiz Kid, the climber of mountains told him was right. Had he done so, both McNamara and the reader could have emerged from this memoir with a deeper understanding.


Return to the top of this page

Prof. Donald Hafner / Department of Political Science / Boston College /