Robert S. McNamara returned to Harvard last week, nearly 30 years after his last visit, when he was mobbed by 800 jeering students who demanded to know why the United States was involved in a civil war in Vietnam.
The former Secretary of Defense returned to admit that he--and the "best and the brightest" of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations--were "wrong, terribly wrong" in prosecuting a losing effort against the Vietnamese Communists. His apology did not erase the horrors Vietnam's victims have suffered and still remember. However, he is to be commended for his candid and long-awaited admission of error.
With his recently published memoirs, McNamara broke 25 years of silence and proved that the nation has yet to recover from the disillusionment of that defeat. For four years in the 1960s, McNamara was in the national spotlight, confidently predicting a quick victory in Vietnam. Now he has once again entered the public spotlight, but this time to tell his compatriots what went wrong.
"I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did and how we can learn from them," he told the audience at the Institute of Politics.
For McNamara to admit his failures is a display of intellectual honesty unmatched by any other senior policy maker of the time. McNamara's courage in assuming this burden has gone largely unnoticed before those who can never forgive him for prosecuting the war and those who see his confession as one more betrayal of the heroic sacrifice of our nation's veterans and war dead.
In his memoirs, McNamara reaches the conclusion that many Americans already had more than 25 years ago. The war was not against a Communist monolith directed by the Kremlin but against a nationalist government willing to bleed itself white to defeat an "imperialist" aggressor. McNamara now admits that the U.S. can and should have withdrawn at the earliest possible opportunity.
Still, it is far easier to condemn McNamara in hindsight than it is to appreciate the Cold War atmosphere of the 1960s. To the policy makers of the time, Communism was a very real threat, proven by the crises in Berlin and in Cuba that brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. Fear of falling dominoes in Southeast Asia and of the credibility of U.S. commitments elsewhere led the administration into the quagmire of Vietnam.
But as McNamara now admits, he had realized as early as 1965 that the war in Vietnam was not winnable. He continued to send more Americans into Vietnam in an attempt to force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. At the same time his fear of "escalation" led him to hamstring the military's efforts to push northwards toward North Vietnam or to disrupt the enemy's supply lines, the so-called "Ho Chi Minh Trail" that went through a nominally neutral Laos.
The irresolution that characterized Johnson and McNamara's military strategy raised the costs of the war for the American people, both at home and in the jungles of Vietnam.
By implication, McNamara's mea culpa further vindicates the thousands of students at Harvard and elsewhere who protested what they considered an immoral and losing effort. At the Institute of Politics last week, McNamara referred to his former domestic foes as "honorable Americans."
"McNamara's War," as it was known at the time, does not rest squarely upon his shoulders, although it was evident to the audience last week that real guilt lay behind each one of McNamara's pained confessions. The man who repeatedly and confidently predicted victory for his nation now bears the burden of history and the casualties of 58,000 American lives.