A mixture of fear and arrogance goaded the United States into prosecuting the Vietnam war David I. Halberstam '55 told an overflow crowd at Cabot Hall last night.
"After the McCarthy era, there was an aberration of (American foreign policy that portrayed a demonic China. Then there was the feeling that the world awaited our values. This was an American century," he said, Halberstam is the author of "The Best and the Brightest" a just released 600 page account of American foreign policy and the Vietnam War.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said the war was technically feasible McGeorge Bundy made it intellectually us it was a historical necessity," Halberstam told an audience which included fellow Vietnam journalists Francis Fitzgerald '62 and Kevin Buckley. "America was a 'can-do' nation. To McNamara, technology was the answer to everything. Just stick a few computers into the rice paddies..." Halberstam said.
Halberstam said a cumulative sense of their own ability and a sense that to cast doubt was to fail former President Lyndon Johnson combined to convinced policy planners that "the risks of involvement (in Vietnam) were not impressive.
Halberstam credited John Kennedy '40 with a perception better than that of his advisers," but said Kennedy was unwilling to act on his skepticism until a second presidential term. When Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, fear that losing the Vietnam war to what Johnson called a raggedy-assed country" forced continued escalation of American involvement, including the 1965 decision to bomb North Vietnam.
Halberstam reserved his strongest comments for General Maxwell D. Taylor. "He maximized the benefits and minimized the problems (of Vietnam involvement)," Halberstam said. Without Taylor's assurances, Johnson would not have escalated the war for fear of losing the domestic opportunity to pursue the Great Society, Halberstam said.
Halberstam concluded with an admission that "there are no certitudes about the possibility for avoiding a repeat decision-making performance by the brightest and the best" in the Nixon Cabinet. "There was no sense of frailty (in the last policy-making cabinet). All they needed was some wisdom and commonsense," he said