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McNamara: Vietnam War a mistake

WASHINGTON, April 9 -- Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who argued successfully to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam War, now says in a new book that both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were 'terribly wrong' not to get out. After a quarter century of silence on the subject, the man who was at the center of the prosecution of the war through most of the 1960s blames himself for not pushing the Johnson administration more to debate the military and diplomatic opportunities to end the war or neutralize South Vietnam. The McNamara book, 'In Retrospect, The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,' is being excerpted in the this week's edition of Newsweek Magazine and was reviewed Sunday on the front pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times. 'We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation,' McNamara wrote. 'We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.' McNamara, now 78, was a major hawk during crucial years when the path of war policy was being decided, pushing for greater American military involvement in the middle of the 1960s when there fewer than 300 American casualties. By the end of the war in 1975 Vietnam had claimed more than 58,000 American lives, had precipitated a major inflationary cycle in the American economy and produced deep divisions and skepticism about government among Americans that continue to influence military and domestic policy.

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'I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did,' McNamara wrote, 'and to learn from them.' McNamara left the Pentagon post in 1968 to head the World Bank, convinced that 'we could not achieve our objective in Vietnam through any reasonable military means' and should negotiate -- not knowing to this day, he said, whether he quit or was in effect fired by President Johnson. Throughout the Kennedy years, he said, 'We operated on two premises that ultimately proved contradictory,' that the fall of South Vietnam to Communism would threaten the security of the United States and the Western World and that only the South Vietnamese could defend their nation and that the United States should limit its role to training and logistical support. McNamara, unsparing in his criticism of himself, wrote that, 'I had never visited Indochina, nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture or values.' The same was true of all other top Kennedy advisers, he said. 'Worse, our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance about Southeast Asia,' with the State Department's top Asian experts having been purged during the 'McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s.' Without good advice, the Kennedy team 'badly misread China's objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive' to take over the region. 'We also totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh's movement' and instead saw him 'first as a Communist,' McNamara wrote. Had Kennedy lived, McNamara said, 'He would have pulled us out of Vietnam. He would have concluded that the South Vietnamese were incapable of defending themselves' and that it was unwise 'to try to offset the limitations of the South Vietnamese forces by sending U.S. combat troops on a large scale.' The late Dean Rusk, the secretary of State whom McNamara described as one of the most 'selfless, dedicated individuals ever to serve the United States' nevertheless 'failed utterly to manage the State Department and to supervise Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. he wrote. 'Nor did he participate forcefully in presidential meetings,' McNamara said. Kennedy himself, 'failed to pull together a divided U.S. government. Confronted with a choice among evils, he remained indecisive far too long,' he wrote. When President Johnson entered the Oval Office after Kennedy's assassination, the situation in Vietnam 'could not have been more complex, difficult or dangerous,' McNamara said. 'The leader who had held South Vietnam's centrifugal forces together for nearly 10 years had just been removed in a coup backed by President Kennedy that Johnson as vice president had opposed,' McNamara said. Yet Johnson saw the Soviet Union and China using the Vietnam situation as a way to intrude in the region 'and he was determined to prevent it.' McNamara said he joined with Rusk and McGeorge Bundy in shooting down a memo from then Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to Johnson recommending that the United States try for a neutral Southeast Asia, neither dependent on U.S. military support nor subject to Chinese domination through some sort of truce or settlement. The trio's feeling that Mansfield's path would lead to the loss of South Vietnam to Communist control 'shows how limited and shallow our analysis and discussion of the alternatives to our existing policy' had been, McNamara wrote. Johnson's top advisers were 'left harried, overburdened and holding a map with only one road on it,' because there was no senior group working exclusively on Vietnam, McNamara said. 'The crisis there became just one of many items on each person's plate.' McNamara said there was no merit 'at all' in the view that Johnson deliberately provoked the attacks against U.S. destroyers that resulted in counterstrikes against North Vietnamese patrol boats that, in turn, ultimately limited debate on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in Congress. The resolution would still have passed without the Gulf of Tonkin strikes and counterstrikes, McNamara maintained, but 'the resolution would have faced far more extensive debate and there would have been attempts to limit the president's authority.' Carrying the analysis further, however, McNamara concluded that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was 'absolutely not' adequate basis for all the subsequent military actions in Vietnam, 'including an enormous expansion of force levels.' 'Congress never intended it to be used as a basis for such action and still less did the country see it so,' McNamara wrote. A week after President Johnson's 1965 inauguration, after he enjoyed what was then the greatest landslide victory in presidential history, McNamara said he helped draft an 'explosive' memo that favored increased military involvement to avoid 'eventual defeat and an invitation to get out in humiliating circumstances.' Johnson followed McNamara's advice, initiating bombing of North Vietnam and committing massive U.S. ground forces all 'without adequate public disclosure or debate,' McNamara said. McNamara, in his book, still defended the effort to count Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties, a body-count process closely identified with the numbers-oriented defense chief and former head of Ford Motor Co.. 'Things you can count you ought to count,' he wrote. 'Loss of life is one.' McNamara said that in May of 1967 he began advocating to the president a possibility of compromise, a restriction of the bombing and a ceiling on additional troop deployments, an approach that 'unleashed a storm of controversy' within the administration and pitted him against the Joint Chiefs of Staff in congressional hearings. Meanwhile the administration was having trouble focusing on Vietnam since it was 'confronted with a deluge of other crises from a Middle East war to race riots in our cities and, or course, rising protests against the war,' he said. McNamara said that despite the advice coming from several directions, including the CIA, that the United States could leave Vietnam without serious consequences, the 'Joint Chiefs and many others in the government took an entirely different view of the war's progress.' Finally, his relationship with Johnson pushed 'to the breaking point,' the president nominated him to head the World Bank. Although it was 'pressure from the left, those urging us to do less or to withdraw' that culminated in Johnson's decision not to seek reelection, in the years leading up to 1968 he and other Johnson advisers 'worried far from about pressure from the right,' McNamara wrote. 'Hawks charged we were forcing our military to fight with one hand tied behind its back and demanded we unleash the full weight of America's military might,' he said. The New York Times Sunday reported McNamara broke down in tears during an interview with Diane Sawyer that is to be broadcast next week by ABC, telling the Times that the experience was profoundly embarrassing but explaining 'the sense of grief and failure is strong.' McNamara told the Times that some of the same White House mistakes made in Vietnam 'not only can be but are being repeated' in places like Bosnia and Somalia. The McNamara book, done with associate Brian VanDemark, is the first account to reveal that McNamara traveled to LBJ's ranch after Christmas 1965 to persuade the president to pause the bombing of North Vietnam to induce Hanoi to open negotiations, without consulting Secretary of State Rusk or others, The Washington Post reported Sunday. Another new revelation is that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold K. Johnson privately predicted it would take half a million troops five more years to win the war, at a time in 1965 when only 16,000 troops were being authorized to make the trip. Four years later, 500,000 U.S. troops were indeed in Vietnam.

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