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Architect of Vietnam War policy tells his side to Naval Academy historian


Brian VanDeMark has spent more than two years teaching midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy about the Vietnam War. Now he is taking part in writing one of its most eagerly awaited chapters.

Every two weeks or so, the 33-year-old professor turns on a tape recorder and assists in the autobiography of the prime architect of that conflict: former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, one of the last leading figures to be heard from.

With his slicked back hair and wireless glasses, Mr. McNamara became a familiar symbol of America's involvement in Southeast Asia. But he has been largely silent about his own role, although nearly 20 years have passed since the last U.S. helicopter lifted ignominiously from a Saigon roof top.

"He was the Garbo of that generation," said Dr. VanDeMark, likening the defense secretary to the movie star who craved privacy. "He did not talk about this, and he was the central figure in the drama. I was deeply intrigued by that."

An assistant professor of history at the academy, Dr. VanDeMark set out to write his own biography of Mr. McNamara. But during an interview with the former defense secretary earlier this year, Mr. McNamara asked him to help out with his book.

The lanky, bespectacled professor realized that helping Robert McNamara tell his story would be of "greater merit" than another biography. The professor quickly shelved his own project and is now on a two-year leave from the academy. The McNamara book is scheduled to be published by Random House in 1996.

Dr. VanDeMark said he made it clear that he didn't want to take part in a defensive, self-justifying work that attacked the published views of other participants. "I like playing it straight," he said.

L "He wants to do the book the right way," Dr. VanDeMark said.

The prolonged silence of Robert McNamara, a vigorous man now in his late 70s, comes as no surprise to the Naval Academy historian.

"It traumatized him as much as it did the country," he said, believing it has taken both America and the former Pentagon chief this long to begin to look at the war with detachment and perspective.

Closing the wound

"He wants to get his side of the story out like any human being," said Dr. VanDeMark. "He wants to close the wound rather than have it persist or deepen. If the book is done right, it will help LTC close the wound."

The name McNamara still evokes a visceral reaction among journalists, historians and Naval Academy graduates, who lost 162 of their fellow graduates in a war initially planned by Mr. McNamara, whose role ended in the fall of 1967 when he was removed by President Lyndon Johnson.

Mr. McNamara was a top Ford executive when he was tapped by John F. Kennedy to oversee the Defense Department, a man of supreme intellect who thrived on numbers, percentages and charts. Mr. McNamara would cite bombing tonnage and body counts to prove that America was winning.

But he had little knowledge of Vietnam, its history or its political situation and drove deeper and deeper into a morass. He was, concluded David Halberstam in "The Best and the Brightest," "a fool."

While Dr. VanDeMark is being interviewed in an Annapolis restaurant, a taut, lean man dining at an adjacent table interrupts, saying he has overheard the talk of McNamara and looks forward to reading the book. He says he's an academy graduate who completed two tours of duty in Vietnam, calmly terming the war a "fiasco."

Dr. VanDeMark is used to such stoic reactions. Even some of his colleagues have said little. "People in their 40s and 50s especially. The name Robert McNamara and the war in Vietnam conjure up so many emotions and recollections that in many cases are best left alone," he said.

There have been numerous charges of duplicity against Mr. McNamara. Some historians have noted that while he pushed strongly for bombing North Vietnam, he later denied that he was for it.

"All I can say to you is that McNamara is addressing that allegation," he said. "I gave him my word I wouldn't divulge the substance of the book. He is addressing many of the charges, both merited and unmerited."

Strong opinions

Dr. VanDeMark has his own strong opinions of Mr. McNamara's judgment and decision-making on Vietnam. In his 1990 book "Into The Quagmire, Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War," the professor says Mr. McNamara and others "mistakenly viewed Vietnam through the simplistic ideological prism of the Cold War."

Vietnam was going through essentially a Communist-led nationalist revolution, although U.S. policy-makers viewed it as part of a grand monolithic Communist world plan, he wrote.

There were domestic political considerations as well. Both Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara feared the "loss" of Vietnam would herald a reactionary ascendancy in Washington, much as the "loss" of China to the Communists spurred McCarthyism.

America's involvement in Vietnam, Dr. VanDeMark wrote, far outweighed its strategic importance.

"I would not change my basic judgment about the wisdom of his advice," he said, but added, "My views on this have evolved and altered to some degree based on what I've learned working with him. I can understand better why he did it."

Admitted liberal

Dr. VanDeMark said he never thought he would find himself, an admitted liberal, teaching at a prime training ground for military officers. He earned a Ph.D. in history at UCLA and then traveled to Washington to help former Defense Secretary Clark M. Clifford -- Mr. McNamara's successor -- on his memoirs. After that, he was a professor, teaching midshipmen about Vietnam.

"I thought it would be a challenge to teach that subject at that institution," he said. And he was "pleasantly surprised" to find that he was not told to toe a party line, but was allowed to present all sides.

The reaction of the midshipmen to Vietnam reflects that of American society, he said, although they tend to be slightly more conservative. "I would say clearly the majority view it as a mistake. Where you have divergence of opinion is, was it a mistake to be involved at all or was it a mistake not to have 'seen it through.' "

Dr. VanDeMark hopes the lessons of Robert McNamara will aid future policy makers, now that the prism of the Cold War is shattered and the world is a place of even greater uncertainty.

"The lessons McNamara derives from Vietnam I think are going to be paid very careful attention by a lot of people," the professor said. "He learned it the hard way."

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