WASHINGTON -- After 27 years of public silence, a key architect of the Vietnam War recounts in newly published memoirs a long series of errors in judgment by himself and others that led to America's biggest and most politically divisive military failure, concluding, "We were wrong, terribly wrong."
Robert S. McNamara, the former Ford executive who became secretary of defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, says in a new, 414-page chronicle that the United States should have withdrawn its forces from Vietnam in 1963 or 1964, before the huge buildup that sent U.S. casualties soaring and American protesters into the streets.
In the book, Mr. McNamara is as critical about his own role as anyone else's in conducting a war that he says "caused terrible damage to America" and ultimately killed 57,000 Americans and left 270,000 wounded.
"People are human; they are fallible. I concede with painful candor and a heavy heart that the adage applies to me and to my generation of American leadership regarding Vietnam," he writes toward the end of "In Retrospect -- The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam."
Mr. McNamara, his colleagues and the two presidents he worked for overestimated the damage South Vietnam's fall to communism would cause to American security.
In addition, those leaders "failed to adhere to the fundamental principle that, in the final analysis, if the South Vietnamese were to be saved, they had to win the war themselves."
Profoundly ignorant about Southeast Asia, these leaders slipped into "quicksand" without seriously addressing fundamental questions, including whether the war could be won, and if so, at what cost in lives and dollars and what other risks were involved, Mr. McNamara says.
And, he continues, the top officials of government, their work crowded by other events of the day, weren't organized to deal with the dimensions of such a prolonged and complex conflict. They also undermined their own peace initiatives by failing to coordinate military actions with diplomacy.
Neither Kennedy nor Johnson managed to overcome deep divisions among top advisers, Mr. McNamara writes.
And Johnson, anxious not to jeopardize his domestic social programs, compounded the disastrous political effects of the war by subterfuge -- keeping hidden from the public the increasing depth of American involvement and what it would cost taxpayers, Mr. McNamara says.
But for all his acknowledgment of policy-makers' errors, Mr. McNamara is equally critical of senior military commanders, who pushed for more troops and an expanded bombing campaign even at the risk of triggering a nuclear war with China.
"Their continued willingness to risk a nuclear confrontation appalled me," he writes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 1967, he writes, they called for "utilizing the nation's full military capability, including the possible use of nuclear weapons."
Retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, chief of naval operations at the time, says that Mr. McNamara's concern that the conflict could escalate into nuclear war was "nonsense" and that the secretary unnecessarily prolonged the war by not allowing the military to make the best use of U.S. technological superiority.
Appearing exactly two decades after the last American diplomats and military personnel pulled out of Vietnam in defeat, the McNamara book adds an important dimension to the history of the conflict -- for it is the first chronicle by one of the principal players to call the war an unwinnable mistake.
"He's the first guy of his stature to come out with a mea culpa and say, 'We were wrong,' " says Stanley Karnow, who covered the war as a correspondent and later wrote a highly regarded history of it.
Neither Johnson nor Secretary of State Dean Rusk, to name two of the most senior policy-makers, admitted serious error during their lifetimes.
Mr. McNamara finally decided to break his long silence and write about the conflict because he was, he says, "sickened" by the level of cynicism displayed by Americans toward their leaders, caused in part by the Vietnam War, and wanted to show that the mistakes were mostly honest ones.
The book, of which Brian VanDeMark, a U.S. Naval Academy history professor, is co-author, is to be excerpted in this week's issue of Newsweek. It draws from diverse source material, some of it recently declassified.
But even now Mr. McNamara is withholding the full story, according to David Halberstam, who covered the war for the New York Times and criticized key administration officials, including Mr. McNamara, in "The Best and the Brightest," perhaps the best-known account of Vietnam decision-making.
The former Pentagon chief omits the extent to which he himself was "a ferocious architect of escalation," Mr. Halberstam says, and how he allegedly rigged information about the war so that "a weak policy would look better for domestic political reasons."
Mr. McNamara also fails to come to grips with a central political motivation for the war, Mr. Halberstam says: the Democrats' haunting fear of being accused by Republicans of losing Vietnam to communism.
Republicans gained political ground in the 1950s with charges that a Democratic administration had "lost" China to Communist revolutionaries.
Post-Cold War Vietnam -- independent, repressive and Communist -- now seems no more threatening to American interests than dozens of poor one-time colonies of the West, anxiously trying to attract American investment.
But in the early 1960s Mr. McNamara -- like most Americans of his World War II generation -- accepted as truth that the drive by North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh to end colonial influences and unite the country under his rule was part of a Communist drive for control of Asia.
U.S. leaders thereby grossly misjudged both the strongly nationalistic character of the Vietnamese Communists and their determination to outlast the United States, Mr. McNamara writes.
The North and its Viet Cong allies in South Vietnam greeted every U.S. buildup with more and more fighters until, despite estimates of hundreds of thousands of casualties, they eventually prevailed.
Mr. McNamara explains the ignorance of U.S. officials by noting that most of the government's Asia experts had been purged in the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s.
It wasn't until 1967, by his account, that the Central Intelligence Agency's analysts concluded that losing South Vietnam would not be permanently damaging to American interests.
But he also acknowledges that at certain key points officials were so blinded by anti-communism that they ignored contradictory information and relied on "ignorant and shallow" analysis.
The book makes clear that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations received abundant evidence of how tough it would be to teach the South Vietnamese to fight successfully themselves.
Led to overthrow
This in fact led the Kennedy administration, despite deep misgivings, to set in motion a 1963 coup that toppled South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated, along with his influential brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.
The administration also received early indications of the failings of the South Vietnamese military and hints that Viet Cong strength might be far greater than previously believed; the CIA warned that Saigon officials were grossly distorting accounts of their army's battlefield performance.
President Johnson and his advisers should have realized when they decided to launch a bombing campaign in 1965 that it would embroil American forces in ground combat, according to Mr. McNamara.
Indeed, just weeks after this decision, Johnson was told by Gen. Harold K. Johnson, his Army chief of staff, that it would take 500,000 U.S. troops five years to win the war.
Of the two chief executives that he served, Mr. McNamara is far more critical of President Johnson.
Kennedy, he writes, probably would have withdrawn from Vietnam had he lived, though Mr. Karnow, for one, is skeptical.
"Nobody except the die-hard Kennedy fans take that view. At best you could say we don't know," he said in an interview last week.
Johnson, soon after he became president after the Kennedy assassination in November 1963, told top aides: "Win the war." But they could never show him how, Mr. McNamara says.
For the next five years, Johnson wrestled unsuccessfully with competing pressures: a military demanding more troops and bombs, advisers like Mr. McNamara who feared that greatly stepped-up bombing could lead to nuclear war, congressional conservatives pushing for deeper involvement, and a growing number of "doves" in his own party demanding negotiations or withdrawal.
All the assumptions underlying U.S. military strategy were incorrect, Mr. McNamara writes. No sooner had Johnson decided to escalate in 1965 than results called the strategy into question, Mr. McNamara writes. "My sense of the war gradually shifted from concern to skepticism to frustration to anguish."
He describes how he and his family were shaken by protests against the war, including the November 1965 self-immolation outside his office by a Baltimore Quaker, Norman R. Morrison, and an emotional appeal by Jacqueline Kennedy that he do something to stop the "slaughter."
How much of his misgivings he shared with his boss is unclear.
As late as July 12, 1967, buoyed by optimistic military briefings in Saigon, he told President Johnson: "There is not a military stalemate."
But later that year, he says, he was strongly opposing any increase in the U.S. commitment and making a strong pitch for negotiations, a stance that increasingly put him at odds with the president.
Early the next year, he left to assume the presidency of the World Bank.
His experience now puts Mr. McNamara in the camp that believes that the United States should fight wars alone only when directly threatened; otherwise, it should enlist others and share the burden.
But he says the kind of wars that will have to be fought in the post-Cold War world will more often than not be "limited" ones like Vietnam.
In those cases, "the American people must understand the difficulties we will face; the American military must know and accept the constraints under which they will operate; and our leaders -- and our people -- must be prepared to cut our losses and withdraw if it appears our limited objectives cannot be achieved at acceptable risks or costs."
Robert Strange McNamara's slicked-back hair and rimless glasses became symbols of certainty during America's war in Vietnam. But like the abundant facts and figures always at his command, he says now, his outward appearance masked deep doubts.
Born to an Irish-American family in San Francisco, Mr. McNamara came of age during the Great Depression, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, earned a degree from the Harvard Business School, then taught accounting there.
During World War II he served as an Army Air Corps logistics expert in the United States, England, Asia and the Pacific and was awarded the Legion of Merit.
After the war, facing heavy medical bills for his wife's polio treatment, he joined Ford Motor Co. He moved quickly through the corporate ranks as part of a group of so-called "whiz kids" brought in by Henry Ford II to win back car buyers lost to General Motors. A Democrat, Mr. McNamara made himself unpopular among some fellow executives by refusing to contribute to the Republican Party.
In 1960, he was named president of Ford. Seven weeks later, he was tapped to join the incoming administration of President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy, at 43, was the youngest man to be elected president. Mr. McNamara, 44, became the youngest defense secretary.