Now He's Sorry


Paris -- Permit me to express the fury I have felt since learning of Robert McNamara's confession of error, now promoted in bookstores and in Newsweek, published to coincide with the anniversary of the American scramble from the embassy rooftop in Saigon 20 years ago and due, no doubt, to be a great success.

Thirty-two years and something like a million and a half killed human beings later, not to speak of the millions more mutilated and blinded and burned who survived, Mr. McNamara says that he was wrong. "The United States could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam" in 1963.

He says that by the mid-1960s it was clear that achieving political stability under effective American suzerainty in South Vietnam was a chimera, and that "the South Vietnamese, even with our training assistance and logistical support, were incapable of defending themselves." This insight did not cause him to change personal course or attempt to alter the nation's policy.

In May 1967 he sent President Lyndon Johnson a memo in which he said that "the picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed . . . could conceivably produce a costly distortion in the American national consciousness and in the world image of the United States."

He identifies the following as among his errors: He believed in the domino theory. He did not recognize the significance of Vietnamese nationalism. He believed that puppet generals who found their legitimacy at the American embassy could mobilize the country against the Viet Cong revolutionaries. He failed to grasp that high-technology weaponry, including bombing on a larger scale than in World War II, might be largely irrelevant in a war against a peasant-based guerrilla movement. He believed that uprooting and relocating peasants could win their hearts and minds. He believed that lying to the American public was justifiable.

Yet he and his associates were told as early as 1962, when the U.S. Military Assistance Command was created in South Vietnam, that every one of those assumptions was wrong.

He was not told this by clamoring demonstrators in the streets or on university campuses. That came later. He was told it by anthropologists and Asian specialists who had spent their professional lives in Indochina. He was told it by historians of the region, political historians and political scholars and even by journalists. He could have heard it from soldiers and intelligence officers who knew the area and its problems, or who simply possessed common sense and a feeling for other peoples' motivations.

His own associate, Johnny McNaughton, who also had believed in the war in 1963, told Mr. McNamara a year later that around the country "a feeling is widely and strongly held that the Establishment is out of its mind."

The secretary of defense and his colleagues officially dismissed these objections as "naive" and described unquantifiable arguments from history and from political and social judgment and experience as "theology." They said they were in possession of "the numbers," and these told them the communists could be defeated. They were, they claimed, "tough-minded realists."

I won't rant on. This is history now, and gone, with the dead. I will add one point. Individuals who make decisions that destroy their nation's well-being and integrity, and wreak havoc abroad, usually pay for doing so. Those leaders who are defeated in the wars they launch usually end in coffins or in disgrace. Lyndon Johnson, upon whom Mr. McNamara heaps blame, had the character to withdraw from the presidency and go away in silence, when he understood that it had all gone wrong.

Mr. McNamara accepted the presidency of the World Bank. McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson's national-security adviser, was made president of the Ford Foundation in 1966. His brother, William, another of Mr. McNamara's deputies, moved to the State Department and subsequently became editor of Foreign Affairs, the quarterly journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. According to Stanley Karnow's history of the war, William Bundy, together with Walt W. Rostow, inspired the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, by which the war was extended to North Vietnam.

The national-security adviser for President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, during whose watch a relatively stable government in Cambodia was overturned by an American-backed military coup, and Cambodia was invaded, creating the socio-political conditions in which Khmer Rouge subsequently took power and murdered some 2 million Cambodians, took the Nobel Peace Prize, which its Norwegian and Swedish judges were fools enough to offer him.

Vietnam provided solid career benefits for them all. Mr. McNamara now offers his regrets. He wept over them on television a few days ago, while promoting his book. One ought )) not spurn the one perfect tear of repentance. However the tears come too late for the slaughtered and mutilated, and for the American nation, which was changed forever by that war.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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