WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, wading into one of the most painful issues in the American psyche, said yesterday that the memoirs of former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara vindicate the position of those who marched against the Vietnam War during the 1960s -- including himself.
"Those who opposed the war believed the things that McNamara now says are true," Mr. Clinton said, according to his spokesman, Mike McCurry. "I'm not the best person to make this case . . . but I've thought about it."
Mr. McNamara, one of the chief architects of the war under President Lyndon B. Johnson, broke a 27-year silence on the issue this week and confessed that he decided as early as 1967 that the conflict was a mistake. "We were wrong, terribly wrong," he wrote.
Mr. Clinton noted that he worked as a college student on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, and that exposed him to more information about the war than most Americans, Mr. McCurry said.
"I had a good sense that things were going sour," Mr. McCurry quoted Mr. Clinton as saying.
Mr. Clinton, who talked about his opposition to the war in response to questions from reporters, also said that Mr. McNamara "had a lot of courage to write the book," Mr. McCurry said.
The president's willingness to comment at length on the issue -- even though it recalls the question of his own efforts to avoid being drafted into the armed services during the war -- reflected the passion that Vietnam still stirs among Americans, 20 years after the fall of Saigon.
Mr. McNamara's book, in which he says he warned Johnson privately that Vietnam might become "a major national disaster" but remained silent in public out of loyalty to the president, has opened an emotional debate over the war.
"We have never kicked our Vietnam syndrome," said Stanley Karnow, a historian of the war. "We debated Vietnam during the war, we've debated it for the 20 years since, and we'll go on debating it for centuries to come."
Editorials and columnists in major newspapers have excoriated Mr. McNamara for remaining silent when his voice might have helped end the war sooner.
But leaders of the anti-war movement of the time, including former Sen. George S. McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat, and the Rev. Robert McAfee Brown of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., have praised Mr. McNamara for his candor.
The number of Americans who believe the Vietnam War was a mistake has steadily risen in the years since. "It's in the range of 80 percent now," said John W. Mueller of the University of Rochester, an expert on public opinion on foreign policy and war.
"But Clinton seems to get no credit for being right," he noted. "No political candidate ever campaigns saying, 'I was right about Vietnam.' "