Thursday, February 3, 2011

1995: McNamara & Vietnam

Reading today about the unapologetic memoirs of Donald Rumsfeld reminded me of just how unusual it was that Robert McNamara actually apologized for the things he had done. We heard no comparable remorse from Nixon, Kissinger, LBJ, or William Westmoreland. Nor are we ever likely to hear any of the architects of the bungled Iraq War apologize for the unnecessary carnage they wrought. The closest analogue would be the equally unusual blurt from Alan Greenspan about his failed ideology - remarks he has since walked back to some extent. So, just as I said back in '95, two cheers for McNamara.

The story that most captured my attention last month was the admission by Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that the war in Vietnam was "wrong, terribly wrong."

From the beginning, I had mixed feelings about McNamara's mea culpa - feelings which have only become more mixed after reading excerpts from his new memoirs. On the one hand, the very fact that he apologized is more than we ever got from Richard Nixon, who insisted to the end that his biggest mistake was not dropping more bombs on the Vietnamese. And as Molly Ivins, our nation's columnist laureate, has pointed out, it's "so important for everyone holding public office to consider the possibility that 20 years hence they too may have to sit down and write "we were wrong, terribly wrong."

Yet McNamara's account of the mind-boggling stupidity that prevailed at the White House during his tenure inspires little confidence that today's policymakers will take his warnings to heart. Because McNamara himself, for all his apparently heartfelt anguish over the war, still seems oblivious to some of his greatest crimes. His book makes it clear that from 1965 on, he knew that the war was a cruel and tragic mistake. Yet it took him another 30 years to share that conclusion with the world. In the intervening decades, tens of thousands of Americans, and millions of Vietnamese, died because of the brutal arrogance of Presidents Johnson and Nixon and their advisors. McNamara says he did not speak out then because of his loyalty to the president. He forgot his loyalty to the American people, the US Constitution, and to the Golden Rule, and for that he does not apologize.

On the other hand again, McNamara makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing historical debate by sharing his judgment that President Kennedy, had he lived, would not have escalated the war as did his successor LBJ. The view that JFK would instead have withdrawn, though supported by solid historical evidence, has been disputed by pundits on both the right and left. One hopes that McNamara's book will continue to provoke much-needed debate over the most divisive events in US history since the Civil War.

For anyone who lived through those years, the debate will continue for the rest of our lives. And while McNamara's late-breaking apology isn't likely to change many minds, it's still useful to us. For me, it rekindled the smoldering rage over the whole senseless atrocity, in large part because he still doesn't get it.

He writes that it would have been impossible for the US to achieve its goals in Vietnam "short of genocide," but never questions why genocide would be necessary to impose a government to our liking on the Vietnamese. He never concludes, as did a large majority of Americans in a poll taken a decade ago, that it would have been wrong to win the war even if we could have.

After leaving the Pentagon, McNamara went on to serve as president of the World Bank, an institution that, by imposing Western-style "austerity measures" on Third World governments, is responsible for the deaths of millions of peasants, most of them children, every year. One can only hope that Robert Strange McNamara will live to be 109, so that thirty years from now, he can write another book telling us how horribly, terribly wrong he was.

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