Former defense secretary says U.S. has not learned from Vietnam

by Julia Levy | 10/17/00 5:00am

Stepping through the door of the Rockefeller Center's Morrison Commons yesterday at first seemed like a journey back in time to an age when "dress down" did not apply to work days and when the United States was still saving the world from communism.

There sat Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara -- who has been called the "architect" of the war -- as well as James Blight, a Brown international relations professor and Robert Brigham, a Vassar history professor.

Despite McNamara's presence -- still powerful at age 84 --- it was quickly obvious that there had been massive changes since the 1960s.

The 21st century McNamara pounded his fist on the table when he talked about his actions as Secretary of Defense.

He used strong language explaining that he should have "forced" the National Security Council to evaluate the U.S. role in Vietnam before he left Lyndon B. Johnson's administration in early 1968. He said he should not have allowed history to take its course without pausing and initiating thoughtful intervention.

"Will the dominoes fall?" he said the NSC should have asked itself. "Will that seriously and adversely affect events across the world?"

"And assuming that our security would have been affected, was it possible to militarily win the war?"

The 21st century McNamara who says he has learned his Vietnam lessons, maintains that the United States as a nation still has a long way to go on this front.

Regarding the current situation in Yugoslavia he asked, "Is the world better off? Are the Kosovars better off?" He noted that the first requirement of physicians is to do no harm, and he wondered if the United States has met that requirement in Yugoslavia.

In terms of Israel, he answered with a flat out "no" to whether or not U.S. policy makers are following the lessons of Vietnam as they facilitate the negotiations that are currently underway in Egypt.

He said America must continue asking itself whether it is engaging in "arrogant unilateralism" or whether it is working as the responsible leader of a globalized world community.

Although McNamara's newest book -- "Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy" -- which he co-authored with Blight and Brigham, hit the presses 30 years after the North Vietnamese claimed victory, he said it sets out workable solutions for modern policy makers who want to avoid past mistakes. The book is based on a series of discussions with American and Vietnamese participants in the Vietnam War and highlights the crucial junctures when the war could have been terminated or avoided.

These admissions of missed opportunity are not new fodder for McNamara. In his 1995 book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" he shocked the nation when he acknowledged, "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation ... Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong."

Some critics have called McNamara's apology and Cold War revelations too late; others have hailed his books as the first step towards understanding the past.

McNamara's suggestions include learning about the mindset of the opposition, communicating at high levels, only employing power multilaterally and acknowledging that not every conflict can be resolved.

In the process of writing "Argument Without End" McNamara, Blight and Brigham approached oral history from a unique angle. Instead of setting officials up with tape recorders to tell their stories, they initiated discussions between high-ranking officials, who had been close to the decision making process on both sides, and scholars of the war's history.

Blight said about 95 percent of the government officials approached chose not to participate in the study.

He explained, "close document-anchored interrogation is difficult enough for scholars" but it is even more difficult when history makers must sit down and analyze whether their policies and ideologies were based on "fact or fantasy."

Blight explained this prospect is a hard one when most people have not changed their views on the Vietnam War "one iota" since the 1960s.

"Bob McNamara is one of the few who asked himself whether the assessments made were accurate," he said.

Blight -- who created the methodology the team employed -- and Brigham -- a noted historian -- agreed that their approach was more historically sound than a straight oral history. They said they had the benefit of incorporating declassified material and chronology with the memories of the people who participated in the policy-making as well as the input of scholars.

McNamara affirmed that he continues to hold the skepticism towards oral histories that he stated in a 1975 oral history for the Johnson library.

At the time he stated, "I'm ill prepared for it in the sense that my memory is poor in respect to past events in which I participated. Moreover, I find it very difficult, with the best of intentions to separate my personal feelings and judgements from a professional appraisal of the merit of the action."

The trio agreed that their particular variety of oral history is an extremely sound form of history -- and denied that it is simply a case of history makers attempting to rewrite their own historical events.

"You should draw, you must draw, lessons from the past," Brigham said. "Vietnam is the case study of the 20th century. There are practical answers ... the [study's participants] are adding to those."

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!