McNamara’s Vietnam

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

Lillian S. Robinson

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
By Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark.
New York: Times Books-Random House, 1995,
414 pages, $27.50 cloth.

Vietnam remains…regardless of the ritual cleansings and willed suspensions of memory, regardless of the many memorials for the unknown dead and the parades for the soldiers who should have known better. While it remains, it stays a problem, or to be more precise the remains of Vietnam are problematic. What is left of the war, its fragments and its ruins, stays unrepressible and endlessly recuperable. — Rick Berg, The Vietnam War and American Culture

FOR MOST AMERICANS, Vietnam has always signified a war more than a place. Radical vet and cultural critic Rick Berg first identified this piece of national pathology more than ten years ago. In the decade since then, Vietnam  the American war, not the historical or present  day country  has continued, in Berg’s prescient words, to be “if not a commodity, then a resource for the American culture industry.”

In Retrospect, Robert S. McNamara’s memoir of his war, limited in time to his years as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and, in scope, to recording insiders’ debates over policy, is the latest in this spate of “resources.” What makes it different is the author’s conviction that he is providing the indisputable and indispensable last word on the subject.

To McNamara, of all people, the word “Vietnam” should denote an actual country, not merely a sequence of bloody events. After all, his wartime visits, which were the occasions of moves and counter-moves from photo ops to terrorism in the strategy of both sides, and his recent, more or less expiatory journey back must have been made to an actual country.

Yet the “Vietnam” of his title and of his attention is nothing more than the object of U.S. policy in the years from 1961 to 1968. As such, it is a site only in the dramaturgic sense, as the scene of a “tragedy” that can provide “lessons” for the future.

Although McNamara recognizes that the suffering (and hence, presumably, the tragedy) occurred on the international stage, his use of the autobiographical mode makes it clear who he thinks is the tragic hero  none other than Robert S. McNamara  and, whether he realizes it or not, his text reveals the classic Sophoclean tragic flaw, hubris [the destructive pride of arrogance in Greek tragedy–ed.].

McNamara’s “lessons” do not include insight into this flaw. From being one of the “Whiz Kids” at the Ford Motor Company to hobnobbing with the Wise Men, McNamara truly believed he was one of the “the best and the brightest,” and he never stopped believing it. It was hubris then and it’s hubris now, and the narrative that tells us so reflects a related tragic failing, sheer chutzpah.

This is the problem, as succinctly as I can summarize an ethical and political quagmire: Three decades ago, McNamara thought he was right. He now sees that he was wrong. But he remains convinced that he was righter then, and is righter now, than anyone who said at the time that he was wrong.

McNamara’s Cold War mentality is as firmly fixed as ever. The purpose of American policy in Southeast Asia was to stop Communism, invariably characterized as “Communist aggression.”

That end justified any means employed. It was just that McNamara and the rest of the best and brightest opted for ineffective means and failed to acknowledge it in time. Only in this tactical misjudgment does he believe that they were “wrong, terribly wrong.”

Thus, according to McNamara, all the architects and executors of U.S. policy in Vietnam were good people and, even when they are shown violently disagreeing with McNamara, get nicknamed and described with an extraordinary combination of intimacy and respect.

Johnson, Bundy, Rostow, Westmoreland, Rusk, and the rest are all real to McNamara. The rest of us  actual U.S. combat forces, antiwar activists, disappointing South Vietnamese politicos, and the consistently misnamed enemy  are all similarly faceless and unreal. It’s as if it weren’t our story, too, as if we aren’t all living the long postwar.

I encountered my first example of this attitude as soon as I opened the book. Since “Vietnam” designates a war for me too, one that I actively opposed, I turned first to the index and looked up “Antiwar movement.” No such category, but there, in the very alphabetical niche where I expected to find it, was the entry “Ansara, Michael.”

Well, I knew Mike Ansara in the antiwar movement, so I followed the cue back to the text, where he is mentioned as the head of Harvard SDS when McNamara’s 1966 visit to campus provoked what the book tells us was an “ugly” demonstration.

After an “orderly” stop at the Business School, his alma mater, and a “stimulating” interchange with undergrads at Quincy House, McNamara tried to make his way to his next engagement, at “Henry’s” graduate seminar. (Kissinger is a real player, too, and thus gets the intimacy-cum-respect treatment.)

When McNamara’s car was surrounded by demonstrators, he asked who was “in charge” and Ansara makes his cameo appearance by supplying a microphone for McNamara to speak into from the hood of the vehicle. The Secretary says he began by introducing himself as a former student activist at Berkeley, “doing some of the things you are doing today.”

When this announcement — which does not correspond to this book’s version, pages earlier, of his days at Cal, is greeted by catcalls and “massive pushing and shoving,” he tells us:

“Thinking I could avert further violence by making clear that their threat would not intimidate me, I added, ‘I was tougher than you then and I am tougher today. I was more courteous then and I hope I am more courteous today.'” (255)

Here perhaps is a microcosm of the failed imperial policy in Vietnam: the conviction that “violence” can be averted by demonstrating one’s greater toughness while asserting one’s greater niceness.

But the anecdote grinds uncritically on. McNamara wasn’t, in fact, prepared to tough it out as the (unspecified) “danger” was “only increasing.” So he jumped off the car and, led by then undergrad Barney Frank, made his way through the underground tunnels to the Yard, where he met his commitment to Kissinger’s class.

Because he was somewhat unnerved, he concludes, he then “spent a half hour calming myself by browsing through one of Harvard Square’s delightful bookstores. This is a civilized, a cultivated man you see, hanging out in bookstores and assuring Harvard’s apologetic (not to say, apoplectic) dean, that dissent is healthy and should not be suppressed, even when the protesters, as we all sometimes do, “allow…zeal to exceed…judgment.”

(Maybe that’s what he’s saying happened in Vietnam. They allowed their zeal to exceed their judgment.)

Between the demo, where he still seems to believe he both covered himself with glory and got the last word, and the correspondence with the dean comes a paragraph in which, over dinner the same evening with his host, Kennedy School professor “Dick” Neustadt, and other faculty, McNamara conceived of the project we now call the Pentagon Papers.

The idea was that, precisely because the war was already being lost (“not going as hoped”), future scholars should be able to study a full record that would “help prevent similar errors in the future.”

Meanwhile, those who wanted to turn back the “error” in the making, whether by demonstrating in the streets or making those Papers available to the public, were not then and are not now part of the scene as McNamara understands it.  He does confess, however, that he felt “chagrined” at having kept the existence of the project a secret  from Dean Rusk and Lyndon Johnson.

A Lifetime of Lies

Earlier reviewers from the left  notably Noam Chomsky in Z Magazine and Carol Brightman and Michael Uhl in The Nation  have exhaustively catalogued the errors in fact and representation contained in McNamara’s version of events.

Hundreds of discrepancies underlie (so to speak) the big lie about the war’s rationale and meanings. These revelations are shocking, yet not surprising. Those of us who lived through that period have long been accustomed to being lied to by Robert McNamara.

What’s new is the confidential tone in which he couches the unreconstructed arrogance and self-righteousness that informs each unrepentant confession. McNamara is a great believer in quantification. But after every number is exhumed (by him) and challenged (by knowledgeable critics), we return to the personality of Robert S. McNamara, because the man insists on seeing the story in (sometimes grotesquely) personal terms.

That world-view is itself a politics. The problem is embodied in McNamara’s decision to cast the history as a memoir, so that even if it were possible to set aside the gross distortions that constitute his version of events, it is not a satisfactory exemplar of either genre.

The narrative of McNamara’s life up to 1961 is compressed into twenty-five pages, by the end of which he’s already Defense Secretary and valiantly trying to take his share of responsibility for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

At the other end of his Vietnam experience, there isn’t even a summary chapter about his life since February 29, 1968, the day he left the Cabinet, although brief references to his years at the World Bank and his response to later developments in or retrospectives of the war in Vietnam are scattered throughout. But, like the central story of his seven years at Defense, these moments are presented in the same personal terms McNamara uses to discuss his wife’s death.

Similarly, it is the narrowly personal approach that throws off the history. What I have called the “central story” is a narrative of policy decisions and their consequences, bolstered by a certain vision of national and international priorities, and enacted by Mac, Dean, Westy and the gang.

Restricting his account of the war years to his own period of active policy-making serves not only to underscore the character of McNamara as memoirist, but to suggest integrity and (hence) credibility. He is telling us only what he knows first-hand, and therefore what he says about that must be true.

In fact, McNamara has sacrificed actual historiographical integrity to its appearance, since his method strongly implies that the later conduct of the war, all seven years of it, need not be discussed  or so much as summarized — in order for the appropriate “lessons” to be drawn. And, similarly, that there is no continuity worth mentioning here between the underlying ideology of McNamara’s war and the World Bank economic policies that were the focal activity of McNamara’s peace.

McNamara’s “lessons” are, once again, to be absorbed as he teaches them, apart from any connection to the international development policies he designed and implemented in the years following his departure from the Pentagon.

In 1971, for instance, McNamara headed the World Bank task force that recommended (and hence offered credits and loans to fund) the development of mass tourism in Thailand as the linchpin of an economic growth and modernization program. The resulting $4 billion a year tourist industry has as its linchpin the international sex trade whose infrastructure was put into place by the “R and R” contracts established in 1967, when McNamara was Secretary of Defense.

The lessons I learned from the Vietnam War start right there, but McNamara clearly would rather I set them all aside, in favor of assisting at the presenting of his “tragedy.”

Self-Portrait of the Criminal

One of the more peculiar ways in which the presentation resembles an actual “show” is in McNamara’s use of photographs. Whereas a policy study almost never contains a section of illustrations and a history may or may not do so, a modern autobiography rarely appears without one.

In the first set included here, there is a grotesque juxtaposition of personal or family snapshots (my favorite among them is McNamara as Eagle Scout) with posed pairs and groups of solemn white men in the (presumed) act of making policy. There are some more of these in the second set, as well as three pages devoted to visual representation of McNamara’s resignation and a couple of later World Bank scenes.

Even the hard-to-identify-guys-at-the-table shots are apparently meant to humanize the policy process, an effort enhanced by a two-page spread showing McNamara playing squash or backpacking in the mountains  indeed, there’s also a topographically-labeled image of the Grand Teton itself  all of it headlined “But There Were Moments of Play.” (Frankly, I don’t recall spending a single minute in the ’60s or since worrying about whether the Secretary of Defense was getting in enough R and R!)

Because the display is meant to convince the reader of something supremely beside the point of this book  that Bob McNamara is a hell of a regular guy  I could not help flinching at the many photos in this section of the author’s late wife, Marg.

In a memoir that is intentionally focused on one period of the author’s life and one sequence of events during that period, this deployment of images of Marg McNamara, whether caught by the camera on a wilderness hike, running into Jackie Kennedy in an airport, working with Reading is Fundamental, the literacy organization she founded, or in her last days receiving the Medal of Freedom while seated in a wheelchair, also seems intended to win our hearts and minds.

And when one recalls that McNamara rarely uses that phrase without putting it into quotation marks, its value to him being strictly that of a dead metaphor, this candid informality is one more evidence of a profound cynicism.

In the long run, however, it doesn’t matter whether U.S. war strategy was implemented in those years by an Eagle Scout or someone who thinks it will strengthen his argument to present himself as an Eagle Scout. And a squash player, an outdoorsman, a friend of Jackie-O’s.

For nearly thirty years, I’ve been unable to hear Robert McNamara’s name without recalling a moment during an antiwar demonstration in New York’s Bryant Park sometime in the ’60s. Folksinger Barbara Dane led us in adding new verses to “This Little Light of Mine,” so that light was

“Gonna shine on McNamara,
I’m gonna let it shine;
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

In Retrospect makes it painfully clear that it must have been light-years distant, because the illumination hasn’t hit him yet.

ATC 62, May-June 1996