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In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of…

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

by Robert S. McNamara

Other authors: Brian VanDeMark

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Addendum 9/9/09. As I follow the discussion over Afghanistan, I was reminded of a report cited by McNamara that was begun at the behest of CIA director Richard Helms. Super-secret it was done to examine contingencies to see what might happen if there were an unfavorable outcome in Vietnam. Over 30 CIA analysts were consulted. It was not to be an argument for ending the war, just responses to a hypothetical question. The memo was entitled "Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam." (The entire report makes fascinating reading and has been declassified. It’s available at:

Basically, it made four observations:

A. Failure in Vietnam would be a major setback to reputation that would reduce influence as a world power
B. Net effects of failure would not be permanent and that over a short time the U.S. could regain its stature
C. “The worst potential damage would be of the self-inflicted kind – lead to loss of confidence in internal dissension which would limit our future ability to use our resources and power wisely and to full effect and lead to a loss of confidence by others in the American capacity for leadership.”
D. Destabilizing effects in immediate area of SE Asia, some realignments in neighboring countries

“The frustration of a world power, once it has committed vast resources and much prestige to a military enterprise must be in some degree damaging to the general security system it upholds. . . .If the analysis here advances the discussion at all, it is in the direction of suggesting that such risks are probably more limited and controllable than most previous argument has indicated.”

McNamara claims he never saw the memo until he wrote the book. Johnson may not have shown it to anyone.

A book worth mentioning is Harold Ford's CIA and Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes, 1962-1968 by Harold Ford, available from Google Books:

http://books.google.com/books?id=UkdGJDavyN0C&pg=PA110&lpg=PA110&dq=... report top johnson vietnam mcnamara&source=bl&ots=hhINrkI9a1&sig=kB-r3GissyTFEG-dg0EnB3oMq-8&hl=en&ei=5rCnSpH_GY_kNcnYzbEP&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4#v=onepage&q=cia report top johnson vietnam mcnamara&f=false

Harold Ford’s book (at least excerpts I have read on Google books) indicates that CIA estimates were far more accurate than those coming publicly out of the White House.

Informative review at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-e-jackson-jr/harold-p-ford-on-robert-m_b_2... re Ford’s comments on McNamara’s book.

7/6/09 McNamara died today, thought I might review my earlier review.

Clearly, the policy wonks made many errors in their decision to pursue the war in Vietnam. Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest catalogs many of those arrogant positions and their failures to listen to southeast Asia experts. But there was also a visceral fear of Communism (not to mention a fear of right-wing McCarthyites who had ruined many a reputation for failure to be anti-Communist enough. That's why only Nixon could go to China. The military was sure that just a few more soldiers would win the war, just a few more bombing missions, etc. etc.

The book reveals a level of amateurism that is scary and that from the "best and the brightest," a phrase that when I hear it now gives me the willies. They failed to learn as much as they could about Vietnam

McNamara, by 1966, had already decided that the war could not be won.
Johnson knew that McNamara and RFK were friends and spoke frequently and by this time RFK was running for president and had come out against continued involvement in Vietnam. Already, McNamara and Dean Rusk both by this time were showing the strain physically. Diplomatic efforts continued to fail and in 1967, Buddhist uprising intensified and the fragility of the South Vietnamese government became obvious. The military situation while not great, was overshadowed by political problems. Johnson had even hinted in April of 1966 that he might be willing to withdraw troops from Vietnam and "make a stand in Thailand." (I'm not sure what the Thais would have thought of that, but no matter, other people's considerations don't seem to be taken into account when the U.S. is on the march.) "Looking back I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand.. . . I believe it is clear today that military force especially, when wielded by an outside power, just cannot win in a country that cannot govern itself."

His colleagues saw things differently, and inaccurately says McNamara. Dean Rusk was already sure in 1966 that the situation was such that the North Vietnamese could not succeed. Ambassador Lodge was convinced the military war was going well (this was before Tet) and that the war would be lost only if the political will failed in the United States. McNamara reports that he laid out the reasons why the US could not succeed in the fall of 1966 after a trip to Vietnam. (McNamara was pilloried when the book came out by critics who faulted him for not going public with his dissent, or at least making a stronger effort to persuade the president of the lost cause. I think that's being a little harsh given the overwhelming support for the war from Johnson's other advisers.

I would hope that current administration officials would read this book, obviously the Bush folks did not, or maybe they didn't care. I would hope that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Just take a stroll along the Vietnam Memorial to realize the import of those decisions. An important book, if a cynic-maker.

Update 7/6/09[b:CIA and Vietnam Policymakers Three Episodes, 1962-1968|4106540|CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers Three Episodes, 1962-1968|Harold P. Ford|http://www.goodreads.com/images/nocover-60x80.jpg|6655903] ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Revealing, and remorseful memoir of Vietnam War by one of its prime architects. Gordian Knot of geopolitics. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 29, 2013 |
An essential resource for history of the U.S. participation in the Vietnam war. McNamara gives candid assessments of Johnson and other American participants. Frequently he lays out a situation then makes a clear statement if he thought at the time or later if the action taken was correct or a mistake. What comes up time and again is the wish to understand U.S. goals. The language is much that of the participants in Iraq and Afghanistan. ( )
  carterchristian1 | Jan 30, 2012 |
If only more key decision makers on the world stage would make similar literary undertakings. This is RS McNamara's account of his early career and subsequent term as Secretary of Defence under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, focussing on the Vietnam war.

There is not much in way of new material or revelations, but it does provide the reader with an insight that cannot be gained by reading other books covering the same area. The main text is followed by extensive appendices covering other interesting material such as McNemara's role as head of the world bank and he has some interesting suggestions about ensuring nuclear non-proliferation. Personally, I would liked to have read more details about McNamara's relationships with other officials.

McNamara's writing style is easy to follow and I'd suggest that this is one of the most digestible accounts of the how the US administration handled the conflict. ( )
  cwhouston | Nov 21, 2010 |
This is a great memoir by an influential man who was uniquely involved in the whole Vietnam issue. He writes with candor and reflection. Even though this is a memoir you don't get the sense that he is trying to gloss over the "bad" parts or minimize his mistakes. He freely says "this was a huge mistake on my part" (or on Kennedy's part). He gives thorough explanations of why certain decisions were made and what he wish he would have done.

I highly recommend this for not only the people interested in Robert S. McNamara or this time period but for everyone in general since we need to learn our mistakes as a nation that way we do not repeat them (look at Iraq right now).

There is also a documentary, which is a 2 hour interview with Robert S. McNamara that I believe is called "in retrospect" and it focuses on Robert S. McNamara's lessons he learned in Vietnam. I may have the title of the movie wrong but I highly recommend you pick up that movie after you read this book. ( )
  Angelic55blonde | Apr 9, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert S. McNamaraprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
VanDeMark, Briansecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679767495, Paperback)

The #1 national bestseller--an indispensable document for anyone interested in the Vietnam War. McNamara's controversial book tells the inside and personal story of America's descent into Vietnam from a unique point of view, and is one of the most enlightening books about government ever written. This new edition features a new Foreword by McNamara. of photos. (Military History)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:46 -0400)

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Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, McNamara analyzes the Vietnam War and his role in it.

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