Michael Lind: All sides blame McNamara for Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

Robert McNamara has died. Notwithstanding his previous career at Ford in the 1950s and his later career as president of the World Bank, Robert Strange McNamara will always be remembered for his service as secretary of defense for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during the height of the Second Indochina War, known in the U.S. as "the Vietnam War." In death, as in life, he is likely to prove to be a Rorschach test for what people think about that conflict and the four-decade Cold War of which it was part.

The clue to McNamara's significance is that he was demonized by the left, the right and the center. If there is a Rorschach Prize, he deserved it. Other American public figures have been hated by one side, but usually they have been defended by the other. I can't think of anybody else in American history whom liberals, conservatives and moderates all joined in denouncing.

Why? The vitriol that was directed against McNamara always seemed excessive and even unhinged to me. After all, he wasn't the president. Why not blame Kennedy for deepening the U.S. involvement in Indochina, or Johnson for escalating it, or Nixon for prolonging it? But Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon have had their partisans, who have sought to minimize the collateral damage done to the reputations of these presidents by their failed Vietnam policies.

The partisans of the Kennedys have been particularly busy rewriting history in order to turn the brothers from anti-communist cold warriors who tried repeatedly to murder Fidel Castro and were entranced by the romanticism of counterinsurgency into doves, while casting the reluctant, cautious Lyndon Johnson as a deranged hawk. By the end of the 20th century, more and more aging people were claiming to remember that Jack Kennedy had secretly promised them that he would abandon Indochina to the communist bloc if he were reelected, a remarkable example of repressed-memory syndrome unknown elsewhere except among people who claim to have recovered memories of UFO abductions. How convenient it was, then, to declare that the "architect" of the Vietnam War was neither Kennedy nor Johnson but their secretary of defense. "The Tsar is good, the mistakes are to be blamed on his ministers."

It was McNamara's misfortune that he, rather than other candidates for sacrifice -- McGeorge Bundy, say, or Walt Rostow -- was singled out to be the scapegoat for what, after all, was the central, catastrophic failure of the Kennedy-Johnson administration as a whole. Why the disaster in Vietnam came to be so widely blamed on the secretary of defense rather than on National Security Advisers Bundy and Rostow is not clear. Unlike Henry Kissinger, who for better or worse was the strategic mastermind of the Nixon administration, McNamara, who had intellectual interests including a love of poetry, was not himself an intellectual, like Rostow, with his theory of communism as a "disease of modernization," or theorists of limited war, including the young Kissinger. Some of the traits that are often attributed to McNamara, like excessive confidence in technocratic solutions, were those of his generation, not personal idiosyncrasies. And the self-assurance that seemed to irritate so many critics at the time (many of whom were unaware of his private agonizing over the war) was, and remains, a character trait common among the powerful in Washington and other capitals....
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Arnold Shcherban - 7/10/2009

Unfortunately, your otherwise absolutely correct comment, defeats itself at the end.
And, also unfortunately, the USA was (and continue to be presently) "the center of historical universe" in 20th century, placed there
as the single world economic, financial and military superpower.

william e vanvugt - 7/10/2009

These are good points to make, but why start with the Kennedy years? Go to Vietnam and talk with their aging veterans and government officials--as I have done numerous times--and realize that the war began during the Eisenhower administration: that's when the US thwarted the elections, and when the North Vietnamese knew they had an American War to fight. The US is not the center of the historical universe.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/8/2009

because he deceived President L.Johnson on Tonkin incident, which in its turn led to bombing of North Vietnam and sharp escalation of US war in Indochina.