Seth Lipsky: McNamara in Purgatory: Setting the War Record Straight

Roundup: Talking About History

[ Mr. Lipsky, a former member of the Journal's editorial board, is founding editor of the New York Sun. ]

... The notion that for too long McNamara hid his doubts about the war rather than fighting against it has been aired anew in the wake of his death this week. This indictment was articulated most famously -- and eloquently -- in an editorial issued by the New York Times in 1995, when the former Whiz Kid came out with his memoir. "In Retrospect" was McNamara's confessional: He realized he was wrong on Vietnam.

"At the time," the Times editorialized, "he appeared to be helping an obsessed President prosecute a war of no real consequence to the security of the United States. Millions of loyal citizens concluded that the war was a militarily unnecessary and politically futile effort to prop up a corrupt government that could neither reform nor defend itself."

What the Times failed to say was that there were millions of loyal citizens who thought the war could be won. And in the years after McNamara left the Pentagon it was won, at least in the field if not in Congress, by American and South Vietnamese soldiers. These citizens believed the right thing to do in Vietnam was stick with the fight, the way we did in other wars that had early reverses, like Korea, World War II, and the Civil War.

Most people who take this view do not -- and do not have to -- gainsay the patriotism of the doves. But they do dispute the notion that the doves turned out to be right in the end. They see McNamara's default on Vietnam as a failure to support his military commanders during the years when they were seeking a greater commitment of troops and the authority to use overwhelming force.

One historian of the war, Mark Moyar, spoke in a radio broadcast this week about how McNamara maneuvered against the generals. He blocked their access to the political leadership in an effort to protect his own strategy, which was to escalate gradually in the hope that the enemy would take a hint. Another point Mr. Moyar made is that the Vietnam War, which went poorly between 1963 and 1968 when McNamara was defense secretary, improved from 1969 onward.

McNamara's great failure, in short, was not that he continued to front for a war he had concluded was wrong and had decided we would lose. It was that he collapsed in a war that he should have known we could win -- and then derided its very purpose. A central tenet of the left, after all, is that all the dying in the Vietnam War was without purpose. Here is how that famous New York Times editorial put it about McNamara: "Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose."...
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