Magazine article Insight on the News

McNamara Met the Enemy and It Turned out to Be Him

Magazine article Insight on the News

McNamara Met the Enemy and It Turned out to Be Him

Article excerpt

Only industrial-strength arrogance can account for Robert S. McNamara's visit to Hanoi on the eve of Veterans Day. The former defense secretary at least is unchanging in the lack of sensibility that characterized his Pentagon tenure during the Vietnam War.

He is, of course, laboring to rehabilitate his dismal image as architect of "McNamara's war." His book, In Retrospect, published earlier this year (the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon), was a vapid mea culpa, and he wept on television while peddling his goods.

While in Hanoi last month, McNamara met with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. He asked the Communists' war-time tactician -- and victor -- if indeed there had been a second Gulf of Tonkin attack on the USS Maddox in 1964. President Johnson had used the purported attack to gain congressional endorsement for the buildup of U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Giap solemnly assured him there was no attack. The credulous McNamara accepted the assertion as if there could be no possibility the wily old general might spin him. (McNamara at the time declared there was "unimpeachable" proof of the second attack on the destroyer.) It evidently did not occur to McNamara that Hanoi might still remember, and hope for, the American pledge of "reparations" after settlement of the war and doubtless would be delighted to get a cash complement to "normalization" of relations.

It might be, too, that Giap was not reluctant to underwrite the McNamara thesis that the United States had been wrong, all wrong, about a war that took the lives of 58,000 Americans and 250,000 South Vietnamese.

If the past is able to instruct the present at all, even as the nation ponders committing 20,000 troops to Bosnia, there ought to be a harder-minded contemplation of what happened between 1965 and 1975 than McNamara's public meringue pie.

His frenzy of exculpation amounts to a repellent notion that the United States bears sole responsibility for Vietnam during the war and after. This easily extends to vindication for those who demonstrated not just for American withdrawal from Southeast Asia but also for U.S. defeat -- the doctrinal essence of the radical antiwar movement. That radical perspective has found refuge and endures notably on college campuses where cubs nowadays are drilled on the awfulness of democratic capitalism and Western ideals, using Vietnam as text.

James Webb, former Navy secretary and highly decorated Marine who served in Vietnam, recently provided a context for this toxic dogma of the left. Writing in the fall issue of Strategic Review, Webb observed of the antiwar ideology: "Only by understanding [those] deeper motivations can future generations comprehend the making and ultimate failure of American policy during that period. …

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