In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam-Robert S. McNamara
The war in Vietnam claimed the lives of fifty-eight thousand Americans and over one million Vietnamese lives. It is considered to be the biggest loss suffered by the United States in armed combat. The withdrawal of American soldiers from Saigon in the 1975 left the fractured country in a precarious position that was seized upon the North Vietnamese government which remained determined fortify a united Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was later renamed Ho Chih Minh City in honor of the late leader of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. On September 2, 1969, Ho Chih Minh died at the age of seventy-nine as the war raged on. In death he would be vindicated as the country was finally unified after the war. The war ended but left millions of soldiers and civilians scarred for life. My uncle served in Vietnam and to this day does not speak about the things he witnessed and did as a combat infantry soldier. Many years have passed since his tours of duty but to this day he does not like loud noises or the fireworks on July 4th. He is one of many soldiers that returned home with the effects from active combat. I sometimes wonder what would his life have been like had he not been sent to Southeast Asia. Furthermore, why did the United States engage in armed conflict in Indochina?
Robert McNamara (1916-2009) served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and has been referred to as the architect of the war. I believe the statement to be slightly exaggerated for the war had may architects and others complicit in the decision making process that resulted in U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, McNamara sat down with filmmaker Errol Morris and answered questions about Vietnam. He was honest and frank in his answers but for some, his answers are still not enough of an explanation as to how and why we were involved in the conflict. Prior to the documentary, McNamara recounted the war and its inception in this book that seeks to help the reader understand the former Secretary of Defense.
In Retrospect is an autobiography and historical record of the steps that were taken by two administrations in dealing with the growing tension in Southeast Asia. Part of the title is the tragedies and lessons of Vietnam. As the reader dives into the book, it will become apparent that there were many tragedies during the ten year war and even more lessons to be learned from the humiliating defeat suffered by America. Today in hindsight it seems absurd that so many great minds made so many severe miscalculations. McNamara understands this and attempts to explain why certain decisions were flawed and how they came to be. His revelations are insightful and provide a good analytical aspect to the war from a man directly involved in its development.
There are those who will finish the book and believe that McNamara was holding back on some things and not being completely upfront. Whether that is the case, only he knows and can no longer tell us. The war was horrible, ugly and regrettable. You may love him or hate him, but this is McNamara’s show and he has a story to tell you if you are willing to listen. The importance of this book is that it can be used as a blueprint for steps to avoid in the event of another conflict involving the United States and a country that is inspired by ideology and dreams of unification and solidarity. Lawmakers, military officials and intelligence officers can look back to McNamara’s words so that there are no further tragedies and lessons to be learned in the future.