Tag: Robert McNamara

20180619_235509I have often wondered why my uncle and many other veterans that I have met, were sent to Vietnam.   He and others never speak of the war, choosing instead to internalize their memories and feelings.  But from the few things about being Vietnam that my uncle has told me,  I cannot image what it was like to be fighting a war in a jungle 13,000 miles away from home. Today he is seventy-two years old and his memories of Vietnam are as sharp today as they were when he left the country to return home.  And there is a part of him that still remains in Vietnam, never to leave its soil.    He is one of five-hundred thousand Americans that served in a war that claimed fifty-eight thousand lives.

The reasons for America’s involvement in Indochina have been muddled and in some cases omitted from discussions.   Secrecy became the standard method of communication in more than one administration in Washington as the United States became deeper involved in a conflict with no end goal in sight.  Daniel Ellsberg gained fame and infamy when he revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the country.   The New York Times later published a review of the documents and today it is available in the form of a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War.  The book is enlightening and contains a trove of information regarding how and why decisions were being made in the White House as control of the government passed through several presidents.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) published his own memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  The book has its fans and critics. McNamara has often been blamed for the war and the vitriol towards him was so strong that in later years he declined to talk about the conflict.   True, he was a participant in the events leading up to the war, but many other players had a hand in the game which became deadlier as time went on.  To understand their roles and the policies enacted, it is necessary to revisit the  complete history of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina.  David Halberstam (1934-2007), author of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy, conducted his own research into the war’s origins and the result was this New York Times bestseller that is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Halberstam admits that he knew Ellsberg and in fact, he reviewed the Pentagon Papers as he wrote the book.  In addition he conducted hundreds of interviews but was careful not to reveal any of their names.  When Ellsberg was indicted and had to stand trial, Halberstam was subpoenaed to give testimony, unaware then of how Ellsberg came into possession of the documents.  But what started out as a look at the life of  former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), grew into this definitive account of the reasons for the Vietnam War.

The book follows a carefully guided timeline and the story of Vietnam begins in China before moving on to Korea and eventually Southeast Asia.  These parts are critical for they set the stage for foreign policy decisions in the years that followed and explain many of the mistakes that were made.  As President Eisenhower winds down his time in office, a new young Catholic Democrat gripped parts of the country as he declared himself the next person to occupy the White House.  By the time John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office, the road to Vietnam had already been paved.  It is at this point in the book where the pace picks up and never slows down.   The concept of the best and the brightest came to Halberstam as he thought of a phrase for Kennedy’s cabinet of intellectuals who were set on reshaping Washington in the image they believed was right to push the country forward.  One by one he introduces us to all of the characters that have a role in the story, tracing their origins and helping us to understand how they reached their positions in the government.  Some of them are as mysterious as the country’s then paranoia about communism taking over the world.  But as they come together, something still is not quite right and Vietnam becomes the issue that will not go away.  And for the thirty-three months Kennedy was in office, the American involvement would grow in Indochina but the nation had not yet entered a war.   The growing crisis however, had begun to cause a rift in the White House and the deception employed by those loyal to the military and war hawks is eye-raising and chilling.  I also believe that it helps explain Kennedy’s murder in November, 1963. We can only guess what would have happened if he had lived.  There are those who strongly believe we would have withdrawn from Vietnam. I believe that is what would have happened, probably sooner rather than later.  But Kennedy was gone and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the nightmare of Vietnam.

As Johnson settles in to being the new Commander-In-Chief,  Indochina becomes a thorn in his side and he becomes conflicted with the decisions he will eventually make.  This part of the book is the crux and the key to the final push by the military for a war.  Many of Kennedy’s cabinet members continued to stay and at first worked under Johnson.  But as time passed and the ugly truths about Vietnam came back from Saigon, they would fade out as Johnson led the nation down the path of escalation.  Halberstam is a masterful story-teller and the scenes he recreates from his research are spellbinding.  Nearly everyone in the book is now deceased but as I read the book I could not help but to scratch my head at their decisions and actions.   The warning signs of Vietnam loomed ominously large but tragically were ignored or discounted.   Washington suffered from a tragic twist of fate: although it had the best and the brightest in Washington, they still made mistakes that literally made little sense. And that is a central theme in the book. The war’s architects were all brilliant individuals with endless accolades yet they failed to understand what was considered to be a peasant nation far away from home. Many of them would suffer in one way or another.  For Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam eventually became the final nail in the coffin that sealed his chances at reelection.

During the reading of the book, I also noticed at how Halberstam explained the actions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong.  In order to understand why Vietnam became a stalemate, it is not just necessary to understand the failures of Washington, but the strategy of Ho Chih Minh and the generals under him.  The small peasant nation took on a colossus and refused to give up. And the battles of  Vietnam changed warfare and showed the world what many believed to be impossible.  Arrogance and in some cases, racist beliefs laid at the base of some foreign policy decisions regarding the war.  History has a strange way of repeating itself and the repeated warnings from the French fell on deaf ears as American troops landed in a place many of them knew nothing about.  Looking back with hindsight, the critical failures are clearly evident and although Halberstam shows us how we became involved in Vietnam,  we are still baffled about why.  How could so many minds filled with so much knowledge make such rudimentary and baseless decisions?   The answers are here in this book in the form of official cables that withheld information, overzealous military advisors, an unstable South Vietnamese government, National Security Action Memos and the idea that the United States could solve any of the world’s problems.   This book is a must-read for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War.

ISBN-10: 0449908704
ISBN-13: 978-0449908709

Investigative Report

McNamaraIn the aftermath of World War II, the United and Soviet Union became engaged in a protracted standoff, a Cold War that became hot on several occasions.  In the eyes of Washington, Soviet expansion of its communist and Marxist-Leninist beliefs, were a threat to democracy and had to be stopped whenever possible.  Every conflict involving a communist government was seen as a pawn of the Soviet Union and a direct affront to American dominance.  In 1953, an armistice was signed ending the Korean  War, giving the world cause for relief as a major world war was averted.  Twelve years later, American troops were once again dispatched to an Asian nation, this time 13,000 miles away from home to the jungles of Vietnam, a country that many of them had never before seen.  The war in Vietnam claimed the lives of fifty-eight thousand Americans and over one million Vietnamese.  The withdrawal of American soldiers from Saigon in the 1975 resulted in a power vacuum in which the North Vietnamese government seized the opportunity and reclaimed its position in the southern part o the country, eventually unify the 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 unification was eventually achieved and Washington was forced to acknowledge the communist government.  The war had ended but for many veterans and civilians, the pain and dark memories continued to many many years.  My uncle served in Vietnam and to this day he does not speak about the things he witnessed as a combat infantry soldier. For him and thousands of veterans, Vietnam is part of their lives that they can never forget.  For America, it is perhaps our darkest moment in the execution of foreign policy.

As we look back on Vietnam, we are forced to confront many demons surrounding the involvement of the United States military in Southeast Asia.  A war with no clear objective and doomed from the start, transformed an entire nation, deeply divided over Washington’s continuous blunders. To some it seems completely illogical that America began a crusade to begin with.   For the war hawks, it was an opportunity to flex American muscle.  In hindsight, we can now see that American troops were never there to win and the White House kept hidden from the public, an endless number of important revelations that signaled failure from the very beginning.   The blame for Vietnam does not lay with one person alone but rather an entire cast of characters including four presidents.  Robert McNamara (1916-2009), served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and has been referred to as the architect of the war.  In fact, the conflict is sometimes referred to as McNamara’s War.   The belief that one man was responsible for the war is misguided and ignores the abundance of information revealed in The Pentagon Papers, and other sources of critical information.  In 2003, McNamara sat down with filmmaker Errol Morris in the critically acclaimed documentary “The Fog of War”, in which he tells his life story and answers very direct questions about his role in Washington.  While he does speak on Vietnam, he refuses to give into the claim that he was the person responsible for the escalation of U.S. ground troops.  Some viewers will undoubtedly be disappointed with the lack of a detailed response to some questions but overall, the film is highly enjoyable and even in his later years, McNamara’s memory was still quite sharp.  Times, locations, faces and conversations are easily recalled with near pinpoint accuracy, second only to this book which he appropriately titled “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam “.

The story is part autobiography and historical record of his career, in particular his service in Washington during two administrations.  He carefully recounts the decisions that were made behind the scenes as the White House under President Kennedy grappled with looming advance of North Vietnamese troops against its southern neighbor ruled by a highly unpopular government that was unable to win support for its cause.  Today, we know that at no time did South Vietnam have a stable government to resist the North.   The assassinations of the Diem brothers two weeks before Kennedy’s murder, set the stage for the next battleground where America would unleash its fighting machine.  And yet the question remains, why?  McNamara asks himself that same question and here he attempts to finally put to the rest rumors and misstatements so that we can understand Vietnam’s tragedies and lessons.  He comes across very frank in the book but there will always remain the question of how much did he refrain from saying, possibly due to the sensitive nature of the subject and possibly to avoid legal action by the U.S. Government.  Putting that aside, he does go into great detail about several topics, showing the deadly mistakes that he and his superiors made as Vietnam became the crisis that would not go away.

Some readers will undoubtedly feel that McNamara should accept more blame than he does.  To many, he is seen as the brain behind the operation and the whiz kid with all of the facts.  Kennedy had prided himself of bringing together what David Halberstam called The Best and the Brightest. Indeed, the President’s cabinet was filled with some of the greatest minds to ever work in Washington but tragically and regrettably, mistakes and error in judgment allowed even these great minds to further escalate tensions in Vietnam and plunge American into its most unpopular war.  The book can be seen as a sort of apology by McNamara for his role at the time but I did feel that there was more he could said to show his full regret.  I do give him credit for being able to point the finger at himself and accept his share of the blame for the death and destruction that became the ten year war in Vietnam.   Notwithstanding, the book is a good read and helps the reader understand where America went wrong in Vietnam.

ISBN-13: 978-0679767497

Vietnam War