About 25 years ago, when I was working on the book that became “The Best and the Brightest,” I spent part of a surreal afternoon with Robert McNamara, then head of the World Bank. My book was designed to explain how and why we went to war in Vietnam, or more specifically how men who were once viewed (at the very least by themselves and their journalistic and academic acolytes) as the ablest men to serve in government in this century could be the architects of what was arguably the century’s most tragic miscalculation. Suffice it to say that McNamara himself was not very much help in my quest. He said he would see me but would not talk about any of his experiences on Vietnam, “out of loyalty to Presidents Johnson and Kennedy.”
That day he absolutely stonewalled me on any questions on the origins of the Vietnam commitment. But to my surprise, he grew warmer and friendlier as he began to talk about his efforts to bring a halt to the bombing. Suddenly he became willing, almost eager to talk about Vietnam--indeed, he was voluble about the latter part of the war when he, aware that our military presence in Vietnam could not succeed, had initiated a doomed attempt to start fruitful negotiations with Hanoi. These would be preceded by a bombing halt, which he was working for.
The bombing halt and the attempt to bring negotiations turned out, of course, to be futile; Hanoi knew very well, far better than he did, that it was dealing from a position of strength, that it had blunted our military commitment and that it need now only wait for our inevitable departure--albeit at very high cost to its own young men. Yet in my session with him McNamara was willing to talk about precisely that part of his service when in fact Lyndon Johnson did begin to think he was disloyal, but where history and historians might feel more generously inclined toward him than the earlier period of his service when he was one of the fiercest proponents of escalation. For that reason he had suddenly become cooperative.
I tell this story at some length here because reading “In Retrospect” is very much like being with McNamara and watching his puzzling, contorted performance on that strange difficult afternoon 25 years ago.
This is a shallow, mechanistic, immensely disappointing book. Had it been published 25 years ago while the battle itself and the debate over it was still raging--had McNamara come forth then and said, as he does here, that what had come to be known as “McNamara’s War” was “wrong, terribly wrong,” it would have been an extremely valuable part of the ongoing debate; indeed, it might have ended the debate then and there. A secretary of defense of his seeming certitude who came forward and said that he had been mistaken in his earlier estimates and that the war could not be won would have been the most powerful of witnesses and would be now a revered American instead of one of our most divided and haunted of men. Sadly, the inner strength to do that, to put loyalty to country and to a larger truth above a narrow bureaucratic loyalty to a President and failed policy, was not within his powers.
In this book, much heralded by his publisher as a mea culpa, the agenda is McNamara’s, not the reader’s. That is not surprising: He has always been a control freak, and one of his singular skills, going back to his years at Ford, was his ability to take command of a given bureaucratic agenda and to set the terms in which an issue was debated according to his strengths rather than those of potential opponents. In this book he not only gets to give the answers he wants but he also gets to choose the questions he asks himself. As he did with me that day, he still controls the ground rules.
In these surprisingly bloodless, carefully sanitized pages, McNamara is like a player at the poker table who, when the game is over still refuses to show his cards. The book is almost devoid of mood, insight and spiritual texture. He does not reveal his own feelings at that terrible moment in 1967 when he realized that his military calculations were wrong, that thousands and thousands of Americans and Vietnamese were dying each week and that, of all the things that he had done in a seemingly admirable career, he would be remembered more than anything else for Vietnam. This is not his way; there are no feelings here. We will never even know if he has ever visited the Vietnam Memorial.
Nor is this an intellectual’s book, for McNamara, despite the attempts of so many people in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to sell him as an intellectual, was never very much of an intellectual; his mind was at best technocratic. Nor is it a historian’s book, lacking the richness of texture that Henry Kissinger at his best supplied to his own memoir, for Kissinger, with his immigrant vulnerability to other men of power, was fascinated by all those around him and sensed the nuance of every person he dealt with.
By comparison, McNamara never seems to have had any interest in anyone else, save perhaps his immediate superiors. His insights into the other key players as they face the denouement of 20 years of deeply flawed policies are almost nonexistent, worthy of an eighth grader: Gen. Paul Harkins, the American general in Saigon in 1962 and 1963, a man best remembered for deceiving Washington on the war’s progress (as Washington wanted to be deceived) appears as “tall, handsome and articulate; he looked and spoke exactly as a general should.” (In fact on another occasion, McNamara said of Harkins, “He wasn’t worth a damn, so we got rid of him.”) Or of Lyndon Johnson, about the best we get is this: “one of the most complex, intelligent and hard working individuals I have ever known. He possessed a kaleidoscopic personality . . . a towering paradoxical figure.”
One can almost imagine the disappointment of his editors when the manuscript finally came in: Is this all we get? they must have asked. Can’t we get him to tell more about how it felt in those meetings when they were deciding to cross the Rubicon?
This most bureaucratic of histories nevertheless reveals a struggle between two McNamaras: the McNamara who was the fierce advocate of intervention, and the McNamara who came two years later to understand that the war was a tragic miscalculation, that neither side could win.
The Bad McNamara worked the Pentagon and the Good McNamara worked Georgetown and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, where miraculously enough, for a time he was president. The Good McNamara tried to stop the bombing and whispered privately to his select journalistic friends that he was a dove while the Bad McNamara tried to signal to the military that he was still on board, that he still believed their estimates and thought the war winnable. The Bad McNamara was willing to go on network television endlessly in the war’s early days to help project a sense of confidence about the progress of the war. The Good McNamara, as he is quick to tell us in these pages, went to the President in 1965 and asked for a tax increase to cover the otherwise inevitable budget deficit of the expanding war; when the President refused him and told him he was politically naive, the Bad McNamara thereupon loyally lied to the Council of Economic Advisers on the President’s behalf, advising them to forecast a small war in a moment of dissembling he fails to mention in this book.
For a long time the only thing the two McNamaras had in common was an agreement that they would not talk publicly about Vietnam. Then the Bad McNamara finally gave the Good McNamara permission to write the book, but the Good McNamara is still so locked up and emotionally blocked--so incapacitated by the deeds of the Bad McNamara--that he found no freedom when he set down to write.
McNamara was always a superb bureaucrat, a fierce apparatchik, who sensing what his superiors wanted, took no prisoners in his struggle with peers and subordinates alike. His rise in the post-World War II years, first at Ford, and then at the Pentagon, symbolized the coming of the super-accountant as the driving force of the ever larger, virtually uncontrollable super-corporation, the man who in the computer-driven age could use numbers not merely as small bits of information to keep a company out of the red but, far more important, as a weapon of power, overwhelming opponents and critics with facts or pseudo-facts.
To McNamara, numbers still have an almost poetic quality, and one of the few moments in this book when he comes alive and seems almost lyrical is when he talks about them: “My mathematics professors taught me to see math as a process of thought--a language in which to express much, but certainly not all, human activity. It was a revelation. To this day I see quantification as a language to add precision to reasoning about the world. Of course it cannot deal with issues of morality, beauty and love, but it is a powerful tool too often neglected when we seek to overcome poverty, fiscal deficits or the failure of our national health programs. . . .”
Sadly for him, for the nation and for the Vietnamese, Vietnam of all wars most resolutely withstood quantitative analysis. The numbers never revealed the burden of the immediate past; they failed to show, for instance, that the other side’s commanders were the architects of a great revolution that had already defeated first the French and then the Army of South Vietnam, aided and advised by Americans. The science of quantitative analysis, which McNamara had cherished because it seemed to have such purity, was like a god that failed him. Bring systems analysis to a badly aberrated policy and it is no help; humans will simply jiggle the numbers as necessary. The computer becomes useless. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.
McNamara, nevertheless, was not merely a great square of the Midwest, an apolitical man with a taste for numbers. He was in fact a great political operator, a killer inside the bureaucracy with a superb sense of how to put opponents on the defensive and to exploit their weaknesses while concealing any of his own. He understood every nuance of power and how to hold it.
While at Ford, he was so tense and driven that he ground his teeth at night. In time this caused serious dental problems. For treatment he selected a dentist in New York, lest news of his neurosis get out in the gossipy, incestuous world of Detroit; lest it subtract from the myth of his omniscience, from his image of a man completely in control, cool and calm. Grinding his teeth might have cost him more than dental pain; it might have cost him power. He and those in the financial cadre he helped create and who followed him at Ford knew little about cars and were often almost scornful of those who did, but they knew how to bring organization to a sprawling, poorly run company, and they learned how to destroy opponents who were skilled in engineering or manufacturing but innocent of politics.
What worked for McNamara in Detroit worked for him even better in Washington for a time. He had more and better numbers than anyone else around the Pentagon, and given the growing complexity of weapons systems and their cost, he was a valuable ally for the Kennedys in the early going.
One must sympathize with his early role as the Administration’s point man for Vietnam. He moved quickly into a vacuum on a deeply flawed, essentially dishonest policy, though he did it with no small amount of hubris and arrogance. Dean Rusk was a weak secretary of state who accepted (all too readily) all the norms and givens of the era. As for our real Asia experts, the Asian equivalents of Kennan, Bohlen and Thompson, they had all been driven out of the Foreign Service by the McCarthy era, their sin being that they accurately predicted the collapse of China’s nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.
True McCarthyism, it should be pointed out, was not just the demented ravings and accusations of the alcoholic junior senator from Wisconsin against a few flawed political leftists; the truest manifestation and the lasting legacy of McCarthyism was the willingness of one political party to use the issue of subversion against the other party (even against an Administration as hard-line in stopping European communism as the Truman-Acheson one had been).
What was worst about those accusations was how deeply they seeped into the political bloodstream. The Democrats were accused of losing China to the Communists (though of course there had been no Republican congressional voices in favor of sending American troops to fight for Chiang on mainland China). In time the Democrats were driven from office, but the McCarthy charge seemed to stick in their collective political psyche; in the future they did not dare lose a country to communism.
Let us then set the Kennedy years in truer context: A team of brilliant rationalists had taken office but for political reasons they were dealing with irrational assumptions on American policy in Asia, which they were afraid of challenging because they did not want to take the political heat required to change the existing policies.
Thus we were unable to see China for what it was: nationalist revolution rather than Soviet Communist expansionism. Nor were we able to recognize, more than a decade after Mao had come to power, that there were important new opportunities for American policy in the emerging, historic split between China and Russia, based again on nationalism.
The reason the Kennedys did not see them was not lack of intelligence but an awareness of the political cost of even thinking about dealing with China. Even to discuss the possibility in the most private of meetings was to open the door to severe assault from the right. (Thus the opening to China would be left for Richard Nixon a decade later, secure in the knowledge that when he went to China to start diplomatic relations, he would not be red baited by Richard Nixon.)
McNamara, nevertheless, wasn’t merely the loyal domestic policy servant he portrays himself to be in these pages. Both publicly and privately, he was a fierce advocate of escalation, and for a time he became the driving force of the war, the man who loved the truth of numbers, but who would be remembered sadly, for one set of numbers above all others: the body count.
McNamara also denies playing an active role in the rigging of the information that came out of Saigon. On Page 43, I encountered this truly remarkable sentence: “None of us--not me, not the President, not Mac (Bundy), nor Dean, nor Max--was ever satisfied with the information we received from Vietnam.” For Robert S. McNamara to write so singularly dishonest a sentence 30 years after the escalation of the war, in a book heralded as a mea culpa is, it seems to me, perilously close to a felony, and a sign that he is a man so contorted and so deep in his own unique self-delusion and self-division, that he still doesn’t know who he is and what he did at that time.
(One of the ironies of this book is that there is a rare moment when McNamara’s normally muted voice becomes both real and passionate and it is his attempt to settle an old score with Barry Goldwater. The Arizona senator had blamed McNamara for the Edsel, which was not a McNamara car, and the secretary of defense remains outraged by this and by Goldwater’s subsequent refusal in 1964 to drop the charge, even after other Ford men wrote saying it was not a McNamara car. That McNamara, by rigging the information on Vietnam through 1963 and 1964 in order to serve a Democratic President in the most blatant political way imaginable, sinned more against Goldwater than Goldwater ever sinned against him does not seem to occur to him.)
By 1967, McNamara knew that the American commitment was going to be blunted, that we had underestimated the resilience of the other side and its essential invulnerability to our technology. Privately anguished, he was desperate for some way out. He seized on all kinds of ideas--one was building an electronic fence around South Vietnam, an idea privately ridiculed by almost all uniformed officers, and another was some kind of bombing halt that might in time lead to negotiations. But any bombing halt was doomed, because he refused to go public and say what he knew: that the policy had essentially failed.
Here we see McNamara for the first time as a completely divided man. The government position was that we were winning, the secretary of efense knew we were not, and his more hawkish colleagues had come to regard him as figure of ridicule. He was effectively paralyzed. The emotional erosion this division inflicted on McNamara was, his friends thought, considerable. He was the hawk who had been the principal architect of escalation and who now knew that it did not work, a man at war with himself. Finally, Lyndon Johnson, fearing both for McNamara’s sanity and health, and loyalty (ever the political realist, Johnson feared that Bobby Kennedy would run against him in 1968, which he did, and that McNamara might leave the Administration and go with Bobby and go public with his doubts), dumped him and dispatched him to the World Bank.
In the ensuing nearly 30 years he has remained silent as a public man: distant from the public debate, a not-so-innocent bystander, and yet still the gifted bureaucrat, a man still immensely skilled in his private politicking with select journalists (primarily liberal columnists and bureau chiefs) in the Washington area in order to protect his own personal reputation and to float his own doubts in proper, private genteel channels and keeping his reputation for being on the right side of issues intact.
He is a man who seems to live in a time warp. Vietnam happened but it didn’t happen. No rain has ever fallen and dampened those great reputations of 34 years ago. To him, the Kennedy team is still as dazzling as ever, its players are all still the best and the brightest. Mac Bundy, essentially silent all these years over the tragedy of Vietnam, is in his words “by far the ablest National Security adviser I’ve observed over the last 40 years.” Max Taylor, a man whose uniformed subordinates thought that more than anything else he was committed to keeping American ground troops off the mainland of Asia, and whose fingerprints are all over the fateful decisions to intervene, and whose own memoir seems to blame the failure primarily on the press, remains “the wisest uniformed geopolitican and security adviser I ever met.” But McNamara is not really talking about Mac Bundy and Max Taylor and his own hope that their reputations have remained untarnished by Vietnam; he is really talking about himself. By implication and extension, McNamara still thinks of himself as the ablest secretary of defense of modern times, the man who tamed the Pentagon.
I do not believe in war crimes on Vietnam, for there was enough responsibility to go around for everyone involved. But McNamara, given his role in the early days and his belief so early on that the military involvement was a failure, is guilty of something else: the crime of silence.
He tells us that while writing this book, he asked himself, Why speak now? Why break my silence? Though there are many reasons, he says, “the main one is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.” Indeed? What a charlatan. Has there ever been a more insulting sentence written by a high public official? Does he know so little about why the mood of this country has shifted? This from the man who remained silent when a decision to tell the truth publicly might have not only diminished cynicism but strengthened the democratic fabric.
This should have been an important book. But it is not. It permits us some insight into McNamara’s inability to come to terms with his role and its consequences, and it involuntarily offers a rare insight into the difference between the mind of a truly public man and the mind of a bureaucrat. But that is little recompense. McNamara comes to us now as a sad and greatly diminished figure from a tainted past. The debate has long since passed him by.
When we last saw him some 28 years ago, ever so confidently lecturing to us about Vietnam, he was deceiving millions and millions of his fellow Americans. Now with this book, he is merely deceiving himself.