“We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women and children. LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals. What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”
But that’s not quite enough. I wonder if it if not precisely McNamara’s apologies that prompted so much contempt and despisal against him. In his memoirs published fourteen years ago, he did not merely admit to having made mistakes : he acknowledged that he knew these were mistakes at the time he was making them. This is what made In Retrospect read like a Greek tragedy: it pictured a man who knew he was damned but went through his ordeal as best as he could nonetheless. McNamara described himself as being put in a situation where there were no good options, and all decisions made would fall short of satisfying anyone. In his own memoirs, Clark Clifford described a McNamara on the verge of nervous breakdown by the end of his tenure : he was, reportedly, close to tears while telling his successor at the Defense Department, during a meeting in February 1968 : “We simply have to end this thing. I just hope you can get hold of it. It is out of control”.
Much more than his early recommendations to increase the American commitment in Vietnam, it seems to me that the reason why, forty years later, people can not forgive McNamara is the fact that once he understood—as he very clearly did—that there was no way to win the war, he did not do more to stop it. This is as much a criticism of McNamara (who, to be fair, certainly did try, on several occasions, to convey his doubts to Johnson) as of the decision-making process at the time. I remember being startled reading the notes taken during a working lunch with Dean Rusk, McNamara, Clark Clifford, Nick Katzenbach, Bill Bundy, Walt Rostow, Harry McPherson, and Joe Califano in February 1968 (the main item on the agenda was Westmoreland’s request for 205,000 more troops), which concluded with : “General impression: prevailing uncertainty. Radically different proposals were offered and debated, none rejected out of hand. […].We are at a point of crisis. McNamara expressed grave doubts over military, economic, political, diplomatic and moral consequences of a larger force buildup in SVN. Q[uestion] is whether these profound doubts will be presented to President.”
I wonder if Johnson, had he lived, would have received such scorn forty years later. I doubt he would have apologized like McNamara did, but who knows? (there was not a hint of it in The Vantage Point, but that was only a few years after he stepped down from the re-election campaign ; time may have given him more opportunity to reflect). People have forgiven Kennedy for his stepping up of the American involvement in Vietnam ; Nixon went down in shame, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the Vietnam War—even though more Americans died in Asia between 1970 and 1975, long after McNamara was gone, than during the six years that preceded. McNamara’s last major sin, it seems, is to have lived until 93 (again, the New York Times readers’ comments are quite telling in this regard) while so many of those he sent to war did not. Reaching such a venerable age was also McNamara’s damnation, for he could see the titanic effect the Vietnam war had on American policy, military, and culture for the decades to follow.
In my humble opinion, In Retrospect should be mandatory reading for all the current best and brightest whose analysis or recommendations feed into the decisions made in times of war.