Robert S McNamara served as secretary of defence in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and as architect, if there was one, of America's Vietnam dilemma. Boy Scout that he was as a youth, he takes full responsibility for leading Johnson into the quagmire in south-east Asia. But corporate manager that he became before joining the government, he describes at least five occasions on which Kennedy, then Johnson, could have withdrawn. They did not, McNamara says, principally because he and others failed to conduct the diligent analysis of goals and methods that would have shown American policy to be futile and sterile.
"We were wrong," he confesses now, 22 years after the end of the war, "terribly wrong."
McNamara says he knew by early 1967 just how wrong. He became the staunchest critic within the administration, evolving gradually from Johnson's most trusted cabinet officer to an alienated friend whose passionate memos did not even earn a response. Johnson assured his silence and rewarded his loyalty by naming him president of the World Bank in 1968, a job McNamara held for the next 13 years. McNamara marvels that Johnson's political skills were so formidable that he does not know to this day "whether I was fired or I quit", though it seems clear to us it was the former.
Only a few weeks after forcing McNamara away, Johnson announced he himself would retire from the presidency in an effort to negotiate an end to the war and stop the wave of protest tearing America apart at the generational seams. What he refused to do even then was to withdraw, a decision McNamara insists the President could have taken just a few months earlier just as easily as Richard Nixon did six years later when the war finally ended in defeat.
By trying to bomb Hanoi to the negotiating table instead, Johnson opened the door of the White House to Nixon, a swerve to the right that has not yet ended. Nixon used the most potent weapon of the Presidency, the power to appoint federal judges, to start the long retreat from the standards of the Great Society. A majority of the Supreme Court, all Nixon, Reagan and Bush appointees, now stand ready to pull down the federalist structure on which Johnson hung his social fabric. Power belongs to the individual states, they say, those same states, many of them, whose apartheid-like laws Johnson so abhorred.
As McNamara describes the manoeuvring inside the White House, Johnson's refusal to consult with the House of Representatives about Vietnam prevented him from asking for the taxes he needed to pay for the war. The borrowing that became necessary to provide guns and butter set off an inflationary spiral that later sucked down Jimmy Carter and replaced him with Ronald Reagan. It also initiated the climb to a mountainous national debt. Today's predictable result: a weak dollar, an assault on budgets for food and medical care for the poor, on programmes for the arts, on foreign aid, on education. America is fractionalising government authority and influence. The brilliant cloth Johnson wove of equal opportunity in a federal democratic society is being eaten by a horde of moths. In its place the individual states are building more prisons.
The publication of In Retrospect in April unleashed a flood of bitterness, much of it directed at McNamara personally. The millions who suffered through the war in military service and the tens of millions who marched in the streets to end it were startled by this late-life confession. As one former army nurse sobbed into a talk-show microphone, "After all those years in cushy jobs, he wants me to pay to read that it was a mistake to have sent me to work in a field hospital, for all those young men to die there while we watched, helplessly?" A lawyer who organised anti-war protests in the Sixties raged about the timing of the confession. "Just imagine how many lives he could have saved if he had come clean when he left office."
How many? Millions of Vietnamese were killed by the American military. More than 58,000 Americans also died. Millions more died in Cambodia, at least in part because of the instability the war brought to Vietnam's neighbour. The number wounded physically and psychically can't be counted.
McNamara blames the early fumbling of the war on lack of knowledgeable Asia hands in the State Department. The best of the senior foreign service officers who specialised in the region had been "purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s" for having "lost China" to the Communists. There was no shortage of information, but without experienced interpreters the President's senior advisers repeatedly misunderstood what they heard and saw.
The war began as a nationalist movement to reunite a country arbitrarily divided at the end of French rule. Instead, the Americans saw the Vietcong as a pawn of the worldwide communist conspiracy to destroy democracy and free enterprise. Relying on a domino theory already obsolete, the President's advisers considered a range of purely military treatments, including nuclear bombardment of North Vietnam or wholesale American takeover of the South.
Team leader that McNamara was, he takes responsibility for the disaster that Vietnam became. "We failed to ask the important questions ... We responded with force out of the desire to do something but not knowing what else to do."
Unlike Henry Kissinger, who took over as Vietnam steward in the Nixon Administration, McNamara never attempted to profit from his position at the centre of American policy-making. He gave up a lucrative job as chief executive of the Ford Motor Company to heed Kennedy's call to public service in 1961. He seemed stunned and hurt by the recent anger and hostility. Defending himself on the talk-show circuit, he said he waited 27 years to speak because of loyalty to the presidents he served, both of them now long dead. He came forward now at the age of 79 not for money but in the hope of steering American policy-makers from a similar mistake in Bosnia or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the nurse and many others would be unhappy to learn that Random House, the publisher, has distributed more than 300,000 copies so far, pushing McNamara's potential royalties near $1 million. The book has remained on American best-seller lists virtually since its release three months ago, but no British publisher would take it on, judging it unlikely to appeal to a wide enough audience. Random House has now shipped 2,000 copies of the American edition for distribution by its British subsidiary.
McNamara sounds sincere when he claims that he, too, suffered from the knowledge that young Americans were dying, nearly 20,000 of them by the time he left office. He even witnessed one death himself. In late 1965 a young Quaker from Baltimore, Norman R Morrison, doused himself with fuel and set himself on fire outside McNamara's Pentagon window. "I reacted to the horror of his action by bottling up my emotions," McNamara writes. It would have been better had he discussed it with his family, he says.
Better for America, too. Had he found a way to debate the issues at home, perhaps he would have forced the generals and the foreign policy elders to debate as well. Had they done so, he suggests in a bewildered and infuriating tone, they would have given President Johnson better advice. They probably would have told him to get out, he suggests, because in retrospect there was so little point in staying.
This version of the Vietnam years unfolds in a straightforward, memo- like style. McNamara enumerates "five goals", "twelve failures", "three alternatives". He emphasises duty, devotion, honour. It reads this way because he retained only a single binder of important memoranda as his guide. He kept no diary, strong supporting evidence of his claim that he never intended to write this book. But with the help of a history professor and Vietnam expert from the US Naval Academy, Brian VanDeMark, he traces the cancerous growth of American policy in a lucid, compelling narrative enriched with the wisdom of age and distance. He does not allow himself to dwell on how different America might have been had Johnson ended the war. But he does allow himself one lesson. We cannot follow the Kissinger model for international relations, he says, a return to the 19th-century world of powerful nation states manoeuvring pragmatically to enhance their own interests. That world, devoid of ideology, cannot cope with the global economic and environmental challenges we face. Instead, we must make the United Nations work. Otherwise, Bosnia could rapidly become a European Vietnam.
'In Retrospect' by Robert McNamara is scheduled for publication by Century in November at pounds 20.Reuse content