One of the most painful and divisive episodes in recent American history was the war in Vietnam, and perhaps no one was more deeply involved in the day-to-day war decisions than Robert McNamara, secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968. Yet for more than twenty-five years he declined to speak publicly about America’s humiliating military defeat. In this book, McNamara explains just how the intelligent, talented, and well-meaning individuals who made up the inner circle of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations—“the best and the brightest,” as they have been called—got it wrong in Vietnam. He believes that he now owes it to the American people to explain why.
During the Kennedy years, McNamara says, the administration operated on two basic assumptions: that the fall of South Vietnam to Communism would threaten the security of the United States and the world, and that the South Vietnamese should assume the major part of the burden of defending their country. The first assumption was a legacy of the Cold War, as Communist countries, especially the Soviet Union and Communist China, attempted to expand their spheres of influence. President Harry S Truman had proclaimed in his historic “Truman Doctrine” that the United States was committed to halting the spread of Communism anywhere in the world, and his successor in the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower, subscribed to what he called the “domino theory,” which predicted that the fall of small, democratic countries bordering the Soviet Union and China would set off a chain reaction that would soon threaten the entire free world.
Vietnam was thus seen by both Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, who took office in 1961, as the cornerstone of the preservation of democracy in Southeast Asia. The United States was committed to sending economic and military aid to Vietnam, but Kennedy was unwilling to use U.S. troops to defend the region. McNamara points out, however, that the administration failed to take into account the chronic political unrest within South Vietnam, which seriously threatened its ability to maintain an effective fighting force to repel an invasion by Communist North Vietnam. Kennedy reluctantly decided, as a temporary measure, to send sixteen thousand U.S. military advisers to South Vietnam to help train the Vietnamese to defend themselves, with the intention that all the training forces would be withdrawn by 1965.
Two events late in 1963 were major turning points in America’s involvement in Vietnam. On November 2, Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of South Vietnam since 1954, was assassinated in a political coup; this launched a long period of political instability in South Vietnam. Twenty days later, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the responsibilities of commander-in-chief. McNamara relates that one of the questions he has been asked most often in the last thirty years—a question that until now he had declined to answer—is what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam had he lived. Because of the political instability of South Vietnam and its inability to defend itself, McNamara thinks that Kennedy would have concluded that South Vietnam would ultimately be lost to Communism. The absence of military help would probably begin the fall of the “dominoes” and lead to the loss of other countries in Southeast Asia, but Kennedy would have decided that the cost of defending them with American blood was too high.
Upon Kennedy’s death, Johnson inherited a complicated and dangerous crisis in Vietnam. As the military situation worsened, Johnson faced some tough choices: Should the United States use its superior air power to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines? Would this lead to the possible entry of the Soviet Union or China into the war? Should American troops be sent in to train and support the weak South Vietnamese army? Would Americans at home support a ground war in Vietnam, and would Congress authorize the deployment of troops?
Another turning point came in August, 1964, when two U.S. warships were allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, Johnson asked Congress for, and received, authorization to retaliate. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, although not a formal declaration of war, gave the president enormous power to expand the United States’ role in Vietnam, including the use of combat forces. It is McNamara’s opinion that President Johnson did not intend to deceive either Congress or the American people with the...
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