Military & Veterans

Robert McNamara, the Anti-War Left, & the Triumph of Intellectual Dishonesty

Fall 1995
by James Webb, Strategic Review

About a year ago I made a presentation to a group of high-powered account executives at one of the world’s largest investment banks. My speech discussed Vietnam’s current demographics, its economic future, and the desirability of doing business there. During the question-and-answer period I was challenged by a gentleman of about my age who had never been to Vietnam and who in his youth had obviously been opposed to the war. Why, he asked rather snidely, would I want to do business with the communists when I had tried to kill them as a Marine? Where was my consistency of thought? And indeed why did we even fight a war if they were so keen to do business with us?

I answered by pointing out that I have always believed in the strength of the culture and people of Vietnam, that the conditions now emerging in that country are approaching, however slowly, what I and others wanted to see twenty-five years ago; and that it was the communist government’s actions, not American intransigence, which had held back the country during the last two decades.

Before the next question was asked, I was interrupted by another million-dollar-a-year man, who it turned out was a Yale graduate and an Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He had become so angry from old memories that his face was on fire.

“You’re being too nice to this guy,” he said. “I’ll tell you why I have no problem doing business in Vietnam. I spent eighteen months there, and I never hated my enemy as much as I did the people who —- on me when I came home.”

The truth of this paradox is at the bottom of the intense anger most Vietnam veterans felt over the recent publication of Robert McNamara’s memoir, and the tone in the media during the observance of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam. It is one thing to be comfortable with one’s wartime service, and to be willing to move into the future by working with a government run by a former enemy. It is quite another to see the whole history of an era twisted and manipulated during one’s entire lifetime in order to salve the consciences of a group of Americans whose conduct during the war was less than commendable.

Preempting Historical Reflection

But that’s the way it has been. And so with Robert McNamara, who slipped quietly into town, robbed the bank in broad daylight, shot the guards, and was gone before the reaction force had a chance even to assemble. The former Defense Secretary’s terse, truncated memoir, coupled with a brief but intense publicity campaign, dramatically upended what might otherwise have been a key moment of historical reflection. And his quick disappearance thereafter had all the elements of a successful raid deep into enemy territory, of the sort he himself probably did not contemplate when he decided to write his book, and to this day very likely does not understand.

With a timing no doubt governed by those in publishing and media circles who wished to capitalize on his odd mea culpa in order to promote old and discredited views from the antiwar left, Mr. McNamara became the key figure during the observances marking the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. It had taken years following South Vietnam’s 1975 demise before the cycle of war and its aftermath was complete and a full body of facts, particularly from the communist side, became available. The twentieth anniversary of that overthrow offered a moment ripe for a re-examination of American and South Vietnamese wartime successes in the face of continuing derision at home, and of the now-undeniably ruinous consequences to Vietnam of a communist victory. Instead, the world was treated to a deliberate side-show.

In the first fifteen years or so following Saigon’s fall, there was nothing but bad news to report from Vietnam, and those who had made their political and journalistic careers on the wrongfulness of the war bear a culpability for persistently failing to report it. Similarly, during the twentieth anniversary observances these icons and their intellectual progeny persisted in focusing almost solely on the conduct of the war during Mr. McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense, which ended in disgrace in late 1967. It was as if the political, military and even moral issues had been decided in favor of the communists by that point, and the ensuing eight years of fighting and twenty years of suffering were merely an afterthought.

A Disservice to Understanding the War

The end result was a startling disservice to a full understanding of the war. Media depictions of the fighting typically showed tired and frustrated American and South Vietnamese soldiers, while often using stock propaganda footage of communist troops marching cheerfully down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The elders who made their names in younger days on such allegations as U.S. troops lying about their “body counts” gave almost no mention of the horrendous communist military casualties, despite the most newsworthy item of those few weeks: the Hanoi government officially admitting it lost 1. 1 million soldiers dead and another 300,000 still missing from the fighting, compared to American losses of 58,000 and South Vietnamese of 254,000. And few discussions recalled the Hanoi pledge in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that Vietnam would be reunited only by peaceful means, with guarantees of individual freedoms in the South, as well as internationally supervised free elections.

To the contrary, on the heels of Mr. McNamara’s comments regarding the “unwinnable” strategy he concocted and failed to adjust during the first four years of war, media air waves were filled with a litany of speeches proclaiming “vindication” by those who otherwise might have been forced to answer hard questions regarding their conduct and beliefs during the late 1960s and early 1970s. For some, such conduct was betrayal. For others, it was only a stupefying naiveté. But for most, there has been a persistent conspiracy of silence that has lasted for decades, accompanied of late by an attempt to leap over the carcasses and the devastation that followed the communist takeover, to simply pretend it did not happen.

When forced to comment, those who opposed our attempt to assist the building of a democracy in the South picked up the debate in its present makeup, pointing to the Hanoi government’s efforts in the past few years to liberalize the economy and reach out to the Americans in the wake of the collapse of their Soviet ally and the continuing menacing growth of the Chinese.

As a consequence, the best opportunity of a lifetime was lost for the many who still wish to put a generation’s most bitterly divisive period into proper historical perspective.

Few, if any, of the old anti-war luminaries, Stanley Karnow, Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, George McGovern, Peter Arnett, ‘Tom Harkin, Bill or Hillary Clinton-the list could fill the page-could find it in themselves to conjure up an apology, or admit they were wrong in judging a communist apparatus that brought Southeast Asia’s strongest and most pro-Western culture back into the dark ages, only to haltingly emerge fifteen years later reeking of torture, prison camps, Stalinism and corruption.

The Anti-War Left: Hoping for a Communist Victory

The reason, which remained either unspoken or unreported during the anniversary coverage, was stated most honestly and directly to me by George McGovern, who unfortunately was off-camera at the time. During a break while taping the CNN Crossfire show, after I had made a comment regarding the ability of the U.S. under the right leadership to have adjusted its strategy early on and prevailed in the war, the antiwar candidate who had once promised to go to Hanoi on his knees if he were elected President turned to me and announced in his emotionless monotone, “What you don’t understand is that I didn’t want us to win that war.”

The people who directed the antiwar movement did not care whether McNamara had a workable strategy, or whether it could have been adapted to circumstances. They did not care whether Nixon’s Vietnamization program might have worked. They did not care whether the South Vietnamese should have been given an adequate chance to adjust their strategy after the American withdrawal. And they did not care whether the communists signed a pledge guaranteeing free elections and a peaceful reunification of the country. Quite simply, they wanted the communists to win. Those who were adults during the Vietnam era know this truth full well. Others, however, particularly our children, have seen it glazed over and even denied as the reality of what happened after 1975 became ever more clear.

The failure of the media to show these old luminaries and their younger disciples in this true light is important for reasons beyond anger, finger-pointing and the assignment of blame. Only by understanding their deeper motivations can future generations comprehend the making and ultimate failure of American policy during that period, and the subsequent refusal of our media elites to speak and write honestly after South Vietnam’s fall.

Only by comprehending that Vietnam was the first war where a generation’s elite not only excused itself from fighting but often openly supported the side that was killing their own countrymen can we understand the persistent defamation of those who served. And only by comprehending that the antiwar movement’s dilatory effect was Hanoi’s greatest ace in the hole can we understand why the communists had few reasons ever to compromise at the negotiating table.

These are lessons whose omissions from the debate cannot help but affect one’s view of the honesty of history as an academic discipline. They have vital implications for the study of policymaking. And they tell us of the divisions that still exist in our society, not only when it comes to discussing the national trauma of Vietnam but in the increasingly visible emergence of the United States as a country whose cultural institutions are dominated by a veneer of protected elites.

The Vietnamese Deserved Better

And what of Vietnam-the country, not the war? Those who served there and grew to love not only the country but its people in large part share the view of David Halberstam, at least in the years before he became an intellectual leader of the antiwar left. Writing in 1964 in his book The Making of a Quagmire, Halberstam opined that “Vietnam is … perhaps one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to United States interests,” and warned that a communist takeover would bring about ‘a drab, lifeless and controlled society for a people who deserve better.’

The Vietnamese do deserve better, and it is a tribute to their amazing resilience that those who became exposed to Western ideals and practice before Saigon’s fall were able to keep hope alive despite the conditions into which American naiveté and abandonment delivered them. One doubts whether Mr. McNamara, who understood only numbers, or the antiwar leaders, who found solace and even hope in the preaching of Hanoi’s hard-line leaders, will ever understand the true Vietnamese character-or for that matter the nobility of the Americans who attempted to save it.