WAS THE VIETNAM WAR WORTH IT?….I finished up In Retrospect last night, and in the end I was disappointed. I’ve always felt a fair amount of sympathy for the position that Robert McNamara found himself in as Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson, and it’s always interesting to read first-person memoirs like this ? especially from a guy who’s obviously trying to be truthful ? but he never really tackled the primary geopolitical question of the Vietnam War: was it worth it?
There was a fairly widespread (though far from unanimous) feeling even back in 1965-67 that it was impossible for us to actually win the war against North Vietnam, but in a way this is beside the point. Even if we couldn’t win, the reason we were there was the fear that leaving would (a) damage U.S. prestige, (b) demonstrate that America didn’t stick to its commitments, and (c) cause a domino effect in which the fall of South Vietnam would inexorably lead to the fall of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.
So what does McNamara think? He states over and over that ? in retrospect ? we overestimated the damage that would have been done by pulling out of Vietnam. Unfortunately, that’s all he does: state it over and over. For a guy who spent seven years at the very center of this debate and who has had 30 years to think about it since, I would have expected some serious analysis of this proposition. What would have happened if we had pulled out in 1964? And more to the point, given the evidence available at the time, was the domino theory an unreasonable one?
For example, at one point McNamara talks about a memo written in 1965 by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in which he says that if U.S. commitments are seen as unreliable, “the communist world would draw conclusions that would lead to our ruin and almost certainly to a catastrophic war.” This was a common view at the time, and keep in mind that “catastrophic” in this regard means “nuclear,” a very realistic possibility to men like Rusk. McNamara explains:
The reader may find it incomprehensible that Dean foresaw such dire consequences from the fall of South Vietnam, but I cannot overstate the impact our generation’s experiences had on him (and, more or less, on all of us). We had lived through appeasement at Munich; years of military service during World War II fighting aggression in Europe and Asia; the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe; repeated threats to Berlin, including that of August 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; and, most recently, Communist Chinese statements that the South Vietnam conflict typified “wars of liberation,” which they saw spreading across the globe.
But that’s it. Sure, Rusk’s view strikes us as an overreaction ? but only because we know now that we won in the end. But was it an unreasonable view at the time?
McNamara never really tries to answer that question, and this is odd since one of his primary criticisms of himself and his colleagues is that they never really seriously analyzed the situation at the time, instead just accepting the conventional wisdom and then reacting to events. But now, 30 years later, he seems to be doing the same thing except that this time he’s accepting the new conventional wisdom that the domino theory was overblown.
That’s too bad. Given that McNamara was a famously analytic person, it would have been interesting to see him analyze the situation all over again given the information available at the time. That he doesn’t robs the book of any lasting impact.