For anyone familiar with the documentary The Fog of War, In Retrospect by Robert McNamara (secretary of defence during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) fills out more detail. It is fascinating “inside” look at how the Vietnam War was run (or not run properly) from the Pentagon and White House.
In Retrospect has the same mix of admitting error (if not contrition) and self-justification. But there is probably more of the former, and as in the film, its considered judgement is often punctuated with sharp statements such as “I was wrong”, “I clearly erred” and “we failed miserably”. While he still attracts criticism, it’s fair to say that politicians instead usually desperately try to justify their actions rather than turn about-face.
McNamara was often labelled a heartless intellectual, though this is clearly not the case. Well, the heartless bit. The war clearly caused him much agony, and eventually led to his parting with Lyndon Johnson (and the war continued for some years after that).
He was certainly an intellectual. It is amazing that even in stressful situations, such as in the midst of campus demonstrations, he is soberly calculating. He describes visiting one college graduation and, as protestors heckled him, he “counted the number and calculated the percentage” of protestors wearing armbands in the varying levels of graduates. (He was “alarmed” that the higher the education, the higher the protestor percentage.)
He tells a sombre story of how presidents sank into the quagmire of the war, how he didn’t ask the right questions, how judgements were impaired by the Cold War and other issues, and how he was pressured by both the Right, who wanted to “unleash… American military might”, and the Left, who of course opposed the war and the subterfuge around it. Of course the job was an extremely difficult one, but amazing how this “whiz kid”, the former head of Ford, one of the “best and brightest”, failed to put his considerable learning into practice in the setting of the US government’s corridors of power.
He says that the US fought for “good and honest reasons”. Well, one could dispute that. It may be another case of America simply assuming that its values are universally esteemed. Few would now dispute his assessment that Vietnam was a mistake. A pity George W Bush didn’t read this book before Iraq, though of course it is something of a fallacy that we learn from history – clearly many politicians are so determined in their course that they refuse to take that lesson.