We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam, acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values.
Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why. I truly believe we made an error, not of values and intentions, but of judgement and capabilities
Robert McNamara, preface to “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”
Counterfeit copies of Robert McNamara’s Vietnam memoir, “In Retrospect” still do brisk trade on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and touts accost you brandishing the book long before you arrive at the War Museum.
If you’re headed there and haven’t already read it however, then it may be better to save it until after the museum experience, because it makes for awkward reading.
McNamara is very eloquent and candid in his account of the political processes and decisions that lead up to the war, and in this respect his account is truthful.
Truthful in the sense that he (and presumably the administrations he served) genuinely believed that their actions in Vietnam served a viable moral and political purpose.
About this assumption, this moral foundation for opting to go to war, McNamara is clear.
“We sought to do the right thing, and believed we were doing the right thing.”
The reasoning, inherited from the Eisenhower administration, that the fall of Vietnam would produce a domino effect that would see communism spread across the South East Asia region, seemed correct at the time.
But it was a crucial and fundamental assumption that would prove to be incorrect.
Military intervention by the US in Vietnam would not result in regional stability, and the threat posed by the fall of South Vietnam was over estimated, as McNamara himself acknowledges:
“…we built a progressively more massive effort on an inherently unstable foundation. External military force cannot substitute for the political order and stability that must be forged by a people for themselves.”
As a graduate of Harvard School of Business Administration, McNamara is clearly a firm believer in the power of process and organisation, and his managerial success working for the War Office in WW2 and as President of Ford Motor Company, no doubt confirmed his faith in the power of rational management and in his own judgement.
And perhaps it is this unwavering self assurance in his own capabilities that makes his memoir so strangely unsettling at times.
The Vietnam war, if you read it from McNamara’s perspective at least, was, as much as anything else, a technocratic failure. A failure of judgement and capabilities.
Not a moral failure.
A technocratic failure.
That is something I have difficulty reconciling with the facts that confront me in the museum.
Because politics doesn’t exist in a moral vacuum. Politics isn’t a simple matter of administration.
Politics, when it fails, is flesh and blood. Is life and death. Is pain and suffering.
And it’s politics, and it’s effects, that hangs on the walls and lies sealed in the jars of the war museum.
Politics, and it’s effects, that can still be seen today in the scarred faces on the streets, in the disabled children – in both the US and in Vietnam – that are living with the terrible consequences of Agent Orange.
McNamara acknowledges that the US went to war based on a set of flawed assumptions, and that this was an executive failure.
However, the underlying premise of his memoir suggests that an unquestioning belief in your values and intentions, even if these are incorrect, is a reasonable justification for war.
This is the real “tragedy and lesson of Vietnam” and it is sadly one that we still seem to forget…