Stanley Karnow: Worse Than McNamara?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Stanley Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History" (Penguin), covered the Vietnam War for The Washington Post.]

By the mid-1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson had deployed nearly half a million troops to Vietnam. His spokesmen loudly maintained that our troops' palpable military superiority -- they were equipped with ultramodern artillery, supersonic airplanes, technological gadgets and other sophisticated weaponry -- was having a decisive impact, killing countless Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars.

But even as the situation in Vietnam was being pumped up, a few officials in Washington were questioning the conventional optimism. Not the least of them was Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara -- the man who had staunchly promoted the anti-communist struggle in Southeast Asia for half a decade, first under President John F. Kennedy and then under Johnson.

As I contemplate McNamara's evolution from war supporter to war skeptic, I ponder whether Donald H. Rumsfeld, his heir at the Pentagon, nurses any similar doubts about the dubious Iraq strategy he vaunts in his rhetoric. I wonder whether it's possible that, despite his projection of unshakable faith today, he may eventually come to make the same confession about Iraq that McNamara did about Vietnam, in the surprisingly candid mea culpa he published in 1995: "We were wrong, terribly wrong."

There's no public sign that Rumsfeld is swayed by such thoughts. But McNamara's dramatic transformation took years to surface.

I first discerned a change in him at a conference in Honolulu in February 1966. The small group of reporters he invited to his deluxe hotel suite for a background briefing was stunned by his appearance. His face seemed grayer, and his patent-leather hair thinner. His voice lacked the authority it had projected in briefings past, when, like the consummate corporate executive he had been, he would briskly point to an array of graphs and flip charts to buttress his roseate appraisals of the war's progress.

Exactly a year before, Johnson had galvanized Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained aerial offensive that was supposed to crack Hanoi's morale. But McNamara bluntly told us that the attacks were ineffective. A rural society couldn't be blasted into submission, he emotionally insisted. "No amount of bombing can end this conflict."

His aim in leaking his reservations to the news media was to obstruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the belligerent faction on Capitol Hill, who were demanding an aggressive program to demolish every ammunition dump, bridge, road, factory, rail junction and warehouse in the North, as well as obliterate the Ho Chi Minh trail that threaded through the jungles adjacent to Cambodia and Laos. Some further advocated mining Haiphong harbor and flooding the Hanoi region by destroying the Red River dikes.....

In contrast to McNamara's relations with Johnson, Rumsfeld appears to enjoy the entire confidence of President Bush and, just as important, Vice President Cheney, neither of whom seem to be plagued by any Johnson-like uncertainties. So barring his possible ouster, he's unlikely to emulate McNamara by apologizing for a policy in Iraq that has been as misguided as the tragic Vietnam disaster.

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DeWayne Edward Benson - 10/23/2006

The difference between Vietnam and Iraq, also MacNamara and Rumsfeld, Mac did not initiate the sale of WMD to the VietCong beforehand.