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“In Retrospect, the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” by Robert McNamara, Book Review Example

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Book Review

In Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, the former Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations provides his account of America’s entry into the Vietnam War. Although McNamara was asked continuously after he resigned his position in Johnson’s cabinet February 29, 1968 to set out his own account. He dismissed the idea because he thought it would be received as self-serving and it was hard to face his own mistakes in leading American to war. Over time, however, he came to see that one side of the story – of how a group of smart, visionary, hardworking and well meaning men in the prime of their lives, with the privilege of serving the president could have gotten the Vietnam situation so very wrong. This memoir is an attempt to set the record straight and help Americans regain their faith in their political leaders and institutions (ix).

McNamara covers a broad sweep of his life starting the narration from June 9, 1916 when he was born to give the reader some background into his own life. The book outside of the first chapte, focuses entirely on the time when he was Secretary of State from January 19, 1961, Kennedy’s inauguration to when he resigned from public life. This time period chronicles his involvement in the decision-making that went into the escalation of the United States into the Vietnam War.

McNamara argues that the primary reasons for the United States staying involved in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s was because of two, what McNamara calls, contradictory positions: first, that the South Vietnamese fall to communism would be an immediate threat to US security; and, second that US actions would involve providing logistical support to help South Vietnam defend itself from Ho Chi Minh and the invading, communist North Vietnamese (29). Unfortunately, these positions were predicated on some false assumptions about America, Vietnam and the regional politics.

One wrong assumption was about Ho Chi Minh. Because of anti-communist concerns in US policy-making circles, they viewed him only as a communist. They underestimated his nationalist desires and as such did not see him as a nationalist, which was the basis of his staying power and appeal. Second, they did not understand China nor China’s objectives in the situation. A third wrong assumption was that the South Vietnamese could control their politics and just needed logistical support. They showed repeatedly that this was not the case. Finally, they assumed, wrongly, that China and the Soviet Union were close; it was only much later that they could see China’s regional position too. Interestingly, McNamara blames these misperceptions on the lack of area specialists that could have offered him and the policy-makers an inside look at Vietnam, China and the region. Instead, he notes that the best people for the job from the State Department were all purged during the McCarthy era (33).

As such, the war escalated in the 1960s for a number of reasons. First, the Vietnamese could not manage the conflict on their own. Second, US forces were attacked and it required a response. Third, the decision to start a bombing campaign. Fourth attempts at a ceasefire failed. Thus, the United States made the decision to deploy combat troops without asking basic questions like: if when Kennedy died no one thought the South Vietnamese could win the war, what had changed? Why would a bombing program force the North Vietnamese surrender? Could US objectives be reached it they forced the North to negotiate? What US ground forces might be required under different scenarios? What would it mean with US casualties? And most importantly, how would Congress and the public react (162-163)?

By 1966, McNamara believed that there was nothing left to gain with troops on the ground. Importantly he argued that escalation, or adding more troops would cause the war to spin seriously out of control with huge casualties to the United States and a blow to US prestige, especially if Americans were killing roughly 1000 noncombatants each week (269). Of course current policy in Iraq has learned from this experience by using surge troops then quickly lowering them, by turning over political power quickly rather than trying to run domestic politics of another country, and Iraqis need to run Iraq not foreign occupiers. All of these lessons, including of course having clear objectives going in, had to be applied to Iraq.

But clearly as McNamara points out, foreign policy-making is sometimes best guestimates not analysis that can be proven one way or the other. Looking back relying on his own memory, his own analysis, and government archives including the private papers of many of the key players, he draws his conclusions. The most important part of the book though was looking with McNamara as they were all wading through at what point and at what strength the United States needed or should have intervened. This is a constant problem for the United States given its power: can it, should it be involved in disputes around the world because at some point it could affect US security? Or as in the case of Vietnam is it best to stand back and let situations resolve themselves? These are the current debates over human rights that seem to be never ending with few if any good answers sometimes. In the end, if McNamara wanted to show the readers how smart people got it wrong, sadly he succeeded for clearly those unanswered questions, lack of experts, incremental escalation, all of it in the end caused tremendous human suffering?

This book is an important document that adds to our knowledge of the Vietnam War. Of course, as McNamara notes, key parts are still missing from his analysis too and they involve the motivations of the North Vietnamese. Until those archives are fully opened, readers will never truly know for example how close they came to a peace settlement in 1963 and these raise important but unanswered questions. An excellent book nonetheless.

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