Rolling Thunder: the Rerun
Why the establishment suddenly blackballed McNamara's project is not entirely clear, but to this reviewer the antagonism he aroused is in his favor. As people gradually figured out what he was up to, he obviously hit a sensitive nerve with his cautionary warnings: It is by no means coincidental that his critics are among the staunchest supporters of Balkan intervention. Not that they were always such. Hawks like Henry Kissinger, for example, who believe US power should inspire fear before trust, argue that once having launched a war, victory must be achieved. Before NATO attacked Yugoslavia, Kissinger was outspoken against intervention, but now, for reasons of state, he counsels unlimited escalation. The parallel in thought processes to what happened in Vietnam policy-making could not be clearer. For interventionists, McNamara's description of a bitter, thirty-year-old defeat comes at a most inopportune juncture.
McNamara writes, "What was for me personally, and I believe for President Johnson and his other senior foreign policy advisers as well, the most frustrating aspect of the entire affair [was] the failure to de-escalate the conflict, to move to direct talks and, ultimately, to a negotiated settlement during the Johnson presidency." The reason they could not get talks going, of course, was the American bombing campaign. McNamara still can't understand why the Vietnamese wouldn't respond to US "signals" through bombing or bombing pauses. In his mind, it should have been possible to bomb all the way to the peace table. His Vietnamese interlocutors, however, serenely repeated themselves on this point, leaving objective observers no room for doubt: Serious talks were just not in the cards because of the bombing. Furthermore (and today McNamara can understand these effects), bombing unified the Vietnamese people, encouraged North Vietnamese forces to prepare creatively for a longer war and, counterintuitively, made hardships brought on by the war more tolerable for ordinary folk.
At least one American participant grasped the Vietnamese point. Chester Cooper was a highly regarded career superstar, a former Deputy Director for Intelligence at the CIA and McGeorge Bundy's senior assistant for Asia at the National Security Council from 1964 to 1966. He had been at virtually every major international conference dealing with Asian problems since 1954 and knew something about the region. One of three to leave government early on in protest, he quietly resigned from the NSC over Vietnam in 1966 (but W. Averell Harriman dragged him back to the State Department, where he served until 1968). In the book's transcripts Cooper says, "There was nothing that we could propose until 1968 that would elicit a positive, constructive response in respect to negotiations." Luu Doan Huynh, one of Vietnam's pre-eminent historians publishing in English, said, "Then the Americans are to blame. The Americans!" to which Cooper replied, "I can't argue with what you just said." Curious about what seem to be divergences from McNamara's summary gloss, this reviewer contacted Cooper to ask about the rationale for continued bombing and was told forthrightly that there was none. "We were flailing out in frustration," he added.
Could it be the same with Yugoslavia? An unimpeachable press source who regularly travels with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told this reviewer that, swearing reporters to deep-background confidentiality at the Rambouillet talks, a senior State Department official had bragged that the United States "deliberately set the bar higher than the Serbs could accept." The Serbs needed, according to the official, a little bombing to see reason. Many critics already assumed the United States was creating a pretext for bombing--it seemed abundantly evident from the sham Rambouillet plan, which in its military appendix B demanded what would have been an unconditional surrender of Yugoslavia--but it is still astonishing to find out that a senior official would crow about a premeditated US plan to justify attack. Does the Gulf of Tonkin ring a bell?
What about intelligence? According to McNamara's book, "The U.S. intelligence community was virtually unanimous in predicting that [air power bringing the Hanoi regime to its knees] was an unattainable objective." A majority inside the CIA have reached exactly the same conclusion about Yugoslavia, according to sources familiar with the briefing materials Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet brings to White House meetings. The use of air power alone, they say, will not achieve the stated objectives. But analysis by those who know something about the Balkans too often gets overshadowed by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton's maps and charts showing the war's progress. McNamara redux!