Quantcast

Rolling Thunder: the Rerun | The Nation

  •  

Rolling Thunder: the Rerun

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

About the Author

George Kenney
George Kenney, who writes frequently on foreign affairs, resigned from the State Department's Yugoslavia desk in 1992...

Also by the Author

The spectacle of human beings acting out mindless violence through pack behavior instills more terror in the heart than perhaps any other event in the natural world.

If Russia is not to dissolve like the Soviet Union or, worse yet, end in a cataclysm like Yugoslavia's, it must negotiate peacefully across a welter of emotional claims to self-determination.

<% $placer->getPlace(0, 7) %> <& "$_basedir/include/icaps.imhtml", style=>$icapstyle, letter=>'P' &>eople concerned about the US-led NATO war against Yugoslavia find much to reflect upon in the Vietnam experience. Despite certain differences, similarities between the two episodes--particularly regarding bombing--seem uncanny. And now there's further evidence of how dramatically things like bombing can go wrong, in a book by someone in a position to know, who should have known better.

<% $placer->getPlace(1, 7) %> Robert Strange McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1968, contributes several important insights in Argument Without End, the first installment of an ongoing project with US and Vietnamese experts studying decision-making processes during the Vietnam War. He argues that the war was always unwinnable for the United States, that it should have ended long before it began and that, throughout, both sides missed countless opportunities to find mutually satisfactory, negotiated outcomes. According to him, US and Vietnamese interpretations of each other's behavior were 100 percent wrong 100 percent of the time.

<% $placer->getPlace(2, 7) %> McNamara tells us he undertook the project so that we can learn from and avoid repeating the same general mistakes. All well and good. Nevertheless, he infuriatingly fails to mention, let alone address, what must be the critical, central lesson of America's defeat in Vietnam: that the war had no moral basis, and so, for a democratic society, never amounted to anything more than blindly wreaking havoc on a foreign land. The incredible attendant tragedy was foremost a moral failure, then, not merely a technical failure of statecraft.

<% $placer->getPlace(3, 7) %> If one is to believe McNamara, from the few passages where he touches on what US government officials were thinking regarding justifications for the war, they were concerned with fears of Communist expansion and sought to help the South Vietnamese stand on their own. Indeed, perhaps this was occasionally true in the early sixties, when, by diverse accounts, high-minded though mistaken ideals were in play. But by February 1965, with the National Liberation Front attack on Pleiku and the US bombing response called Rolling Thunder (which remained in effect for the next three and a half years), noble ideals got shoved aside. US rhetoric toward Vietnam turned increasingly shrill and vindictive. The goal of the war changed radically, from an altruistic crusade to remedy injustice to the defeat of an enemy. Oversized egos were on the line. Words like "credibility gap" and "body count" crept into official speech. The war became an American war as casualties mounted, and Americans acquired a stake in it that wasn't there at the outset. It was hard, harder than McNamara realizes even today, to get out.

<% $placer->getPlace(4, 7) %> Moreover, this was McNamara's war in a way he can never escape, not with a book--or even two: His 1995 In Retrospect admitted that he and his confrères had been wrong, thus ripping open old wounds and forcing the literate class, again, to take sides over his culpability for war crimes. Neither will a study group do it, nor an apology (though one does not seem forthcoming); for, despite the doubts he expressed within the government during his service, he vacillated instead of seeking a showdown with President Lyndon Johnson; he implemented war policies knowing them to be utterly pointless; he did not explain himself candidly to the public or to Congress; and he did not resign. If ever a resignation was called for in the best interests of the country it was his, because of the courageous example this would have set, no matter how publicly thereafter he might or might not have voiced misgivings. His resignation could have stirred a far more constructive debate on the war at a time when most of the Americans and Vietnamese who ultimately died had not yet been killed. But he did not resign. Asked recently by Brian Williams of MSNBC to explain his diffidence, in an incoherent answer he claimed he was in the minority, which, if you consider the steady stream of strategic intelligence expressing skepticism about the war, was patently untrue. McNamara added that it was his "responsibility...to act responsibly." A tortured soul, handicapped by a troubling lack of honesty, he seems bent upon a long-term pilgrimage toward some sort of redemption.

<% $placer->getPlace(5, 7) %> McNamara's study plan--actually a good one--was to bring together for a series of discussions former US and Vietnamese officials from the wartime era plus some US academics. Half a dozen exploratory trips led to two large meetings, held in Hanoi in 1997 and 1998 (a third is planned for this June). Turned into a book, this produced five chapters of abbreviated transcripts interlaced with background material by McNamara and four co-authors, who take varying, ambiguously defined responsibility for it, and two transcript-free chapters on the military aspects of the war and lessons for the future. To each of these seven chapters McNamara contributed an introduction and conclusion. Such a kaleidoscope would have been better organized had McNamara written one long essay, with the body of transcripts then laid out alongside a background history. Nevertheless, one can edit the book while reading for a more focused sense of the discussions, which represent its real innovation. Especially when "learning lessons," McNamara's recapitulations do not capture the full importance, flavor or subtlety of the exchanges.

<% $placer->getPlace(6, 7) %> Apart from McNamara's personal involvement, the project has generated, if not quite a scandal, extremely unusual controversy. Initially the Council on Foreign Relations had sponsored it, but the council's president, Leslie Gelb, withdrew support after receiving critical letters from, among others, Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, twelve other foundations refused to finance it until eventually the Rockefeller Foundation and Brown University stepped forward.

<% $placer->getPlace(7, 7) %> <%args> $placer => new nation::Placer() $icapstyle => 'html' $pblurb => undef $nblurb => undef <%init> $placer->addData( 'pullquote', qq~~); $$nblurb = q## if ref $nblurb; $$pblurb = q## if ref $pblurb;

<% $placer->getPlace(0, 5) %> <& "$_basedir/include/icaps.imhtml", style=>$icapstyle, letter=>'W' &>hy 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.

<% $placer->getPlace(1, 5) %> 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.

<% $placer->getPlace(2, 5) %> 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.

<% $placer->getPlace(3, 5) %> 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?

<% $placer->getPlace(4, 5) %> 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!

<% $placer->getPlace(5, 5) %> <%args> $placer => new nation::Placer() $icapstyle => 'html' $pblurb => undef $nblurb => undef <%init> $placer->addData( 'pullquote', qq~~); $$nblurb = q## if ref $nblurb; $$pblurb = q## if ref $pblurb;

<% $placer->getPlace(0, 6) %> <& "$_basedir/include/icaps.imhtml", style=>$icapstyle, letter=>'T' &>hanks in no small measure to McNamara's struggle with himself through this project, we can consider in a new light how negotiable outcomes satisfactory to both sides regularly get overlooked in a conflict: In Vietnam, how the United States failed to see throughout the fifties and sixties that Hanoi had genuine desires for a neutral solution, or how Washington projected its own highly centralized decision-making onto the Vietnamese, thus misinterpreting attacks at the local level as evidence of Hanoi's signals. In Yugoslavia, how the United States has failed to communicate at a high level, sending sporadic, almost desultory messages to Belgrade. How the United States has failed to apply realistic pressure in a genuine context of multilateral decision-making. And how the United States has failed to acknowledge that some problems in international affairs--like the lack of democracy in the Balkans--have no solution, particularly no military solution.

<% $placer->getPlace(1, 6) %> But it is bombing that links Vietnam to Yugoslavia forever, bombing that is the chief obstacle to peace. Asked about the war against Yugoslavia, the crusty Vietnam hand Chet Cooper dismissed it as "amateurs at play." McNamara, speaking to Brian Williams, noted that the analogy to counterproductive bombing in Vietnam applies "to a considerable degree in Serbia/Yugoslavia today." McNamara now emphasizes the need for bombing to be supplemented by a robust diplomatic effort. (Without having learned his own lessons, however, he counsels continued bombing until some diplomatic breakthrough is reached.)

<% $placer->getPlace(2, 6) %> Yesterday's fear of Communism and talk of falling dominoes is mirrored perfectly in today's rhetoric about making the twenty-first century "safe from ethnic cleansing." Yet neither concept can be connected in any meaningful way to bombing or the effects of bombing upon its recipients. Like a repeat of Guernica, augmented by cluster bombs, cruise missiles and other assorted modern high explosives, the reality of bombing for the hundreds or thousands of innocent Serbs and Albanians whose lives it takes is something that should be intuitively obvious to much of the American public. Most probably also realize that officials who sing the praises of bombing are eliding the truth. Nevertheless, it is mind-bogglingly difficult to articulate how fully divorced our government's actions are from reality. McNamara notices this, quoting Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times: "When we talk about Vietnam," Lelyveld said (referring to Americans), "we are seldom talking about the country of that name or the situation of the people who live there. Usually we are talking about ourselves. Probably we always were."

<% $placer->getPlace(3, 6) %> If the war in Vietnam was about America's identity in a generic sense, it was also about the personalities of certain individuals. How fitting, then: The judgment McNamara most wishes to avoid--that he bears great responsibility for the Vietnam War and still doesn't see where he went wrong--teaches us the most important lesson. People incapable of perceiving (let alone understanding) moral connections may be superbly proficient at escalating their way into wars but lacking any clue about how to end them. Bloodless technocrats and careerists cannot be part of the solution. If there is any way to reforge the link between actions and consequences it must, as Vietnam policy-making eventually did, run through a more serious public dialogue about morality. And to do that, religious and spiritual leaders--like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose trip to Belgrade helped secure freedom for three American POWs--people with broader knowledge of human experience, who transcend hate to embrace forgiveness, must take a more active role in exploring alternatives.

<% $placer->getPlace(4, 6) %> What, MSNBC's Williams asked McNamara, is the most important trait an aide to the President should have? "Honesty," he replied. Fifteen years earlier, almost to the day, McNamara had fielded a related question from the Washington Post's Paul Hendrickson. "Now was I 'deceiving' the American people? Well, that's a very interesting question, but first you'd have to define for me what you mean by deception." He continued, "Deception isn't the Vietnam problem at all. You see, the American people are not going to elect deceivers, and a president of the United States is not going to surround himself with liars. It just doesn't happen in the normal run of things."

<% $placer->getPlace(5, 6) %> But nothing--nothing--should be considered normal about the world's only superpower bombing tiny countries. It would be heartbreaking, truly unforgivable for those responsible, if after losing the air war NATO charged ahead to lose, perhaps after long occupation, a ground war as well.

<% $placer->getPlace(6, 6) %> <%args> $placer => new nation::Placer() $icapstyle => 'html' $pblurb => undef $nblurb => undef <%init> $placer->addData( 'pullquote', qq~~); $$nblurb = q## if ref $nblurb; $$pblurb = q## if ref $pblurb;

People concerned about the US-led NATO war against Yugoslavia find much to reflect upon in the Vietnam experience. Despite certain differences, similarities between the two episodes--particularly regarding bombing--seem uncanny. And now there's further evidence of how dramatically things like bombing can go wrong, in a book by someone in a position to know, who should have known better.

Robert Strange McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1968, contributes several important insights in Argument Without End, the first installment of an ongoing project with US and Vietnamese experts studying decision-making processes during the Vietnam War. He argues that the war was always unwinnable for the United States, that it should have ended long before it began and that, throughout, both sides missed countless opportunities to find mutually satisfactory, negotiated outcomes. According to him, US and Vietnamese interpretations of each other's behavior were 100 percent wrong 100 percent of the time.

McNamara tells us he undertook the project so that we can learn from and avoid repeating the same general mistakes. All well and good. Nevertheless, he infuriatingly fails to mention, let alone address, what must be the critical, central lesson of America's defeat in Vietnam: that the war had no moral basis, and so, for a democratic society, never amounted to anything more than blindly wreaking havoc on a foreign land. The incredible attendant tragedy was foremost a moral failure, then, not merely a technical failure of statecraft.

If one is to believe McNamara, from the few passages where he touches on what US government officials were thinking regarding justifications for the war, they were concerned with fears of Communist expansion and sought to help the South Vietnamese stand on their own. Indeed, perhaps this was occasionally true in the early sixties, when, by diverse accounts, high-minded though mistaken ideals were in play. But by February 1965, with the National Liberation Front attack on Pleiku and the US bombing response called Rolling Thunder (which remained in effect for the next three and a half years), noble ideals got shoved aside. US rhetoric toward Vietnam turned increasingly shrill and vindictive. The goal of the war changed radically, from an altruistic crusade to remedy injustice to the defeat of an enemy. Oversized egos were on the line. Words like "credibility gap" and "body count" crept into official speech. The war became an American war as casualties mounted, and Americans acquired a stake in it that wasn't there at the outset. It was hard, harder than McNamara realizes even today, to get out.

Moreover, this was McNamara's war in a way he can never escape, not with a book--or even two: His 1995 In Retrospect admitted that he and his confrères had been wrong, thus ripping open old wounds and forcing the literate class, again, to take sides over his culpability for war crimes. Neither will a study group do it, nor an apology (though one does not seem forthcoming); for, despite the doubts he expressed within the government during his service, he vacillated instead of seeking a showdown with President Lyndon Johnson; he implemented war policies knowing them to be utterly pointless; he did not explain himself candidly to the public or to Congress; and he did not resign. If ever a resignation was called for in the best interests of the country it was his, because of the courageous example this would have set, no matter how publicly thereafter he might or might not have voiced misgivings. His resignation could have stirred a far more constructive debate on the war at a time when most of the Americans and Vietnamese who ultimately died had not yet been killed. But he did not resign. Asked recently by Brian Williams of MSNBC to explain his diffidence, in an incoherent answer he claimed he was in the minority, which, if you consider the steady stream of strategic intelligence expressing skepticism about the war, was patently untrue. McNamara added that it was his "responsibility...to act responsibly." A tortured soul, handicapped by a troubling lack of honesty, he seems bent upon a long-term pilgrimage toward some sort of redemption.

McNamara's study plan--actually a good one--was to bring together for a series of discussions former US and Vietnamese officials from the wartime era plus some US academics. Half a dozen exploratory trips led to two large meetings, held in Hanoi in 1997 and 1998 (a third is planned for this June). Turned into a book, this produced five chapters of abbreviated transcripts interlaced with background material by McNamara and four co-authors, who take varying, ambiguously defined responsibility for it, and two transcript-free chapters on the military aspects of the war and lessons for the future. To each of these seven chapters McNamara contributed an introduction and conclusion. Such a kaleidoscope would have been better organized had McNamara written one long essay, with the body of transcripts then laid out alongside a background history. Nevertheless, one can edit the book while reading for a more focused sense of the discussions, which represent its real innovation. Especially when "learning lessons," McNamara's recapitulations do not capture the full importance, flavor or subtlety of the exchanges.

Apart from McNamara's personal involvement, the project has generated, if not quite a scandal, extremely unusual controversy. Initially the Council on Foreign Relations had sponsored it, but the council's president, Leslie Gelb, withdrew support after receiving critical letters from, among others, Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, twelve other foundations refused to finance it until eventually the Rockefeller Foundation and Brown University stepped forward.

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!

Thanks in no small measure to McNamara's struggle with himself through this project, we can consider in a new light how negotiable outcomes satisfactory to both sides regularly get overlooked in a conflict: In Vietnam, how the United States failed to see throughout the fifties and sixties that Hanoi had genuine desires for a neutral solution, or how Washington projected its own highly centralized decision-making onto the Vietnamese, thus misinterpreting attacks at the local level as evidence of Hanoi's signals. In Yugoslavia, how the United States has failed to communicate at a high level, sending sporadic, almost desultory messages to Belgrade. How the United States has failed to apply realistic pressure in a genuine context of multilateral decision-making. And how the United States has failed to acknowledge that some problems in international affairs--like the lack of democracy in the Balkans--have no solution, particularly no military solution.

But it is bombing that links Vietnam to Yugoslavia forever, bombing that is the chief obstacle to peace. Asked about the war against Yugoslavia, the crusty Vietnam hand Chet Cooper dismissed it as "amateurs at play." McNamara, speaking to Brian Williams, noted that the analogy to counterproductive bombing in Vietnam applies "to a considerable degree in Serbia/Yugoslavia today." McNamara now emphasizes the need for bombing to be supplemented by a robust diplomatic effort. (Without having learned his own lessons, however, he counsels continued bombing until some diplomatic breakthrough is reached.)

Yesterday's fear of Communism and talk of falling dominoes is mirrored perfectly in today's rhetoric about making the twenty-first century "safe from ethnic cleansing." Yet neither concept can be connected in any meaningful way to bombing or the effects of bombing upon its recipients. Like a repeat of Guernica, augmented by cluster bombs, cruise missiles and other assorted modern high explosives, the reality of bombing for the hundreds or thousands of innocent Serbs and Albanians whose lives it takes is something that should be intuitively obvious to much of the American public. Most probably also realize that officials who sing the praises of bombing are eliding the truth. Nevertheless, it is mind-bogglingly difficult to articulate how fully divorced our government's actions are from reality. McNamara notices this, quoting Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times: "When we talk about Vietnam," Lelyveld said (referring to Americans), "we are seldom talking about the country of that name or the situation of the people who live there. Usually we are talking about ourselves. Probably we always were."

If the war in Vietnam was about America's identity in a generic sense, it was also about the personalities of certain individuals. How fitting, then: The judgment McNamara most wishes to avoid--that he bears great responsibility for the Vietnam War and still doesn't see where he went wrong--teaches us the most important lesson. People incapable of perceiving (let alone understanding) moral connections may be superbly proficient at escalating their way into wars but lacking any clue about how to end them. Bloodless technocrats and careerists cannot be part of the solution. If there is any way to reforge the link between actions and consequences it must, as Vietnam policy-making eventually did, run through a more serious public dialogue about morality. And to do that, religious and spiritual leaders--like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose trip to Belgrade helped secure freedom for three American POWs--people with broader knowledge of human experience, who transcend hate to embrace forgiveness, must take a more active role in exploring alternatives.

What, MSNBC's Williams asked McNamara, is the most important trait an aide to the President should have? "Honesty," he replied. Fifteen years earlier, almost to the day, McNamara had fielded a related question from the Washington Post's Paul Hendrickson. "Now was I 'deceiving' the American people? Well, that's a very interesting question, but first you'd have to define for me what you mean by deception." He continued, "Deception isn't the Vietnam problem at all. You see, the American people are not going to elect deceivers, and a president of the United States is not going to surround himself with liars. It just doesn't happen in the normal run of things."

But nothing--nothing--should be considered normal about the world's only superpower bombing tiny countries. It would be heartbreaking, truly unforgivable for those responsible, if after losing the air war NATO charged ahead to lose, perhaps after long occupation, a ground war as well.

People concerned about the US-led NATO war against Yugoslavia find much to reflect upon in the Vietnam experience. Despite certain differences, similarities between the two episodes--particularly regarding bombing--seem uncanny. And now there's further evidence of how dramatically things like bombing can go wrong, in a book by someone in a position to know, who should have known better.

Robert Strange McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1968, contributes several important insights in Argument Without End, the first installment of an ongoing project with US and Vietnamese experts studying decision-making processes during the Vietnam War. He argues that the war was always unwinnable for the United States, that it should have ended long before it began and that, throughout, both sides missed countless opportunities to find mutually satisfactory, negotiated outcomes. According to him, US and Vietnamese interpretations of each other's behavior were 100 percent wrong 100 percent of the time.

McNamara tells us he undertook the project so that we can learn from and avoid repeating the same general mistakes. All well and good. Nevertheless, he infuriatingly fails to mention, let alone address, what must be the critical, central lesson of America's defeat in Vietnam: that the war had no moral basis, and so, for a democratic society, never amounted to anything more than blindly wreaking havoc on a foreign land. The incredible attendant tragedy was foremost a moral failure, then, not merely a technical failure of statecraft.

If one is to believe McNamara, from the few passages where he touches on what US government officials were thinking regarding justifications for the war, they were concerned with fears of Communist expansion and sought to help the South Vietnamese stand on their own. Indeed, perhaps this was occasionally true in the early sixties, when, by diverse accounts, high-minded though mistaken ideals were in play. But by February 1965, with the National Liberation Front attack on Pleiku and the US bombing response called Rolling Thunder (which remained in effect for the next three and a half years), noble ideals got shoved aside. US rhetoric toward Vietnam turned increasingly shrill and vindictive. The goal of the war changed radically, from an altruistic crusade to remedy injustice to the defeat of an enemy. Oversized egos were on the line. Words like "credibility gap" and "body count" crept into official speech. The war became an American war as casualties mounted, and Americans acquired a stake in it that wasn't there at the outset. It was hard, harder than McNamara realizes even today, to get out.

Moreover, this was McNamara's war in a way he can never escape, not with a book--or even two: His 1995 In Retrospect admitted that he and his confrères had been wrong, thus ripping open old wounds and forcing the literate class, again, to take sides over his culpability for war crimes. Neither will a study group do it, nor an apology (though one does not seem forthcoming); for, despite the doubts he expressed within the government during his service, he vacillated instead of seeking a showdown with President Lyndon Johnson; he implemented war policies knowing them to be utterly pointless; he did not explain himself candidly to the public or to Congress; and he did not resign. If ever a resignation was called for in the best interests of the country it was his, because of the courageous example this would have set, no matter how publicly thereafter he might or might not have voiced misgivings. His resignation could have stirred a far more constructive debate on the war at a time when most of the Americans and Vietnamese who ultimately died had not yet been killed. But he did not resign. Asked recently by Brian Williams of MSNBC to explain his diffidence, in an incoherent answer he claimed he was in the minority, which, if you consider the steady stream of strategic intelligence expressing skepticism about the war, was patently untrue. McNamara added that it was his "responsibility...to act responsibly." A tortured soul, handicapped by a troubling lack of honesty, he seems bent upon a long-term pilgrimage toward some sort of redemption.

McNamara's study plan--actually a good one--was to bring together for a series of discussions former US and Vietnamese officials from the wartime era plus some US academics. Half a dozen exploratory trips led to two large meetings, held in Hanoi in 1997 and 1998 (a third is planned for this June). Turned into a book, this produced five chapters of abbreviated transcripts interlaced with background material by McNamara and four co-authors, who take varying, ambiguously defined responsibility for it, and two transcript-free chapters on the military aspects of the war and lessons for the future. To each of these seven chapters McNamara contributed an introduction and conclusion. Such a kaleidoscope would have been better organized had McNamara written one long essay, with the body of transcripts then laid out alongside a background history. Nevertheless, one can edit the book while reading for a more focused sense of the discussions, which represent its real innovation. Especially when "learning lessons," McNamara's recapitulations do not capture the full importance, flavor or subtlety of the exchanges.

Apart from McNamara's personal involvement, the project has generated, if not quite a scandal, extremely unusual controversy. Initially the Council on Foreign Relations had sponsored it, but the council's president, Leslie Gelb, withdrew support after receiving critical letters from, among others, Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, twelve other foundations refused to finance it until eventually the Rockefeller Foundation and Brown University stepped forward.

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!

Thanks in no small measure to McNamara's struggle with himself through this project, we can consider in a new light how negotiable outcomes satisfactory to both sides regularly get overlooked in a conflict: In Vietnam, how the United States failed to see throughout the fifties and sixties that Hanoi had genuine desires for a neutral solution, or how Washington projected its own highly centralized decision-making onto the Vietnamese, thus misinterpreting attacks at the local level as evidence of Hanoi's signals. In Yugoslavia, how the United States has failed to communicate at a high level, sending sporadic, almost desultory messages to Belgrade. How the United States has failed to apply realistic pressure in a genuine context of multilateral decision-making. And how the United States has failed to acknowledge that some problems in international affairs--like the lack of democracy in the Balkans--have no solution, particularly no military solution.

But it is bombing that links Vietnam to Yugoslavia forever, bombing that is the chief obstacle to peace. Asked about the war against Yugoslavia, the crusty Vietnam hand Chet Cooper dismissed it as "amateurs at play." McNamara, speaking to Brian Williams, noted that the analogy to counterproductive bombing in Vietnam applies "to a considerable degree in Serbia/Yugoslavia today." McNamara now emphasizes the need for bombing to be supplemented by a robust diplomatic effort. (Without having learned his own lessons, however, he counsels continued bombing until some diplomatic breakthrough is reached.)

Yesterday's fear of Communism and talk of falling dominoes is mirrored perfectly in today's rhetoric about making the twenty-first century "safe from ethnic cleansing." Yet neither concept can be connected in any meaningful way to bombing or the effects of bombing upon its recipients. Like a repeat of Guernica, augmented by cluster bombs, cruise missiles and other assorted modern high explosives, the reality of bombing for the hundreds or thousands of innocent Serbs and Albanians whose lives it takes is something that should be intuitively obvious to much of the American public. Most probably also realize that officials who sing the praises of bombing are eliding the truth. Nevertheless, it is mind-bogglingly difficult to articulate how fully divorced our government's actions are from reality. McNamara notices this, quoting Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times: "When we talk about Vietnam," Lelyveld said (referring to Americans), "we are seldom talking about the country of that name or the situation of the people who live there. Usually we are talking about ourselves. Probably we always were."

If the war in Vietnam was about America's identity in a generic sense, it was also about the personalities of certain individuals. How fitting, then: The judgment McNamara most wishes to avoid--that he bears great responsibility for the Vietnam War and still doesn't see where he went wrong--teaches us the most important lesson. People incapable of perceiving (let alone understanding) moral connections may be superbly proficient at escalating their way into wars but lacking any clue about how to end them. Bloodless technocrats and careerists cannot be part of the solution. If there is any way to reforge the link between actions and consequences it must, as Vietnam policy-making eventually did, run through a more serious public dialogue about morality. And to do that, religious and spiritual leaders--like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose trip to Belgrade helped secure freedom for three American POWs--people with broader knowledge of human experience, who transcend hate to embrace forgiveness, must take a more active role in exploring alternatives.

What, MSNBC's Williams asked McNamara, is the most important trait an aide to the President should have? "Honesty," he replied. Fifteen years earlier, almost to the day, McNamara had fielded a related question from the Washington Post's Paul Hendrickson. "Now was I 'deceiving' the American people? Well, that's a very interesting question, but first you'd have to define for me what you mean by deception." He continued, "Deception isn't the Vietnam problem at all. You see, the American people are not going to elect deceivers, and a president of the United States is not going to surround himself with liars. It just doesn't happen in the normal run of things."

But nothing--nothing--should be considered normal about the world's only superpower bombing tiny countries. It would be heartbreaking, truly unforgivable for those responsible, if after losing the air war NATO charged ahead to lose, perhaps after long occupation, a ground war as well.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size