Worse Than McNamara?

By Stanley Karnow
Sunday, October 8, 2006

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.

McNamara had partly endorsed their pugnacious scenario in hopes that it would fail and enable him to persuade LBJ to try diplomacy. The president was sympathetic to his proposals. Contrary to the portrait of him as implacably truculent, Johnson felt trapped in the Vietnam quagmire. But he feared that unless he continued to escalate the commitment, he would incur the anger of the hawks and ultraconservatives in Congress, whose support he needed to pursue his liberal domestic agenda.

McNamara was heavily influenced by the shifting attitudes of his civilian aides, notably John McNaughton, Paul Warnke and Adam Yarmolinsky, whose zest for the war had faded. Searching for fresh ideas, he consulted several prominent scholars. Their studies confirmed his pessimism. The communists were receiving sufficient equipment from Russia and China to bolster their insurgency, while the campaign against them had "clearly engendered their patriotic and nationalistic enthusiasm and strengthened their determination to resist the U.S. incursions," the academics concluded in a 1967 report.

Rumsfeld, unlike McNamara, evidently relies on a tight circle of loyal acolytes and shuns outside mavens. His assessments of the war in Iraq remain upbeat despite a growing drumbeat of criticism from both retired and active military officials, plummeting public support and a stream of disastrous news from Baghdad. In that regard, he may perhaps be more beleaguered than McNamara in 1966-67.

A crucial moment for McNamara arose in August 1967, when he testified at a session of Sen. John C. Stennis's subcommittee on preparedness. Stennis had scheduled the closed hearings to probe the attempts of "unskilled amateurs" to shackle our "professional soldiers." The admirals and generals were there, resplendent in their ribbons. McNamara showed up with mounds of statistics and, lecturing in his patronizing style, repeated his thesis that the clamor for a tough approach would not yield results.

Johnson was furious. Though he distrusted the brass and braid, he flinched at antagonizing their backers. In addition, he suspected that McNamara might be covertly collaborating with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who now opposed the war and was ambitiously focused on the White House. Suggesting that the Cabinet officer he had once hailed as a model had suffered a breakdown, Johnson maneuvered McNamara into the presidency of the World Bank, a post he took up after resigning from Defense in February 1968.

As far as I could tell, the experience traumatized McNamara. On one occasion, he rejected my request for an interview, then spent an hour on the telephone explaining to me why he was unable to talk.

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.

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

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