The Anguish of Decision
As Obama grapples with Afghanistan, the final interviews with Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy offer the lessons of Vietnam.

By Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense and an architect of the Vietnam War, said it all could have been different if McGeorge Bundy, President Lyndon Johnson's national security adviser, had not resigned from the White House in early 1966.

"I believe if McGeorge Bundy had stayed in the government . . . he and I together could have prevented what happened in Vietnam," McNamara said in August 2007, less than two years before his death. "He and I together could have done what I couldn't do alone, which was force the president to an open debate on these critical issues."

In their final interviews, McNamara and Bundy dissected America's failures in managing the Vietnam War. In haunting, mournful tones, they blamed not only Johnson and senior military leaders for a dysfunctional decision-making process, but also themselves. The interviews provide a singular look into what went wrong -- as the two men saw it decades later, with the benefits and burdens of hindsight -- at a time when President Obama and his national security team engage in intense deliberations over another complex, distant conflict, this time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For a wartime president and his top advisers, "there ought to be anguish," McNamara concluded, because there "are no easy answers."

'A Man Who Didn't Want to Listen'

In his last extended interview, on Aug. 7, 2007, McNamara offered harsh views of Johnson as commander in chief. "I felt that I owed the president my best judgment, whether it agreed with his or not," he said. "The question in my mind was not so much whether I owed that to him; the question was how to present it effectively to a man who didn't want to listen."

Johnson, in McNamara's view, "was more afraid of the right than the left. And he was afraid that if he did anything to in any way appear to appease the North Vietnamese, he would be severely criticized by the right wing of American politics. Therefore he didn't do it."

In a final series of interviews before his death in 1996, Bundy also described how Johnson's short-term political concerns trumped grand strategy for Vietnam. "LBJ isn't deeply concerned about . . . who governs South Vietnam -- he's deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ballgame of the Cold War," Bundy said. "The great Cold War Championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States, and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don't lose. . . . He's living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions."

Bundy criticized Johnson's manipulation of the deliberations over the war. The president "wants to be seen having careful discussions, and he does indeed want to hear what everybody is saying," Bundy observed. But that was the past master of the Senate at work, he said, "because that becomes part of the way a majority leader controls events -- you've got to know what the opposition's thoughts are -- so he finds out."

Strategy meetings and conversations on the war were a facade, Bundy said. "The principal players do not engage in anything you can really call an exchange of views. . . . That was prevented by him, and the process he used was really for show and not for choice."

The discussions Johnson valued most, Bundy believed, occurred privately and reflected his instincts as a dealmaker and consensus-builder. In the summer of 1965, Johnson's most important target was his commander in Saigon, Gen. William Westmoreland. Looking back on that time, Bundy said that Johnson viewed the general as though he were a powerful constituency wielding vital legislative votes. "Senator Westmoreland is like the leader of a block of some 20 senators, and you haven't got a good majority without him," Bundy said.

Johnson's shifting political calculations were often opaque even to his closest advisers, Bundy despaired, compromising the way the president engaged with his senior military and civilian counselors. "The process of decision, explanation and defense is unsatisfactory, frustrating, destructive and impossible to fix," he concluded in one of the dozens of plaintive notes he wrote for an unpublished memoir, a book he struggled with before dying of a heart attack at age 77. "No one knows but LBJ himself what the issues are, what his questions are aimed at, why he is deciding as he is -- or whether or when -- so if we really get to help him it is almost by accident."

As McNamara looked back at the pivotal decisions to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he recalled Johnson's resistance to confronting his advisers. "I am absolutely positive that most leaders wish to avoid confrontation among their senior people, particularly in front of them," McNamara said. "And that's a serious weakness. I think every leader should force his senior people to confront major issues in front of him."

'In Strategic Military Terms, We Quit First'

Then as now, the choice of a military strategy was the most crucial decision confronting the president. As Bundy reflected, he bemoaned the failure of civilian leaders to probe and scrutinize the assumptions behind the American strategy in Vietnam -- a strategy that over time devolved into an open-ended war of attrition, an endurance contest the United States was unlikely to win. Bundy frequently observed that in 1965, when the administration decided to initiate a massive deployment of ground combat forces to Vietnam, "we debated a number, not a use."

Agreeing to Westmoreland's plan for a war designed to deplete and degrade the enemy until it capitulated, Bundy concluded, was "a major error, and we failed even to address it." The attrition strategy, Bundy conceded in his notes, "was a loser. But it was also a most formidable indicator of which side cared the most. Because in strategic military terms, we quit first."

McNamara also focused on how the inadequate relationship between civilian and military leaders left key questions unasked. "It wasn't so much they resented civilian oversight -- they just didn't feel we were competent to question it," he said of top military commanders. "And to a considerable degree, they were right. But they should have recognized, even if we weren't experts in military operations, the questions we raised were fundamental. And they should have been willing to reexamine their actions in relation to those fundamental questions, and most of them were not."

McNamara lamented that "the military never told me or the president that 'the course you're on is wrong.' I don't think you'll find any evidence of that." And he singled out the Joint Chiefs of Staff for particular criticism. "I don't think you'll find any record, secret or otherwise, of the chiefs' critical analysis of the military plans in Vietnam," he said. "And that was a very serious deficiency."

He added: "I didn't always agree with them, by any means, but I had tremendous admiration for their willingness to serve and for their dedication to the government. But they needed a check and a balance, and they weren't getting it."

Even in 2007, McNamara contended that the U.S. defense establishment had yet to absorb the lesson: "I don't think the military today recognizes the degree to which they failed to confront the president, confront me and the president, secretary of state, with the shallow foundation to our actions."

But he accepted responsibility for a monumental lapse in coordination and communication between civilian and military leaders. He was asked, "Did you ever call one of them in and sit him down and say, 'Hey, look?' "

"No. No," McNamara said. "I probably should have, but I didn't."

"Never just said: 'What's on your mind? What do you think of this?' "

"No. No. I should have, but I didn't."

Like McNamara, Bundy also held himself accountable for failing to apply that check and balance. "What are my worst mistakes?" he asked himself in his notes. "Not to press the study of the prospects of success, of one side's strength and one side's weakness, especially in 1965. Not to examine what could be done to make the best of a bad business while not escalating."

He added: "We don't have the debate and we don't ask the necessary how-strong-is-the-adversary question," or, as he called it elsewhere, the "will-it-work question."

'You Don't Just Tell Your Own People, You Tell the Enemy'

Throughout their interviews, McNamara and Bundy grappled with the extent to which senior officials should go public with their views about an ongoing war. "There are limitations on what the secretary can say publicly," McNamara said, adding that if a top official comes forward with bad news, "you don't just tell your own people, you tell the enemy. . . . You don't want the enemy being told . . . that the senior officials believe the U.S. is losing."

In his 1995 book, "In Retrospect," McNamara discussed a memo that then-CIA Director Richard Helms had prepared for Johnson in 1967. It argued that a defeat in Vietnam would not necessarily undermine vital U.S. security interests and that the risks of an unfavorable outcome "are probably more limited and controllable" than generally thought. Both McNamara and Helms said they never had any evidence that Johnson discussed the memo with anyone. A key justification for America's continuing entanglement in Vietnam had been disputed by the country's top intelligence official, but it appears that not a single meeting of senior government officials was convened to debate the issue with the president.

McNamara himself wrote a memo to Johnson on Nov. 2, 1967, saying that "continuing on our present course will not bring us by the end of 1968 enough closer to success, in the eyes of the American public, to prevent the continued erosion of popular support" for the war. In the interview, he said he kept such memos and the differences of opinion among the national security team a secret. "I felt at the end very reluctant to expose the differences that existed," he acknowledged. "I was worried they might get out. I was worried that they would make the job of the president more difficult, because they basically said, 'We're losing.' . . . [Johnson] wasn't in a political position to admit it."

When asked if the public had a right to know, McNamara replied: "It isn't that I doubt the public had a right to know, as much as it is that I have serious doubts of how frank the senior officers, military and diplomatic, can be in a government in war. Because it exposes to the enemy views that can strengthen them."

And suppose someone had urged you to go public, saying the disclosure of the memos would save tens of thousands of lives?

"I would have been hard-pressed to answer, because I think we could have shortened the war and would have saved lives, and I don't believe the price we would have paid in reduction of our diplomatic or military strength would have been significant. But I would have been held back by the wrong reasons, I fear . . . when I would have felt responsibility to the president."

Congress should provide a check and balance on the administration but often fails to do so, McNamara noted. "I think the Congress, particularly with respect to war, should play a greater role than it does," he said. "In some way, the Congress should retain a lasting and a continuing interest in war." McNamara shared a recommendation that he conceded was politically difficult: "I have a strong feeling that Congress should pass a law that no president can take the nation to war or keep the nation at war unless he estimates the casualties."

Bundy, for his part, was adamant about the need to publicly explain the U.S. purpose and interests in Vietnam -- an openness Johnson resisted. "You mean," Bundy recalled the president hectoring him, "that if your mother-in-law -- your very own mother-in-law -- has only one eye, and it happens to be in the middle of her forehead, then the best place for her is in the livin' room with all the company?!"

'I Had a Part in a Great Failure'

Viewed together, McNamara and Bundy's final reflections suggest a shared vision of some of Vietnam's most critical lessons. The two men conclude that the commander in chief must confront his advisers; the advisers, in turn, must confront the commander in chief. And military strategies proposed by the generals must be examined, deconstructed and, if necessary, directly challenged. McNamara and Bundy show how easy it is to fail at these tasks.

The debate now unfolding -- in the White House, in Congress and in the public square -- about the way ahead in Afghanistan is one that McNamara and Bundy, given their efforts late in life to come to terms with Vietnam, would have no doubt followed with keen interest. In his final interview, McNamara was asked how a country truly learns from its mistakes. "I think you break" from replicating history, he said, "by writing thoughtful retrospective reviews of what we've done in the past that may apply to the current situation or the future."

Bundy made the same point more directly. "I had a part in a great failure," he said. "I made mistakes of perception, recommendation and execution. If I have learned anything, I should share it." In another note to himself, he wrote and underscored: "You owe it to a lot of different people. Because it hurt them or their families; because it matters what lessons are learned. . . . There are a lot of errors in the path to understanding."

Bob Woodward is an associate editor of The Washington Post and the author of 14 books, most recently "The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008." Gordon M. Goldstein is the author of "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam." They will be online to chat with readers Monday at 11 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion. Josh Boak and Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.

Note: This article is based on separate interviews that the authors conducted with Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, the final interviews before the two men's deaths. Bob Woodward interviewed McNamara for 2 and 1/2 hours on Aug. 7, 2007, at McNamara's Watergate apartment. McNamara agreed that the interview was on the record but at several points said he did not want to be quoted. His wife, Diana McNamara, was present for the entire session. After his death this summer, she agreed that all his comments should be published. Gordon M. Goldstein interviewed McGeorge Bundy multiple times from the spring of 1995 to Sept. 11, 1996, five days before Bundy's death. Goldstein was collaborating with Bundy on a memoir and analysis of presidential decision-making during the Vietnam War.

From the Outlook archives: In January 2007, days after President George W. Bush announced the "surge" strategy for Iraq, Outlook explored the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam with a trio of articles. Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts argued that Bush faced Lyndon Johnson's same dilemma--a war in which defeat was unthinkable but victory unlikely. The Post's Robert Kaiser reflected on his own experience covering the Vietnam War to write that America was once again trapped by hubris. And historian Robert Brigham called for a negotiated settlement in Iraq that would adopt the lessons of Vietnam.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company