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Outlook: The anguish of decision -- Vietnam in hindsight

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Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein
Washington Post associate editor and author, and author
Monday, October 19, 2009; 11:00 AM

Bob Woodward, Washington Post associate editor and author of "The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008," and Gordon M. Goldstein, author of "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam," were online Monday, Oct. 19, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss their Outlook article titled "The Anguish of Decision," about the Vietnam War and decisions made by Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense, and McGeorge Bundy, President Lyndon Johnson's national security adviser, and revealed in their final interviews.

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Boston, Mass.: I wonder where the line is between heeding history's lessons and misapplying those lessons due to the different context of each situation. John McCain says Afghanistan is not Vietnam, which is true in many respects. But Afghanisatan is also not Iraq, which McCain seems to underestimate when he calls for a counterinsurgency surge in Afghanistan and touts his "judgment" on the Iraqi surge (not the decision to go to war itself mind you). So which do we follow, history or contemporary context?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Gordon It' snot an ether or proposition. We have to look at individual historialc cases and know the similariities to current crises and also the differnces that are disticctive and important. In the current case of Afghanistan there are strategiuc characteristisc with Vietnam that should argubly prompt decision makers to pasue and reflect ona major military commitment in a open-ended and protracted conflict.

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Germantown, Md.: What do you make of the role of George Ball during the LBJ administration's internal discussions on the war? Didn't he consistently argue to LBJ that the war was unwinnable and that the consequences of the U.S. leaving would not be irreparable harm to U.S. interests? Or was he simply a useful idiot, with LBJ using him to give the impression that he was open-minded?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Woodward: Georegf Ball was number two in the State Dept under Dean Rusk and saccordiingly had a secondary role. But as Gordon and I in yesterday's article pointed out Lyndon Johnson didn't want ot listen. The issue in AFghanistan now has some impooratnt practical points and wehat we attemped to show about the Vietnam discussions is simply a failure, a total failure, to listen, confront and thoroughly debate what they were doing and why.

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Plymouth, Mich.: According to your article, McNamara says that everything could have been different had Bundy not resigned in early 1966. This seems odd: the die had been cast in '65 with LBJ's decision to go "all in." McNamara and Bundy had their chance to engage the president then. What could they possibly have done in 1966? Or was it your impression that McNamara was really reaching here?

Thanks.

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Gordon Goldstein: It's a fair point because McNamara and Bundy did in fact support the major escalation proposed by Gen. Westmoreland and approved by President Johnson in the summer of 1965. However, McNamaar's right to observe that if he had Bundy as an ally during the period when the Defense Department questioned the viability of the war effort then McNamara would have had a significantly strengthened hand in '67 and '68 to stimulate a serious debate and review of America's conduct of the war.

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Hot Springs, S.D.: As part of his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in the Cow Palace in June, 1964, Barry Goldwater charged that the government was getting America into a war in Vietnam and lying about it.

Was Goldwater correct in making that statement as he did, six weeks before the Gulf of Tonkin incident?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Woodward: The word "lie" is a loaded word but clearly there were deceptions and self-deceptions that permeated the entire debate. Just to underscore the theme that Gordon and I were trying to focus on and McGeorge Bundy said it best, lots of the meetings, debates in the Johnson adminisration were about "show, not choice."

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Reston, Va.: The parallels are too numerous to recite: captive to the fear from the right in regard to national security matters; natural style of consensus and voting blocks; involvement in a war of attrition with people with far more at stake than we can ever have. The only major differance that I can tell is that thus far we have commited far less numbers of troops and blood than the 500,000+ and 50,000 KIA than we did in our unsuccessful counter insurgency effort in Vietnam...a country with less than 1/2 the populaton and 1/4 of the land mass of Afghanistan.

My question then is...what are the significant differances then between our mistakes then and what we appear about to make anew?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Gordon Goldstein: The question is correct to note that thus far the most significant difference is one of scope. We have lost less than 1,000 troops in Afghanistan over the past eight years while as noted more than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.

Another significatn difference is that the generals in Afghanistan are currently not proposing a strategy of attrition -- killing the maximum number of enemy -- as the recommended approach in Afghanistan. This was the strategy conceived and executed by Gen. Westmoreland, most significantly from 1965 to 1968.

Bob Woodward: The curent strategy in Afghanistan is counterinsurgency, meaning protect the people and win them over and minimize enemy body count.

Gordon Goldstein: That said, we did attempt, particularly after 1968, to "win hearts and minds" among the population of South Vietnam, with uncertain success.

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What does win mean?: : Hi, I've wondered when republicans talk about win in Iraq, Afghanistan (or VietNam) what does that mean? What is win in a guerilla war, when anyone with a political, religious, poverty driven dispute can cause havoc? IMO there's no way to defend or win, what do you think?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Woodward: That is such a good an dimportant point. That it's something that muste be defined and time and time again in Vietnam through Iraq and into the curretn Afghanistan war a good, clear definition has not be presented. Generally speaking, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military and civilian leaders argue that the so-called end state is stability but that leaves open how much stability over what period of time and how do you relate that to other foreign policy goals.

The questioner ougtht to be at the table at the White House Situation Room now.

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Washington, D.C.: Brilliant study.

When I was in the 7th grade (1968), a pamphlet was passed among the students in my class. The pamphlet promoted the necessity of action against Communists in Vietnam. The Domino Theory provided the rationale.

I wish I had kept it. Did you run across such documents -- distributed to school students? My read is that the pamphlet's goal was to drive home two points:

1. Justification for dividing Vietnam, and

2) Inserting the euphemism of "police action" as opposed to war.

Funny, how back then the word "war" had negative connotations, whereas now the word carries a positive thrust(war on poverty, war on drugs, war on...).

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Gordon Goldstein: With respect to the Domino Theory perhaps the most inmportant document was an internal study from the U.S. Intelligence Agency in 1964 which became known as "the Death of the Domino Theory Memorandum." In it, the national board of estimate questioned the logtic of the Domino Theory and strongly argued that the loss of South Vietnam would not be the geo-political disaster many at the time feared.

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Atlanta GA: Before his death David Halberstam said the role of the Roman Catholic Church, whose 5% minority in Vietnam owned 95% of that country's wealth, should be further explored to fully understand why we were in Vietnam.

When will the the sectarian faction/M-I-C which ordered and profited from the treasonous assassination of President Kennedy (Viz. 'Hunt v. Marchetti/Liberty Lobby' Jury judgement: the Knight of Malta-led CIA, overseen by GHWBush and R. Nixon assassinated JFK) six weeks after NSAM263 ordered our military's withdrawal, be brought to justice? And when will Bush2 and Cheney be brought to justice for 9/11? Viz. "The New Pearl Harbor"?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: New war powers lesgislation int he Cngress is unlikely, at least in the near-term. President Obama has clearly identified the enemy here, namely Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. Obviously al-Qaeda is not a sovereign state but I think there is wide agreement in the U.S. that military and other action has to be taken to prevent more attacks on the U.S. ONe of the key questins inthe= Afghanistan war is the extent to which fighting that war will reduce al-Qaeda capabilities. That is one of the issues currentlyb eing debated in the White House.

Gordon Goldstein: With respect to Vietnam, one of the insights that Robert McNamara only embraced long after the end of the end of war, was his view that the U.S. inserted itself into what was a civl war and fundamentally a war of nationalism. This point was underscored for McNamara when he traveled to Hanoi in 1998 and spent a full week in private consultation with the surviving members of the North Vietnamese leadership.

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Anonymous: Is there perhaps an intermediate strategy for Afghanistan, one involving just enough additional troops to perform the training mission (less than 40,000) but focused on our national security objective of neutralizing al qaeda? Here we would support Afghanistan and Pakistan in their efforts to suppress the Taliban without actually doing it ourselves through exhaustive efforts at maintaining security.

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Woodward: Yes, that is, I think, one of the options under considearation. People with extreme views on both sides tend to discount the possibility of a middle course but I think the history of most wars shows there is always a compromise. For example, in World War II, the U.S. Army wanted 200 divisions for the war in Europe and they only got 89 divisions. So it's possible to win with less.

Gordon Goldstein: While the outcome remains unclear, there are reports that such "hybrid" strategies in Afghanistan are currently under discussion.

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Mokelumne Hill, Calif. 95245: Isn't it an example of how terribly wrong a great general can be that MacArthur assured Truman that China would not intervene in North Korea?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Woodward: Generals, like presidents, liek politicians, like journalists are often wrong.

Goldstein: That said, in the summer of 1961, Presidetn Kennedy consulted Gen. MacArthur about strategy in Vietnam. MacArthur strongly advised Kennedy not to deploy ground combat forces to the region. Kennedy took this advice seriously, and frequently referenced it in private discussions with his senior advisors. So sometimes generals are right, even after having been wrong.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: It is my impression that there was a key element missing in the planning of the Vietnam War: they didn't know how to win it. President Johnson is often quoted as fearing he was trapped between a war he felt he had to fight and the realization that he did not know how to win the war. How did key Johnson advisors believe they could win the war, or were they similarly at a loss?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Gordon: While this may be a simplification, the following generalization, none the lesss, capturs something critical about decision- making in the Johnson White House. In the sumer of 1965 President Johnson's War Council was overwhelmingly fixated on not losing in Vietnam. There was insufficient discussion and debate about what it would take to "win."

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Brooklyn, NY: McNamara needed Bundy at his side to challenge Johnson. Yet Maj. H.R.McMaster found that McNamara always finished his reports on the evening before he left for Vietnam. McNamara didn't need Bundy to write his reports. What exactly stopped McNamara from debating McMaster?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Woodward: First, McMaster wasn't around during Vietnam. It is a mid-level Army officer on the 1980s who wrote his famous book about the weaknesses of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ("Derection of Duty"). Bgen. McMaster is now advising Gen. Petraeus, the overall commander of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Afghanistan looks a lot like Vietnam: How do we get out?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Woodward: That is one of the issues the Obama national security team is discussing, clearly the exit is only possible if there is a moderately strong Afghanistan government, army and police force. How to get that is also part of the discussion.

Goldstein: And as of yesterday, adminstation policy calls for any increase of troops or aid to be dependent on the emergence of a stable partner in Kabul. A very hard task.

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Evanston, Ill.: What stops the Taliban from sending recruits to get basic training and then deserting the Afghan army? As of right now, are the Taliban and al Qaeda still actively allied?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Woodward: I'm sure there are examples of Taliban infiltration of the Afghan army. There is substantial disagreement about the depth, intensity and coordination between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Someone said recently if they definitively knew the answer to that question, President Obama's decision might be a lot easier.

Goldstein: Complicating the picture further, is the estimate from Gen. Jones, Obama's national security adviser, that there are less than 100 al-Qaeda operatives currently in Afghanistan.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: If memory serves me correctly, there was a brief period in the 1950s in which notable American officials hailed Ho Chi Minh as a potential ally. Indeed, I recall Ho Chi Minh looked towards America for assistance. Is my memory correct? If so, although speculation about what would have happened can never tell what would have happened, what do you think likely outcomes could have been had the United States recognized Ho Chi Minh early on?

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Goldstein: It is correct than in 1945 Ho Chi Minh formally sought diplomataic recognition and aid from the U.S. The record indicates that possibility never seriously considered in Washington.

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Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein: Thank you.

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