'We Were Wrong, Terribly Wrong'


Although pressed repeatedly for over a quarter of a century to add my views on Vietnam to the public record, I hesitated for fear that I might appear selfserving, defensive, or vindictive, which I wished to avoid at all costs. Perhaps I hesitated also because it is hard to face one's mistakes. But something changed my attitude and willingness to speak. I am responding not to a desire to get out my personal story but rather to a wish to put before the American people why their government and its leaders behaved as they did and what we may learn from that experience.

Why, after all these years of silence am I convinced I should speak? There are many reasons; the main one is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.

Many factors helped lead to this: Vietnam, Watergate, scandals, corruption. But I do not believe, on balance, that America's political leaders have been incompetent or insensitive to the welfare of the people who elected them. Certainly they have shown themselves to be far from perfect, but people are far from perfect. They have made mistakes, but mostly honest mistakes.

We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.

I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions but ofjudgment and capabilities. I say this warily, since I know that if mv comments appear to justify or rationalize what I and others did, they will lack credibility and only increase people's cynicism.

I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did, and to learn from them. I hope to say, "Here is something we can take away from Vietnam that is constructive and applicable to the world of today and tomorrow." That is the only way our nation can ever hope to leave the past behind. The ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote, "The reward of suffering is experience." Let this be the lasting legacy of Vietnam.

THROUGHOUGHT THE KENNEDY YEARS, WE OPERATED ON TWO premises that ultimately proved contradictory. One was that the fall of South Vietnam to Communism would threaten the security of the United States and the Western world. The other was that only the South Vietnamese could defend their nation, and that America should limit its role to providing training and logistical support. In line with that latter view, we actually began planning for the phased withdrawal of U. S. view, we actually began planning for the phased withdrawl of U.S. forces in 1963, a step amantly opposed by those who believed it could lead to the loss of South Vietnam and, very likely, all of Asia.

I had never visited Indochina, nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture, or values. The same must be said, to varying degrees, about President Kennedy, Seeretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, military adviser Maxwell Taylor, and many others. When it came to Vietnam, we found ourselves setting policy for a region that was terra incognita.

Worse, our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance about Southeast Asia. The irony of this gap was that it existed largely because the top East Asian and China experts in the State Department-John Paton Davies Jr., John Stewart Service, and John Carter Vincent had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s. Without men like these to provide sophisticated, nuanced insights, we certainly- badly misread China's objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive for regional hegemony. We also totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh's movement. We saw him first as a Communist and only second as a Vietnamese nationalist.

Such ill-founded judgments were accepted without debate by the Kennedy administration, as they had been by its Democratic and Republican predecessors. We failed to analyze our assumptions critically, then or later. The foundations of our decision making were gravely flawed.

By the fall of 1961, guerrilla infiltration from North Vietnam into South Vietnam had increased substantially, and the Vietcong had intensified their attacks on President Ngo Dinh Diein's government. President Kennedy decided to send Max Taylor and Walt Rostow of the National Security Council staff to South Vietnam. In their report, Max and Walt urged that we substantially boost our support to South Vietnam by sending more advisers, equipment, and even small numbers of combat troops. Such steps, they noted, would mean a fundamental "transition from advice to partnership" in the war.

On November 8,1961, I submitted a brief memorandum to President Kennedy supporting these recommendations. As soon as I sent the memo, however, I started worrying that we had been too hasty. For the next couple of days, I dug deeper into the Vietnam problem. The more I probed, the more the complexity of the situation and the uncertainties of our ability to deal with it by military means became apparent. I realized that seconding the Taylor-Rostow memo had been a bad idea. Dean Rusk and his advisers came to the same conclusion. On November 11, he and I submitted a joint memorandum to the president advising against sending combat forces.

President Kennedy took up both memos in a meeting at the White House later that day. He made clear he did not wish to make an unconditional commitment to prevent the loss of South Vietnam and flatly refused to endorse the introduction of U.S. combat forces.

The dilemma Dean and I defined was going to haunt us for years. Looking back at the record of those meetings, it is clear our analysis was nowhere near adequate. We failed to ask the five most basic questions: Was it true that the fall of South Vietnam would trigger the fall of all Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a grave threat to the West's security? What kind of war-conventional or guerrilla might develop? Could we win it with U.S. troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should we not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops?

It seems beyond understanding, incredible, that we did not force ourselves to confront such issues head-on. But then, it is very hard, today, to recapture the innocence and confidence with which we approached Vietnam in the earIN, days of the Kennedy administration. We knew verv little about the region. We lacked experience dealing with crises. Other pressing international matters clamored for our attention during that first year: Cuba, Berlin, and the Congo to name but three. Not to mention the civil rights revolution at home. Finally, and perhaps most important, we were confronting problems for which there were no ready, or good, answers. I fear that, in such circumstances, governments--and, indeed, most people-tend to stick their heads in the sand. It may help to explain, but it certainly does not excuse, our behavior.

In spite of the incoherence of our approach to South Vietnam during those early years, many of us -including the president and me -came to believe that the problem was such that onlv the South Vietnamese could deal with it. This is what President Kennedy said both privately and publicly in the late summer and fall of 1963, when coup plotting against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem began. We could try to help them through training and logistical support, but we could not fight their war. That was our view then. Had we held to it, the whole history of the period would have been different.

I increasingly made Vietnam my personal responsibility. That was only right: it was the one place where Americans were in a shooting war, albeit as advisers. I felt a very heavy responsibility for it. That is what ultimately led people to call Vietnam McNamara's War.

BEFORE AUTHORIZING THE COUP AGAINST DIEM, WHOSE direction of his nation's war effort was increasingly recognized as inadequate, we had failed to confront the basic issues in Vietnam that ultimately led to his overthrow, and we continued to ignore them after his removal. Looking back, I believe Kennedy and each of his top advisers were at fault:

I should have forced examination, debate, and discussion on such basic questions as Could we win with Diem? If not, could he be replaced by someone with whom we could do better? If not, should we have considered working towards neutralization? Or, alternatively, withdrawing on the grounds that South Vietnam's political disorder made it impossible for the United States to remain there?

Max did not push to resolve the continuing reporting differences surrounding military progress-or the lack thereof-in South Vietnam.

Dean -one of the most selfless, dedicated individuals ever to serve the United States --failed utterly to manage the State Department and to supervise Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Nor did he participate forcefully in presidential meetings.

And President Kennedy-whom I fault least, facing as he did a host of other problems-failed to pull together a divided U.S. government. Confronted with a choice among evils, he remained indecisive far too long.


AFTER THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT KENNEDY, THE situation Lyndon Johnson inherited in Vietnam could not have been more complex, difficult, or dangerous. The leader who had held South Vietnam's centrifugal forces together for nearly ten years had just been removed in a coup backed by President Kennedy that Johnson as vice president had opposed. South Vietnam lacked any tradition of national unity. It was besieged by religious animosities, political factionalism, corrupt police, and, not least, a growing guerrilla insurgency supported by its northern neighbor. Moreover, Johnson was left with a national security team that was deeply split over Vietnam.

Contrary to popular myth, however, Lyndon Johnson was not oblivious to Vietnam when he became president. Although he had visited the country only once - in May 1961 - and had attended few meetings on the subject during Kennedy's tenure, he was keenly aware of the problem. Among his first acts as president was to schedule a meeting with his Vietnam advisers. Some say he called this meeting for domestic political reasons. With an election coming within a year, the story goes, he feared that if he did not ap ear involved and firm he would face strident attacks from hard-line, right-wing republicans.

I disagree. Of course he feared the domestic political consequences of appearing weak. He also feared the effect on our allies if the United States appeared unable or unwilling to meet our security obligations. But most of all Johnson was convinced that the Soviet Union and China were bent on achieving hegemony. He saw the takeover of South Vietnam as a step toward that objective--a break in our containment policy-and he was determined to prevent it. Johnson felt more certain than President Kennedy that the loss of South Vietnam had a higher lost Iran would the direct application of U.S. military force, and it -,,v as ii is view that shaped him and his policy decisions for the next five -years. fie failed to perceive the fundamentally political nature of the war.

In early December, the president asked me to see him. He was convinced the U.S. government was not doing all it should. He asked me to go, to, Saigon. "The situation is very disturbing," I told him on my return, predicting that "current trends, unless reversed in the next 2-3 months, will lead to neutralization at best or more likely to a Communist controlled state." Soon after, the president received a memorandum from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), recommending that the United States try for a Southeast Asia-neither dependent on U.S. military support nor subject to Chinese domination through some sort of truce or settlement. The president asked Dean, Mac Bundy and me for our reactions.

All three of us felt Mansfield's path would lead to the loss of South Vietnam to Communist control with extremely serious consequences for the United States and the West. This shows how limited and shallow our analysis and discussion of the alternatives lo our existing policy in Vietnam i.e., neutralization or withdrawal-had been; it also illustrates that the consequences of Southeast Asia's loss to U.S. and Western security were now being presented to President Johnson with greater force and in more detail than on previous occasions.

This hardened the president's attitude. As the likely failure of our training strategy became more apparent in the months -ahead, we tilted gradually--almost imperceptibly toward approving the direct application of U.S. military force. We did so because of our increasing fear-and hind sight makes it clear it was an exaggerated fear of what would happen if we did not.

Our failure was partially the result of having many more commitments than just Vietnam. Instability in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, and the continued Soviet threat in Europe all took up time and attention. We had no senior group working exclusively on Vietnam, so the crisis there became just one of many items on each person's plate. When combined with the inflexibility of our objectives, and the fact that we had not truly investigated what was essentially at stake and important to us, we were left harried, overburdened, and holding a map with only one road on it. We never stopped to explore fully whether there were other routes to our destination.

DURING, THE LATER MONTHS OF 1963, the situation in South Vietnam steadily worsened. The junta that had assumed power after the coup that eliminated Diem did little to arrest the decline. On .January 29, 1964, a group of younger officers headed by Gen. Nguyen Khanh overthrew that divided, ineffectual government. Washington neither encouraged nor furthered this coup; in fact, the chronic chaos it symbolized reinforced President Johnson's growing anxiety and increased his concern that further political instability would disrupt the war effort. He felt we must therefore make Khan "our boy." Before Max and I left once again for Saigon, the president called us to the White House. fie said, "Bob, I want to see about a thousand pictures of you with General Khanh, smiling and waving your arms and showing the people out there that this country is behind Khanh the whole way."

The president got his wish. To my endless embarrassment, for several days in mid-March Americans picked up their newspapers and turned on their televisions to see images of me barnstorming South Vietnam from the Mekong Delta to Hue, standing shoulder to shoulder with short, bouncy General Khanh before Vietnamese throngs in an attempt to promote him to his own people. And since we still did not recognize the North Vietnamese and Vietcong struggle as nationalist in nature, we never realized that encouraging public identification between Khanh and America may have only reinforced in the minds of many Vietnamese the view that his government drew its support not from the people but from the United States.

THE CLOSEST THE UNITED STATES CAME TO A DECLARATION of war in Vietnam was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August 1964. The events surrounding the resolution gernerated intense controversy that continues to this day. The key questions and my answers:

Attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats against U.S. destroyers reportedly occurred on two separate occasions August 2 and August 4,1964. Did the attacks actually occur? Answer: The evidence of the first attack is indisputable. The second attack appears probable but not certain.

At the time -and still more so in later years -some people believed the Johnson administration deliberately provoked the attacks in order to justify an escalation of the war and to obtain, under a subterfuge, congressional authority for that escalation. Does this view have any merit? Answer: None at all.

In response to the attacks, the president ordered a strike by U.S. naval aircraft against four North Vietnamese patrol boat bases and an oil depot. Was the strike justified? Answer: Probably.

Would the congressional resolution have been submitted if the action in the Tonkin Gulf had not occurred and, without that action, would it have passed? Answer: Almost certainly a resolution would have been submitted to Congress within a matter of weeks, and very likely it would have passed. But the resolution would have faced far more extetisive debate, and there would have been attempts to limit the president's authority.

Was the Johnson administration justified in basing its subsequent military actions in Vietnam -including an enormous expansion of force levels -on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution? Answer: Absolutely not. Although the resolution granted sufficiently broad authority to support the escalation, Congress never intended it to be used as a basis for such action, and still less did the country see it so.

MANY PEOPLE TODAY BELIEVE PRESIDENT JOHNSON PUT off making decisions on Vietnam because he wanted to concentrate on winning the 1964 presidential election. Some even allege that he concealed an intention to expand vastly the war for political reasons -that he wanted to paint the Republican candidate, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, as a warmonger and himself as a reasonable, peace-loving statesman. If Lyndon Johnson had in mind a plan to escalate the war, he never told me. And I believe he had no such plan. He never indicated to me or to the joint Chiefs that he wanted us to hold back in Vietnam because of the election. In fact, there was still no consensus among his advisers about what to do.

Faced with sharply conflicting advice on the war in general and bombing the North in particular, the president on November 2 set up a working group under Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy to review the policy alternatives yet again. The next day, LBJ won the election in what was then the greatest landslide in American history. The Working Group conducted an exhaustive review of assumptions, premises, and options:

We cannot guarantee to maintain a non-Communist South Vietnam short Of committing ourselves to whatever military action would be required to defeat North Vietnam and probably communist China militarily. Such a commitment would involve high risks of a major conflict in Asia, which could not be confined to air and naval action but would almost inevitably involve a Korean-scale ground action and possibly even the use of nuclear weapons at some point.

The president and I were shocked by the almost cavalier way in which the chiefs and their associates accepted the risk of the possible use of nuclear weapons. Above all else, we wanted to avoid the risk of nuclear war. I believe that even a low risk of a catastrophic event must be avoided. That lesson had not been learned in 1964. I fear neither our nation nor the world has fully learned it to this day.

On January 27, 1965 -just one week after the inauguration -Mac and I gave President Johnson a short but explosive memorandum. Mac and I believed events were at a critical juncture. We told LBJ: ..MR.-

The worst course of action is to continue in this essentially passive role which can only lead to eventual defeat and an invitation to get out in humiliating circumstances. We see two alternatives. The first is to use our military power in the Far East and to force a change in Communist policy. The second is to deploy all our resources along a track of negotiation, aimed at salvaging what little can be preserved with no major addition to our present military risks. [147e] tend to favor the first course, but we believe that both should be carefully studied. ..MR0-

After months of uncertainty and indecision, we had reached the fork in the road.

The first six months of 1965 that followed our memo marked the most crucial phase of Amerias thirty-year involvement in Indochina. Between January 28 and July 28, 1965, President Johnson made the fateful choices that locked the United States onto a path of massive military intervention in Vietnam, an intervention that ultimately destroyed his presidency and polarized America like nothing since the Civil War.

During this fateful period, Johnson initiated bombing of North Vietnam and committed U.S. ground forces, raising the total U.S. troop strength from 23,000 to 175,000- with the likelihood of another 100,000 in 1966 and perhaps even more later. All of this occurred without adequate public disclosure or debate, planting the seeds of an eventually debilitating credibility gap.

Although the president withheld this change in policy from the public, he sought the advice of many experienced people outside government, especially ex-President Eisenhower. He had Ike briefed and then invited Eisenhower to meet with him and his senior advisers at the White House. On February 17 we gathered around the cabinet table for two and a half hours to hear the general's views.

Ike began by saying LBJ's first duty was to contain Communism in Southeast Asia. He then stated that bombing could help achieve that objective. it would not end the infiltration, but it would help by weakening Hanoi's will to continue the war. He believed the time had come for the president to shift from retaliatory strikes to a "campaign of pressure." When someone present (I do not remember who) said it might take a very large force-eight U.S. divisions-to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, Eisenhower stated he hoped they would not be needed; but if they were, so be it." If the Chinese or Soviets threatened to intervene, he said, "We should pass the word back to them to take care lest dire results [i.e., nuclear strikes] occur to them."

Two days later President Johnson decided that regular strikes against the North would begin, but he again refused Mac's advice to announce the decision publicly.

Why did President Johnson refuse to take the American people into his confidence? Some point to his innate secretiveness, but the answer is far more complex. One factor was his obsession with securing Congress's approval and financing of his Great Society agenda; he wanted nothing to divert attention and resources from his cherished domestic reforms. The other was his equally strong fear of hard-line pressure (from conservatives in both parties for greater-and far riskier-military action that might trigger responses, especially nuclear, by China and/or the Soviet Union. The president coped with his dilemma by obscuring it-an unwise and ultimately self-defeating course.

At a Cabinet Room meeting on April 21, 1 urged the president to promptly approve deployments that meant a marked increase in U.S. strength in Vietnam, from 33,000 to 82,000, in order to bolster South Vietnam against an expected Communist ofensive while preventing "a spectacular defeat of GVN [South Vietnamese] or U.S. forces."

George Ball, who also attended the April 21 meeting, responded to the recommendations with a plea that we "should not take such a hazardous leap without exploring the possibilities of a settlement." The president replied, "All right, George, I'll give you until tomorrow to get me a settlement plan. If you can pull a rabbit out of the hat, I'm all for it." Ball submitted a settlement plan to the president that night. But George's paper failed to show how to achieve the objectives we all sought.

What George did recommend -and we perhaps failed to implement properly -was to ask intermediaries (e.g., Sweden, the Soviets, the seventeen nonaligned nations) to make clear to Hanoi that we would accept the position he had outlined. We made one contact with a North Vietnamese representative in Paris within a matter of weeks. We attempted many other contacts over the next three years. But we failed to utilize all possible channels and to convey our position clearly. And ill-timed U.S. bombings often undermined the signals of U.S. interest in peace.

A growing realization of the bombings' ineffectiveness intensified the pressure to expand the ground war. The bombshell exploded on June 7. Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. military commander, said he needed 41,000 more combat troops now and another 52,000 later. This would increase total U.S. strength from 82,000 to 175,000. The last paragraph of his cable read: "Studies must continue and plans developed to deploy even greater forces, if and when required." His request meant a dramatic and openended expansion of American military involvement. Of the thousands of cables I received during my seven years in the Defense Department, this one disturbed me most.

President Johnson read polls that showed a public prepared for further action. Sixty-five percent approved his handling of the war; 47 percent favored sending more troops. But the president knew how quickly the public could change. He told me on June 21,1965:

I think that in time ... it's going to be difficult for us to very long prosecute effectively a war that far away from home with the divisions that we have here and particularly the potential divisions. And its really had me concerned for a month and I'm very depressed about it because I see no program from either Defense or State that gives me much hope of doing anything except just praying and gasping to hold on during [the] monsoon [season] and hope they'll quit. And I don't believe they're ever going to quit.

The president approved an expanded troop program on July 27 and announced his decision to the American public in a midday speech on July 28. But he did not approve the proper way to finance it. I estimated that it would entail roughly $10 billion in additional expenditures through fiscal 1966. I submitted my spending estimate and proposed tax increase in a highly classified draft memorandum known to only a handful of people. Not even the treasury secretary or the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers knew about it.

When the president read the draft memo and its financing provisions, he said, "What's your vote count?" (I knew what he meant: he believed a tax bill would not pass Congress.)

"I don't have a vote count," I replied. "I know it will be difficult, but that's what you have legislative liaison people for."

"You get your ass up to the Hill and don't come back till you have the vote count."

I did. And of course the votes were not there. I told the president this and said. "I would rather fight for what's right and fail than not try."

He looked at me, exasperated. "Goddammit, Bob, that's what's wrong, with you - you aren't a politician. How many times do I have to remind you that after FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court and failed, he (couldn't get Congress to pass the time of day." He exaggerated, but I understood his point: he was protecting his Great Society programs. Had he not at the same time vastly enlarged the credibility gap -which eroded his very ability to build the Great Society--I could have agreed with him.

From the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese forces had been giving us poor intelligence and inaccurate reports. Sometimes these inaccuracies were conscious attempts to mislead; at other times they were the product of too much optimism. And sometimes the inaccuracies merely reflected the difficulty of gauging progress accurately.

But I insisted we try to measure progress. Since my years at Harvard, I had gone by the rule that it is not enough to conceive of an objective and a plan to carry it out; you must monitor the plan to determine whether you are achieving the objective. if you discover you are not, you either revise the plan or change the objective. I was convinced that, while we might not be able to track a front line, we could find variables that would indicate our success or failure. So we measured the targets destroyed in the North, the traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the number of captives, the weapons seized, the enemy body count, and so on.

The body count was a measurement of the adversary's manpower losses; we undertook it because one of Westy's objectives was to reach a so-called crossover point, at which Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain. Critics point to use of the body count as an example of my obsession with numbers. "This guy McNamara," they said, "he tries to quantify everything." Obviously, there are things you cannot quantify: honor and beauty, for example. But things you can count, you ought to count. Loss of life is one, when you are fighting a war of attrition. We tried to use body counts as a measurement to help us figure out what we should be doing in Vietnam to win the war while putting our troops at the least risk.


The war widens, as McNamara and LBT grow estranged

PRESSURE FROM THE LEFT-THOSE URGING US TO DO LESS or to withdraw-would culminate in early 1968 in substantial opposition that contributed to President Johnson's decision not to seek reelection. But that was not our major concern in 1966 and most of 1967. The president, Dean, and I worried far more about pressure from the right. Hawks charged we were forcing our military to fight with one hand tied behind its back and demanded we unleash the full weight of america's military might.

On May 19, 1967, 1 proposed a politico-military strategy that raised the possibility of compromise: restricting the bombing to interdiction of the infiltration "funnel" below the twentieth parallel; limiting additional deployments to 30,000, after which a firm ceiling should be imposed; and adopting a more flexible bargaining position while actively seeking a political settlement. After much thinking, struggling, and searching, I had concluded-and I bluntly told President Johnson- that "the war in Vietnam is acquiring a momentum of its own that must be stopped" and that Westy's approach "could lead to a major national disaster."

My May memorandum to the president unleashed a storm of controversy. It intensified already sharp debate within the administration. It led to tense and acrimonious Senate hearings that pitted me against the Joint Chiefs of Staff and generated rumors they intended to resign en masse. It accelerated the process that ultimately drove President Johnson and me apart. And it hastened my departure from the Pentagon.

-One of President Johnson's closest advisers, commenting on an early draft of this text, wrote that I had failed to emphasize properly the weakness of LBJ's decision-making approach: "He did not like working toward a decision in company -he wanted to go one-on-one. He never let anyone see his hole card in any context. His unwillingness, for example, to explore acceptable 'peace terms' doomed the bombing pauses to failure."

Lyndon Johnson, like all of us, made his own trouble sometimes. Having a senior adviser submit a memo questioning the fundamental premise underlying our involvement in a war, and not allowing him to discuss it with his colleagues, is certainly no way to run a government. But I think it is simplistic to attribute a president's failure to such factors. Subordinates ought to find ways to compensate for idiosyncrasies in their leader's style. it remained our responsibility to identify the contradictions in policy, force them to the surface, and debate them. Had we done so, we might have changed the policy.

A secret memo by the CINs Richard Helms shows that, in the fall of 1967, the CINs most senior analysts believed we could have withdrawn from Vietnam without any permanent damage to U.S. or Western security. At the same time they were expressing that view, I was stating to a Senate subcommittee the judgment - supported by CIA/DIA analyses -that we could not win the war by bombing the North. And my May 19 memo had reported that we would continue suffering heavy casualties in South Vietnam with no assurance of winning there either.

How does one explain the administration's failure to push harder for negotiations and contemplate withdrawal? The answer is that the Joint Chiefs and many others in the government took an entirely different view of the war's progress, that influential members of Congress and the public shared that view,, and that the president was heavily swayed by their opinion.

Another pessimistic memorandum I wrote in November raised the tension between two men who loved and respected each other-Lyndon Johnson and me-to the breaking point. Four weeks later, President Johnson announced my election as president of the World Bank.

I do not know- to this day whether I quit or was fired. Maybe it was both.

I had long been interested in the developing countries. I had discussed this with George Woods in the spring of 1967, when over lunch he told me his five-year term as president of the World Bank ended on December 31 and he wished me to succeed him.

I had reported the conversation to the president at the time, and it had not come up again until September or October, when out of the blue he asked if anything further had developed. I told him I was still interested but would stay at the Defense Department as long as the president desired.

Years later, George told me that Joe Fowler, the secretary of the treasury told LBJ that it was customary to submit three names.The resident replied, "OK, it's McNamara, McNamara, McNamara."

Why, then, did I leave? It was not because I was ill, although newspapers reported such stories, and the president told his aides he was worried I might commit suicide, as had Trumans first defense secretary, James V. Forrestal. It has since become a common assumption that I was near emotional and physical collapse. I was not. I was indeed feeling stress. I was at loggerheads with the president; I was not getting answers to my questions; and I was tense as hell. But I was not under medical care, not taking drugs except for an occasional sleeping pill, and never contemplated suicide.

The fact is I had come to the conclusion, and had told him point-blank, that we could not achieve our objective in Vietnam through any reasonable military means, and we therefore should seek a lesser political objective through negotiations. President Johnson was not ready to accept that. It was becoming clear to both of us that I would not change my judgment, nor would he change his. Something had to give.

From "In Retrospect." by Robert S. McNamara. To be published l@yl'imes Books, a division ofrandoni liotise, Inc. 1:@ 199,5 bv Robert S. McNarnar;i.


ANTIWAR PROTEST HAD been sporadic and limited through the fall of 1965 and had not compelled attention. Then came the afternoon of November 2, 1965. At twilight that day, a young Quaker named Norman R. Morrison, father of three and an officer of the Stoney Run Friends Meeting in Baltimore, burned himself to death within 40 feet of my Pentagon window When he set himself on fire, he was holding his one-year-old daughter in his arms. Bystanders screamed, "Save the child!" and he flung her out of his arms. She survived.

Morrison's death was a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country. It was an outcry against the killing that was-destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth.

I reacted to the horror of his action by bottling up my emotions and avoided talking about them with anyone-even my family. I knew [my wife] Marg and our three children shared many of Morrisons feelings about the war, as did the wives and children of several of my cabinet colleagues. And I believed I understood and shared some of his thoughts. There was much Marg and I and the children should have talked about, yet at moments like this I often turn inward instead-it is a grave weakness. The episode created tension at home that only deepened as dissent and criticism of the war continued to grow.

Jackie Kennedy was indeed a glamorous woman. But she was also extremely sensitive. Whether her emotions were triggered by the poem [we were discussing] or by something I said, I do not know. She had grown very depressed by, and very critical of, the war. In any event, she became so tense that she could hardly speak. She suddenly exploded. She turned and began, literally, to beat on my chest, demanding that I "do something to stop the slaughter!"

My encounters with protesters became louder and uglier. One of the more disturbing was in August 1966. My family and I were waiting on board a plane at Seattle airport after having climbed Mount Rainier. A man approached, shouted "Murderer!" and spat on me. Then, during the Christmas holidays, while I was lunching with Marg at a restaurant on top of Aspen Mountain. a woman came to the table and in a voice loud enough to be heard across the room, screamed, "Baby burner! You have blood on your hands!"

These incidents naturally upset me. Even more distressing, the tensions hurt my family. Marg developed a dangerous ulcer that required surgery the following summer, which left her weak and in great pain. My son, Craig, who was only a teenager, sometime later also developed an ulcer.

In the summer of 1967, we looked forward to seeing the vacation house we had under construction in Snowmass near Aspen and we wanted to check the damage caused by antiwar protesters, who had twice tried to burn it down.

The damage proved minor, but we were far from reassured: the would-be arsonists bad made a serious effort to destroy it. The FBI reported other such attempts in later years. For example, after Patty Hearst had been arrested for Symbionese Liberation Army activities in the 1970s, agents found floor plans of our Snowmass house in the group's Berkeley garage. Each of our bedrooms had been clearly labeled with the name of its occupant.

On Saturday, October 21, 1967, 20,000 angry antiwar demonstrators marched on the Pentagon, determined to shut it down.

We decided to surround the building with troops armed with rifles, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of the asphalt ring, and to station U.S. marshals between them and the protesters.

I watched the whole thing from the roof of the building and other vantage points. Years later a reporter asked if I had been scared. Of course I was scared: an uncontrolled mob is a frightening thing luckily, in this case, frightening but ineffective. At the same time, I could not help but think that had the protesters been more disciplined - Gandhi-like -they could have achieved their objective of shutting us down. All they had to do was lie on the pavement around the building. We would have found it impossible to remove enough of them fast enough to keep the Pentagon open.


WHAT WOULD JOHN F. Kennedy have done about Vietnam had he lived? I have been asked that question countless times over the last thirty years. Thus far, I have refused to answer. I saw no gain to our nation from speculation by me -or others -about how the dead president might have acted.

But today I feel differently. Having reviewed the record in detail, and with the advantage of hindsight, I think it highly probable that, had President Kennedy lived, he would have pulled us out of Vietnam. He would have concluded that the South Vietnamese were incapable of defending themselves, and that Saigon's grave political weaknesses made it unwise to try to offset the limitations of South Vietnamese forces by sending U.S. combat troops on a large scale.

I think he would have come to that conclusion even if he reasoned, as I believe he would have, that South Vietnam and, ultimately, Southeast Asia would then be lost to Communism. He would have viewed that loss as more costly than we see it now, But he would have accepted that cost because he would have sensed that the conditions he had laid down - that it was a South Vietnamese war, that it could only be A@on by them, and to win it they needed a sound political base - could not be met. Kennedy would have agreed that withdrawal would cause a fall of the "do"noes" but that staying in would ultimately lead to the same result, while exacting a terrible price in blood,

Early in his administration, President Kennedy asked his cabinet officials and members of the National Security Council to read Barbara Tuchman's book "The Guns of August." He said it graphically portrayed how Europe's leaders had bungled into the debacle of' World War 1. And he emphasized: "I don't ever want to be in that position." Kennedy told us after we had done our reading, "We are not going to bungle into war."

Throughout. Kennedy seemed to keep that lesson in mind. During the Bay of Pigs crisis in April 1961, against intense pressure from the CIA and the military chiefs, he kept to his conviction as he had made explicitly clear to the Cuban exiles beforehand that under no conditions would the U.S. intervene with military force. He held to this position even when it became evident that without that support the invasion would fail, as it did.


PRESIDENT JOHNSON AND I developed The strongest possible bonds of mutual respect and affection. However, our relationship was different from the one I had with President Kennedy, and more complicated. Johnson was rough on his friends as well as his enemies. He took every person's measure. He sought to find a persons weakness and to play on it. He could be a bully, though he was never that way with me. He learned that I would deal straight with him telling him what I believed rather than what I thought he wanted to hear, but also that once he made a decision, I would do all in my power to carry it out.

MY son, Craig, had played on the St. Paul's School football team and had been mentioned as an All-New England halfback, but Marg and I had never been able to see him play. His last game was scheduled for a weekend in November. I mentioned this to the president, suggesting I slip away on a Saturday afternoon and return to my office Sunday morning. Johnson gambled, but I interpreted his comment as acquiescence.

As soon as Marg and I checked into our hotel, I received a message to call the president immediately. lie shouted, "Where are you?" I explained where I was and why. "I want you back here immediately to get that damn aluminum price down," be snapped. I said I knew nothing about the aluminum price, and, in any event, he had a commerce secretary to handle such matters. "Well, if you want to put your personal pleasure ahead of the welfare of your president and your country" -- he paused - "then stay where you are." I said: "I'll make you a deal. Marg and I will see the game and I'll be in my office early tomorrow morning." He slammed down the phone.

Shortly after the president had decided not to send me to South Vietnam as ambassador, and with the 1964 election ever present in his mind, he asked me to be his vice presidential running mate. There had been press speculation about such an offer. However, knowing President Johnson as I did, I knew that if I answered yes, he might later withdraw the invitation. In any event, I said no.

I refused not because I thought little of the opportunity-quite the contrary. There is no more important task than resolving the differences among people and finding a course of action that will be supported by a sufficient number to permit the nation to achieve a better life for all. But at the time, I lacked political skills and I knew it.

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