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With all the attention over Michael Jackson and other celebrity deaths in recent weeks, a lot of people may have missed the passing of a very important modern historical figure: Vietnam War architect Robert S. McNamara.
McNamara died July 6 at the age of 93 at his Washington home. The headline on the obituary story in the Roanoke Times was utterly appropriate: “McNamara never shook Vietnam.”
Indeed. And our country will probably never shake Vietnam, either, because it’s the ultimate example of the price a nation pays for engaging in tragic and unnecessary wars waged entirely out of ideological madness.
Robert McNamara, as defense secretary for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, had more to do with that policy than any other person except the presidents he served.
Democrats and Republicans both believed heartily in the “logic” of the Cold War that developed after World War II. Communism, the theory went, was so awful and reprehensible that it had to be “stopped.” It all started with Harry Truman.
The Truman Doctrine was all about “containing communism,” giving U.S. aid to what were deemed to be anti-communist elements in Greece. There was very little appreciation for the real facts on the ground in that country, something that would repeat itself in Vietnam. America had officially declared holy war on communism. The details didn’t matter much.
By McNamara’s time, the little nation of Vietnam, a place most Americans hadn’t heard of and surely didn’t even know where it was, became the central focus of this obsession. It had been artificially divided by the allies at the end of the war, placing nationalist forces under Ho Chi Mihn in the North, and “democratic” forces in the South.
Now we know that Ho had made repeated appeals to the United States for an alliance, based on a unified Vietnam, the same thing he would fight for against both the French and the Americans. But that plea was rejected, and American policy centered around “protecting” South Vietnam, especially after the French realized they had no business there and went home in 1954 after a disastrous military defeat.
Enter the United States and President John F. Kennedy. He believed that we should have advisers in Vietnam but never committed to military action by U.S. ground forces. He wanted to “stop communism,” too; he just didn’t want American boys to die for it. He didn’t live to pursue his policy.
Lyndon Johnson had begun his presidency pushing for a “Great Society,” where the government would wage war on poverty and social injustice. But he knew he couldn’t lose political capital by appearing to be “soft” on communism. Under McNamara’s advice, he dramatically escalated the American presence there in 1965. Suddenly, it was an American war.
From the biography he wrote in later years, we discovered that McNamara soon had serious doubts about the war. In 1966, he said the following: “(It’s) a gross simplification to regard Communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped world … The United States has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so.”
As the Vietnam War dragged on and America was unable to achieve a John Wayne-style “victory,” McNamara’s doubts increased to the point where even President Johnson thought he might have a nervous breakdown. He finally resigned in 1968, never letting the public know about his doubts and regrets.
On July 6, the Vietnam War claimed one more victim, after 58,000 Americans had died in the war. What a shame for him and for the country that he so loved. Will we ever learn our lessons about unnecessary war?