The recent death of former U.S. defense secretary and World Bank president Robert McNamara, at 93, has raised again, in editorials and obituaries, the hoary head of the Vietnam War.
Geeky in his thick, rimless glasses and slicked-back hair, expressionless, desiccated, fast-talking, and mechanically confident, McNamara was at the cutting edge of the managerial revolution–a business administrator, statistician, and efficiency expert. He was a mesmerizing figure for a time, especially after the Kennedy public-relations apparatus confected the myth of calibrated crisis management in the Cuban missile showdown of 1962.
The U.S. military had been urging the invasion of Cuba, blissfully unaware that there were two full Soviet divisions on the island, and that the atomic-missile warheads were already in-country and could be attached and fired in a few hours. Only Kennedy’s sage intuition, which led him to promise no invasion of Cuba and to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey and Greece in exchange for withdrawal of the Cuba missiles, prevented armed conflict with the USSR. It was no great strategic victory, and McNamara’s famous critical-path calculations were irrelevant and based on false intelligence.
But the administration took the same bogus formula to Vietnam. If there had ever been a time for the U.S. to give battle there (and there probably wasn’t), it was after France promised independence but was still prepared to fight the Communists in Indochina. It might have been possible to create a Korea-like coalition and replicate the success of the British and local anti-Communists in Malaya. But neither Eisenhower nor Churchill was prepared to do this in 1954, and Eisenhower was not even prepared to assist the French in escaping the debacle at Dien Bien Phu, which required only a little air transport and close air support to avoid.
Having catastrophically given Laos away in the 1962 Neutrality Agreement (Nixon called it “Communism on the installment plan”), turning that country into a river of troops and supplies being infiltrated southwards on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Kennedy should not have poured thousands of military advisers into South Vietnam and should not have schemed against South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated in 1963. The only possible strategic justification for intervening in 1965 was the Domino Theory argument, which also required encouragement of the anti-Communists in Indonesia, who did narrowly prevail in a horrible bloodbath in 1966.
In the face of a full-scale North Vietnamese invasion of the South, McNamara set about winning hearts and minds by building infrastructure, which the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong promptly destroyed. Then, in 1965, on the thin pretext of the Senate’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Lyndon Johnson started deploying 550,000 draftees to Vietnam. The U.S. shouldered aside the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) and took 200 to 400 dead a week during years of fighting the enemy in jungles and villages. There was an on-again, off-again air war in the North, but the U.S. wasn’t trying to win the war, just to stabilize it.
The U.S. commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, committed the greatest military
blunder in U.S. history (surpassing even Donald Rumsfeld’s demobilization of the 400,000-man Iraqi army and police, while leaving them with their arms and munitions as they set out looking for new employment). He ignored the advice of Eisenhower and MacArthur by only closing the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. It would also have been necessary to build up ARVN, clean out the enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia, shut down any military inflows through the harbors at Haiphong and Sihanoukville, and inflict 1,200 air strikes every day on North Vietnam, as Nixon did during his visit to the USSR in May 1972 (to leave his Kremlin hosts in no doubt of his seriousness).