N.Y.Times Editorial, April 12, 1995

Mr. MacNamara's War

Comes now Robert McNamara with the an announcement that he has in the fullness of time grasped realities that seemed readily apparent to millions of Americans throughout the Vietnam War.

At the time, he appeared to be helping an obsessed President prosecute a war of no real consequence to the security of the United States. Millions of loyal citizens concluded that the war was a militarily unnecessary and politically futile effort to prop up a corrupt Government that could neither reform nor defend itself.

Through all the bloody years, those were the facts as they appeared on the surface. Therefore, only one argument could be advanced to clear President Johnson and Mr. McNamara, his Secretary of Defense, of the charge of wasting lives atrociously, That was the theory that they possessed superior knowledge, not available to the public, that the collapse of South Vietnam would lead to regional and perhaps world domination by the Communists; and moreover, that their superior knowledge was so compelling it rendered unreliable and untrue the apparent facts available to even the most expert opponents of the war.

With a few throwaway lines in his new book, "In Retrospect," Mr, McNamara admits that such knowledge never existed. Indeed, as they made the fateful first steps toward heavier fighting in late 1963 and 1964, Mr, Johnson and his Cabinet "had not truly investigated what was essentially at stake and important to us." As for testing their public position that only a wider war would avail in the circumstances, "We never stopped to explore fully whether there were other routes to our destination."

Such sentences break the heart while making clear that Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen.

Mr. MacNamara wants us to know that he, too, realized by 1967 that the dissidents were right, that the war had to be stopped to avoid "a major national disaster." Even so, he wants us to grant that his delicate sense of protocol excused him from any obligation to join the national debate over whether American troops should continue to die at the rate of hundreds per week in a war he knew to be futile. Mr. McNamara believes that retired Cabinet members should not criticize the Presidents they served no matter how much the American people need to know the truth. In Mr. McNamara's view, the President can never become so steeped in a misguided war that patriotic duty would compel a statement.

Perhaps the only value of "In Retrospect" Is to remind us never to forget that these were men who in the full hubristic glow of their power would not listen to logical warning or ethical appeal. When senior figures talked sense to Mr, Johnson and Mr. McNamara, they were ignored or dismissed from government. When young people in the ranks brought that message, they were court-martialed. When young people in the streets shouted It, they were hounded from the country.

It is Important to remember how fate dispensed rewards and punishment for Mr, McNamara's thousands of days of error. Three million Vietnamese died. Fifty-eight thousand Americans got to come home in body bags. Mr, McNamara, while tormented by his role in the war, got a sinecure at the World Bank and summers at the Vineyard.

So much has changed since those horrendous times, The nation has belatedly recognized the heroism of the American troops who served In good faith because they, in their innocence, could not fathom the mendacity of their elders, but another set of heroes - the thousands of students who returned the nation to sanity by chanting, "Hell, no, we won't go" - is under renewed attack from a band of politicians who sat out the war on student or family deferments. In that sense we are still living in the wreckage created by the Cabinet on which Mr. McNamara served.

His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around Mr. McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying In the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, Three decades late.

Mr. McNamara says he weeps easily and has strong feelings when he visits the Viet-Nam Memorial. But he says he will not speak of those feelings. Yet someone must, for that black wall is wide with the names of people who `died in a war that he did not, at first, carefully research nor, in the end, believe to be necessary.