McNamara Died Without Finding the Right Equation for the Vietnam War
New America Media, Commentary, Thi Quang Lam, Posted: Jul 09, 2009
To the end, Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War, was a confused and tortured man wrestling with his conscience. He was known as a “quantifier” who was obsessed with statistical analysis. He believed that, even in war, the answer could be found with the right equation.
According to him, the success of the Vietnam War could be measured by statistical data such as the body count, the number of weapons captured, the number of hamlets pacified and enemy chieu hoi (Vietcong who joined the South Vietnamese forces).
Despite all of these statistics, McNamara was unable to find the right equation to deal with the Communist insurgency during his seven years at the Pentagon. In his mea culpa bestseller “Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” (1995), the former Secretary of Defense admitted his mistake of escalating the war and not recommending an early disengagement to save American lives.
In his book, McNamara also argued that the war was unwinnable because of South Vietnamese political instability, corruption and military ineffectiveness.
McNamara seemed to forget that the United States has largely itself to blame for the instability of the government of South Vietnam. Not only was the United States heavily involved in the overthrow of the president in 1963, but McNamara himself, reportedly acting on President Johnson’s instructions, openly hailed General Nguyen Khanh as a hero for staging a successful counter-coup that deposed the plotting generals. And it was then-U.S. Ambassador General Maxwell Taylor who subsequently encouraged the rebellion of the Montagnard tribes to discredit and ultimately oust General Khanh, whom Taylor intensely disliked.
Corruption exists in every country, but not all corrupt regimes are condemned to disappear. Corruption, for example, was rampant in South Korea under military dictatorships, but South Korea did not fall to the Communists; instead it became a strong democracy with a vibrant economy. Ironically, in his memoir, McNamara echoed his former critics by singling out South Vietnamese corruption as a main factor behind America’s withdrawal. Yet it was U.S. officials themselves whose patronage system of buying obedience in exchange for favors fueled and legitimated that corruption in the first place.
Another myth is that the South Vietnamese army was an army of incompetents. The most important fact that can be used to refute that assertion is that the South Vietnamese armed forces lost more than 300,000 troops during the Indochina Wars. In proportion to population, that would be the equivalent of some 2.5 million Americans. An army that did not fight would not have incurred such exorbitant losses. It was the same army that, after nearly two decades of continuous combat, stood its ground and convincingly defeated North Vietnam’s finest divisions in their ill-fated 1972 Easter Offensive.
In 1997, 29 years after he left office, McNamara went to Hanoi to meet his former foe, General Vo Nguyen Giap, to discuss the Vietnam War. It’s doubtful if he had learned any new lessons from the famed war hero, but one thing is certain: the North Vietnamese military leaders were very worried about a U.S. invasion north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during the war. Bui Tin, a former colonel and editor of Nhan Dan, the Communist Party’s official newspaper – who defected to the West after the war ended – recently disclosed that Gen. Le Trong Tan, chief of staff of the North Vietnamese Army, told him in 1977: “The Americans needed to deploy no more than one division to occupy the Dong Hoi panhandle temporarily. China would have sat idly by while our troops were pinned down, defending our rear in the North – our unavoidable priority. The configuration of the war would have flipped completely.”
Bui Tin reported that General Vo Nguyen Giap was very concerned about North Vietnam’s vulnerability should the United States and South Vietnam forces occupy the panhandle area south of Gianh River. He conducted military exercises every year to counter that possibility.
In other words, had the United States executed envelopments by sea north of the DMZ in the late 1960’s, North Vietnam’s supply lines to the South would have been cut off, the enemy rear would have been threatened, the war could have been won, or at least some kind of armistice similar to the one in Korea could have been reached, and peace may have been a possibility.
In retrospect, this would have been too much asking, however, from McNamara and his whiz kids in the Pentagon: they probably wouldn’t embark on risky operations without statistical data.
Winston Churchill once said that war is too important to be left to the generals. War is too important, on the other hand, to be left to bureaucrats who would rather crunch numbers than exercise their best judgments to achieve the war objectives. The fog of war, as a result, never lifted for former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Thi Lam was a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese army and the author of, The Twenty-Five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon. His next book, Hell In An Loc, will be published in the fall 2009 by University North Texas Press. .