The War Nobody Won 7

Americans had been prepared to make sacrifices in blood and treas¬ure, as they had in other wars. But they had to be shown progress, told when the war would end. In World War II, they could stick pins in maps and trace the advance of their army across Europe; in Vietnam, where there were no fronts, they were only given meaningless enemy “body counts”—and promises. So the United States, which had brought to bear stupendous military power to crack Communist mo¬rale, itself shattered under the strain of a struggle that seemed to be interminable. An original aim of the intervention, first enunciated by President Eisenhower, had been to protect all of Southeast Asia, whose countries would presumably “topple like a row of dominoes” were the Communists to take over Vietnam. Ironically, as Leslie Gelb of The New York Times has observed, the real domino to fall was Amer¬ican public opinion.
The public, distressed by mounting casualties, rising taxes and no prospect of a solution in sight, turned against the war long before America’s political leaders did. Doubts had crept over many members of Congress. Yet except for a handful of senators, among them Wil¬liam Fulbright, Wayne Morse, Ernest Gruening, Gaylord Nelson and Eugene McCarthy, few translated their private misgivings into open dissent. Not until March 1968, when he decided to run for the pres¬idency, did John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert, the senator from New York, denounce the American commitment to South Vietnam—hav¬ing initially been one of its vocal advocates. Nor were there many dissidents in the upper echelons of the executive branch, apart from George Ball, a senior State Department figure during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Ball later looked back on the war as “probably the greatest single error made by America in its history.”
Robert McNamara, who played a major part in shaping Vietnam policy as secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson, had begun to lose confidence in the effort as early as 1967 as he gradually rec¬ognized its futility. He came close to an emotional breakdown, and for years following the war he refused to discuss the subject, either publicly or privately. Repeatedly parrying my requests for an inter¬view during the preparation of this book, he explained that he had never even talked about the conflict with his family or close friends. But at a conference in Japan in April 1991, brashly challenged to recall his role in Vietnam by Jonathan Mirsky, a London Observer writer, McNamara momentarily lost his cool. His face taut and ashen, he exploded, “I was wrong! My God, I was wrong!”
Never before had I heard his mea culpa, brief though it was—and after the meeting, I pressed him to elaborate. The emotional outburst was as far as he would go, however. To recollect his experience in detail, he insisted, would require a massive research job. Besides, he added, he was reluctant to indulge in a memoir that might be construed as “self-serving.” It was a lame excuse, and I bluntly told him that he owed it to posterity to relate his story. He finally did in 1995 in his book, In Retrospect, in which he repeated: “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” Clearly, sixteen years after the end of the war, Vietnam still tor¬mented him. And, in that sense, he was as much a casualty of the con¬flict as the thousands of American soldiers who never recovered from the trauma of combat.
McNamara’s successor, Clark Clifford, had been a strong proponent of a vigorous military approach to Vietnam before taking charge of the Defense Department. A sensitive political animal, his antennae sharply attuned to the national mood, he changed overnight and adroitly maneuvered to alter President Johnson’s course. In 1981, when I interviewed him in his luxurious Washington law office, Clifford tried to put the Vietnam experience in perspective: “Countries, like human beings, make mistakes. We made an honest mistake. I feel no sense of shame. Nor should the country feel any sense of shame. We felt that we were doing what was necessary. It proved to be unsound.”
Such admissions scarcely consoled the South Vietnamese, who by 1973 had discovered to their dismay that America, after twenty years, would not wage the war indefinitely. Bui Diem, who served as South Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States and remained in America, drew a broader lesson from the phenomenon: “Small nations must be wary of the Americans, since U.S. policies shift quickly as domestic politics and public opinion change. The struggle for us was a matter of life and death. But, for the Americans, it was merely an unhappy chapter in their history, and they could turn the page. We were allied, yet we had different interests.”
Fortunately, the Vietnam failure did not send the United States into the torturous kind of recrimination that followed China’s fall to Communism. No congressional committees staged inquisitions of allegedly “un-American” citizens. Nor did a demagogue emerge to match Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose cynical witch-hunts in the 1950s put a generation on trial. Despite his portrayal of the struggle as a “noble cause” betrayed by politicians, President Reagan refrained from making it an issue. Perhaps the turmoil that convulsed the nation during the war left Americans too exhausted to embark on a quest for blame. Or maybe the trauma was so profound that they preferred to forget. Yet, as Kissinger has said, “Vietnam is still with us. It has created doubts about American judgment, about American credibility, about American power—not only at home, but throughout the world. It has poisoned our domestic debate. So we paid an exorbitant price for the decisions that were made in good faith and for good purpose.” Few places in America paid as high a price as did Bardstown, a Kentucky community of seven thousand, sixteen of whose boys died in the war. Early in 1983, a decade after the last American troops left Vietnam, a CBS television team visited Bardstown to capture its post¬war mood. “I personally can’t see that we accomplished anything,” said one veteran, and another added: “A lot of people want to make sure that we don’t engage in that type of situation again.” Gus Wilson, mayor when the young men departed with their national guard unit in 1968, was still mayor: “We believed that the first thing that you did for your country was to defend it. You didn’t question that. But I think we realized as we went along—maybe later than we should have—that the government was pulling a bit of a flimflam. We weren’t getting the truth. The Vietnam war was being misrepresented to the people—the way it was conducted, its ultimate purpose. Though I’m still a patriot, I ended up very disillusioned.”

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