The stark missteps recorded in the Afghanistan Papers recalled an historic about-face by an architect of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
He was Robert McNamara, the Defense secretary who played a key role in escalating the conflict, only to end up wrestling with his ill-founded decisions that had been largely responsible for one of the century’s bloodiest wars.
I interviewed McNamara for Reuters in April 1995. U.S. combat units had withdrawn in 1973, leaving North and South Vietnam to reunify under Communist control two years later. Protesters had long before branded it “McNamara’s War,” to which he did not object.
Breaking a 27-year silence he had kept since leaving the Pentagon in 1968, McNamara said he had secretly believed that U.S. involvement had been futile. He said the United States should have quit South Vietnam as early as 1963, two years before a major troop build-up began under his supervision.
As told by McNamara in the memoir he’d just written, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” U.S. decision-makers had misjudged North Vietnam’s resolve, underrated the force of nationalism and failed to grasp the folly of trying to cow an agrarian land by bombing — all arguments voiced by anti-war protesters for years.
George McGovern, who had run for president against Richard Nixon in 1972 on a pledge to end the war immediately, said McNamara’s terming the war a tragic mistake was a “bombshell” that could change the polarized U.S. political landscape.
“It’s like the Pope coming out against Christianity,” the South Dakota Democrat told me in a telephone interview. “It just demolishes the entire case for our involvement there from a man who saw it from the inside.”
Vietnam estimates as many as two million of its civilians died in the war, along with some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters. The U.S. military has estimated that up to 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died. More than 58,000 U.S. military personnel died.