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Argument Without End

Friday, March 3, 2000 at 12:41 PM

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Robert Strange McNamara served as Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, during some of the most tense periods of the Cold War, from the Bay of Pigs invasion to the escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. In 1995, he published a memoir of the Vietnam War years, "In Retrospect". The book indicted U.S. involvement as being "wrong. Totally wrong", and touched off a firestorm of debate about the war - as one reviewer put it - "re-opening the wounds of Vietnam". But even before the book was finished, McNamara says he was beginning to think about going one step further. He says he began pondering the following premise: the Vietnam war might have been totally avoidable, totally unnecessary.

* Robert McNamara - former Secretary of Defense
* James Blight - Professor of International Relations, Brown University
* Robert Brigham, Associate Professor of History, Vassar College

In subsequent months, McNamara initiated a project to test his theory. Joining forces with James Blight, Director of Brown University’s Vietnam War Project, and Robert Brigham, one of the foremost U.S. authorities on the Vietnam War, McNamara initiated a project to open dialogue about the war with current and former Vietnamese officials. The five-year project is chronicled in the book Argument without End: In Search of Answers. Since the book’s publication, Blight, Brigham, and the 83-year old McNamara have been traveling the country, speaking on college campuses and other forums about their project and what they learned. They came to Cleveland to speak at John Carroll University March 2nd. While in town they spoke with 90.3’s April Baer.

Robert McNamara- We’ve just finished a century. We’re beginning a new century - first of a new millennium. The last century was the bloodiest by far in all of human history-160 million human beings were killed by war - conflicts within nations, across borders. Why? My purpose in initiating this project was to try to understand how some of these conflicts - that led to 160 million killed in the 20th century occurred, so we can avoid them in the 21st. Surely that ought to be a major objective of the human race, and particularly a major objective of U.S. foreign policy. That’s why the book was written. As I finished the previous book “In Retrospect” - which could draw only on US sources - an hypothesis formed in my mind: each of us North Vietnam and the US, could have avoided the war entirely or terminated it at any one of a number of points, and saved the tragedy of the loss of life, and the chaos in our societies. And to understand how bloody a war it was, think of the Vietnamese: the North Vietnamese say they lost 3-million 800-thousand - killed! On our population base, that’s 27-million killed. That’s the nature of the war. We lost 58-thousand; a tragedy for us, a greater tragedy for them. And why? Why did it occur? Could it have been avoided? That was the purpose of the project.

April Baer- Was there anything in particular about writing “In Retrospect” that made you start to think about the war this way?

RM- Yes. I wrote “In Retrospect” to try to examine the US decision-making process. At that time we had no diplomatic relations with Hanoi. This was 1993, ‘94. We had no access to Russian or Chinese archives, and therefore “In Retrospect” was my memoir, if you will, of the war, or the decision making process: how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson became involved in the war, what the basis for it was, and try to draw some lessons from it - to try to avoid similar tragedies in the future. But I could only talk of half the story; I had no access to the others, and it was at the end that this hypothesis formed in my mind. We both could have avoided it, and I wanted to examine that. And to do that I had to have contact with the North Vietnamese. That’s where these two gentlemen [gestures to James Blight and Robert Brigham] came in and established the contacts. We had seven meetings with the Vietnamese, and out of those meetings came the conclusion that my hypothesis was indeed justified. Either one of us - or both of us - could have avoided the war entirely or terminated it at any point in the many, many years that it went on, without any adverse effect on our ending geopolitical position.

AB- As you mentioned, Washington and Hanoi had no diplomatic relations per se at the time this whole project got started. James Blight, in coordinating this project you had the unenviable task of approaching the Vietnamese Government at a time when the leaders just weren’t talking. How did you get them to listen to you?

James Blight- At first, it was difficult but their ambassador in Washington, Mr. Le Van Bang, who had previously been at the UN, had met with a group of us in the summer of 1995, the day after President Clinton had announced that we would normalize relations. We spent all afternoon with Le Van Bang. We explained that what we were up to was to try to get former senior policy members to the table, to prepare them with documents, to surround them with scholars, and to have a go at trying to trace through the relationship between the assumptions they made at the time, and what was really in the minds of the people on the other side. At the end of this conversation Le Van Bang looked at us and said, “I don’t think my people in Hanoi will submit to anything like this - It’s not in the nature of our system. However, I will write them a memo”. We learned later that he did much more than write a memo; he went back to Hanoi and explained that one way for Vietnam to increase its credibility in the United States on the all-important issue of the Missing-In-Action and their assistance - or lack of assistance - to the United States government in finding GIs - one way to increase their credibility on the war was to engage in a conversation with senior policymakers about the war, in which they were perceived - correctly as kind of coming clean. I think that’s the argument that was made on the inside. And he made it and it took about six months for him to do it.

AB- I imagine there’s not a lot of precedent for this kind of scholarship where both sides can come together and sort of perform a fact-finding.

RM- There is one example. I was engaged with Jim Blight in a project started by Joe Nye, the current Dean of the Kennedy school at Harvard, with whom Jim was working at the time, to do exactly this same thing with the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it extended over a period of five years, from 1987 to 1992. And we met first the U.S. only. Then U.S. and Russian. Then U.S., Russian and Cuban, to examine how close we - and the world - came to nuclear war, and how we avoided it, and what lessons could be drawn from the future to avoid nuclear wars. So there was that example and we, in effect, pointed at that to the Vietnamese when this was started. But I should go on to say we never in the world would’ve got all this going - despite all of Jim’s efforts - if it were not for Professor Bob Brigham of Vassar, who is the country’s foremost scholar on Vietnam, who speaks the Vietnamese language, lived there, and so on. And they had confidence in him and that helped immensely in establishing the initial contacts.

AB- I wanted to ask all three of you what it felt like in that first meeting - what the mood was.

Robert Brigham- Well, we were watching history unfold - to travel to Vietnam with the former Secretary of Defense - [it] was certainly different than any other trip I had made to Vietnam. Usually, the media did not meet me at the airport when I arrived, and there were plenty of media in Hanoi. But for me personally to see Vietnam move along in their thinking on what they need to do to be a part of the International community...I had been traveling in Vietnam before that first trip for about 7 or 8 years on a regular basis, and I couldn’t see them moving along the line. And I don’t think they’ve come full circle yet; our dialogs aren’t at the level we’d like them to be yet, but it was exciting. It was a very rewarding experience.

JB- If I might say something about this, I’m remembering back to Havana, Cuba in January of 1992 when Bob McNamara led our group and Fidel Castro led the Cuban group, and how incredibly intense that was, because a lot of things came up - the Bay of Pigs invasion, in addition to nuclear war. And there was a lot of accusation thrown back and forth, and by the end of it, as the conflict resolution people say, there was a tendency to put the problem on the other side of the table, and for all of us to work on it together. But that was rather mild compared with what happened in Hanoi. Because in Hanoi we were dealing with and accounting for four million people who were dead! And whose fault was it? Who did this thing to us? This was part of what it was like. That was the tenor of discussion on the first day or two. Particularly among the Vietnamese: the small country, the poor country, the aggrieved country, the country that was bombed and so forth. There was a lot of accusation and they spoke only with one voice for a while at the table, and I think at almost every coffee break we discussed the possibility of walking out of the conference. Maybe Bob McNamara would like to say - by the end of the event - what that was like.

RM- Well let me just say what happened at lunch on the first day. I’m holding up a book that you can see, Argument Without End, and on it is a photograph of two individuals, the person on this side - his fist is clenched and he’s preparing to hit the other person - is the foreign minister, the ex-foreign minister of Vietnam, and the person on the other side is ME! Now that photograph was taken at lunch on the first day, after I had presented the thesis, that they could have stopped the war or prevented it, we could have stopped the war or prevented it, neither of us did. And the result was four million people were killed. Therefore there were missed opportunities. Why were they missed, what lessons could one draw from it. Basically what this foreign minister said to me was - he didn’t swear at me but it was essentially swearing at me, “I’m going to knock the hell out of you!” And he drew back his fist and this was the photograph! Now at the end of the four days, he said to me, “Bob, your hypothesis was correct. We both made mistakes, we should learn from it. We could have avoided this hopefully our children and grandchildren can learn from it.” Thank God he said it because he died before we had our next meeting. There were a total of seven meetings but that was the first meeting. It was very very tense!! And you ask what it was like to be there...I was an object of curiosity. I run every morning and I’d get up at six o clock in the morning, but I couldn’t go out the door of the hotel without tens of photographers there, following me running. One of them hired a rickshaw, if you can imagine, to take TV photographs of me running. It was a very tense emotional period but it yielded an understanding of what caused the conflict that is absolutely unique, and I think has lessons for the future that will help the human race avoid similar conflicts in the future. That’s the purpose, and that’s what Argument Without End, the book, discusses.

AB- TThe meetings that you had with Vietnamese officials were a big part of the process, but you also had a lot of paperwork research...the” boring” stuff...that went into this as well. Bob Brigham, what specifically did you find out about that might have challenged you preconceptions about why the war happened.

RB- Well, first I want to say that for me, this wasn’t the boring part! This was the exciting part: this deep research into Vietnamese and American documents. We prepared for both sides thousand-page briefing books, based on the latest declassified information we could find. There wasn’t a minute of one day in our meetings that we didn’t learn something new. So just to pick one or two things, let me say for example that this hypothesis Bob put forward - that both sides made mistakes and missed opportunities to avoid the war - within the first ten minutes of the meeting, in Hanoi in June of 1997 we learned their foreign minister was not kept abreast of official party policy - that he was not part of the political bureau, and that the political bureau’s official stance was that they would support neutralism, in other words, a Saigon government that wasn’t pro-Communist or anti-Communist. And the foreign minister didn’t know that, because he wasn’t kept current.

RM- And that would have been totally acceptable to us.

RB- It could have avoided the escalation that came years later. And so every meeting there was something new that we learned. I think that Argument Without End adds substantially to the history record on the Vietnam war

RM- And let me mention one very important point - correct me if I misstate this Bob - we learned that Ho Chi Min went Twice to Beijing to ask Mao Tse Tung for a guarantee that if the US invaded North Vietnam, China would come t the defense of North Vietnam. And I mention this because it was always an issue in our minds, in President Johnson’s mind and my mind, and the joint chiefs’ minds - could we win the war in North Vietnam by invading North Vietnam? And there were many who said “yes”. Now the chiefs were honest enough to say when they would discuss this that, “Well, we should do it, and we must recognize if we do we may become involved with China and the Soviet Union in war and we might have to use Nuclear weapons. We don’t think so, but we might have to”. What we learned here was there was a hundred percent certainty that we would have been involved in a major war with China because of Mao Tse Tung’s commitment to Ho Chi Minh. Bob, is that a correct statement?

RB- That is correct, and what we also learned was that was the last thing the Vietnamese wanted to have happen - they did not want to invite the Chinese back into their country because of their past history. But facing annihilation they would have accepted Chinese troops. As they did - 250,000 Chinese Engineering troops were in Vietnam through much of the war. They would have accepted combat troops to save their country. And it was clear from these new documents that those commitment were made in Beijing to Ho Chi Minh.

RM- So, as tragic as the war was we at least avoided the greater tragedy of a greater conflict with China.

AB- I don’t mean to oversimplify things too much; your book puts forth a complicated series of events that led to the conflict, but it seems like a lot of these issues come back to a lack of information and a lack of communication. It’s absolutely terrifying to think that that is why these wars happen.

RM- That is absolutely correct. Lack of understanding in the first place. We did not understand the North Vietnamese, and God knows they didn’t understand us. You cannot believe what they thought of us - they thought we were colonizers. They thought we were taking the place of the French - they thought we were in South Vietnam for economic reasons, we were going to take their rubber, take their product, and benefit from it financially: an insane concept! We thought of them as pawns of the Chinese and the Russians and they couldn’t conceive of our thinking that. Now if you don’t mind my being vulgar, I’m going to read something from print. At one particular point they were saying to me “We said we were there because we believed what President Eisenhower said in 1954: “If the US - the west - lose South Vietnam to North Vietnam, the Chinese and the Russians will use it as a platform from which they will extend their hegemony across all of Asia”. And they couldn’t believe that we believed this. One of them said to me, “McNamara, didn’t you read history? Don’t’ you know what Ho Chi Minh said of the Chinese? Ho Chi Minh’s associates were criticizing him at one point because he’ made a deal with the French instead of the Chinese to uphold and protect their independence"-- and they quote Ho Chi Minh’s statement to me. Ho Chi Minh said to his associates “You fools! The Last time the Chinese came they stayed one thousand years! As for me, I prefer to smell French s--t for five years rather than Chinese s--t for the rest of my life!” They said “McNamara, you don’t understand it! The idea that we would be pawns of the Chinese and help them take over control of Asia is insane.” And then they went on to say, “You are not only wrong, if I may say so you’ve lost your mind! Vietnam as part of the Chinese expansionist game in Asia? For anyone who knows the history of Indochina that is incomprehensible.” I think we misunderstood them. I don’t want to say that had we not gone there the Chinese would not have tried to use the Vietnam and I don’t want to say that their control over the Vietnam would not have influenced Thailand or others in the area, but I do want to say we totally misjudged the degree to which the Vietnamese would be pawns of the Chinese and Russians, as for example, Castro was a pawn of the Soviets in this hemisphere.

AB- The three of you follow world events quite closely. Is the situation repeating itself? The government of the US misunderstanding what’s going on in other places? Possibly for cultural reasons?

RM- Exactly! Absolutely. And sadly our nation is less prepared today to understand other nations many respects than it was at that time. Our foundations have cut back their support of studies in our universities of foreign countries. Foreign languages, foreign history, foreign culture. There’s much less of that going on today - particularly with respect to such things as, for example, Muslim Fundamentalists and the Middle East, and other areas of the world.

AB- Even today, China.

RM- Even China. I think one of the greatest problems we as a country, we in the west will face in the 21st century is our relationships with China. I do not believe we understand them well enough today, and I don’t think they understand us well enough either. That should be one of our major objectives for the decade ahead.

AB- In light of the developing situation with China and Taiwan, that is a very alarming proposition indeed.

RM- It is one of the most serious problems we will face in the next decade or two.

AB- I hope this question doesn’t sound too facetious, but what has to happen to get the political and military leaders that are currently in office to take some of these conclusions to heart - to admit that perhaps they don’t have the information that they need in order to make these decisions?

RM- Well, one of the things that has that has to happen is to develop an institutional memory. I thought that the Vietnam War started with the Kennedy administration, in January of 1961 when I became Secretary of Defense. Not at all! The conflict in a sense had been going on for years. There was no institutional memory. When we came in we didn’t know that Ho Chi Minh had written several letters to President Truman, not one of which had been answered. And I know I’ve criticized President Truman for that, a president gets seven thousand letters - how can his people pick out letters from some unknown guy named Ho Chi Minh who is declaring this country independent and was quoting Thomas Jeff and the Declaration of Independence? We didn’t know that. Later on, we supported the French when they were colonizing , and we didn’t understand the way the Vietnamese looked at that. So this war had been going on for years before the Kennedy administration came in. We didn’t know that. There was no institutional memory. There is lack of institutional memory today. We’ve just come from Rice University, and thank God, they’ve received a grant to develop a transition document for whoever wins the election whether it be Bush, McCain, Bradley, or Gore or whomever, so that the next President will come in with at least part of an institutional memory, that will help him and his associates deal with these ongoing problems - the problem of Taiwan and China for example.

JB- One of the things our leaders now need to contend with if they’re going to try to understand what really happened in Vietnam is the great danger of U.S. unilateral action anywhere in the world against a smaller country. Or against a people, or against a group of smaller countries. What happened in Vietnam is that the U.S. went in and tuned out the advice of the British and the French and others who had experience in that area because of the American, fairly arrogant attitude that “We’re not like them, we know what we’re doing”. I think the jury is still out on whether the people of Kosovo will look back on American Intervention as something that they’re pleased about. I think the jury is still out with regard to the Gulf War. President Bush has long since left office but Saddam Hussein is still there, and probably still developing weapons systems, and probably still capable of creating mayhem. But the unwilling tradition of American leaders to consult with and listen to the advice of others is something that needs an awful lot of work - and the Vietnam war proves it.

AB- Robert Brigham, what questions remain in your mind about what happened? You’ve just spent five years on this project and yet I imagine it would really take a lot longer to really get the complete picture of how the war evolved.

RB- Well the escalation seems to me more understandable. I mean, there were missed opportunities all along the way for the escalation. What seems most puzzling to me is why the war didn’t stop, once we escalated. Two-thirds of all casualties happened after the formal peace talks actually began, so why did that happen? That seems to be the question we need to look into next in the this project. There was a secret peace initiative in the fall of 1967 that should have ended the war. It promised the Vietnamese exactly what they got when they signed the final peace draft in 1973. But in that time, most of the war’s casualties happened. So I think we need to explore in a little more depth and detail what happened.

Additional Information

* Robert Strange McNamara CNN Special
* Mount Holyoke Article
* PBS Vietnam Special

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