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Robert McNamara Faces History and Himself on Vietnam

After decades of silence, memoir brings admission: 'We were wrong, terribly wrong'

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IN RETROSPECT: THE TRAGEDY AND LESSONS OF VIETNAM

By Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark

Times Books/Random House, 374 pp. $27.50

Robert McNamara emerged politically in 1961, a brash, confident secretary of defense who amazed Washington by battling the Pentagon. He raised tough questions, demanded precise answers, brought a management team with him from Ford Motor Company (his ''Whiz Kids'' and their systems analysis from academia), and attacked traditional Pentagon log-rolling. The media and public were impressed, however much the military and their Congressional allies raged.

But mid-1963 brought crisis in South Vietnam, and this secretary of defense rapidly became a secretary of war, the very symbol of American military power. He seemed as confident as ever, though the growing stalemate in 1965 and after brought news media hints that McNamara actually had turned against the war. Nevertheless, he remained until February 1968, resigning only to become head of the World Bank.

Now, at age 78, McNamara has chosen to break his long silence, perhaps in response to Deborah Shapley's fairminded yet critical ''Power and the Promise: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara'' (Little, Brown, 1993). The result is ''In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,'' a selective, heavily footnoted work.

The book's earnest, dullish style is closer to academic prose than to general narrative. It presents McNamara sympathetically, as a man blocked by circumstances from moderating a terrible war, but one who now sets the record straight by confessing the error of his ways and those of his colleagues.

This is not the usual memoir, replete with stories and shrewd insights, but a troubled and self-accusatory book. Its overtones of guilt, confession, and public recognition of them return us to Richard Nixon's Checkers speech and Bill Clinton's statements on his military draft history.

When asked about writing his memoirs, France's Marshall Henri Philippe Petain allegedly replied, ''Why? I have nothing to hide.'' McNamara, of course, has plenty to hide: seven years as defense chief while war escalated.

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