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McNamara Mea Culpa Stirs Vietnam Anger

The former Secretary of State talks about his controversial book before an audience at Harvard

RISING from his balcony seat, a Vietnam veteran erupts.

Robert McNamara's appearance at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government is an ''obscenity,'' he says. The vet angrily ticks off names of fallen buddies and demands to know why McNamara has been silent so long. Why have these men died?

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''You have to read the book,'' the former Secretary of State says, triggering more outrage from the veteran and a chorus of jeers from others in the audience. Mr. McNamara barks: ''Shut up and listen.''

''The short answer,'' says McNamara evenly, ''is that I told President Johnson that we had a 1-in-3 chance of winning the war and that the loss of Vietnam would mean the loss of Southeast Asia. I don't agree with that analysis now.''

His new book,''In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,'' (See excerpts Page 18) has touched off a firestorm of controversy and revived the shallowly buried collective memory of body bags and thumping Huey helicopters.

As McNamara tours the country promoting, defending, and explaining his book, he has become a kind of emotional dartboard. Vietnam veterans shout obscenities at him. War widows cry and blame him for the deaths of their husbands in Vietnam.

After 30 years of silence, the Havard MBA graduate and former Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson has stepped forward to apologize for his part in the Vietnam war.

Would Harvard treat a son differently? Before a packed house, McNamara sheds his suitcoat, loosens his tie, and for two hours revisits political and military decisions along the America's troubled trail to and from Vietnam. Security guards in dark suits watch the audience.

''We were wrong, terribly wrong,'' he says of the cluster of high officials -- many from Harvard -- who made decisions that kept Americans in the jungles of Vietnam for two decades.

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''We thought we were acting on the principles and traditions of this nation,'' he says.

''We did not have public support, and didn't deserve it because of our actions.''

McNamara book is more than a mea culpa, he says it's an attempt to explain the premises that led to war, to try to heal deep national wounds, to learn something constructive from the hard lessons of Vietnam, and then apply them to international politics of the 21st century.

Applause ripples through the audience when he says in a low voice, ''We do not have the God-given right to shape other nations.''

Why did he wait so long to admit his mistakes?

Partly not to appear self-serving, he says, but more because of his increasing concern for a nation grown cynical about leaders and politics. Because he contributed to this condition, he says, he wanted to explain why and how mistakes were made in Vietnam for the benefit of future generations.

His 1960's image of the enormously confident manager of Asian destiny has given way to a different and more complex political reality. ''There are no immediate solutions that I see in Bosnia,'' he says, ''or in Rwanda.''

So alarmed is he over the continuing nuclear threat in the world of geopolitics today, that he offers the audience a money-back deal. ''I promise that if you buy my book,'' he says, seriously, ''and read the appendix about nuclear risks, and if you send me the sales slip, I'll return your money.''

The tone of the evening stays academic until the question and answer period. Then, the wrenching emotions bubble forth. The widow of a downed pilot tearfully demands -- and obliquely gets -- an apology for a rescue mission she says McNamara overruled.

Rising from the first row of the audience, renowned Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, says that McNamara ''could have avoided all this criticism if he had only opted for silence.''

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