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The Lessons of Vietnam: Mr. McNamara's View

The Fall of Vietnam Would Not Have Led to Communist Control of Asia

IN a recent interview with Monitor Radio's David Brown, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara discussed his new book on the Vietnam War, ''In Retrospect.'' Below are edited excerpts.

When did you first say to yourself, Mr. McNamara, ''We were wrong''?

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In December of 1965 I said to the president I didn't think the war could be won militarily. Now ... we have to distinguish between winning the war militarily and winning it politically. But ... as early as that I was concerned about our military approach and believed that it would not achieve our objectives....

Was there a point at which you believed we had ''crossed the Rubicon''?

No. It was an evolving situation.... My associates ... were ''the best and the brightest'': Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, John Kennedy, and so on. The question is: How is it that we all failed? ... That's what I focused on [in the book]. And those lessons evolve from a restudy with hindsight of what we did then....

We came out of World War II. Every one of us had fought for four or five years in World War II. We saw the Soviets take over Eastern Europe. We felt the pressure of the Soviets trying to take Berlin in August of '61. We saw them put nuclear weapons in Cuba in October '62, and we very nearly had a world nuclear war then.... We looked upon Vietnam as [President] Eisenhower did -- a stepping stone for Communist aggression to take all of Asia. That's what led to his so-called ''domino theory'' that he put forward in 1954.

I think we were wrong. I do not believe that Vietnam was that important to the Communists. I don't believe that its loss would have led -- it didn't lead -- to Communist control of Asia.

Why couldn't you say to the president, back then, that you couldn't continue to be part of this team pursuing this war in this way?

Well, I did .... My specific words, which were in the book, were ''Mr. President, I don't believe there's more than a 1-in-3 chance, at best a 1-in-2 chance, to win it militarily.'' But he believed, I believed -- the majority of us believed, including, by the way, the majority of the American people, the press, and the Congress -- that we had our finger in the dike preventing a Communist takeover of all of Asia which would strengthen the Soviet pressure on the West and Europe and reduce the security of the United States. That's what we were fighting to avoid.

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What can we learn from your experience, given that leaders in the future will also surely be acting in accord with their highest sense of right?

The book is intended to say to leaders: Stand back. Recognize there may be other values, other experience than what you have.... [Today, to President Clinton] I would say, Mr. President, please have a senior member of your team who is an expert on Muslim fundamentalism. We as a people have no experience with Muslim fundamentalism. We must begin to understand it. We must begin to understand the Muslim religion.

Many Vietnam veterans and their family members say they will refuse to read your book. What do you say to them?

Well, many veterans have come up to me in the street and said thank you for writing it.... My statement to the veterans is, we owe you a debt. And the best thing we can do to begin to repay it is to examine with hindsight the errors we made to prevent a recurrence of that situation.

Could we have won the war -- militarily?

I don't believe we could have won the war militarily by any action that was in our power -- short of genocide. And nobody was proposing that.

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