98 SOCIAL SCIENTIST
1981, he has remained active in other organisations and has spoken out on such issues as world hunger and East-West relations.
McNamara, then, can be chracterised as a Vietnam 'hawk' who turned 'dove', as an architect of America's war of aggression who at a relatively early stage grasped the fact that it was unwinnable. In his new book, the former Secretary of Defence seeks to reconstruct the years he spent shaping America's Vietnam policy, giving his perception of how key decisions were reached, the debate which surrounded them, and his own role in the process.
Why has McNamara chosen to speak up now, nearly three decades after he left public office? In the preface, he describes the book as one 'I never intended to write', for fear that it might prove 'self-serving, defensive or vindictive'. His principal reason for breaking his silence, he explains, is that he has grown
sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders . . . cynicism that makes Americans reluctant to support their leaders in the actions necessary to confront and solve our problems at home and abroad' (pp. xv-xvii).
For McNamara, the central challenge of the book is to support and back with evidence his belief that US involvement in Vietnam was 'an error not of values and intentions but of judgement and capabilities'— and to do so without stimulating further public cynicism by appearing to justify or rationalise what he and others did. This proves a hopeless task. For the book is nothing if not an attempt to rationalise and explain away a criminal war that, far from representing an aberration, was consistent with long-term US strategy and policy goals, with the underlying precepts of US foreign policy.
In support of his thesis that the Vietnam War was a 'mistake' which caused 'terrible damage to America' (quite what it meant for Vietnam is never spelled out), McNamara advances the following arguments or rather excuses. At the root of the problem, he diagnoses, was the sh^er complexity of government. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations failed to take 'an orderly, rational approach' to the war partly because of the 'blizzard of problems' they confronted at home and abroad.
This situation was compounded by policy-makers' lack of knowledge about Southeast Asia and the unavailability of regional experts (America's top East Asia and China experts had apparently been purged during the McCarthy era). It was this absence of access to scholarly expertise which explained Washington's 'misreading' of China's objectives and its failure to perceive Ho Chi Minh as the nationalist he was rather than as the pawn of 'aggressive' international Communism he was made out to be.