Robert McNamara on Vietnam and leadership (or lack thereof) that led to the war

May 22, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Freedom, Leadership, NorthKorea

Following up on Vietnam, leadership, and the War Remembrance Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted to include some quotes by Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war.

As the BBC’s obituary noted,

To anti-war protesters at the time, McNamara became something of a hate figure, an arrogant ultra-hawk responsible for escalating the war.

He fully supported, Johnson’s decision to put ground troops into Vietnam in a bid to prop up the unstable South Vietnamese government and prevent political disintegration which would have aided the Communist cause…

By 1966, McNamara had begun to question the wisdom of US involvement in Vietnam and, a year later, was privately advising Johnson to end the war by negotiation.

He initiated a full investigation of the American commitment to Vietnam (later released as the Pentagon Papers). But Johnson escalated the war further by bombing North Vietnam.

McNamara left the job in 1968. The war eventually claimed the lives of three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

His questioning about Vietnam, eventually describing the war as “terribly wrong.” His 2009 Oscar-winning documentary, the Fog of War, disclosed some remarkable statements on leadership in difficult times.

I’ll pick a few quotes relevant to my discussion on the Vietnam War from many available online.

On learning and leadership

At my age, 85, I’m at age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on.

On responsibility

LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

On empathizing with your enemy

This quote is particularly meaningful to me, having written what I have about North Korea, trying to empathize with its leadership. People commonly react initially by saying or asking if I support the regime too much. But understanding and empathizing aren’t support. We’ve lost important nuance if we confuse understanding with support.

How can we influence someone we don’t understand, except by force? What is war if not a failure to influence by any other means? Do you want to feel right and superior or do you want to improve the situation?

Anyway, back to McNamara [my emphasis]:

Let me go back one moment. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the end, I think we did put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets. In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.

On listening and introspecting

My emphasis:

What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.

On using agent orange, probably criminally

I can’t tell you how powerfully the agent orange exhibition affects you at the War Remembrance Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, for two reasons.

First, it affects the human body in grotesque ways. I found it difficult to stomach some of the deformities it created. It continues to deform babies for generations, so it affects people today. You can’t believe a person who knew what this stuff was capable of, even a fraction of it, could allow it to be created or used.

Second, the shirking of responsibility by Dow, Monsanto, the U.S. military, and the U.S. government boggles the mind. These organization punished innocents with some of the worst poison and carcinogens and mangled unborn babies for generations and then hid behind their power and control of courts when their culpability became obvious.

Were those who issued the approval to use Agent Orange criminals? Were they committing a crime against humanity? Let’s look at the law. Now what kind of law do we have that says these chemicals are acceptable for use in war and these chemicals are not. We don’t have clear definitions of that kind. I never in the world would have authorized an illegal action. I’m not really sure I authorized Agent Orange. I don’t remember it, but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was Secretary.

Something he didn’t know that prevented him from empathizing

How much more valuable is understanding before fighting than fighting without knowledge?

“Mr. McNamara, You must never have read a history book. If you’d had, you’d know we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn’t you know that? Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us.” – Thach, former Foreign Minister of Vietnam, 1995, as recalled by McNamara.

On leadership in complexity

The following applies beyond military leadership. The stakes may seem lower in other realms, but the structure of leadership and decision-making is similar.

We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the fog of war.’ What “the fog of war” means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.

His eleven lessons of war

I’ll leave you to interpret, but I find 1 and 2 resonate with themes of this blog.

  1. Empathize with your enemy
  2. Rationality will not save us
  3. There’s something beyond one’s self
  4. Maximize efficiency
  5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
  6. Get the data
  7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
  8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
  9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
  10. Never say never
  11. You can’t change human nature

Other quotes

The movie quoted him on World War II, nuclear weapons, destroying major cities, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and several other subjects.

More lessons of Vietnam besides from Fog of War

According to Wikipedia, the documentary’s lessons-learned concept came from McNamara’s eleven-lesson list his 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

I find it difficult to read the following without observing what we seem not to have learned, or to have forgotten, from the experience. Many of these points seem to be forgotten after every war. Or perhaps not forgotten by society so much as crowded out by leaders who likely believe they are beyond them. I don’t know. But these aren’t my quotes about America’s “failures” and misjudgments. They come from a man who knew and experienced as much as anyone about U.S. leadership on the Vietnam War.

  1. We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.
  2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.
  3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.
  4. Our misjudgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.
  5. We failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
  6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement … before we initiated the action.
  7. After the action got under way, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course … we did not fully explain what was happening, and why we were doing what we did.
  8. We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.
  9. We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action … should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
  10. We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.
  11. Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues.

As statements by someone who led the process creating all those failures, at costs of hundreds of thousands of lives, among other costs, this introspection shows the man thought a lot.

I think millions of people came to the same conclusions as the failures unfolded. If so, if only he could have seen what was happening while he could have influenced it. If only we could influence people today.

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1 response to “Robert McNamara on Vietnam and leadership (or lack thereof) that led to the war

  1. Pingback: Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remembrance Museum » Joshua Spodek

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