NEW YORK – I first met Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense who presided over the American buildup in Vietnam, in the summer of 1967. I had just returned from a trip to South Vietnam, where, as a reporter for The New Yorker, I witnessed the destruction, by American air power, of two provinces, Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh.
America’s policies were clear. Leaflets dropped on villages announced, “The Vietcong hide among innocent women and children in your villages….If the Vietcong in this area use you or your village for this purpose, you can expect death from the sky.”
Death from the sky came. Afterward, more leaflets were dropped, informing villagers, “Your village was bombed because you harbored Vietcong….Your village will be bombed again if you harbor the Vietcong in any way.”
In Quang Ngai province, some 70% of villages were destroyed. I was 23 years old at the time, and had no notion of what a war crime was; but later it became clear that that was what I was witnessing. (Five months later, in March of 1968, American troops committed the massacre at My Lai.)
The familiar figure with the glinting, rimless glasses and the rigid hair forced back, as if it were spun glass, greeted me at the door of his seemingly tennis court-size office. I felt a prodigious, restless energy that I suspected he could not turn off if he wanted to. Soon after I began to recount my observations, he took me to a map of Vietnam and asked me to locate the areas of destruction. I felt that the request was a test – one that I was prepared to take, as I had carried maps with me in the forward air-control planes. He seemed deeply engaged, but made no comment, asking me only if I had anything in writing. I said that I did, but that it was in longhand. He suggested that I produce a typed copy, and provided me with the office of a general who was away.
What he did not know was that the article was book-length. It took three days to dictate it into the general’s Dictaphone. I handed the finished project to McNamara, who thanked me, but said nothing further about the matter, either then or at any time thereafter.
Fifteen years later, in 1982, when Neil Sheehan was researching his book about the war, A Bright and Shining Lie, he came across documents concerning my Pentagon-assisted manuscript. They showed that McNamara had sent the manuscript to the American Ambassador in South Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, who requested a certain Bob Kelly to write an overall report, with a view to discrediting my reporting, and arranged to get The Atlantic magazine (where Bunker mistakenly thought my article was scheduled to appear) to “withhold publication.”
A memo recommending these steps was circulated to McNamara, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach, and Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy. The “action” officer was Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The forward air-control pilots, were re-interviewed, and affidavits were taken. Two civilian pilots were dispatched to fly over the province and check my calculations of the damage. Plans were considered to publicly rebut my findings. But the resulting report inconveniently found that “Mr. Schell’s estimates are substantially correct.”
Perhaps frustrated by his failure to find factual errors in my reporting, the author of the report offered some editorial comments that epitomized the flawed thinking on which the war rested. I had been unaware, he thought, of some extenuating factors for the destruction I witnessed. I had not known, he thought, that “The population is totally hostile…” Indeed, in the eyes of the Viet Cong, “the Viet Cong are the people.” Thus, the main reason for not fighting the war in the first place, namely the perfectly obvious hatred of the majority of the population for the American invasion and occupation, became a justification for the war.
When I next spoke at length with McNamara, in 1998, it was not about Vietnam but about nuclear arms, on which we agreed as much as we had disagreed about Vietnam. We both believed that the only sensible thing to do with the bomb was to get rid of it. McNamara’s turnabout on this issue was dramatic. More than any other government official, he was responsible for institutionalizing the key strategic doctrine of the nuclear age, deterrence, otherwise known as mutual assured destruction.
Now he wanted to dispense with it. But, in fact, by then we were closer on Vietnam as well, for he had, after two decades of silence regarding the war, published his book In Retrospect , in which he repudiated his former justifications for the war, famously writing of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, “We were wrong, terribly wrong.”
Many of McNamara’s critics assert – rightly, I think – that he stopped short of full understanding, that he sought to hold fast to claims of noble intentions that the record could not sustain. How noble are intentions when the facts showing their horrific results are readily at hand yet overlooked?
Should McNamara have been more forthcoming in his regrets? He should. Should he have expressed them earlier? Certainly. Should he never have recommended the war, or presided over it in the first place, and should there never been an American war in Vietnam? Oh lord, yes.
The twentieth century left heaps of corpses in its wake, and now they are piling up again. And yet, how many public figures of McNamara’s importance have ever expressed any regret for their mistakes and follies and crimes? I can name only one: Robert McNamara. In the unlikely event that a statue of him is ever unveiled, let it show him weeping. That was the best of him.