Robert McNamara on the Lessons of Vietnam

"You lost ... 3,200,000 people," McNamara told Giap. "We lost 58,000." He said the conference would help "ensure that our nations and other nations learn how to avoid such conflicts in the future."

He elaborated to reporters afterward: "The major questions are: Could we have avoided a tragedy -- a tragedy for them and a tragedy for us -- or could we have minimized it?"

The story has not yet been told.

But why now? Why after all these years of silence am I convinced I should speak? There are many reasons: the main one is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.

But I also know that the war caused terrible damage to America. I want to look at Vietnam in hindsight, not in any way to obscure my own and other' errors of judgment and their egregious costs but to show the full range of pressures and the lack of knowledge that existed at the time. I want to put Vietnam in context. We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of America. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.


McNamara's inner war


"We were wrong, terribly wrong," was the bottom line in McNamara's book and his subsequent media interviews. Former hawks and doves pounced on him. Why didn't he stop it in 1965, when he dispatched U.S. troops there, if he was so sure, as he writes, that "we were sinking into quicksand"? If he knew by mid-1967 that "our policy was failing," why didn't he stop it then? At least why didn't he speak out after leaving the Pentagon in 1968, when 25,000 U.S. servicemen had died, a number well short of the 58,000 names now etched on the memorial wall? Pounded by ABC's Diane Sawyer on camera, McNamara cried.