Robert S. McNamara, "Our Government Lacked Experts...on Vietnam"

--a brief excerpt from In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Random House, 1995)

Two developments after I became secretary of defense reinforced my way of thinking about Vietnam: the intensification of relations between Cuba and the Soviets, and a new wave of Soviet provocations in Berlin. Both seemed to underscore the aggressive intent of Communist policy. In that context, the danger of Vietnam's loss and, through falling dominoes, the loss of all Southeast Asia made it seem reasonable to consider expanding the U.S. effort in Vietnam.

None of this made me anything close to an East Asian expert, however. I had never visited Indochina, nor did I undertsand or appreciate its history, language, culture, or values. The same must be said, to varying degrees, about President Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, military adviser Maxwell Taylor, and many others. When it came to Vietnam, we found ourselves setting policy for a region that was terra incognita.

Worse, our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance. When the Berlin crisis occurred in 1961 and during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President Kennedy was able to turn to senior people like Llewellyn Thompson, Charles Bohlen, and George Kennan, who knew the Soviets intimately. There were no senior officials in the Pentagon or State Department with comparable knowledge about Southeast Asia. I knew of only one Pentagon officer with counterinsurgency experience in the region--Col. Edward Lansdale, who had served as an advisor to Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines and Diem in South Vietnam. But Lansdale was relatively junior and lacked broad geopolitical expertise.

The irony of this gap was that it existed largely because the top East Asian and China experts in the State Department--John Paton Davies, Jr., John Stewart Service, and John Carter Vincent [and Edmund Clubb]--had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s. Without men like these to provide sophisticated, nuanced insights, we--certainly I--badly misread China's objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive for regional hegemony. We also totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh's movement. We saw him first as a Communist and only second as a Vietnamese nationalist....

Such ill-founded judgments were accepted without debate by the Kennedy Administration, as they had been by its Democratic and Republic predecessors. We failed to analyze our assumptions critically, then or later. The foundations of our decision making were gravely flawed.

from pp. 32-33

  • Stilwell & the American Experience in China - an annotated bibliographical note.
  • MacGeorge Bundy remembered (September 1996)
  • Robert Carl Cohen's documentary film, "Inside Red China" (1957)


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