In Retrospect


In Retrospect Essay, Research Paper

Robert McNamara In Retrospect Random House New York, 1995

Vietnam had long since been a place of controversy, and where our government focused

it?s fear of communism for many years. Throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations

the government maintained that the war between the Communist north and the south can only be

won by the South Vietnamese, and that our military cannot win it for them. It stressed that the

fall of South Vietnam to communism would threaten the rest of the western world.

Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson

administrations, wrote In Retrospect because he wanted to ?Put Vietnam in context,?(xx).

McNamara wanted to explain why the mistakes of Vietnam were made, not to justify them, but

to help the American public understand them. He relies not only upon his memories, but upon

the record whenever possible.

People have often called Vietnam, McNamara?s war, because he made it his

responsibility. As he learned more and more about south Vietnam, he became well acquainted

with it?s leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem portrayed himself as a man who shared our western

values. Though as our government would soon realize he was not the man we had hoped for.

Diem needed to be removed from power, he was becoming more and more unpopular with his

people. The Kennedy Administration seemed split on how democratic Diem really was. His

conflicts between the Buddhists and Catholics were becoming more outrageous than ever. The

administration supported a general?s coup to get Diem out of power. Diem and his brother Nhu

were both assassinated during this coup.

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy, himself, was also assassinated on the streets of Dallas.

McNamara poses many questions as to whether the war would have continued on the same route

had Kennedy not been killed. McNamara feels that had Kennedy lived he would have pulled us

out of Vietnam. His reasoning was that Kennedy had told his cabinet ?We are not going to

bungle into war.? Kennedy was ready to start pulling our troops out because it was obvious that

the war was un winnable.

Lyndon B. Johnson now becomes president. Many debates are being held on what to do

in Vietnam. After Diem?s death, the Johnson Administration faced political problems in Saigon.

The demands for U.S. military actions were growing.

On August 2, 1964, North Vietnam launched an attack against an American ship in the

Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack was supposed to have taken place on August fourth, but

McNamara has now concluded that the second attack never happened. Using the Gulf of Tonkin

event to his advantage Johnson went to congress. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution gave the

president the broad war powers. Meanwhile this resolution had been based on an attack that

might well have never taken place. McNamara discusses whether the Gulf of Tonkin resolution

gave too much unlimited power to the president. He does not feel that the Congress understood

what was happening in Vietnam nor how the Johnson administration would respond to it.

Though he never answers his own question as to whether the administration was given too much

leniency when it came to its actions in Vietnam, it seems as if the Congress was misled on all

the facts pertaining to the Gulf of Tonkin.

After the Gulf of Tonkin U.S. military troops were increased in Vietnam from 23,000 to

175,000. McNamara in hindsight looks back and wonders, why? Why did they escalate and not

withdraw? South Vietnam seemed like a lost cause. Their leaders were fighting among

themselves and yet we continued to fight on their behalf. He believes that we could have

withdrawn without any negative affects on our country. Was there another way to stop these

injustices, McNamara feels that all other resources were not exhausted before we ventured into a

war that we had little hope of winning.

Our government overestimated the fall of South Vietnam, would it really have threatened

the rest of the western world, probably not. McNamara lists eleven reasons for the major causes

of Vietnam. They include that the U.S. embellished the danger it would cause us had we not

intervened, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations lacked the knowledge of that specific

area, so there was no one to consult when major themes of this war needed to be debated. It

seems that whenever the Johnson Administration got the Tonkin Resolution passed they failed to

think of consequences before they reacted to a situation. McNamara is not only to blame for this

war many mistakes were made, including the entire administration, generals, and Vietnamese.

The disagreements within the state department were also a fundamental cause of this armed

conflict. McNamara makes it crystal-clear that many of the contentions were not fully


The basic reasoning behind us being in Vietnam was to advise the South Vietnamese on

how to stop pressures from the north. McNamara reveals that failure to organize properly did in

fact cause many of the oversights made. There was no ?war cabinet? to focus on strictly on


Our Government must learn through these mistakes. It is obvious the mistakes that the

state department made during these fateful years. It may have been avoided had it not been for a

series of unknown disasters, such as the assassination of Kennedy, the overthrow and

assassination of Diem, and the relatively unknown Gulf of Tonkin incidences.

When McNamara left the state department he had realized that the U.S. ?could not

achieve their objectives in Vietnam.? In the last few months of his term he came to the

conclusion that continuing on the present course would eventually prove fatal and cost many of

innocent lives. Johnson did not agree so he purposely left McNamara?s views out of discussions

regarding the next course of action. What they needed was a rapid end to this war, and he felt

that the bombing and the expansion of the ground war would not do the job. He proposed a list

of alternatives such as stopping the bombing of the north to bring about negotiations, transferring

the responsibility from our military to the South Vietnamese. Although he made his contentions

well-known to the president, the president was not ready to hear him. His last deed in regards to

Vietnam was to oppose General Westmoreland?s petition for 200,000 supplementary troops.

McNamara?s reasoning behind this book was to tell the American people what went on

behind the scenes during the Vietnam war. Many critics of the Vietnam war feel that it was the

inexperience of the state department, though they were extremely intelligent, they were not

trained in the finer workings of the military which caused the escalation. Their were many times

when we could have pulled out of Vietnam, but they thought that it would cause the United

States to lose rank with the rest of the world. Both Administrations, I feel overstated the threat

that if South Vietnam fell to communism than the rest of the east would fall like a line of

dominoes. McNamara summed up alot of misconceptions of what really happened, he doesn?t

try and sugar coat he comes right out and says ?We were wrong, terribly wrong.? The book

makes a lot of valid points though it is hard to follow at times. In Retrospect has allowed me to

become painfully aware of a war that I knew relatively little about. This book shows reasons as

to why, right or wrong, we intervened in Vietnam, and why we should have withdrawn sooner

than we did.

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