Long after the war was over, after the fighting had ended, after Bunker was dead, and Abrams too,
after the boat people and all the other sad detritus of a lost cause, the eldest of General Abram's
three sons, all Army officers, was on the faculty of the Command & General Staff College at Fort
Leavenworth. There someone reminded him of what Robert Shaplen had once said, that his
father deserved a better war. 'He didn't see it that way,' young Creighton responded at once. 'He
thought the Vietnamese were worth it.'
-A Better War
There is no greater analytical tool than Occam's Razor, but if I had to pick one worthwhile rival, it is to approach every problem in politics and history with the following mindset : the conventional wisdom is always wrong. This is, of course, far too sweeping a generalization, but it is shocking how often it turns out to be true, and even when it isn't, it is always helpful to approach a seemingly settled problem skeptically. Just in the past few years there have been several really good history texts which have taken this approach--Hitler's Willing Executioners, The First World War, The Pity of War--and though they've produced predictable howls of outrage, the very controversy they've stirred up has forced those who defend the conventional wisdom to do so with far greater rigor, and that's all to the good. Lewis Sorley's A Better War challenges the accepted view of Vietnam, does so with great authority, and will hopefully thereby foster a significant re-examination of this sorest spot in the national psyche.
The basic premise of the book is that late in 1970 or early in 1971 the United States had essentially won the Vietnam War. That is to say, we had defeated the Viet Cong in the field, returned effective control of most of the population to the South Vietnamese and created a situation where the South Vietnamese armed forces could continue the war on their own, so long as we provided them with adequate supplies and intelligence, and carried through on our promise to bomb the North if they violated peace agreements. This situation had been brought about by the changes in strategy and tactics which were implemented by Army General Creighton Abrams when he replaced William Westmoreland in 1968, after the military triumph but public relations disaster of the Tet Offensive. Where Westmoreland had treated the War as simply a military exercise, Abrams understood its political dimensions. Abrams, who had worked on developing a new war plan at the Pentagon, ended Westmoreland's emphasis on body counts and destroying the enemy and switched the focus to regaining control of villages. He understood that eventual victory required civilian support for the South Vietnamese government and this support required the government to provide villagers with physical security from the Viet Cong.
Abrams was accompanied in implementing this new approach by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and by William Colby, the new CIA chief in Saigon, who provided greatly improved intelligence reports and oversaw the pacification program. Together they managed to salvage the wreckage that Westmoreland had left behind and they retrieved the situation even as Washington was drawing down troop levels. In 1972, with the Viet Cong essentially eliminated as an effective fighting force, the North Vietnamese mounted a massive Easter offensive, but this too was decisively defeated.
Having failed to achieve their aims militarily, the North Vietnamese turned their attention to the Paris Peace Talks. They were extraordinarily fortunate to be dealing with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, two opportunists of the worst sort, who were willing to negotiate a deal which left the North with troops in South Vietnam. When President Thieu balked at this and threatened to scuttle the talks, the North backed off of the whole deal and Nixon ordered the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi. For eleven days, waves of B-52's, each carrying 108 500-pound and 750-pound bombs, pummeled the North. For perhaps the only time during the entire War, the North was subjected to total war, and they were forced to return to the negotiating table. Sorley cites Sir Robert Thompson's assessment that :
In my view, on December 30, 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area,
you had won the war. It was over.
At that point, the Viet Cong had been destroyed, we had definitely won the insurgency phase of the War. Additionally, the North had been defeated in the initial phase of conventional warfare, and had finally had the War brought home to them in a significant way. Though the overall War was certainly not over, it was sitting there, just waiting to be won.
So what happened ? Sorley has identified several problem areas that led to the eventual demise of the South. First was the really disgraceful way in which the U. S. bugged out. Having gotten the North back to the bargaining table, Nixon and Kissinger cut a deal--the January 27, 1973 Paris Peace Accord--which allowed the North to keep its forces in South Vietnam. At the time they were some 160,000 in number (as compared to the 27,000 that we were down to by then). Then, despite innumerable assurances, Nixon refused to resume bombing in order to enforce the accords. This enabled the North to use the cover of a cease fire to move more men and materiel into the South. Meanwhile, Congress, with bills like the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, and extensive cuts to the military budget, pulled the logistical rug out from under the South. At the very time that the North was stockpiling arms, supplied by China and Russia, the South was having its supply of arms seriously curtailed. It was South Vietnam's bad luck, at its hour of greatest peril, to be saddled with a feckless ally. Imagine having to depend on the U.S. for the logistical support which is your life's blood at a time when it was being run by Nixon and Kissinger at the executive level and by folks like Ted Kennedy in the congressional realm. Sorley, properly, lays much of the blame at the doorstep of the American political leadership.
A second problem, one for which the military itself must bear more blame than Sorley acknowledges, is that the American press, and through them the public, had lost faith in the War. It had dragged on much longer than American attention spans could tolerate. Political and military leaders had repeatedly misled the public about the prospects of winning the War. The Peace Movement had shaken domestic support for continuance of the effort. Events like the My Lai massacre and systemic problems like drug use, many of them exacerbated by the politically mandated transition to an all volunteer armed service, had undermined the morale of the troops and of the broader public. Like the boy who cried wolf, when the news they carried was finally true, that victory in the War was finally within our grasp, the military could not find anyone to believe them.
Third was the failure to ever stop the North from using the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos as supply lines and sanctuaries, and the related failure to carry the ground War into North Vietnam itself. By effectively agreeing to make South Vietnam the battlefield, the U. S. ensured that the War was always being fought, at least to some degree, on North Vietnam's terms. The modern equivalent would be something akin to issuing rules of engagement, known to everyone, for the Gulf war, which only allowed U. S. troops to fight the Iraqis in Kuwait, never to follow them into Iraq itself, never envisioning an ultimate assault on Iraq itself. Luckily, this seems to have been one of the lessons that the military learned in Vietnam. Never again can U. S. forces be sent into combat with rules so favorable to the enemy.
Finally, and most importantly to South Vietnam itself, even after all the years and dollars, the U. S. had not succeeded in creating a viable South Vietnamese officer corps to take over command of the situation as we pulled out. There were many dedicated and courageous men, even a few good commanders, as Sorley shows during the fighting in the final North Vietnamese offensive in 1975, but not enough. Moreover, the military, indeed the entire society, was so riddled with corruption that the citizenry generally distrusted them. This, combined with the demoralizing effect of watching us turn tail, left the South poorly prepared psychologically to continue the War.
And so, when the final push came, all of these factors came together and created the environment in which the resistance of the South utterly collapsed. Sorley writes movingly about Brigadier General Le Minh Dao, commanding the 18th Infantry Division ARVN, and the valiant resistance he mounted at Xuan Loc. Attacked by first three and then four divisions, the 18th held out for a month, destroying three North Vietnamese divisions before succumbing. The American advisor, Colonel Ray Battreall, said of this action :
That magnificent last stand deserves to live on in military history, if we can overcome the bias,
even in our own ranks, that ARVN was never capable of doing anything right.
But, of course, we've long forgotten this valiant stand, as we've forgotten so much else about the War, a War that officially ended with the South's surrender at 10:25 on April 30, 1975.
One book can not change peoples' minds about a matter as contentious as the Vietnam War. In fact, the intellectual classes and the Baby Boom Generation have so much of themselves invested in the idea that the War was wrong and unwinnable that it's unlikely that any number of books could change their minds. But as the years go by and as new generations take a fresh look at the War, it is important that they approach it with an open mind. They, and we, may still conclude that we should never have been there or that there was never a chance that we could win, but those conclusions should be arrived at after examining all the evidence and considering the different possibilities. No one undertaking this task should fail to read A Better War; it is historical revision of the very best kind, thoughtful and thought provoking.
FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINEot long after dawn, Robert S. McNamara set out on a rapid walk through the half-light of Hanoi. A steamy drizzle soon soaked his dark blue jogging shorts and shirt. He stared intently ahead, barely glancing at the Vietnamese along the way as he marched in a loping stride through the city he ordered bombed some 30 years ago. He walked too quickly for the beggars or the barefoot children selling postcards to keep up with him. He did not seem to notice a boy hawking copies of "The Quiet American." He raced across currents of whizzing motorbikes and bicycles laden with impossibly huge bundles of fruit and shoes and large tin boxes, balanced as ingeniously as weapons had once been on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In a few hours on this Friday in June, one of the more unusual efforts in the history of warfare was to begin. McNamara, three other former American officials, two retired generals and six historians would sit down with former North Vietnamese officials, diplomats, generals and scholars led by Nguyen Co Thach, a courtly former Foreign Minister, for a four-day discussion of what Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War. Their main focus would be defined by McNamara's growing conviction that "each of us could have achieved our geopolitical objectives without that terrible loss of life," that both sides missed concrete chances to end the fighting during his tenure as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968.
The thesis amounted to a confession of profound error, and this return to Vietnam McNamara's second since the war seemed likely to be a lonely journey into a regretful past. Despite his coterie of aging officials and younger historians, it was he above all who bore the burden. The others in the delegation had not conceived the war; they had worked at its margins, had followed orders or had tried to negotiate its end. With most of the war's key architects dead or declining to attend, McNamara stood as the only senior policy maker of the era to visit Hanoi and admit that the war should not have been fought and could not have been won. He wanted it studied as a cautionary tale for the next century. "Human beings have to examine their failures," he declared. "We've got to acquaint people with how dangerous it is for political leaders to behave the way we did."
If penance drove him to Hanoi, it was carefully concealed. The way McNamara examined his failure in Vietnam was to intellectualize it, diagnose it, pinpoint the variables that might have been revised. He was hoping that the Vietnamese would do the same, but they would frustrate him again, as they had 30 years before.
Robert McNamara believes that American leaders acted out of honorable principles, as he argued in his 1995 book, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam." "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong," he wrote. "We owe it to future generations to explain why." This admission, which generated a mixture of admiration and vilification among Americans, earned him an enthusiastic welcome when he first visited Hanoi in November 1995. The quotation and his book are displayed in a museum in Ho Chi Minh City that features photographs of Americans torturing Vietnamese.
Now he had returned to Vietnam, not so much to test his thesis as to prove it. The title of the conference was a question: "Missed Opportunities?" But there was no question mark for McNamara. He was eager for Thach and the other Vietnamese to confirm what he believed he knew. The war had resulted in the reunified, Communist Vietnam that Hanoi had desired. But Vietnam had not become the agent of Soviet and Chinese Communism that Washington had feared; Communism in Indochina had not toppled the dominoes of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asian countries, as Dwight D. Eisenhower had wrongly predicted when he relinquished the Oval Office to John F. Kennedy in 1961. At that early stage, before the arrival of American combat troops in 1965, could the same ends have been realized at the bargaining table as, later, on the battlefield? Why did Hanoi repeatedly rebuff secret American attempts to open peace talks from 1965 to 1968? Why did the bombing of North Vietnam fail to force capitulation? And a key issue for McNamara: "If the United States had invaded North Vietnam, would the Chinese have intervened?" he asked. He had opposed the military chiefs' recommendations of an invasion because he feared China would enter the war; from the Vietnamese he would now seek vindication for that assessment.
McNamara talked as he walked briskly around the Lake of the Restored Sword at the heart of Hanoi. Had he known the legend of this lake in the 1960's, he would have understood the anti-Chinese thrust of Vietnam's historical devotion to independence. The story goes that in the 15th century, when the Ming Dynasty ruled Vietnam, a fisherman named Le Loi found in his net a magical sword that empowered him to lead his people in a 10-year struggle that drove the Chinese out in 1428. Le Loi became Emperor. As he then offered gratitude to the spirit of the lake, a giant golden tortoise snatched the sword and restored it to the depths.
Much of what the Vietnamese would try to explain to the Americans in the coming days touched on this mystical passion to be rid of foreign domination, whether by the Chinese for a thousand years, the French colonialists for more than a century, the Japanese during World War II or the Americans after the French defeat in 1954. It was the necessity of resisting the United States, the generals and diplomats in Hanoi would say, that drove North Vietnam into a temporary, pragmatic reliance on Chinese and Soviet aid.
"The basic lesson is: understand your opponent," McNamara concluded sorrowfully as he strode along the lake. The lesson worried him. "We don't understand the Bosnians, we don't understand the Chinese and we don't really understand the Iranians."
It was more than intellectual interest that brought some of McNamara's colleagues to Hanoi. Unfinished business drew Chester L. Cooper, a veteran C.I.A. analyst, White House aide and State Department adviser who had been present at practically every fork in this rough road since the French war in Indochina in the early 1950's. He had been the point man in the Johnson Administration's secret, failed diplomacy of the mid-60's, running all over the world to send offers to the North Vietnamese. "Many of the names we will be confronting are names that I remember being these elusive, gray, unfriendly, unfathomable people whose attention I had been trying to get for several years," Cooper said before leaving for Hanoi. And he also sought something more personal. "How do these people feel about me walking around, going back to a place after you've destroyed it? How will they feel? How will I feel?"
Feelings were not on McNamara's agenda. "That's not what I'm focusing on," he declared before the trip. "I may not tell you how I'm feeling." And he never did, even when questioned about the thoughts that were running through his head as he walked around this city, among these people. "I try to separate human emotions from the larger issues of human welfare," he replied. "Human welfare requires that we avoid conflict. I try not to let my human emotions interfere with efforts to resolve conflict." It seemed an odd dichotomy, one that recalled McNamara's inability to invest his policy making with the compassion he may have felt.
Self-revelation was not the style of these aging men, now in their 70's and 80's. The Vietnamese, meanwhile, had been ordered in writing not to give interviews. "Stone statues" was how one American described the Vietnamese after the first day's discussions an image that mercifully broke down somewhat as time passed.
The Americans were less guarded. Cooper told the Vietnamese that he had resigned from the White House in quiet protest in 1966 and then agreed to work "on negotiations only" at the State Department until he concluded in December 1967 that the diplomatic feelers were "a charade." Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who was Under Secretary of State from 1966 to 1969, had "some responsibility for negotiations," he said, "but there was always somebody around to sabotage them." Francis M. Bator, deputy national security adviser from 1965 to 1967, specialized in European affairs and only listened to Lyndon Johnson's anguished monologues about Vietnam. Gen. William Y. Smith, now retired from the Air Force, never served in Vietnam; as a major, he was an aide in the White House and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The delegation's single combat veteran of the war was from the Army, Lieut. Gen. Dale Vesser, who is now retired, a sturdy man with a laconic style. From 1966 to 1971, he did two tours and several special missions in Vietnam. How did he feel being in Hanoi? "I have never had anything but respect for the people we fought," General Vesser said. "They were very good, and they were fighting for what they believed in. So being in Hanoi, other than feeling an obligation to those Americans who didn't come back, doesn't excite strong emotions."
Deciding to attend this conference brought Vesser considerable flak from colleagues in the Army, the service most badly wounded by the war and most bitter about McNamara and his book. At least half a dozen generals declined invitations. One of them, John H. Cushman, came close to going but then pulled out. A former brigade commander, he remembered the pain of returning to old battlefields a few years ago and meeting officers from the other side. "I'm just not comfortable being seated opposite these people exploring the missed opportunities," he said. "My constituency is my brigade. I think my constituency would not quite understand why I linked up with this effort to find out what we did wrong."
Something of the same concern made the trip to Hanoi unattractive to Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam and who, at age 83, sounds as if he were frozen in time. "We did not lose a single battle against those people," he insisted. "They defeated us psychologically. I must say, I can just imagine the attitude of my troops when they read in the paper that the old man goes to Hanoi." To do so "would suggest that we're submitting to them, because we never lost a battle," he repeated. "It would be totally inappropriate for me as having led our troops to go and make homage to the enemy."
Walt W. Rostow, President Johnson's hawkish national security adviser, did not go because he anticipated that most of the information would come from American documents and memoirs. "I don't think that Hanoi's in a mood to give us anything equivalent, like the access to American policy in this period," he predicted. "After all, they are Communists. I don't want to join in an exercise that will be 90 percent American and 10 percent Hanoi." Furthermore, he added, "we were awfully well informed about them. I know all the answers to those questions."
The skepticism also infected foundations, 13 of which turned down requests for financial support, according to James G. Blight of Brown University's Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, the American organizer of the meeting. Only the Rockefeller Foundation came through.
The doubts raised the stakes for the Hanoi meeting. The Americans, especially McNamara, were keen to prove the skeptics wrong by making sure the conference would succeed in opening up the secretive North Vietnamese decision-making process. The aim was to persuade the Vietnamese to break with their closed tradition and provide official documents from the period as well as personal recollections. The conference organizers provided voluminous background material from newly opened archives in Moscow, Washington, Eastern Europe and even Beijing, which included, for example, Chinese minutes of conversations in the 1960's between Mao Zedong and the North Vietnamese Prime Minister, Pham Van Dong.
Only Vietnamese documents were missing, and the Vietnamese organizer the Foreign Ministry's Institute for International Relations pledged early on to provide archival material. When a deadline passed in April without the promised papers having appeared, McNamara pounded the table at a Washington meeting of the American team and threatened not to go to Hanoi. "They have not met this condition!" he said. "I'm very skeptical that we can add to history unless we have documentary evidence. If we can't achieve that, I don't know if the conference should go forward." But he was bluffing, and in the end, no Vietnamese papers materialized.
That failure turned out to be a telling sign that the American skepticism about the conference was being echoed in Vietnam's corridors of power. Two weeks before the sessions, Hanoi rejected a proposal to hold daily, American-Vietnamese news briefings for fear that hard-liners in the Communist Party press would use them to attack the moderates who had organized the meeting. Then, hours after the American delegation arrived in Hanoi, the Vietnamese hosts at Hanoi's Institute for International Relations reneged on a longstanding agreement to allow CNN to tape the conference.
The development soured the atmosphere at first. McNamara fretted that the mood would be too guarded for candid discussion. The American team met alone to consider canceling the conference an empty threat with the entire delegation already in Hanoi. The Vietnamese then made a small compromise: CNN could get one of the four days on tape. And so went the negotiations about discussing 30-year-old attempts to start negotiations.
The nervousness about the TV camera reflected the uncertain boundaries of Vietnamese political discourse. Open debate on foreign or military policy is still taboo, especially on so sacred a topic as the war.
But acerbic complaints about the economy, which is increasingly geared to private enterprise and foreign investment, are now acceptable, and the police apparatus that once conducted block-by-block monitoring of ordinary residents in the former South Vietnam has been considerably relaxed. Political jokes are popular, and real life is often funnier. An irreverent young man who spent a year in prison after trying to escape by boat in the early 1980's recently received a surprise invitation: to join the Communist Party. He was amused, and he declined.
Vietnamese in political life, adrift in crosscurrents of ambiguous guidelines, must swim skillfully. Though the former Foreign Minister, Nguyen Co Thach, championed this conference, he sought to rein in his delegation. He often answered probing questions smilingly but with enigmatic single sentences. Sometimes he bluntly put subjects off-limits. When pushed to reveal what disagreements had existed among policy makers about negotiating with Washington, he said quietly, "There were discussions, but we are not permitted to publicize them." Because of Vietnam's long history of foreign domination, "our habit is to keep secrets in order to defend ourselves," he explained. "Sometimes we cannot even get access to our own secrets, so how can we share that with others?" Thus were McNamara's principal objectives foiled. But he soldiered on without evidence of despair, obsessed by the task of flushing information out of every hiding place.
It is a tricky time, as Vietnam casts one eye warily on China and the other expectantly on the United States and its powers of investment. The museum in Ho Chi Minh City that was once called the Museum of American War Crimes became the Museum of War Crimes and is now simply the Museum of War Remnants. Inside, however, the condemnation of America remains searing. On the one hand, the victory over the United States stands as a landmark of national heroism. On the other, with half its population having been born since the end of the war, Vietnam seems poised to move on. It has warmly welcomed Pete Peterson, the first American Ambassador to Hanoi and a former prisoner of war. In what seems apt symbolism, the prison where he was held, the "Hanoi Hilton," is being partly demolished for a luxury high-rise, with some outer walls of the prison to be retained as a monument. Peterson drives by two or three times a day, "and it doesn't bother me," he said, "which is good. It means I have healed."
Healing is usually easier for the victors than the vanquished, and the Vietnamese at the table displayed none of the Americans' anguish. As winners, they also seemed less impelled toward self-criticism. McNamara and the other Americans came to Hanoi eager to get the Vietnamese to admit that they, too, had made mistakes in failing to pursue policies that might have avoided or curtailed the war. But that would have amounted to an unimaginable confession that Vietnamese reunification and independence could have been won with less sacrifice. No national myth is shattered lightly.
The Hanoi conferees met in a bright, cool room at the French-renovated Hotel Metropole, removed from the sultry streets. Reference books and papers were stacked and strewn before the participants, who wore earphones to hear the interpreters in windowed booths. The shape of the table was not an issue: it was a square, created from many long tables.
But there had been differences over the scope of the discussions. McNamara wanted to cover his term, 1961-68. The Vietnamese insisted on beginning in 1945, following the defeat of the Japanese in World War II. In the ensuing vacuum, they noted, Ho Chi Minh staked his claim for Vietnamese autonomy by including a passage from the American Declaration of Independence in his own declaration. They recalled his letter to President Truman unanswered seeking support for independence. Vietnam's most serious mistake, sardonically noted by Tran Quang Co, a former First Deputy Foreign Minister, came before 1945, when "we considered the U.S. a leading democratic country, which was opposed to colonialism," he said. "Therefore, we thought the U.S. would support our desire for independence. But we were wrong."
A quite different image of America had been fixed in the minds of the men around the table when the United States facilitated the return of French troops to re-establish France's colonies in Indochina, then provided financial and logistical support for the French in their unsuccessful war against the Viet Minh and then refused to sign the 1954 Geneva accords that called for Vietnamese elections. This was the picture of a colonialist power with "ambitions to become master of the world," said Thach, who from 1960 to 1975 was the North Vietnamese Foreign Ministry's chief specialist on the United States.
Woven into the harsh language was an instructive analysis of how misperceptions became reality. Co identified four mistaken images that shaped American behavior. First, when the 1954 accords divided Vietnam along a "provisional" line, Washington saw something more permanent, underestimating the drive for reunification. "We never had two Vietnams," Co declared. "We had only one Vietnam. But the U.S. assessed it as two Vietnams."
Second, the Americans "misjudged the nationalist character of the revolution," he said. McNamara had already made the same point, admitting that Washington "underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh's movement. We saw him first as a Communist and only second as a Vietnamese nationalist."
Third, "the nature of the struggle was not to undermine neighboring countries," Co continued. "The U.S. failed to understand the objective of our war. It was only for our own national liberation and reunification." This negated the domino theory.
And finally, Washington "misjudged the relations between Vietnam on the one hand and China and the Soviet Union on the other." Co pointed out what has become especially obvious since the demise of the Soviet Union: Vietnam was not a tool of world Communism. The theme resounded passionately throughout the conference. It meant that the central premise of the American motivation to defend South Vietnam was false. If these concepts seemed like echoes from the past, they were. Much of what the Americans were being told, and were now accepting, the antiwar movement had argued 30 years before.
In his opening statement on Friday morning, McNamara conceded that American behavior after World War II had caused the Vietnamese to form misimpressions "that the United States' principal goal in Southeast Asia was to destroy the Hanoi Government and its southern ally, the N.L.F." the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong. But "we in the Kennedy Administration had no such view and no such aims in Vietnam," he insisted. "On the contrary, we believed our interests were being attacked all over the world by a highly organized, unified Communist movement, led by Moscow and Beijing, of which we believed I think incorrectly that the Hanoi Government of Ho Chi Minh was a pawn." He acknowledged having underestimated the Sino-Soviet rift.
The Vietnamese listened closely, but they seemed truly puzzled by the American obsession with the spread of Communism and sought more explanation. "If the reason was to fight Communism," they asked in a list of questions submitted beforehand, "why did the U.S. not help China in 1949, or why did the U.S. not help the Batista regime in Cuba in 1959?" They never got an answer, only a litany of conflicts, including two that nearly took the superpowers to war: the Berlin and Cuban missile crises of 1961 and 1962.
"We felt beset and at risk," McNamara said. "This fear underlay the Kennedy Administration's involvement in Vietnam." (A symmetrical domino theory gripped Moscow and Beijing, the American team had been told in Washington by Chen Jian, a Chinese scholar teaching in the United States. Newly obtained Soviet and Chinese documents reflected a fear that if North Korea or North Vietnam were lost, the Communist revolution could be reversed in Manchuria and perhaps all of China as well.)
Politely but pointedly, the Americans asked the Vietnamese to take some responsibility for their image. "If you believe that another country has a misperception about what you are trying to do," asked Katzenbach, the former Under Secretary of State, "my question is, What should you do to cure that misperception?" And later, adding that the domino theory was wrong but not irrational, he said: "I put myself in your place. The problem was, how would I, how would Vietnam, convince the United States that there was no domino theory?" Laughter but no answers came from the Vietnamese. Robert Brigham, an historian from Vassar, went on to point out that Chinese rhetoric in 1962 portrayed the N.L.F. as the first of many united fronts, "and nothing we saw coming out of Hanoi dissuaded us of that."
Once, Cooper turned the question around: "I would like to ask you if any mind-sets of Vietnam about the U.S. were wrong." A long silence followed. In private conversations later, the Vietnamese explained that the Foreign Ministry's sources of information on the United States had been limited to news summaries and issues of Time and Newsweek. They did not get any daily American newspapers, they said: a subscription to The New York Times was too expensive.
A couple of new facts emerged, not enough to revise the history books but sufficient for a lesson on how one side can read elaborate meaning into a coincidence and then react to the meaning rather than to the event itself. On Feb. 7, 1965, an American advisers' compound and airfield at Pleiku, South Vietnam, came under attack; eight Americans were killed and many more wounded. As Cooper explained to the Vietnamese generals across the table, Americans saw great significance in the timing. On that day, Cooper was in Saigon with McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser at the time; they had been sent by President Johnson to assess the deteriorating military situation. Furthermore, on the same day the Soviet Premier, Aleksei Kosygin, was visiting Hanoi.
The choice of such a decisive moment to conduct the first specific attack on Americans was seen by Washington as a calculated policy move by Hanoi. In retaliation, the United States began its bombing raids on North Vietnam, which continued until the fall of 1968. Now Cooper wanted to know why Hanoi did it.
The answer came from Lieut. Gen. Dang Vu Hiep, a rotund, jolly-looking former deputy of the army's political department who was then stationed near Pleiku. "This was a spontaneous attack by the local commander" who acted under general orders to treat the South Vietnamese Army and its American advisers as equal enemies "no discrimination," he remarked with a smile. The assault, by 30 commandos, had been planned long in advance, he explained, but the timing was coincidental. No specific instructions for the attack came from Hanoi, and "we did not know Bundy was in Saigon," he insisted. "We were just attacking, so we had no reason to criticize our people for attacking. They got first-class medals." Since the Russians were trying to restrain Hanoi from fighting in the south, Kosygin "was not pleased, but he couldn't say anything," General Hiep added during a break.
Had the role of the local commander been known at the time, Washington would have seen the incident differently, both Cooper and McNamara conceded. "I think we'd have put less weight on it and put less interpretation on it as indicative of North Vietnam's aggressiveness," McNamara said. The same held for the Aug. 2, 1964, assault by North Vietnamese patrol boats on the American destroyer Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf, McNamara added. That, too, was the initiative of a local commander, according to Gen. Nguyen Dinh Uoc, who heads the Institute of Military History. The alleged second Tonkin Gulf attack, on Aug. 4, never occurred, McNamara had been told by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the military commander of North Vietnam during the war, in November 1995. At the time, the supposed attack had been used by President Johnson to secure a Congressional resolution providing broad authority for military action. Such details were mere footnotes, however, since the Vietnamese and American historians agreed that Washington would have found another pretext to bolster the decaying position of the Saigon Government.
Luu Doan Huynh, a Vietnamese scholar, came as close as anyone to giving McNamara what he wanted on China's probable response to an American invasion of North Vietnam. But the answer came in the form of analysis, not documentary evidence, and so it remained inconclusive. The Vietnamese were asked to supplement what had been learned from Chinese documents about a secret 1965 meeting in which Ho Chi Minh won from Mao Zedong a commitment to send Chinese troops in case of an American invasion. Nguyen Co Thach replied curtly: "I have no evidence. Thank you."
Huynh went on to explain that China regarded north Vietnam as part of a buffer zone within its sphere of influence. "So China made adequate preparations," he said. "There was an agreement" under which thousands of Chinese engineering troops were stationed in North Vietnam to help with road construction. "They displayed their equipment for you to see from the air," he remarked. "The Chinese factor was a deterrent, but that did not mean we were very eager to use it. We wanted to fight you alone."
The answer resolved nothing. "Hanoi's top leadership asked for and received commitments," Brigham said later. "It is not clear that China intended to follow through on those commitments."
Robert McNamara is still something of the systems analyst he was as a statistical control officer during World War II, as president of the Ford Motor Company, as Secretary of Defense and then as president of the World Bank. On his morning walks he calibrates his pace to four miles an hour and was pleased one rainy day to discover, on a hotel treadmill, how many calories he could burn. During the war he was so impressed by the logic of statistics that he tried to calculate how many deaths it would take to bring North Vietnam to the bargaining table. Now he wanted to know why his reckoning had been wrong, why the huge casualties that he had helped inflict had failed to break the will of the men in Hanoi. He came and left with the most durable stereotype between enemies: that the other side is a people not sufficiently swayed by loss of life.
His ruminations about this began at the Americans' April meeting in Washington, where he, Cooper and General Vesser agreed that casualties did not seem to weigh heavily with North Vietnam, either in diplomacy or military planning. "Was there any consideration of the human cost in Hanoi as they made these decisions?" McNamara asked. "Is the loss of life ever a factor?" He noted that while 58,000 Americans had been killed, the most authoritative estimate in a September 1995 article by General Uoc put the number of Vietnamese deaths at 3.6 million. "It's equivalent to 27 million Americans!" McNamara exclaimed.
To explain this to himself, he remembered seeing, during World War II in China, a worker fall and get crushed by a huge roller flattening earth for an airfield. The Chinese laborers laughed. There were some people to whom life was not the same as to us, he reasoned as he stood one evening in the hotel lobby. "We'd better understand that and write it down."
"Were you influenced by that loss of life?" he asked in the conference. "Did it move you to probe the negotiations?" Considering that a man responsible for so many casualties was accusing his enemies of caring less, the Vietnamese responded with exceeding courtesy. At first, when McNamara asked Thach the question over lunch, "the answer was, They paid no attention whatever to the casualties," McNamara reported triumphantly. "What I thought was and I was wrong that a very high rate of casualties would lead them to be interested in trying to find a less costly way of achieving their objectives i.e., negotiations." But all he had got was the standard line that the cause was worth any sacrifice, based on the often-quoted mantra of Ho Chi Minh: "There is nothing more precious than freedom and independence."
If a second question was asked did you do anything to minimize casualties? the conversation suddenly opened onto a different level, beneath the propaganda. A colonel at the Army Museum in Hanoi, for example, explained to me how he had lived for months in narrow tunnels underground, how units would attack where the enemy was weak, fall back where it was strong, use the fewest men and weapons possible for the task and "hold you by the belt," which meant staying so close to American troops that they could not call in air strikes or artillery without risking self-inflicted casualties.
McNamara did not travel more than a few blocks from the Hotel Metropole, or he would have seen that virtually every village has a monument to the fallen; indeed, one junior Government official, pointing to a new monument under construction, complained that the money could be better spent supporting survivors of the slain. And a major topic of press coverage and conversation is the belief that Agent Orange caused birth defects in children of soldiers.
When the Vietnamese officials across the table tuned in to what McNamara was trying to say, they parried firmly. "If McNamara thought that the leaders of Vietnam did not pay attention to the losses and suffering of the Vietnamese people while continuing the war," Co said, "this is a mistake, a misunderstanding by the United States, which is terribly wrong. The war did happen on Vietnamese soil. We suffered a thousand times more than the U.S. did." Then he delivered a final thrust: "I thank you, McNamara, for giving us more understanding of your country."
McNamara remained baffled by Hanoi's failure to respond to Washington's negotiating probes, which included at least seven feelers put out by the Johnson Administration from 1965 to 1968 through Norwegian, Canadian, Polish, Soviet and other intermediaries, and at direct American-North Vietnamese meetings in Paris, Moscow and Rangoon. Usually these were accompanied by halts in the bombing of North Vietnam, during which the White House made known its expectation that Hanoi would curtail the flow of troops and weapons to the south. But the flow, not easy to control precisely, seemed to continue or to increase. And on the American side the bombing was sometimes resumed at inopportune moments either because the weather cleared and permitted previously approved targets to be hit (as McNamara reports in his book) or because the White House refused to postpone a strike (as Cooper complained).
The Americans were intensely curious to know why Hanoi had not taken up the negotiating offers. In one instance it seemed as mundane as a misunderstanding over an appointment in Warsaw. The American version has been widely published: on Dec. 6, 1966, the American Ambassador to Poland, John Gronouski, was scheduled to meet with the North Vietnamese Ambassador to receive a reply to a proposal for talks. Gronouski waited in the office of the Polish Foreign Minister, Adam Rapacki, but the Vietnamese envoy did not show up. For 30 years this has been interpreted as a rebuff.
But at the conference, a retired Vietnamese diplomat, Nguyen Dinh Phuong, gave another version. He had been dispatched from Hanoi to Warsaw for the meeting, he said. He had arrived on Dec. 3 (a day that bombing was resumed) and waited with his ambassador at the North Vietnamese Embassy on Dec. 6. "We waited the whole day," he said, "but the U.S. Ambassador did not show up. On the 7th, the U.S. bombed more forcefully in downtown Hanoi. We concluded that the U.S. did not want to have negotiations."
Other answers were much less specific than the historians had hoped for but vividly illuminated the clash of perceptions. The Vietnamese doubted the sincerity of the negotiating offers, which they saw as propaganda ploys to mollify domestic and international criticism, to picture the Johnson Administration as peacemaker and Hanoi as warmonger. McNamara pounded the table and insisted that "many, I would say most" overtures were not "primarily" for propaganda. But how was anyone at the time to know? The men in Hanoi had been as ignorant as the American public of McNamara's growing doubts in 1966 and 1967 that the war could be won. They interpreted the use of intermediaries, as opposed to direct contacts, as part of the public-relations campaign to convince other countries of Washington's supposedly peaceful intentions. "We used intermediaries because we couldn't get to you," Coop-er countered. But the suspicion was heightened by the Administration's failure to take up Vietnamese initiatives, including a four-point negotiating plan from Prime Minister Pham Van Dong.
Alert to what Washington did rather than what it said, the North Vietnamese interpreted each bombing halt as a "smoke screen" hiding further escalation. "For these peace initiatives to be convincing," Co remarked, they "should not have been conducted in the context of escalating war, in the context of increasing bombing against the north, in the context of the massive introduction of U.S. troops in the south. We interpreted those peace initiatives as war efforts, not genuine peace efforts." When President Johnson proposed aid for reconstruction as part of a peace plan, the North Vietnamese felt he was trying to "buy our surrender" by giving sweets, Luu Doan Huynh said. "If you don't like these sweets, you'll be eaten!"
McNamara pressed the Vietnamese on why they showed no interest in a 1967 offer of a cease-fire, an American withdrawl and reunification. "Was anything better than that obtained in 1973, six years later, after hundreds of thousands additional killed?" he asked. "I think not."
"We could not enter into negotiations under the pressure of bombing," Thach replied.
The North Vietnamese felt bludgeoned and blackmailed and dishonored by the bombing, but rather than weakening their will, the officials and generals at the table said, it had actually forged resilience. Yet they demanded a permanent bombing halt as a precondition for negotiations, and once they got it in the fall of 1968, they opened the Paris talks in 1969 with the Nixon Administration, which led to the 1973 agreement on American withdrawal. Negotiations result when "either party realizes it cannot win on the battlefield," commented Nguyen Khac Huynh, a former Deputy Foreign Minister.
That was why two of the American historians, George C. Herring of the University of Kentucky and Charles E. Neu of Brown, were skeptical that negotiations could have succeeded in the mid-1960's. Outside the conference room, Neu noted that anyone who pushed negotiations then was marginalized by the Johnson White House and that McNamara became the ultimate example. Herring agreed. "We need Walt Rostow here," he said, "because he would correct McNamara's view about where negotiations could go, which is way too optimistic."
Could negotiations have been successful when the United States had not yet resigned itself to a reunified Vietnam under Hanoi's control? "No," Cooper said. "I think they would have been long, heart-rending, ulcer-producing, frustrating." As for McNamara, "I don't know if he's revising history, but he's asking a lot of history."
But McNamara stuck to his conviction that had he known what he now knew, and had President Johnson grabbed the issue of Vietnam as insistently as he had the civil-rights issue, a negotiated solution could have been found.
Lyndon Johnson stayed in Vietnam largely because he feared the reaction from the right if he lost the war, his aide Francis Bator explained. The "central mission of his Presidency," Bator said, was getting the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and other Great Society programs through a dubious Congress, and he did not think he could risk being seen as irresolute on Communism. "He was deeply gloomy about the war throughout," Bator told the Vietnamese on the final day. "I believe that during 1966-68 he would have happily accepted a negotiating process." Bator was struck by the symmetry of error. "Our mistakes and your mistakes caused both of us to suffer dearly."
At the end, the Americans were taken to a frustrating meeting with General Giap, the short, gray-haired master military strategist, who gave a propaganda lecture lasting more than an hour, ignoring McNamara's pleas for answers to substantive historical questions submitted beforehand. "You're certainly winning the war of words," McNamara said through a brave smile. The same thing happened three days earlier with Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam, who had stonewalled questions in favor of a polemic about American misdeeds. This so annoyed Cooper that he scribbled a note: "This gives me deja vu: 1954, 1961, 1970. Enough already!" But on balance, Cooper said later, "I'm awfully glad I came. It closes the loop for me. I admire their guts."
By the end of the conference, McNamara pronounced the meetings a successful first step in examining the war. It was hard not to admire his relentless spirit of inquiry. But his attractive trait of self-criticism and his faith in the power of knowledge weigh against the memory of what he did, the criticism he screened out at the time, the facts he refused to consider in his policy making. Now he was willing to accept blame, but he also sought to spread the guilt around, to extend the circle of error to the North Vietnamese. They were not ready to play that game. "Of course," Co countered at the closing news conference, "the opportunities were missed by the U.S. side, not by the Vietnamese side." McNamara came back: "I don't think they were all missed by the U.S."
On that discordant note, and immediately after the unsatisfying session with General Giap, McNamara rushed to catch a plane. He was flying to New York for a meeting to discuss anticorruption efforts in Africa. "I'm tilting at windmills all over the world," he chuckled. Then he planned to go mountain climbing in Colorado.
"I think McNamara is a delicate personality, despite his mountain climbing," Cooper said. "He's running fast so the ghosts don't catch him," said another American, paraphrasing an observation made by others who have watched him.
In the streets of Hanoi, McNamara's lean frame, slightly bent, looked sinewy or fragile. One could not be certain. He is 81, and he is hurrying through the twilight.