The New York Times on “McNamara’s” “Futile” War

Let’s have a look at the beginning of the New York Times’ long front-page and high-profile write-up on the recent death of Robert McNamara, shall we?

 "Robert S. McNamara, Architect of a Futile War, Dies at 93"
New York Times, A1
July 7, 2009 
Robert S. McNamara, the forceful and cerebral defense secretary who helped lead the nation into the maelstrom of Vietnam and spent the rest of his life wrestling with the war’s moral consequences, died Monday at his home in Washington. He was 93. His wife, Diana, said Mr. McNamara died in his sleep at 5:30 a.m., adding that he had been in failing health for some time.
Mr. McNamara was the most influential defense secretary of the 20th century. Serving Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to 1968, he oversaw hundreds of military missions, thousands of nuclear weapons and billions of dollars in military spending and foreign arms sales. He also enlarged the defense secretary’s role, handling foreign diplomacy and the dispatch of troops to enforce civil rights in the South.
"He’s like a jackhammer," Johnson said. "No human being can take what he takes. He drives too hard. He is too perfect."
As early as April 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, called Vietnam "McNamara’s War." Mr. McNamara did not object. "I am pleased to be identified with it," he said, "and do whatever I can to win it."
Half a million American soldiers went to war on his watch. More than 16,000 died; 42,000 more would fall in the seven years to come.
The war became his personal nightmare. Nothing he did, none of the tools at his command — the power of American weapons, the forces of technology and logic, or the strength of American soldiers — could stop the armies of North Vietnam and their South Vietnamese allies, the Vietcong. He concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. 
Ok, me (Street) again: what’s wrong here? Two things:
1. No mention (hardly surpising) here or later in the piece of the millions —  I said millions — of Indochinese who died in "McNamara’s [really the Empire/John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B.Johnson's] war."
2. The false assumption, shared with many on both right and left, that the Empire did not achieve basic objectives in Vietnam. The Times and broader U.S. opinion is wrong. Noam Chomsky is right: the imperial war on Vietnam was not futile for the empire.  The U.S. "won" the war to no small degree.  Understanding this means thinking a bit more deeply than the norm.  I tried to do that in a 2005 ZNet essay, reprinted below:

Rethinking America’s Vietnam "Defeat" Thirty Years Later

Rethinking America’s Vietnam "Defeat" Thirty Years Later

By Paul Street

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Thirty years ago last weekend, the United States fled the scene of one of the greatest imperial state crimes in history: its vicious military attack on the people of Vietnam. It finally left Saigon at the end of April 1975. It was an ignominious conclusion to a bloody invasion that had killed 3 million Vietnamese and more than 57,000 Americans after American President John F. Kennedy implemented large-scale military aggression in 1962.

Beneath the impersonal aggregate numbers, there are some terrible stories that provide some context for why cheering crowds filled the streets of old Saigon (re-christened as Ho Chi Minh City)to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of Uncle Sam’s exit. Between May and November 1967, for example, an "elite" 45-man unit of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division known as "Tiger Force" conducted a murderous march through Vietnam’s central highlands.  A detailed four-part series published by The Toledo Blade in the fall of 2003 showed that "Tiger Force" killed an untold number – certainly well into the hundreds – of farmers, villagers, and prisoners. One medic interviewed by Blade reporters "said he counted 120 unarmed villagers killed in one month."  According to the prolific left writer Mike Davis, who helped bring the Blade revelations to national light, "Tiger Force atrocities began with the torture and execution of prisoners in the field, then escalated to the routine slaughter of unarmed farmers, elderly people, even small children… Early on, Tiger Force began scalping its victims (the scalps were dangled from the ends of M-16s) and cutting off ears as souvenirs.  One member – who would later behead an infant – wore the ears as a ghoulish necklace… A former Tiger Force sergeant told reporters that ‘he killed so many civilians he lost count’"

A "Tiger Force" private remembered thinking that the killings were "wrong" but recalled that they were considered an "acceptable practice" for US military personnel in the central-highlands’ many US-designated "free fire zones," where (by a former Tiger Force Lieutenant’s account) "anything living…was subject to be eliminated."  The slaughter was sponsored and protected by senior officers, including one who went by the name of "Ghost Rider" and named his battalions "Barbarians," "Cutthroats" and the like.  It never resulted in prosecution of any of the perpetrators, despite an extensive Pentagon investigation that was buried by the White House in 1975. 

Asked why the Pentagon’s post-atrocity investigation of "Tiger Force" never went anywhere, a leading senior officer and massacre participant later recalled being summoned to the Pentagon and told that "there’s wrongdoing there, and we know about it. But basically it’s not…in the best interest of this, that and the other to try to pursue this."  According to this officer, the investigation "was a hot potato.  See this was after My Lai [see below] and the army certainly didn’t want to go through the publicity thing."  Former Watergate perpetrator and chief White House counsel (under Nixon) John Dean told the Blade that he was not surprised the investigation was dropped since "the government doesn’t like ugly stories"(1). Neither apparently does America’s supposedly "left" press, which refused to pick up and meaningfully disseminate the Blade findings.

In March 1968, in the mother of officially acknowledged atrocities, 347 unarmed Vietnam civilians, including 12 babies, were slaughtered in the hamlet at Song My by a company of the U.S. Army 23rd ("Americal") Division.  Belated U.S. media attention focused in 1969 and 1970 on the company’s deranged commander (Lieutenant William Calley) and treated the My Lai incident as a strange anomaly within the broader benevolent (if occasionally "clumsy") conduct of US policy.  In reality, however, the massacre provides what the recently demonized radical Indigenist Native American Studies professor Ward Churchill calls "a lens through which to examine the de-facto rules of engagement under which U.S. ground forces operated for nearly 7 years (1965-1972)." Under what American armed forces called "the Dead Gook Rule – that is, if a corpse is Vietnamese it is counted as a slain ‘enemy combatant’" – the US implemented "a process of unremitting massacre, both large-scale and small, of the civilian population."  As Churchill notes,  "more than a score of such operations" took place "during the course of the U.S. ‘commitment,’ and this is not even to begin to count the toll taken by such routine measures as the declaration of whole swaths of the country to be ‘free-fire zones,’ in which anything that moved could be killed with impunity"(2).  Colonel Oran Henderson (who shared the duty of covering up the My Lai killings with an up-and-coming military bureaucrat named Colin Powell), noted in 1971 that "every unit of brigade size" that "served" in Vietnam "has its My Lai hidden someplace" (3).

Contrary to most of what you hear on both the right and the left, America’s terrible assault on Vietnam was actually quite successful when viewed from the long perspective of US foreign policy’s major telescopic objectives. To be sure, American policymakers did not wish to leave Saigon, suffering the disgrace (for them) of formal military defeat at the hands of a peasant nation. They would have preferred to avoid the unification of Vietnam under the control of an officially Communist state. They hardly wished to suffer expulsion at the hands of heroic Indochinese resistance and under the pressure of domestic protest.

Still, it is worthwhile to remember how the imperial architects of American foreign policy conceptualized the threat posed by radical Vietnamese nationalism after World War II.  A relatively small and poor, predominantly agricultural and "pre-modern" nation where water buffaloes and oxen were the primary farm "technologies," Vietnam in and of itself did not possess great economic significance for the United States.  It was not a large-scale market for American goods, a great source of raw materials for American corporations, or an especially relevant outlet for the investment of surplus American capital.  It was, however, home to a popular revolutionary nationalist movement – the initially anti-French Viet Minh.  This movement sought to overthrow its own corrupt, imperially supported oligarchy and to develop its own nation’s wealth and resources on an independent basis.  It refused to follow the regressive and imperial dictates of the metropolitan investor class from Europe and the United States. Along the way, it generated a powerful social-revolutionary movement in the imperially occupied South. 

For American men of Empire, the main danger posed by this radical combination of nationalism and populist social revolution was that it represented a potentially contagious infection.  If successful, the Vietnamese revolutionary independence movement threatened to inspire others to resist subordinate integration into the US-dominated world system and the internal social inequality that such integration tended to require and enhance. Like the successful Cuban revolution and other radical nationalist Third World struggles that troubled American global planners after WWII, the Vietnamese revolution threatened – and add to – to the disturbing (for imperial planners) examples of Russia and China.  If not defeated, the US feared, it would help demonstrate that poor nations could achieve significance independence and socioeconomic modernization without taking orders from Western capitals and capital.   It would advance the treacherous notion that people and nations across the poor global periphery could productively "take matters into their own hands," without the parasitic direction of distant imperial overlords and global investors.

To stop this "rot" from spreading, US planners determined, radical nationalist movements had to be neutralized in one way or another.  In American policymakers’ best-case scenario, the US would work with threatened local oligarchies to help them crush rebellions "on their own."  This is what took place, of course, in Indonesia in 1965, when the US-backed Suharto regime literally slaughtered that nation’s large-scale radical nationalist political movement. More than 650,000 Indonesians died in that great repression. The anti-systemic infection, conveniently marked (as always during the Cold War period)as part of the mythical international "Communist" conspiracy, was handled by the client state’s own local military. In the less favorable (for American imperialists) scenario of Vietnam, however, the local police force wasn’t up to the job.  The imperial power had to inject its own troops to keep the world safe from the virus of radical nationalism. 

Yet even with the formal military defeat, all was hardly lost for Uncle Sam.  The small and in-itself relatively inconsequential Vietnam domino (to use the standard Cold War analogy) fell, but it fell largely in upon itself, too damaged by the assault of the world’s most powerful military to inspire revolutionaries elsewhere.  The radical-democratic potential of the South’s revolutionary peasant movement was significantly diluted by America’s withering attack and the authoritarian Hanoi government’s consolidation of national control. The massive state terror inflicted by the U.S. on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia by the early 1970s was so great that, as Noam Chomsky noted in 1991, "Indochina will be lucky if it recovers in a hundred years."  Thanks also to a subsequent vicious US trade embargo (lifted only in 1997), and the austerity-imposing dictates of the US-controlled International Monetary Fund and World Bank (whose presidency Robert McNamara assumed after heading the Defense Department during the peak American military assault), the American Empire’s "basic goal – the crucial one, the one that really mattered – to destroy the virus" was in fact achieved.  While it had successfully resisted full integration into the US global order, Chomsky noted, "Vietnam is a basket case, and the US is doing everything it can to keep it that way" (4)

Today, 8 years after the US dropped its embargo and established diplomatic relations with Vietnam, the latter nation’s officially Communist government has "joined the rush to global capitalism."  It has "come to accept," Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Michael Lev reports in a piece titled "Young Vietnam Strides Into the Future" (April 24, 2005), that "it must unshackl[e] the economy from Communist-era regulations." It must also "develop better political ties with the rest of the world" (meaning the rich states and especially the US)and open itself to foreign investment so that it doesn’t get "left behind" in the "rush" to global capitalism.  While it "hopes to join the World Trade Organization within a year," a "middle class" and "fast-paced economic [capitalist-neoliberal, P.S.] development are sprouting up in the officially Marxist nation that dealt Uncle Sam his worst black eye in history.

It is true that "most" of the population "remains poor," the Tribune reported two days ago, "with per capita income about $500 a year."  But "these days," Associated Press correspondent Tini Tran reports, old Saigon’s "Le Duan street …is home to Diamond Plaza, a glittering upscale department store where French perfumes and Italian shoes are sold to an urbane middle-class.  Along the same strip, a French-owned five-star hotel hits across the street from the US Consulate."  Vietnam "is riding an economic growth rate of 7.7 percent last year, second only to China in Asia.  One of the biggest signs of that is the construction in Ho Chi Minh City, which has posted economic growth of more than 10 percent a year.  The United States," Tran ads, "is Vietnam’s leading trade partner."  According to a Mekong Delta schoolteacher interviewed by Tran, "many people from the North came down to Saigon to do business.  Now people don’t care about politics.  What they care about is how to get rich." 

During the 30-year anniversary "victory" celebrations on Saturday, Tran observes, the government’s colorful parade included "some floats that were sponsored by Vietnamese banks" and "sported American credit card companies’ logos."  Official government speeches evoked "familiar themes of national unity and sacrifice," but "the commemoration was striking for its focus on the country’s economic development.  Leaders put aside communist slogans in favor of touting emerging prosperity," ignoring the savage concentration of wealth and exacerbation of inequality that comes along with neoliberal capitalist development like white on rice. 

By Tran’s observation, recollections of the war to expel the American invader "are the stuff of history books for the majority of Vietnamese, most of whom were born after [the war] ended". Appropriately enough, military personnel from the national headquarters of empire and inequality have reappeared on Vietnam’s big city sidewalks.  "US Navy vessels began making visits to Vietnam in 2003," Lev observes, "resulting in the once unthinkable sight of seeing American sailors in dress whites again on the streets of old Saigon".  It’s a curious footnote to Lev’s standard mainstream reference to the Vietnamese having "defeated" the Americans in what Tran calls "the 25-year US campaign against communism in Southeast Asia" (5).

Along with the real nature of the threat that the Vietnamese revolutionary independence movement posed to US planners, the significant extent to which deeper US objectives were actually (and quite criminally) attained is invisible to "mainstream" journalism’s eyes and thus to most of the American reading and viewing public.  That public has long been trained (by the corporate "entertainment" and culture industry as well as the corporate media’s news wing) to "understand" the Vietnam War as a vague and distant tactical "mistake" that somehow went so wrong as to inflict enormous pain principally and most importantly on Americans and their fragile "national psyche."

Equally invisible (or nearly so) is the terrible misery inflicted on the Vietnamese (the contemporary analogies are obvious) by the American military attack and related subsequent efforts to keep Vietnam poor and desperate – a merely fallen domino, incapable of positively demonstrating positive development outside the US-managed global system. 

Directly adjacent to Lev’s "Young Vietnam" article two Sundays ago, for example, the Tribune placed a related retrospective piece on the fall of Saigon bearing the title "Some Wounds of War Healed – Many Others Won’t Go Away."  There’s nothing about the people of Vietnam in this article on "the Wounds" of a war that was fought on their own devastated land and cost millions of their lives.

"Thirty years after the war’s end," this article says, the Vietnam War "remains a catch-all metaphor for [America's] most traumatic period in the last half century" and "still evok[es] anger, ambiguity, and resignation." All this lingering emotion and conflict is about the war understood as a tactical (not moral) "mistake" and "defeat."  The notion that the American assault on Vietnam was a significantly successful imperial crime is beyond the pale of appropriate discussion. 

Paul Street ([email protected]) is an anti-racist urban social policy researcher empire critic in Chicago, IL.   He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradsigmpublishers.com) and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, 2005).[old info]


1. See "Special Report: Tiger Force" Toledo Blade (2003), available online at  http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=SRTIGERFORCE;and Mike Davis, "The Scalping Party" 2003, available online at http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=1066.

2.    Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Arrogance and Criminality (2004), pp. 140-141.

3. Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History (1988), p.226.

4. Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1991), pp. 59-60).

5.  Michael Lev, "Young Vietnam Strides Into the Future" Chicago Tribune (24 April, 2005); Tini Tran, "Vietnam Celebrates War’s End," Chicago Tribune (1 May, 2005).




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