Robert McNamaraIn RetrospectRandom House New York, 1995
Vietnam had long since been a place of controversy, and where our government focused
its 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
People have often called Vietnam, McNamaras war, because he made it his
responsibility. As he learned more and more about south Vietnam, he became well acquainted
with its 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 generals 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
Lyndon B. Johnson now becomes president. Many debates are being held on what to do
in Vietnam. After Diems 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 McNamaras 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 Westmorelands petition for 200,000 supplementary troops.
McNamaras 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 doesnt
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