Robert McNamara

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from Class Warfare, 1995

QUESTION: … [In Robert McNamara’s #1 bestseller In Retrospect, he] writes, “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why. I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions, but of judgment and capabilities.”

CHOMSKY: Actually, he’s correct about the values. If somebody tries to disobey us, our values are that they have to be crushed and massacred. Those are our values. They go back hundreds of years, and those are exactly the values they acted upon. His belief that it was a mistake — personally, I agree with the hawks on this. He’s been criticized by the doves who say, You came around too late, and by the hawks who say, Well, it was a victory. And the hawks are right, it was a victory. So, it wasn’t a mistake. He doesn’t understand that. He doesn’t understand very much, incidentally. The one interesting aspect of the book is how little he understood about what was going on or understands today. He doesn’t even understand what he was involved in.

I assume he’s telling the truth. The book has a kind of ring of honesty about it. What it reads like is an extremely narrow technocrat, a small-time engineer who was given a particular job to do and just tried to do that job efficiently, didn’t understand anything that was going on, including what he himself was doing.

…There’s only one criticism that he sees, or that any of his critics see, or even his supporters, the whole range of discussion, including people who were very active in the peace movement, I should say. I’ve been shocked by this, the people who are active in the peace movement who are saying, “We’re vindicated because he finally recognized that we were right. It was an unwinnable war.”

What about the maybe, if you count them up, four million Indochinese that died, something on that order? What about them? Actually, he has a sentence or two about them, and even that sentence is interesting. He talks about the North Vietnamese who were killed. An interesting fact about the book — and you can’t blame him for this, because he’s just adopting the conventions of the culture that he comes from, he’s completely uncritical and couldn’t think of questioning it — throughout the book the “South Vietnamese” are the collaborators whom we installed and supported. He recognizes that the population was mostly on the other side, but they’re not “South Vietnamese.” The attack on them doesn’t appear.

The most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, the first thing I looked at when I read it, is what he would say about the two major decisions that he was involved in. He was involved in two basic decisions. He implemented orders, of course. One [decision] was in November and December 1961, when the internal resistance was overthrowing the U.S. client regime after it had already killed probably 80,000 people, eliciting internal resistance which Washington’s terror state couldn’t withstand. Kennedy just turned from straight terror, which it had been before, to outright aggression. They unleashed the American air force against Vietnamese villagers, authorized napalm, started crop destruction. They also started attacks against the North, which was not involved seriously at the time. That was the first big decision. He doesn’t even mention it. I don’t think he’s concealing anything. I don’t think he thought of it as a decision. Because, after all, we’re just slaughtering South Vietnamese, and that doesn’t harm us at all. So why shouldn’t we do it? Nobody’s going to get angry. Nobody’s going to harm us if we kill South Vietnamese. So, when we send U.S. planes to napalm Vietnamese villages, what could be the problem? So that’s not even mentioned.

The second one is even more interesting. In January 1965 they made the decision to escalate radically the bombing of South Vietnam. They also started bombing North Vietnam at the time, February 1965. But the bombing of South Vietnam was tripled in scale, and much more devastating. That was known. In fact, one person who describes that right at the time — and this is a very interesting aspect of McNamara’s book and of the commentary on it — was Bernard Fall, a French military historian and Indochina specialist. A big hawk, incidentally. It’s “we” and “them.” He was on “our side” and that sort of thing. But he happened to have a missing gene or something. He cared about the people of Vietnam, although he was a hawk and a military historian who supported the French and then the Americans. He didn’t want to see the place destroyed. In 1965, he wrote that the biggest decision of the war was not the bombing of North Vietnam, not the sending of American troops a couple of months later, but the decision to bomb South Vietnam at a far greater scale than anything else and to smash the place to bits. He had also pointed out in the preceding couple of years that the U.S. had been destroying the so-called Viet Cong with napalm and vomiting gases and massive bombardment and it was a massacre. He said in 1965 they escalated it to a much higher attack, and that was a big change. He was an American advisor. He describes how he flew with the American planes when they napalmed villages, destroyed hospitals. He described it very graphically. He was infuriated about it, but he describes it.

McNamara refers to those articles. He says Fall’s reports were “encouraging” and justified the U.S. escalation. McNamara didn’t mention the decision to vastly increase the bombing of South Vietnam. That’s just passed over. Nor is there discussion of the bombing of South Vietnam in general. He just passes over it without comment. He cites Fall’s articles and says, Part of the reason that we were encouraged to proceed was that Fall was a fine analyst and knowledgeable person and was very impressed with what we were doing and thought it was going to work. There’s a certain truth to that. Fall was saying, Yes, these guys are such murderous maniacs that they may succeed in destroying the country. In that sense, he thought it was going to work.

Then McNamara has a footnote in his book. He says, two years later, Fall had changed his mind about the efficacy of American actions and took a more pessimistic view about the prospects for an American victory. That was 1967. Look at what [Fall] wrote in 1967. He said this just before he died. He said Vietnam is literally dying under the worst attack that any country has ever suffered and it was very likely that Vietnam as a cultural and historical entity was going to become extinct under the American attack. And McNamara reads this and says [Fall] changed his mind about the efficacy of what we were doing. Not only did he write that, but every reviewer read it. Nobody comments on it. Nobody sees anything funny about it. Because if we want to destroy a country and extinguish it as a cultural and historical entity, who could object? Fall was talking about South Vietnam, notice, not North Vietnam. The killing was mostly in South Vietnam. The attack was mostly against South Vietnam.

In fact, there’s an interesting aspect of the Pentagon Papers, too. The Pentagon Papers were not very revealing, contrary to what people say. I had advance access to them, since I was helping Dan Ellsberg in releasing them, so I wrote about them in a lot of detail and very fast because I had already read them. But one of the very few interesting things about the Pentagon Papers which I wrote about at that time was the disparity between the planning for the bombing of the North and the planning for the bombing of the South. On the bombing of the North, there was meticulous detailed planning. How far should we go? At what rate? What targets? The bombing of the South, at three times the rate and with far more vicious consequences, was unplanned. There’s no discussion about it. Why? Very simple. The bombing of the North might cause us problems. When we started bombing the North, we were bombing, for example, Chinese railroads, which happened to go right through North Vietnam. We were going to hit Russian ships, as they did. And there could be a reaction somewhere in the world that might harm us. So therefore that you have to plan for. But massacring people in South Vietnam, nothing. B-52 bombing of the Mekong Delta, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, destroying hospitals and dams, nobody’s going to bother us about that. So that doesn’t require any planning or evaluation.

Not only is it interesting that this happened, but also interesting is the fact that no one noticed it. I wrote about it, but I have yet to find any commentator, scholar, or anyone else, who noticed this fact about the Pentagon Papers. And you see that in the contemporary discussion. We were “defending” South Vietnam, namely the country that we were destroying. The very fact that McNamara can say that and quote Bernard Fall, who was the most knowledgeable person, who was utterly infuriated and outraged over this assault against South Vietnam, even though he was a hawk, who thought Saigon ought to rule the whole country — you can quote him and not see that that’s what he’s saying — that reveals a degree of moral blindness, not just in McNamara, but in the whole culture, that surpasses comment.

QUESTION: Just a couple more things on McNamara and his mea culpa. He’s sort of taken the Nazi Nuremberg defense, following orders, allegiance to the Fuhrer, that’s why he didn’t speak out while he was Secretary of Defense.

CHOMSKY: I don’t agree. He does not recognize that anything wrong was done. So there’s no question of a defense.

QUESTION: On [PBS’] Macneil-Lehrer [Newshour], he now says he had misgivings about the policies.

CHOMSKY: What were the misgivings? The misgivings were that it might not succeed. Suppose that some Nazi general came around after Stalingrad and said, “I realized after Stalingrad it was a mistake to fight a two-front war, but I did it anyway.” That’s not the Nuremberg defense. That’s not even recognizing that a crime was committed. You’ve got to recognize that a crime was committed before you give a defense. McNamara can’t perceive that. Furthermore, I don’t say that as a criticism of McNamara. He is a dull, narrow technocrat who questioned nothing. He simply accepted the framework of beliefs of the people around him. And that’s their framework. That’s the Kennedy liberals. We cannot commit a crime. It’s contradiction in terms. Anything we do is by necessity not only right, but noble. Therefore, there can’t be a crime.

If you look at his mea culpa, he’s apologizing to the American people. He sent American soldiers to fight an unwinnable war, which he thought early on was unwinnable. The cost was to the U.S. It tore the country apart. It left people disillusioned and skeptical of the government. That’s the cost. Yes, there were those three million or more Vietnamese who got killed. The Cambodians and Laotians are totally missing from his story. There were a million or so of them. There’s no apology to them.

It’s dramatic to see how this is paired once again — I’ve been writing about this for years — with discussions of the inability of the Japanese to give a fully adequate apology for what they did during the Second World War. The Prime Minister of Japan has just been in China, where he apologized profusely for the atrocities that Japan carried out and the suffering of the people of Asia caused by Japanese aggression. That’s been discussed in the New York Times, critically. Because, well, yeah, sure, he said it, but there are some Japanese parliamentarians who think he shouldn’t have said it, so that the Japanese are still unwilling to face up to what they did. Next column over, we’re facing up to the fact that we harmed the U.S. by destroying three countries and killing millions of people. It’s pretty interesting. I don’t think any country in history could have exhibited this shocking farce on the front page without comment. Incidentally, there’s no comment in the whole West. It’s not just the U.S. In the British and the European press, to the extent I read it, it’s exactly the same. This is part of Western culture. It’s what Adam Smith called the “savage injustice of the Europeans,” which already in his day was destroying much of the world.

QUESTION: Long before McNamara wrote this book you had compared him to Lenin. What did you mean by that?

CHOMSKY: I compared some passages of articles of his in the late 1960s, speeches, on management and the necessity of management, how a well-managed society controlled from above was the ultimate in freedom. The reason is if you have really good management and everything’s under control and people are told what to do, under those conditions, he said, man can maximize his potential. I just compared that with standard Leninist views on vanguard parties, which are about the same. About the only difference is that McNamara brought God in, and I suppose Lenin didn’t bring God in. He brought Marx in.

QUESTION: The [New York] Times, the day before yesterday, had a front page story: “The Radical Right Has an Unlikely Soulmate in the Leftist Politics of the Sixties.” It states: “There is the sense that the Vietnam era war turmoil tore a hole in the post-World War II social fabric and that although it was the left that opened the rift, it was the right that has driven a truck through it.” What do you think the newspaper of record has in mind in comparing the sixties with what’s happening in the nineties?

CHOMSKY: That makes perfect sense from their point of view. Since everything the U.S. does is by necessity correct, except maybe it fails, or maybe it costs us too much, but otherwise it is by necessity correct, therefore the Vietnam War was of necessity correct and legitimate, except maybe for its failures, and the left was criticizing and therefore opened up this rift.

I doubt if Pravda would have gotten to this level, but maybe it would have. Suppose you had read [in] Pravda about the invasion of Afghanistan, which was criticized. They say, You’ve got these critics, like Sakharov and these people, who are tearing a hole in the body politic by undermining Russian authority by saying we shouldn’t defend the people of Afghanistan from terror. I suppose you can imagine that appearing in Pravda. I don’t know for certain that it did. If so, Pravda would have descended to the level of the New York Times, which sees it exactly that way. They saw it that way at the time, as did the leading doves, who questioned the war because of its apparent failures and its costs, primarily its costs to us. By those standards, no one had a right to criticize the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: it worked and casualties were very few. Virtually no one in the mainstream was capable of even imagining the position that everyone took in the case of Czechoslovakia: aggression is wrong, even if it succeeds and at a small cost. The criticisms were so tepid they were embarrassing. Almost nobody, including me, dared to criticize the U.S. attack on South Vietnam. That’s like talking Hittite. Nobody even understood the words. They still don’t. But from their point of view, it’s true: Actions taken to try to stop a murderous, aggressive war that was massacring people and destroying three countries — that’s tearing wide the body politic, and now the right can drive a truck through it. So, yes, that’s the picture….