LBJ Library Oral History
Oral Histories have been placed on the LBJ Web Server and are available
for downloading. The are available at the LBJ Library website: http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom
ROBERT S. MCNAMARA
ORAL HISTORY, INTERVIEW I PREFERRED CITATION
S. McNamara Oral History Interview I, 1/8/75, by Walt W. Rostow, Internet
Copy, LBJ Library.
DATE: January 8,
R: Do you have any general
reflections on the consequences, positive and/or negative, of the policy
M: I think the policy
of gradualism will be debated for decades to come with hindsight. At the
time I was a major proponent--perhaps the major proponent of it.
R: I think Dean Rusk
M: I think Dean Rusk
did, I agree. But I proposed it for several reasons. One because I wished
to avoid--to minimize the risk of a military confrontation--confrontation
with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic. Two, because I wished
to minimize the damage--the loss of lives and the other damage--to both
the U.S. and its allies and to the people of Indochina. And three, because
I never did believe that a military victory in the narrow sense of the
word was possible, with gradual application or non-gradual application
of military power. So for all these reasons I favored gradualism. I favored
it then and I've seen nothing since to change my views; but I confess this
is the view of a participant. It may not be the view of history, and I'll
leave that question to history.
R: Now we come to
a narrower question, nine. (Why did the President decide not to retaliate
for the attack in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2? What issues were raised
in meetings with the President? What involvement did you have in planning
for the congressional resolution which had been discussed as early as June?
What did you say in your briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
on August 3? The Library has not been able to locate a copy of your briefing
for that day-- only the briefing of August 5.)
M: The question is:
why did the President decide not to retaliate for the attack in the Gulf
of Tonkin on August 2? I believe the answer is that no military response
was made by the U.S. to the August 2 DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam,
i.e., North Vietnamese] attack because of the President's desire to avoid
escalation of the war and because of insufficient evidence to indicate
that the attacks were intentional. Even with hindsight I don't know whether
they were intentional or not, but in any event, at the time, it was my
strong feeling--and I think it was Dean Rusk's strong feeling and it was
the President's decision--that we would, in every possible way, avoid escalation
of the war. The attacks caused no significant military damage to the U.S.
They weren't significant militarily. They were important only as possible
indications of intent; and they weren't clear indications of intent. Therefore,
they deserved no response. I think that was the feeling at the time. Now
with respect to the briefings that I gave to the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee on August 3, you ask are copies available, and frankly I don't
know. I think its possible-- I believe it's possible that Bill Bundy may
have copies of those or may have recollections of them, and I refer therefore
this question to him. I certainly have none.
R: Were you involved
in the planning of the congressional resolution?
M: I recall a discussion
of a possible congressional resolution on August 2. I know such planning
was underway in the State Department. I have no reason to believe that
we in Defense were not consulted with respect to it; but I have no clear
recollection of the degree of consultation.
R: All right. Question
ten: When did you first realize that most of the troops would not be out
of Vietnam by the end of 1965, and what effect did this have on budget
planning? That's a question, I should explain, that arises somewhere from
the literature on the period.
M: The question probably
goes back to the statement that was made, I would judge, in October of
1963 before President Kennedy's death that I believed that we should reduce
the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam by the end of 1963 and that there
should be further reductions--I can't recall exactly the extent or the
dates I used--in future years. statements and recommendation were associated
with the strategy we were then following in Vietnam. That strategy was
subsequently changed; and when it changed, the statements and recommendations
made with respect to that strategy were no longer valid. Since I don't
have all my papers in front of me I can't say exactly when the change occurred.
Certainly by mid-1965 it had become clear that we had to choose between
two alternatives: either expand our military support of Vietnam or withdraw.
I think, at that particular time, those were, basically, the only two alternatives.
I believe that Mac Bundy and I came to the conclusion that we were failing
to face those alternatives.
R: As early as January.
M: I was going to
say in January of 1965. And I think it was a serious failure on the part
of the government that it had not chosen between those alternatives. I'm
not with hindsight suggesting that we made the right choice. I wasn't entirely
clear then what the right choice was, as I think we--Mac and I--both said
in January of 1965 and also later in July of 1965; but I think it was a
serious failure of government to avoid facing the choice. And finally I
think it may have been a serious failure to avoid examining the choice
fully. It is said by some that the alternative of withdrawal was fully
explored and supported by some-- and strongly recommended by some. I don't
believe the record supports that. But to continue with the question of
when I believed--when it became clear--that troops would not be out of
Vietnam by the end of 1965, surely in July of 1965 the record is clear:
we recommended an increase in troops not, I emphasize, to win the war by
military means, but to prepare a foundation for a political settlement.
We recommended a specific number of troops be approved for addition at
that time, but stated specifically that it was likely that additional troops
would be required. The specific numbers are referred to in the memorandum
of 20 July, 1965 to the President. We emphasized then that several hundred
thousand troops above and beyond the numbers recommended for immediate
deployment might be required. So it was very clear by mid-1965 that we
believed that if we pursued the course of action that was being considered
at that time, a very large number of troops would be in Vietnam at the
end of 1965 and in later years as well.
R: The next question,
eleven, is on the process of bombing-target selection and on bombing pauses.
It gives you a chance to reflect on peace initiatives and the diplomatic
contacts of the Johnson Administration. (Explain the process of selecting
bombing targets and any differences you may have had with the JCS on the
bombing. Were the bombing pauses of sufficient frequency and duration to
produce a NVN response if they had been interested? What general reflections
do you have on bombing pauses? The peace initiatives and contacts of the
M: My memory is very
hazy on these matters; and the documents weren't at all complete orconclusive
on them. So I'll give you a statement on how the targets were chosen and
some slight recollection of the peace initiatives. As to target selection,
the Joint Chiefs of Staff laid out a target system in North Vietnam to
maximize the damage to North Vietnam: economic damage, psychological damage,
military damage. Periodically, the Chiefs chose from that target system
particular targets to be attacked during particular periods of time. My
civilian staff and I would receive the recommendations from the Chiefs,
examine them, and then submit separate recommendations to the President.
Invariably my recommendations were for lesser bombing than recommended
by the Chiefs. I recommended lesser bombing after having had restudied
the effects of bombing during World War II and during the Korean War. In
particular I placed lesser weight than the Chiefs did on the potential
for economic damage to North Vietnam and the effect that such economic
damage might have on North Vietnam's war-making capability. I think the
Chiefs greatly exaggerated the dependence of North Vietnam's military effort
on its so-called industrial plant. The industrial plant contributed very,
very little to North Vietnam's military effort. Secondly, I believed then
and I believe now that the Chiefs greatly exaggerated the extent to which
our military attacks could damage the industrial capacity of North Vietnam.
And finally, my recommendations for lesser levels of bombing were influenced
by the desire to save both U.S. lives and the lives of civilians in North
Vietnam. I should add one further point. The lesser attacks recommended
by me had, as a final justification, the desire to avoid to the greatest
degree possible the provocation of North Vietnam and particularly to avoid
incentives to the Soviets and to the People's Republic of China to retaliate
with some form of military action.
R: As I recall, when
you presented the bombing target recommendations for the northern part
of Vietnam to the President in the Tuesday Lunches, for example, there
were certain criteria that were systematic: one was, what would U.S. losses
be; second, what would be the North Vietnamese civilian losses; and third,
an evaluation of the economic or strategic or other consequences of the
attacks. Am I right in thinking that those were the three variables?
M: Yes. Exactly.
My judgment on each of those was substantially different from the Chiefs.
I invariably believed that the damage to North Vietnam would be less and
the cost to the U.S. would be greater. And I think all of the evidence
proves that I was correct on both points. Now with respect to the peace
initiatives, I didn't believe then and I don't believe now that we put
sufficient emphasis on the political track. I didn't believe we did all
we might have done in creative use of bombing pauses to advance on such
a track. We did, as you'll recall, initiate a pause in the bombing during
December 1965. It was controversial then, and we argued among ourselves
whether it should be started, and if it should be started, how long it
should be continued. The record, I'm sure, will show that controversy.
With hindsight, many in the government--I think this included the President--
believed that the pause accomplished nothing and cost something in terms
of permitting the North Vietnamese to take advantage of it to build up
munition stocks and to move personnel that strengthened their position
vis-a-vis the U.S. I didn't believe then and I don't believe now that there
was any significant military cost to the U.S. resulting from such a pause.
I do believe that continuation of such efforts--and other political actions
we might have undertaken--would have resulted in a reduction in the military
action on both sides. I think that my critics are correct in saying I have
no proof of that. They point out that there is little evidence in the short
run that the North Vietnamese would have reacted favorably to such U.S.
political probes. But, as I say, I believe the military cost of such probes
was small. I think that the tempo of the war would have been slowed and
I believed that the ultimate peace settlement--the political settlement--would
have been advanced. This is a highly controversial view. It is not shared
by many men whom I respect. I can't prove it; but I very much regret that
we didn't carry it out.
R: All right, the
M-16 and all that. Why was there a shortage of M-16s and why was their
introduction opposed by army traditionalists?
M: Well, this is
from my point of view a pinprick, a minor matter. Moreover my memory of
it is very dim, and the documents among the papers submitted to me were
R: No, it was very
much an in-house Pentagon matter. It wasn't reflected in the White House
M: My recollection
is, with respect to the M-16, there was substantial disagreement among
the services as to whether that rifle would function more effectively than
the M-14 and whether it should be adopted as the standard infantry weapon.
I believe the Marine Corps was opposed to substituting the M-16 for the
M-14; the army was divided with respect to such a substitution; and the
air force strongly believed that the M-16 was superior to the M-14 and
did substitute it, 100 per cent, for the M-14. It wasn't until years after
the decision was initially placed on the Chiefs' agenda that they finally
decided to standardize on the M-16. Of course, by then years had been lost
in tooling up for the necessary production. But I don't believe that it
was a major matter. I don't think it had a major effect on our combat effectiveness.
I favored the M-16 initially. I wished we had adopted it earlier; but,
frankly, I don't think the war would have ended any differently if we had.
R: Anything you want
to say about helicopters? (The war brought about a new role for helicopters
in combat. Why were there shortages?)
M: My memory is unclear
on that. There were no shortages in any meaningful sense. We had huge quantities
of helicopters in Vietnam. Less perhaps than the commanders would have
wished at any one time, but far greater than anyone would have reason to
believe would have been available at that time.
R: Right. Infiltration
barrier? (To what extent did the "infiltration barrier" fulfill or fail
to fulfill your rather modest hopes?)
M: Well, this is
again a subject on which my memory is hazy and on which there is very little
documentation available to me. The infiltration barrier was a barrier suggested
by a group of scientists whom I had brought together to examine the effectiveness
of the bombing program in Laos and North Vietnam, a program designed to
reduce the infiltration of North Vietnamese forces into South Vietnam.
The scientists concluded that the bombing program had been ineffective
in reducing infiltration and was likely to continue to be ineffective.
They suggested that it might be possible to be more effective by developing
what is called here the "infiltration barrier," the use of electronic devices
to detect movements and to trigger bombing attacks against such movements.
My impression is that the infiltration barrier did substantially increase
the effectiveness of anti-infiltration bombing; but I left the department
before it was possible to evaluate that effectiveness, and I'm not an expert
R: Now we come to
twenty-seven on Vietnam. [Attached are your major recommendations on Vietnam.
What additional comments would you make?] Whatever you want to say or not
say about that is wholly in your hands.
M: I may have said
earlier, I can't recall whether I did or not, but I'll say now that I still
feel too close to Vietnam--too direct a participant in the decisions that
affected the intervention in Vietnam--to speak impartially with respect
to the success or failure of such actions. In 1965 and 1966 I believed
that the decisions that were being taken were so momentous with respect
to the history of our nation that it was essential we preserve the records
of the day that related to them--the premises on which such decisions were
taken or that influenced such decisions--so that future historians would
have access to them, could reappraise the decisions and draw lessons from
them. It was to permit such historical research that I asked John McNaughton
and, through him, his successor, Paul Warnke, to arrange for the collection
of data which subsequently became known as the Pentagon Papers. Because
I was a party in interest I did not wish in any way to supervise the collection
of such papers; and I probably didn't supervise them enough, because I
did not intend that they would turn into evaluations to the extent they
did. Not that I necessarily disagree with the judgments in the Pentagon
Papers. Quite frankly, I haven't even read them; but I didn't believe that
any of us at the time were well equipped to evaluate the actions; and,
in a sense, it was a waste of human effort to try to do so, being so close
to the events. Instead I had intended that the raw material be accumulated,
systematically arranged and preserved in an orderly, readily available
fashion for historians. I think to a considerable extent that objective
was met by the papers. The judgments that were formed at the time will,
I'm sure, be subject to reappraisal and examination and perhaps modification
in the future. Beyond this, even today, I have relatively little to say
on Vietnam. I have some thoughts on the subject. Perhaps at a later date
I will wish to express them.
ROBERT S. MCNAMARA
ORAL HISTORY, SPECIAL INTERVIEW I PREFERRED CITATION
For Internet Copy:
S. McNamara Oral History, Special Interview I, 3/26/93, by Robert
Copy, LBJ Library.
DATE: March 26,
PLACE: Mr. McNamara's
office, Washington, D.C.
M: I don't think that
he [LBJ] knew much about geopolitics or international relations; I think
D: Your early dealings
with him on foreign affairs, your sense--
M: I don't have clear
recollections of that, but I think the point you make is an entirely justified
point. But I would overlay the point on the conditions that existed when
he came in; it was a hell of a mess by the time he came in. I'm not going
to talk about Vietnam, and before you leave I want to tell you what I think
I may do in respect to Vietnam. But in any event I'm not going to talk
about Vietnam. You can have access to my oral history that I did in the
Defense Department [?]. I don't think I said much in it about Vietnam.
I've tried not to talk privately or publicly about Vietnam. Now whether
I'm right or wrong, that's not the issue. I just haven't done it, with
the exception of the Westmoreland trial, which I felt was a goddamn disgrace
and which I volunteered to be deposed on [?] [inaudible] I have not talked
about it. What I want to say to you is that I think that he inherited a
mess. There was a very important meeting in October of 1963, before Johnson
president, at which I came back from Vietnam
and reported to President Kennedy on certain things, and then there was
a heck of a debate within the National Security Council as to what should
be done. The situation was that we then had, as I recall, sixteen thousand
military personnel in Vietnam that were classified as advisers. Their objective
was to help train the Vietnamese and to develop their capabilities to defend
themselves against the pressure from the North. When I came back, I had
several people with me from, as I recall, the CIA--and in a sense we could
break down to three groups. There was one group that thought the Vietnamese
were still too green; there was another group that thought that the advisers
had been successful in training the South Vietnamese to take care of themselves
and therefore we could begin to withdraw. There was another group that
thought the advisers had not been successful in training the South Vietnamese
to take care of themselves, but they had been there long enough so that
if they hadn't been successful up until that time they weren't going to
be successful in the future, and therefore they should be withdrawn. Then
there was a third [fourth] group who believed that the advisers hadn't
succeeded in training the South Vietnamese to take care of themselves,
but could succeed if they were left there long enough. I said three, but
there were four groups. And this was debated in front of Kennedy and Kennedy
finally decided that yes, we should begin to withdraw and we would withdraw
a thousand by the end of that year. Then in order to make sure that decision
stuck, because there was so much controversy, we proposed and he accepted
that it should be announced. So it was announced. We did withdraw a thousand;
that occurred sometime in mid- to late October, 1963. However, between
then and the time he [Kennedy] died, Diem was killed, and that changed
the dynamics in South Vietnam. Now I'm not going to suggest to you what
I think Kennedy would have done had he lived; all I want to say is that
he didn't live after we decided to withdraw the thousand and Diem was killed,
and Johnson inherited that. It was mess; it was a hell of a mess. And whatever
he did or we did or whatever he didn't do or we didn't do. . . .
D: Some people make
so much of this shift in that national security action memorandum.
M: I just want to
stress that that was what he inherited, and God knows [inaudible] after
that, no question about that.
D: Well, [inaudible]
found this book by Leslie Gelb, The Irony of Vietnam [inaudible]. Do you
remember that book? 1979. [Inaudible] Lucien [?], there are guilty parties
and they could point the finger; that's foolish. My view of the thing is,
I can't understand how we would not have gone [inaudible] on the escalation
is highly understandable. The tremendous recrimination that we've had over
that--I think one could make a case for the idea that maybe Kennedy would
have been more flexible about how he proceeded and left himself a side
door to escape from; I think that might have been, because I think Kennedy
had a degree of confidence in foreign affairs that Johnson didn't. He was
a different man, had a different background with a different perspective.
My sense of this thing is--well, perhaps I shouldn't say this, but my tentative
way of thinking is that you will come off pretty well in my book because
I think you had the wisdom to see the need to get out when the getting
M: I'm not going
to comment even to you on this, but do I want to digress a moment and tell
you what I'm thinking about doing. I don't think it will affect your book
at all, but you should know about it. I'm not going to comment on Vietnam,
but I have in recent months for a variety of reasons been pushed very hard
to write my memoirs [?] because of Vietnam and I'm--after twenty-five years
of absolute silence, public and private, on the subject--thinking about
doing it, and I don't feel confident of this yet, but I'm thinking about
doing it in collaboration with one of your former students, Brian VanDeMark.
D: You couldn't choose
a better fellow.
M: I'm glad to hear
that. I tell you, he is--whatever competence he has as a autobiographer
and I don't know exactly what that is, but I can tell you one thing, he
is a very honest individual with the highest possible integrity, and I
have absolutely no desire to write other than an honest statement of what
D: Are you thinking
about writing strictly about Vietnam?
M: No, no. The reason
I'm not thinking about writing strictly about Vietnam is that I don't think
that they would understand in the least my behavior in respect to Vietnam
without understanding where I came from. And therefore I don't want to
write an autobiography; therefore I've got a biographer. I have to talk
about being at Harvard [?], about education at Berkeley, which was a very
definitive period of my life, a very informative period in my life. And
there is absolutely no question in my mind that it affected my subsequent
behavior in life, so I have to do those things. I haven't yet decided to
do this, but if I do it-- I'm sure it will come out after your next volume
is out--if I do it I will express the views, some of which I [inaudible]
what happened, and why we did what we did. But there is no question that
we failed; you have to start with that. That's not the issue, the issue
is why did we do what we did, what might we have done differently and in
the sense to say we failed, what might have happened if we had done something
D: I would say to
you as a historian, please never forget to keep it in the historical context.
There is so much water under that bridge so that if you are writing about
this in 1994 or 1993 with all that baggage and debate, and discussion and
recrimination--I get this from students all the time about the use of the
atomic bomb. I say, "You have to see the context of bombing in World War
II, and you have to look at the fire bombing of Dresden and the fire bombing
M: I was one of the
men who did that. And you have to look at what people were thinking might
happen if you didn't [inaudible].
D: The invasion that
might have cost a half a million lives.
M: No question about
it. You're absolutely right, and that's what I would try to do, is put
it in historical context.
D: That's were Brian
can be of some help.
M: However, I don't
have any diaries; I don't have time to do the research myself, and so on.
But he can. But what I would do as I do it is this: a) I would put it in
historical context, and b) I would want to draw some judgements or lessons
from it that in a sense are applicable today. One of them is--I'll just
mention this in passing, that relates to today--after spending my life
solving problems and believing that problems have solutions, I have come
to the conclusion that some problems may not have solutions, or no immediate
solutions. Now this relates to Bosnia, for example, and it has something
to do with Vietnam. In any event, I just wanted you to be aware. If I do
it, it won't be published until 1996 at the earliest.
D: We might be close,
because I think it's going to take another three years at least to do the
additional research and writing on my second volume.
M: You'll have to
dig into Vietnam then.
D: I'm doing it.
I could talk to you about the details of it, because I've been working
my way through that record. And in a sense the fact that you don't talk
about it, I understand, and I'm going to get it from the record and make
M: I'm not talking
about it to hide something; that's not at all my point--
D: I appreciate that.
M: I'm not talking
about it for several different reasons but one reason, to be absolutely
frank with you, is that I fear if I talked about it, it might be interpreted
as self-serving, and whatever else I've done I've never been self-serving
on Vietnam, and I'm not going to do so now. I don't want to expose myself
to that charge, so that's one reason.