Robert McNamara’s “insider account of Vietnam policy-making,” as the book jacket calls it, raises three issues. One is the way in which vital decisions were made, the reasons why the men who made them were “wrong, terribly wrong,” and the lessons we should draw from these catastrophic errors. The second is why a tormented, earnest secretary of defense did not resign in protest against a policy whose dreadful effects he had gradually comprehended. The third is why it took him so long to unburden his conscience and to tell the story. The public storm that followed the publication of the book was caused almost exclusively by the second and third questions—one of which (the last) he never addresses in print, and one of which he discusses in less than a page. These are two very important issues, to which I will return. But it is the first that is the subject of this memoir, and even those who have taken McNamara to task for his stand on resignation and his long silence ought to recognize that, however late, he has performed a very great service to his country in writing this devastating, candid, and searching report.
Of course, it has its limits. On the one hand, McNamara’s cult of objectivity—which used to take the form of a fondness for mathematical certainties and quantitative indices whose shortcomings he now recognizes—his reluctance to splash his feelings on the pages (a kind of pudeur that conceals, I think, a genuine fund of emotions and feelings) may put off some readers who expected something more personal. (I, for one, will not blame him for this.) On the other hand, much of what he tells us had been revealed by the Pentagon papers, whose collection he ordered before leaving his post, and most of his conclusions had already been reached by the man whom he had put in charge of the Pentagon papers, Leslie Gelb, in a famous article that he later turned into a book with the help of Anthony Lake.