Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



The recent death of Robert McNamara, secretary of defense to presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, produced numerous editorial comments that cited his later view that the Vietnam War had been a tragic mistake.

McNamara related in several books and interviews that he realized early on that the Vietnam war was not winnable and that he continued as defense secretary out of loyalty to the Kennedy-Johnson administrations. It is noteworthy that Cyrus Vance, McNamara's deputy secretary from 1964 to 1967, resigned when it was clear to him that the cost of the war would be far higher than anticipated.

I served on McNamara's Southeast Asia staff from 1965 to l968, a period that spanned the president's decision in July 1965 to send 200,000 combat troops to Vietnam and his reluctant decision in 1968 to de-escalate the war and open negotiations with North Vietnam. Johnson also decided that year not to seek reelection.

McNamara, a hard-driving, supremely self-confident manager of the Pentagon's vast military establishment, told President Johnson in 1965 that a major troop commitment and increased bombing of North Vietnam would reassure U.S. Asian allies of America's steadfastness and persuade Hanoi to negotiate a favorable political settlement with South Vietnam.

But by Christmas 1965, it was apparent that McNamara's assumption, that a large show of force would result in negotiations, was wrong. He then began to question whether additional troops and bombing would change the outcome of what had become an escalating conflict. By 1967, the military's joint chiefs and the commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, convinced the president that additional troops and more bombing of North Vietnam would bring victory.

For those of us who admired McNamara's effectiveness in bringing management skills and cost controls to the defense department, it was sad to watch him struggle over a rising death toll in Vietnam while the White House insisted that the war must be won. His vision in 1965 of a limited war had by 1968 become a commitment of nearly 500,000 troops, and greatly increased bombing of North Vietnam.

In the spring of 2003, another hard driving, extremely self-confident secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, faced a similar dilemma in Iraq. He told President Bush that the war in Iraq would be short and that most U.S. troops could be withdrawn by the fall. But within two months of the invasion and ousting of Saddam Hussein's regime, Rumsfeld was stunned by the armed insurgency that erupted around the country.

Unlike McNamara's efforts to slow down President Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld was not under pressure from the White House to send more troops to Iraq, nor did he recommend it. Instead, he predicted a "long hard slog" to contain the insurgency and train a new Iraqi army to take on that task.

Rumsfeld and McNamara both came to appreciate that large casualties would turn the public and Congress against war. By maintaining troop levels at roughly 150,000, far lower than the Vietnam commitment, Rumsfeld was able to keep the death toll smaller. In 2007, as the anti-insurgency campaign seemed stalemated, President Bush authorized a limited surge in U.S. troops to pacify Baghdad and other cities, and this enabled President Obama to begin withdrawing combat forces in 2009.

Rumsfeld reportedly is writing a book giving his view of decision making on the Iraq War. It is highly unlikely that this pugnacious warrior will emulate McNamara by calling that war a mistake. He may, however, be more fortunate than McNamara was in Vietnam, as the outcome in Iraq will not end in disaster, as some predicted.

Both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara leave a legacy of having presided over controversial interventions in Asia which failed to bring the early success they had predicted. And in each case, these brilliant men stayed in their jobs long after it was obvious that their assumptions had been wrong.

Robert Gates, the current defense secretary, seems determined not to make a similar mistake in Afghanistan. He told the press recently that "After the Iraq experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent that we are making headway." He said the Obama administration wants to see visible progress within one year. {Financial Times, July 20}

A crucial lesson one may draw from America's experience in four costly wars since 1945--in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan--is this: the public will not support long, costly wars abroad unless our close allies are directly threatened.

This is not isolationism. But it does suggest a more prudent approach to foreign policy, where it is not assumed that America has vital interests everywhere, and that U.S. forces must be prepared to defend them.

File last modified on Saturday, 1-AUG-2009 9:36 PM EST

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