The Theme and Structure of the Book
Most men look at things as they are and wonder why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?
George Bernard Shaw
From In Retrospect to Argument Without End
The Vietnam War, with which I was personally involved for more than seven years as U.S. secretary of defense (1961-1968), was among the bloodiest in all of human history. It is estimated that something on the order of 3.8 million Vietnamese (North and South, military and civilian) were killed. The United States lost 58,000. Had the United States lost in proportion to its population the same percentage as Vietnam, 27 million Americans would have died. Many times these numbers were wounded. During the course of the war, in addition, North and South Vietnam were nearly destroyed as functioning societies, and America was torn asunder by issues related to the war. Ironically, each principal combatant achieved its objectives: The Hanoi government reunified Vietnam under its leadership; and to the United States, the "dominoes" did not fall, as communism and Soviet and Chinese hegemony did not spread across Southeast Asia.
The thesis of this book is that the war was a tragedy for both sides. Both Washington and Hanoi could have accomplished their purposes without the appalling loss of life. There were missed opportunities, either for avoiding the war before it started or for terminating it before it had run its course. I speculatedalong these lines in my memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. But lacking access to former officials and documents from the Hanoi government, I could not pursue the matter further at that time.
Since then, however, this thesis has been buttressed by an analysis of formerly unavailable, newly translated Vietnamese and Chinese documents, as well as the six sets of discussions in Hanoi over more than two years between Vietnamese and U.S. scholars and former officials. For the first time, I believe, an understanding has begun to emerge regarding which of the decisions on each side were made on the basis of an accurate understanding of the motives and capabilities of the adversaries, and which were made on the basis of misperceptions, miscalculations, and misjudgments. On the basis of what our analysis adds to the historical record, we propose lessons that should be drawn for advancing peace among nations in the twenty-first century.
The Twenty-First Century: A Bloody Repetition of the Twentieth?
My earliest memory as a child is of a city exploding with joy. The city: San Francisco. The date: November 11, 1918Armistice Day. I was two years old. The city was celebrating not only the end of World War I but also the belief, held so strongly by President Wilsonand many other Americansthat the United States and its allies had won a war to end all wars.
They were wrong, of course. The twentieth century was on its way to becoming the bloodiest, by far, in all of human history. During the century soon to end, 160 million people will have been killed in conflictswithin nations and between nationsacross the globe. If we wish to avoid a repetition in the next century of the tragedy of the twentieth, the time to start is now.
As a first step, we should begin by establishing a realistic appraisal of the problem. It is readily apparent, very complex, and very dangerous. A recent report, titled "Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict," chaired by David A. Hamburg and Cyrus R. Vance, stated it very clearly:
Peacewill require greater understanding and respect for differences within and across national boundaries. We humans do not have the luxury any longer of indulging our prejudices and ethnocentrism. They are anachronisms of our ancient past. The worldwide historical record is full of hateful and destructive behavior based on religious, racial, political, ideological, and other distinctionsholy wars of one sort or another. Will such behavior in the next century be expressed with weapons of mass destruction? If we cannot learn to accommodate each other respectfully in the twenty-first century, we could destroy each other at such a rate that humanity will have little to cherish.
The Carnegie Commission is saying, in effect, that the end of the Cold War in 1989 did not, and will not, in and of itself result in an end to conflict. We see the truth of this statement on all sidesin the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the turmoil in northern Iraq, the tension between India and Pakistan, the unstable relations between North and South Korea, and the conflicts across the face of sub-Saharan Africa in Angola, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. These all make clear that the world of the future will not be without conflict. Racial, religious, and ethnic tensions will remain. Nationalism will be a powerful force across the globe. Political revolutions will erupt as societies advance. Historic disputes over political boundaries will endure. And economic disparities among and within nations will increase as technology and education spread unevenly around the world. The underlying causes of Third World conflict that existed long before the Cold War began remain now that it has ended. They will be compounded by potential strife among states of the former Soviet Union and by continuing tensions in the Middle East. During the past fifty years, these very tensions have contributed to 125 wars causing 40 million deaths. So, in these respects, the world of the future will not be different from the world of the past: Conflicts within nations and conflicts among nations will not disappear.
In such a world many political theorists, in particular those classified as "realists," predict a return to traditional power politics. They argue that the disappearance of ideological competition between East and West will trigger a reversion to traditional relationships based on territorial and economic imperatives. They say that the United States, Russia, Western Europe, China, Japan, and perhaps India will seek to assert themselves in their own regions while also competing for dominance in other areas of the world where conditions are fluid. This view has been expressed, for example, by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel, who has written: "The end of the Cold War does not mean an end of global competition between the superpowers. Once the ideological dimension fades, what you are left with is not peace and harmony, but old-fashioned global politics based on dominant powers competing for influence and pursuing their internal interests." In contrast to Sandel, Carl Kaysen, former director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, states: "The international system that relies on the national use of military force as the ultimate guarantor of security, and the threat of its use as the basis of order, is not the only possible one. To seek a different system ... is no longer the pursuit of an illusion, but a necessary effort toward a necessary goal."
Sandel's conception of relations among nations in the post-Cold War world may be historically well-founded. But I would argue that it is inconsistent with our increasingly interdependent world. No nation, not even the United States, can stand alone in a world in which nations are inextricably entwined with one another economically, environmentally, and with regard to security. I believe, therefore, that the United Nations charter offers a far more appropriate framework for international relations in the future than does the doctrine of power politics.
I would also argue that Sandel's emphasis on balance-of-power politics in the twenty-first century assumes we will be willing to continue to accept a foreign policy that lacks a strong moral foundation. I am aware that the majority of political scientists, particularly those of the realist school, believe moralityas contrasted with a careful calculation of national interests based on balance-of-power considerationsis a dangerous guide for establishing foreign policy. They would say that a foreign policy driven by moral considerations promotes zealousness and a crusading spirit, with potentially dangerous results. But the United States has defined itself in highly idealistic and moral terms throughout its history. A leading contemporary figure in the discussion of the role of morality in foreign policy is Joseph Nye, who served in both the Carter and first Clinton administrations. Currently the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he writes: "Americans are a moralistic people, and their concern carries over into foreign policy.... Given the nature of the American political culture, there will always be a demand for moral expression in foreign policy. To ignore it in one period is likely to lay the grounds for exaggerating it in the next."
But simply including morality as a variable is not a solution. Many of the most controversial foreign policy debates in the United States have found both sides basing their arguments on moral considerations. U.S. policy toward Cuba today is justified on moral grounds by supporters saying it is immoral to support dictators who abuse human rights. And it is attacked, on moral grounds, by critics saying it leads to suffering by the mass of the Cuban people. Similarly, a U.S. policy toward China that placed primary emphasis on support of individual civil rights might well weaken the Chinese government's ability to increase the population's access to advances in nutrition, education, and health.
Moreover, moral considerations do not offer a clear guide to action in many other foreign policy disputes, for example, the conflicts today in the Middle East and Bosnia. Peoples of different religions and cultures, confronting common problems, often arrive at different moral judgments relating to conflicts between individual and group rights, between group rights and national rights, and between the rights of individual nations. And even where the moral objective may be clearas in Rwanda or Burundi, where there was near universal agreement that the killing should stopwe may lack the capability to achieve it. We are learning that external military force has limited power to restore a failed state.
But surely, in the most basic sense, one can apply a moral judgment to the level of killing that has occurred in the twentieth century. There is no justification for it today, and there can be no justification for its continuation into the twenty-first century!
So, can we not agree that there is one area of foreign policy in which moral principles should prevail yet have not? And that is in relation to the settlement of disputes within nations and among nations without resort to violence. To move in this direction, should not the nations of the worldthe United States in particularestablish as their overarching foreign policy goal the reduction of fatalities from conflict within and among nations?
Learning from History: Missed Opportunities and Lessons
As I have said, wars between great and lesser powers, and conflicts within nations, are certain to occur, but can we not reduce their frequency and severity by learning from historyby identifying missed opportunities, drawing lessons, and applying the lessons to the future? Although I believe the answer is that we can, such a proposition remains highly controversial among historians.
Many would argue that nonrecurring, broad historical forces determine the course of relations among nations, including wars. They would say that the U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia during the 1960sthe Vietnam Warwas the result of such pressures. In effect, they say history is predetermined, that missed opportunities do not really occur and therefore history has few if any lessons to teach succeeding generations: Historical events are determined by forces larger than individual people making individual choices.
I believe such a view is contradicted by common sense and by everyday experience. We all make choices. We observe the results. If we are conscientious, we examine our experience for clues as to opportunities we may have missed, and we look for ways to make fewer mistakes in the future. Do we not believe that our lives are the sum of the choices we make? And is this not our principal means of assuming our share of responsibility for our own conductand for the welfare of those who come after us? I believe it is.
Many scholars share my view. For example, the distinguished Stanford diplomatic historian Gordon A. Craig notes the prevalence of this tendency in his fellow historians, then tells us what is wrong with their approach:
In our historical explanations we are biased in favor of great impersonal forces and long-term trends and dominant political and cultural developments, and are uneasy with the contingent, the unexpected, and the accidental.... The trouble with this kind of explanation is that it tends to be deterministic and to give the impression that what happened had to happen and that there were no alternatives.
Craig, a specialist on modern Germany, is thus keenly aware of the many unlikely circumstances, especially the many rooted in misunderstanding and misjudgment that in combination made possible Hitler's rise to power.
British historian H. R. Trevor-Roper is even more forceful on this point. He criticizes his fellow historians for "keeping the corpse [of history] unburied and refrigerated, on a cold mortuary slab, for anatomical demonstration." Instead of becoming caretakers of a living history, a history in which events are seen as the "result of particular ... decisions or events that in themselves were not necessary," many historians become, in effect, the undertakers of that history.
Historians who think in this way are concerned about what they call "counterfactual" history. They fear that instead of writing the history of what actually happened, historians, memoirists, and others may simply engage in speculation about "what if" or "what might have been" without paying due attention to the historical record of what actually occurred.
This relates directly to our attempt in this book to identify missed opportunities and draw lessons from them. The historians fear, in other words, that efforts like ours will become mired in what they believe the record shows are impossible or low-probability outcomeslike avoiding a U.S. war in Vietnam or ending it much earlier than was the case. They would say, for example, that any outcome that did not occur should not be taken seriously, because the "outcome" seems possible only in retrospect.
I want to be absolutely clear that my primary concern is with raising the probabilities of preventing conflict in the future. The missed opportunities we examine are, we argue, due primarily to mutual misperception, misunderstanding, and misjudgment by leaders in Washington and Hanoi. We therefore ask: If each side had known the truth about the other's reality, might the outcome have been less tragic? This permits us to focus on the lack of knowledge, on what prevented each side from acquiring such knowledge, and thus to draw lessons about how to prevent ignorance from producing such tragedies in the future.
I believe, thereforeand my coauthors of this book agree with methat history is not immune from human initiative. I agree with Columbia University political scientist Robert Legvold, who argues as follows:
History is neither determined, nor a set of dramatic turning points, but rather should be understood as the accumulation of marginal human choices made by real leaders, in real time, operating under real-world constraints. Or to put it another way, in every situation there are not only broad historical forces at work, there are also highly specific aspects which one could imagine having been very different at the time. Moreover, if in the light of the historical record the difference had occurred, a different outcome might have been made more probable.
Does it matter whether one believes that human decisions make a difference? I believe it does, for two reasons: first, because such a view encourages us to search for missed opportunities that (had they been grasped) would have led to a better result; and second, because the analysis of missed opportunities often points to lessons aimed at preventing missed opportunities in the future.
Of course, outside pressures exist that limit actions. And I know from personal experience in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that these pressures can be excruciating. Time is short. Information is sparse or inconsistent. And the stakes are high, as is often the case in matters of foreign policy, because the nation's vital interests seem threatened. These pressures are often difficult to overcome.
On Vietnam, this has led some historians to leap to a conclusion I find unacceptable: Individual initiative and choice were of little consequence in determining the course of the war. For example, the distinguished Harvard historian Ernest May has written that "given the assumptions generally shared by Americans in the 1960s, it seems probable that any collection of men or women would have decided as did members of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations." In other words, leaders from these two administrations, myself included, are said to have been pushed along, like leaves before the wind, by forces no one could have resisted. More recently, when commenting on In Retrospect, professor May, though he praised the book, characterized it as "a little like a memoir by a Crusader who cannot remember why he particularly cared about the fate of Jerusalem." He felt I had been too critical of myself and my colleagues, too intent on identifying missed opportunities to have avoided the war or ended it earlier, with less tragic results. I was, therefore, in his view, insufficiently appreciative of the forces that led us to our failed policies.
Butand this is a fundamental pointleaders are supposed to lead, to resist pressures or "forces" of this sort, to understand more fully than others the range of options and implications of choosing such options. This is what Pres. Franklin Roosevelt did when he convinced the American people that the United States should help its allies fight the Nazis. I believe this is what President Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis when he resisted heavy pressurepublic and privateto attack the Soviet missile sites in Cuba. And I believe this is what President Johnson and his associates, including myself, should have done to resist the pressurefrom the public, the media, academicians, and the Congresstoward a military solution to the problem of Vietnam.
The Method: Critical Oral History
But on what basis, and through the application of what principles, can we learn from history to avoid the mistakes of the past? The method of retrospective review of conflict by opponentswhat the scholars call "critical oral history"was created specifically to address these questions. It was developed first at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, in the context of a project on the Cuban missile crisis. That project moved to Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies in 1990. The Watson Institute has subsequently been responsible for organizing other projects on the recent history of U.S. foreign policy. These have included reexaminations of the Bay of Pigs and the collapse of U.S.-Soviet détente during the 1970s. Since late 1995 it has acted as principal organizer of "Missed Opportunities," the joint U.S.-Vietnamese project on the Vietnam War, the data from which provide the basis of this book.
The approach requires the simultaneous interaction of documents bearing on the paper trail of decisions for issues and events under reexamination; memories of those who participated in the decisions; and scholars, whose business it is to know the relevant aspects of the written record.
As formerly secret documents become available, we begin to understand more clearly than before the way events unfolded. Yet documents have a weakness of their own: They do not supply their own context. To a large extent, then, the memories of the participants help to supply missing context to the documents, and in turn the documents supply many of the facts that human memories distort or forget. In concert, several people's memories may test and correct each individual's memory, so that errors in recollection or egregious distortions can be reducedall the more so if the parties to a discussion are known to have divergent views of the event. (This is especially true, as one would expect, in the case of former adversaries, whose views of an event usually are not just discrepant but often contradictory.) Unlike conventional oral history, in which people merely tell their stories, critical oral history subjects these stories to multidimensional analysis and criticism. Thus, a particular storynot only a policymaker's recollection of his experience but also, perhaps, a scholar's favorite theorymust answer to three judges: the documentary record, the expertise of specialists in the field, and the recollections of those who lived through the event in positions of official responsibility.
The Cuban Missile Crisis Project and the Vietnam War Project
The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was the first event analyzed by the method of critical oral history. Five major conferences were held between 1987 and 1992. I participated in all five, including the final meeting, in Havana, Cuba, chaired by Cuban Pres. Fidel Castro. That project proved that the crisis was more dangerous than is generally recognized even todayand that its lessons have yet to be learned.
The crisis began when the Soviets moved nuclear missiles and bombers to Cubasecretly and with clear intent to deceivein the summer and early fall of 1962. The missiles were to be targeted against cities along America's East Coast, putting 90 million Americans at risk. Photographs taken by a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft on Sunday, October 14, 1962, brought the deployments to President Kennedy's attention. He and his security advisersmilitary and civilianbelieved that the Soviets' action posed a threat to the West. Kennedy therefore authorized a naval quarantine of Cuba to be effective Wednesday, October 24. Preparations also began for air strikes and an amphibious invasion. The contingency plans called for a "first-day" air attack of 1,080 sortiesa huge attack. An invasion force totaling 180,000 troops was assembled in southeastern U.S. ports. The crisis came to a head on Saturday, October 27, and Sunday, October 28. Had Soviet leader Khrushchev not publicly announced on that Sunday that he was removing the missiles, I believe that on Monday a majority of Kennedy's military and civilian advisers would have recommended launching the attacks.
By the conclusion of the third Cuban missile crisis conference, in Moscow in 1989, it had become clear that the decisions of each of the three nations before, during, and after the crisis had been distorted by misinformation, miscalculation, and misjudgment. At the time, some of usparticularly President Kennedy and Ibelieved that the United States faced great danger. The Moscow meeting confirmed that judgment. But during the Havana conference we learned that we had seriously underestimated those dangers. While in Havana, we were told by the former Warsaw Pact chief of staff, Gen. Anatoly Gribkov, that in 1962 the Soviet forces in Cuba possessed not only nuclear warheads for their intermediate-range missiles targeted on U.S. cities but also nuclear bombs and tactical warheads. The tactical warheads were to be used against U.S. invasion forces. At the time, as I mentioned, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was reporting no warheads on the island.
In November 1992thirty years after the eventwe learned more. An article appeared in the Russian press stating that at the height of the missile crisis Soviet forces on Cuba possessed a total of 162 nuclear warheads, including at least ninety tactical warheads. Moreover, it was reported that on October 26, 1962a moment of great tensionwarheads were moved from their storage sites to positions closer to their delivery vehicles in anticipation of a U.S. invasion. The next day, Soviet Defense Minister Rodión Malinovsky received a cable from Gen. Issa Pliyev, the Soviet commander in Cuba, informing him of this action. Malinovsky sent it to Khrushchev. Khrushchev returned it to Malinovsky with "Approved" scrawled across the document. Clearly, there was a high risk that in the face of a U.S. attackwhich, as I have said, many in the U.S. government, military and civilian alike, were prepared to recommend to President Kennedythe Soviet forces in Cuba would have decided to use their nuclear weapons rather than lose them.
We need not speculate about what would have happened in that event. We can predict the results with certainty.
Although a U.S. invasion force would not have been equipped with tactical nuclear warheadsPresident Kennedy and I had specifically prohibited thatno one should believe that had American troops been attacked with nuclear weapons the U.S. would have refrained from a nuclear response. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.
What lesson should we draw from these stunning datadata suggesting that our brush with nuclear catastrophe in October 1962 was extraordinarily close? The lesson was clear to me from that moment in Havana when we first began to learn, from General Gribkov, about Soviet preparations for nuclear war in the event of a U.S. invasion. Near the conclusion of that session, I asked Fidel Castro two questions:
(a) Were you aware of itthe Soviet deployment of tactical nuclear warheads, and plans for their use; and
(b) What was your interpretation or expectation of the possible effect on Cuba? How did you think the U.S. would respond, and what might the implications have been for your nation and the world?
Castro's answer sent a chill down my spine. He replied:
Now, we started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt. We were certain of that ... we would be forced to pay the price, that we would disappear.... Would I have been ready to use nuclear weapons? Yes, I would have agreed to the use of nuclear weapons. ... I would have agreed, in the event of the invasion you are talking about, with the use of tactical nuclear weapons.... If Mr. McNamara or Mr. Kennedy had been in our place, and had their country been invaded, or their country was going to be occupied ... I believe they would have used tactical nuclear weapons.
I hope that President Kennedy and I would not have behaved as Castro suggested we would have. His decision would have destroyed his country. Had we responded in a similar way, the damage to our own would have been disastrous.
But human beings are fallible. We know we all make mistakes. In our daily lives, mistakes are costly, but we try to learn from them. In conventional war mistakes cost lives, sometimes thousands of lives. But if mistakes were to affect decisions related to the use of nuclear forces, there would be no learning period. They would result in the destruction of nations. The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a very high risk of a potential nuclear catastrophe.
This lessonand I regard it as the most important substantive lesson by far deriving from the Cuban missile crisis projecthas also been endorsed by many distinguished civilian and military leaders around the world.
The Cuban missile crisis project also taught me what I will call a "methodological" lesson: Through extensive dialogue with one's former enemies it is possible to learn a good deal about decisionmaking on "the other side" in pivotal events involving U.S. foreign policy. We had gambled that going to Moscow in 1989, and to Havana in 1992, would yield knowledge about the missile crisis to an extent that would silence the many critics who warned that we would be dealing with communists, who were still our adversaries, if not our enemies; that our counterparts would not be forthcoming and that we would, in effect, be "duped." But the gamble paid off. We learned things in Moscow and Havana that were astonishing (and which subsequent investigations have substantially verified) and that point to important lessons.
Therefore, while I was writing In Retrospect, but before it was published, I began to wonder whether a process could be initiated with the Vietnamese from which might come some answers to questions I could pose only rhetorically in my memoir. Some of these questions were debated by me, and by the two presidents I served, throughout my involvement with the Vietnam War, questions such as: Would China intervene militarily, as it had in Korea, if the United States should attempt to invade North Vietnam and occupy the country; were any of our attempts to establish a cease-fire and move to negotiations between 1965 and 1968 taken seriously in Hanoi; if so, why did they fail? About all such questions, I wrote, "We may never know."
I began an attempt to initiate an inquiry to sound out Vietnamese interest in a project modeled on the missile crisis project by contacting Leslie Gelb in February 1995. Mr. Gelb is president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and had worked with me as general editor of the Pentagon Papers project nearly thirty years before. Mr. Gelb expressed interest, and made inquiries with Mr. Le Van Bang, who was then the Vietnamese representative to the United Nations (and who would later become, in July 1995, Vietnam's first postwar ambassador to the United States).
Le Van Bang thought the idea had merit, but he also said that the suggestion of a seminar setting in which former enemies exchanged views on issues of common interest would probably strike the traditionally secretive and hierarchical Vietnamese leadership as strange. He said, for example, it was hard for him to imagine the Vietnamese leadership handing over sensitive documents relating to the war, such as one finds in the Pentagon Papers. Nevertheless, he told Mr. Gelb that the idea would be taken seriously, in part because of my personal involvement, but also because the Vietnamese government, then on the verge of achieving full diplomatic relations with the United States, was conscious of the need to demonstrate to the U.S. public that it was willing to sit down with Americans and discuss our once bitterly fought war with calmness and credibility.
With that, Mr. Gelb agreed that the Council on Foreign Relations would sponsor an exploratory trip to Hanoi, with the caveat that I personally lead the group going to Hanoi.
I then contacted professor James Blight of Brown University's Watson Institute, who along with Joseph Nye had organized the missile crisis project. I asked him whether he would also act as principal organizer of a Vietnam War project. He said he would. One of professor Blight's first calls was to professor Robert Brigham, Vassar College historian of decisionmaking on the war in both Washington and Hanoi (and fluent in Vietnamese). Professor Brigham agreed to join the team, as did several others, and the project was launched.
Our group met throughout the summer and fall of 1995 in preparation for a November trip that had been approved by the Vietnamese government. I arrived in Hanoi on November 7 and met with Vietnamese officials and scholars the following day, November 8. On Saturday, November 9, I appeared at a press conference held at the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, announcing our agreement to work toward a conference on the war. I left Hanoi that evening, following a visit to the U.S. chief of mission in Hanoi, Desaix Anderson, who also endorsed the project.
Unknown to me, In Retrospect had been translated into Vietnamese, published in Vietnam months earlier in a pirated edition, and become a best-seller. The net effect of this was that all of the people with whom we discussed the project had read the book and spoke in an informed way about its contents. There was, in fact, resistance in some quarters in Hanoi to focusing on joint responsibility for missed opportunities. But it was clear that some Vietnamese officials and scholars also strongly supported the idea. So my colleagues and I returned to the United States cautiously optimistic that the success of the missile crisis project might be repeated.
The trip to Hanoi proved to be at least as controversial as my previous participation in the Havana conference. The considerable publicity generated by the trip backfired, leading to substantial criticism from the American press of the project and my participation in it. Regretfully, the Council on Foreign Relations withdrew from the project.
Fortunately, the Watson Institute believed the project had the potential to yield lessons from the past that could be applied in the future. Its director, professor Thomas Biersteker, gave his support to the project and has become a contributor to this book. From time to time, political pressure from the left and right was applied to professor Biersteker and to Brown University to drop the project. But they never wavered in their support; without it, the project would have been terminated.
Following an enormous amount of preparation, lasting two years and involving a half-dozen trips to Hanoi by professors Blight, Brigham, Biersteker, and their colleagues, a conference was convened in Hanoi, June 20-23, 1997. Its title reflected my original intended focus: "Missed Opportunities: Revisiting the Decisions of the Vietnam War." I led the U.S. delegation, which also included two former senior U.S. generals, one of whom had spent 500 days in the Vietnamese jungles, other former civilian officials involved with the war, and a team of outstanding U.S. scholars on the war. The Vietnamese delegation was led by Nguyen Co Thach, deputy foreign minister throughout the Vietnam War (later foreign minister, 1980-1989), and included an impressive array of former military and civilian leaders and scholars of the war.
Two things were clear from the outsetand throughout the Hanoi conference. First, the Vietnamese government had established limits to the candor of its participants. For example, though the Vietnamese entered enthusiastically into discussions of what they considered to be missed opportunities by the United States, nothing but stony silence followed our repeated attempts to draw them out and to admit that misperceptions, misunderstandings, and misjudgments had been mutual. This was not merely frustrating. The Vietnamese government's desire to control the conference nearly caused the conference to be canceled, just as it began, when the Vietnamese renegedor tried to renegeon their prior agreement to let the Cable News Network (CNN) film the meetings in preparation for a documentary. A compromise was eventually reached, whereby CNN filmed one entire day of proceedings and received exclusive interviews with Nguyen Co Thach and the second ranking Vietnamese participant, Tran Quang Co, following the conference.
Second, it was also clear from the outset that some of the Vietnamese participants were trying to circumvent the gag rule that had been imposed by their government. One could see this in discussions that took place during breaks, over lunches (which were taken together with the Vietnamese), and eventually in the sessions themselves. For example, Nguyen Co Thach, who seemed to be acting as the "policeman" in charge of limiting candor, increasingly was challenged by Vietnamese scholars who began their interventions by saying that they had been reviewing documents relevant to the issues in question and that they had a different perspective from Mr. Thach. These were then followed up by ever more explicit and revealing comments outside the conference room, some even beginning with open admissions of Hanoi's joint responsibility for missed opportunities. Finally, in one private conversation with me, Thach volunteered that he had come to accept that position. These admissions were given further credence by reference to details that had never before been revealed about Hanoi's decisionmaking.
Those Vietnamese participants who seemed most informed and open asked the U.S. organizers from Brown University to meet after the conclusion of the conference to plan a small follow-up meeting in Hanoi at which these issues could be discussed further. But there was a catch: I personally must be excluded from the participants in the proposed follow-up meeting. Jim Blight went to Hanoi just before Christmas 1997 to ask the Vietnamese organizers why they felt it was desirable that I stay away.
They answered as follows: Mr. Thach was very ill and would not be able to attend the follow-up meeting (he died in April 1998). To avoid "imbalance" in the delegations, it would be wise for McNamara to be absent.
Just as I had gambled in going to Havana in January 1992, this time I gambled that in staying away from the meeting our team would have a better chance of breaking new ground in understanding the missed opportunitiesand lessonsassociated with the war. And so, during February 23-26, 1998, our group and a Vietnamese team met in Hanoi to go over the ground covered in the June 1997 meeting and to extend the discussion beyond that point. I believeand my coauthors believethat this gamble has paid off handsomely.
Missed Opportunities in Vietnam
Were there not missed opportunities, for each side, to have achieved its geopolitical objectives without the terrible loss of life suffered in the warmissed opportunities either for avoiding the war before it started or for terminating it before it had run its course? In Hanoi, I suggested there were at least six, and I asked whether these truly were missed opportunities. If so, why weren't they grasped? I put the six in the form of questions for discussion, by both sides:
1. A Neutral Vietnam.
If, in 1961-1964, the United States had supported the concept of neutralization then under discussion between France and North Vietnam, would the result have been a viable, "neutral" Vietnam allied to neither East nor West?
2. The Survival of the Diem Regime in South Vietnam.
If the United States had given its full support in 1963 to Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, and if Diem had survived and remained leader of South Vietnam, would he have asked for, or permitted the introduction of, large numbers of U.S. combat troops?
3. The Possibility of a U.S. Military "Victory."
Was it ever feasible? Could it have been achieved without genocide or involving China, Russia, and the United States in a massive war?
4. A U.S. Withdrawal.
In September 1967 the director of the CIA, Richard Helms, presented to President Johnson a secret memorandum stating that the United States could probably have withdrawn from Vietnam at that time without a significant adverse effect on its geopolitical status and security around the world. Was this judgment correct? Might a U.S. withdrawal have resulted in a unified Vietnam but not in a communist takeover of the rest of the region?
5. The Failed Negotiations.
During the years I was secretary of defense, there were at least seven major attempts by the U.S. government, several formulated by me, to initiate negotiations with the Hanoi government. Why did all of these efforts at negotiations fail?
The discussions in Hanoi in June 1997 and February 1998 focused on
this agenda. Likewise, the organization of this book derives from it.
There were two significant exceptionsadditions, reallyplaced onto the agenda by the Vietnamese. Beginning with my first visit to Hanoi in November 1995, all our Vietnamese interlocutors, without exception, told us that two missed opportunities were absent from the U.S. agenda. Vice President Madame Nguyen Thi Binh concluded our discussion on November 8, 1995, by asking me: "Why, in 1945, did the United States spurn Chairman Ho Chi Minh's attempts to reach out to President Truman? And why, in 1954, did the United States become our enemy, taking the place of the French imperialists?"
The period before 1961before President Kennedy came to officealso came up several times in my conversation with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap during the same November 1995 visit to Hanoi. What began as a discussion about the escalation of the war during the 1960s was shifted by Giap back to the earlier period, especially 1954, the year President Eisenhower first articulated what became known as the "domino theory"that is, if South Vietnam fell to communism, all of Indochina would fall, "like a row of dominoes." Giap commented: "Dominoes, dominoes, dominoesthis theory was an illusion. Whatever happened in Vietnam had nothing to do with what happened in Laos, to say nothing of Indonesia.... I am amazed that even the brightest peoplepeople like yourselfcould have believed it." I assured him that we did believe it but that I took his point and now believed that the pre-1961 period needed to be on the agenda for our conference.
I felt that this emphasis by the Vietnamese, contrasted with my own initial preference to begin our analysis of events with the period following President Kennedy's inauguration, showed how differently some Americans and Vietnamese still viewed the events in question, with different starting points, and certainly with different views as to which missed opportunities were the most important.
Tran Quang Co, a former first deputy foreign minister, formulated a sixth category of possible missed opportunities as follows:
6. Misunderstandings, 1945-1960.
The first occurred in 1945-1946. If the Truman administration had adhered to the concept of self-determination; and had responded to the letter that Ho Chi Minh sent to President Truman in September 1945; and had prevented the French occupation of Vietnam; then an opportunity would have presented itself to achieve Vietnamese independence and unification, without the French and American wars.
The second missed opportunity took place in 1954, with the Geneva Accords. The Geneva Conference was intended to be an historic meeting that would put an end to war in Indochina and restore long-lasting peace to Vietnam. The Geneva Accords endorsed free elections, which, if they had occurred in 1956, would have provided a basis for the peaceful reunification of Vietnam. However, in 1954 the U.S. administration, fearing that free elections involving communists were unlikely, supported the installation of Ngo Dinh Diem as president of a new entity called "South Vietnam."
The basic question put to participants in the Hanoi meetingsand to readers of this bookis this: In the light of what now can be learned from the historical record, what U.S. and Vietnamese decisions might have been different and what difference would they have made in the course of the warif each side had judged the other side's intentions and capabilities more accurately?
Would not a discussion of these missed opportunities, of the U.S. and Vietnamese mindsets that lead to them, and of the lessons to be drawn from such an analysis help avoid similar conflicts in the twenty-first century? That was my hope as I boarded the plane for Hanoi, and that remains my hope now.