In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam


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#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER. The definitive insider's account of American policy making in Vietnam.

"Can anyone remember a public official with the courage to confess error and explain where he and his country went wrong? This is what Robert McNamara does in this brave, honest, honorable, and altogether compelling book."—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Written twenty years after the end of the Vietnam War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's controversial memoir answers the lingering questions that surround this disastrous episode in American history.

With unprecedented candor and drawing on a wealth of newly declassified documents, McNamara reveals the fatal misassumptions behind our involvement in Vietnam. Keenly observed and dramatically written, In Retrospect possesses the urgency and poignancy that mark the very best histories—and the unsparing candor that is the trademark of the greatest personal memoirs.
Includes a preface written by McNamara for the paperback edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679767497
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/1996
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 377,215
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Robert S. McNamara was secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, president of the Ford Motor Company, and president of the World Bank. After leaving the World Bank he was active in economic development efforts across the globe and in the arms control and non-proliferation movements. He died in 2009.

Read an Excerpt

from the Preface

This is the book I planned never to write.
Although pressed repeatedly for over a quarter of a century to add my views on Vietnam to the public record, I hesitated for fear that I might appear self-serving, defensive, or vindictive, which I wished to avoid at all costs. Perhaps I hesitated also because it is hard to face one's mistakes. But something changed my attitude and willingness to speak. I am responding not to a desire to get out my personal story but rather to a wish to put before the American people why their government and its leaders behaved as they did and what we may learn from that experience.
My associates in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were an exceptional group: young, vigorous, intelligent, well-meaning, patriotic servants of the United States. How did this group—"the best and the brightest," as we eventually came to be known in an ironically pejorative phrase—get it wrong on Vietnam? That story has not yet been told.
But why now? Why after all these years of silence am I convinced I should speak? There are many reasons; the main one is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.
Many factors helped lead to this: Vietnam, Watergate, scandals, corruption. But I do not believe, on balance, that America's political leaders have been incompetent or insensitive to their responsibilities and to the welfare of the people who elected them and to whom they are accountable. Nor do I believe they have been any worse than their foreign counterparts or their colleagues in the private sector. Certainly they have shown themselves to be far from perfect, but people are far from perfect. They have made mistakes, but mostly honest mistakes.
This underscores my own painful quandary about discussing Vietnam. I know that, to this day, many political leaders and scholars in the United States and abroad argue that the Vietnam War actually helped contain the spread of Communism in South and East Asia. Some argue that it hastened the end of the Cold War. But I also know that the war caused terrible damage to America. No doubt exists in my mind about that. None. I want to look at Vietnam in hindsight, not in any way to obscure my own and others' errors of judgment and their egregious costs but to show the full range of pressures and the lack of knowledge that existed at the time.
I want to put Vietnam in context.
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. I say this warily, since I know that if my comments appear to justify or rationalize what I and others did, they will lack credibility and only increase people's cynicism. It is cynicism that makes Americans reluctant to support their leaders in the actions necessary to confront and solve our problems at home and abroad.

I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did, and to learn from them. I hope to say, "Here is something we can take away from Vietnam that is constructive and applicable to the world of today and tomorrow." That is the only way our nation can ever hope to leave the past behind. The ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote, "The reward of suffering is experience." Let this be the lasting legacy of Vietnam.

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In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a studying biomedical engineering and when I started this book I had been looking for a good political book that would educate me in something other than science. I remember having heard of this book while in my AP American History class in high school. The truth is that even though we all know how the Vietnam War ended, reading McNamara's portrayal of how it escalated was just captivating. I felt as if I was in the oval office with LBJ and his advisors listening in on their top secret meetings. I stayed up late many nights just reading it. I truly admire McNamara's candor and how he whole-heartedly acknowledges the mistakes that he and his fellow politicians made during the Vietnam War. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A candid view of the Vietnam War from the vantage point of Robert McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. McNamara,along with others, were dubbed 'the best and the brightest', but failed miserably in their estimate of the situation in Vietnam and in the execution of the war. McNamara exposes the mistakes that were made. He concluded that 3 critical elements required for success were lacking within Vietnam: a stable economy, a stable government,and support of the war effort by the Vietnamese people. He finally realized the war effort was futile and departed the Johnson administration. Much may be learned from McNamara's personal observations and evaluation of the political and military aspects of the war. Hopefully, the 'lessons learned' from his experience may assist members of government from duplicating similar errors in the future. This book is well worth reading and lends credence to the cliche 'hindsight is always 20/20'!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is integral to understanding our nation, Vietnam and the politics which transpired and/or never considered from both sides of the war. It is a must read for any understanding of that era and conflict.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Here we have it from someone who was at the very center of the action, who is reflective and at times profound, and who can write. Often that's a formula for defensive apologias, but McNamara does historians -- and today's citizens -- a great service by recalling how good, smart people can come up with the very worst policies -- especially when they fall prey to false and unexamined premises. Every American should read this book -- especially today's policymakers.
carterchristian1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An essential resource for history of the U.S. participation in the Vietnam war. McNamara gives candid assessments of Johnson and other American participants. Frequently he lays out a situation then makes a clear statement if he thought at the time or later if the action taken was correct or a mistake. What comes up time and again is the wish to understand U.S. goals. The language is much that of the participants in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Angelic55blonde on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a great memoir by an influential man who was uniquely involved in the whole Vietnam issue. He writes with candor and reflection. Even though this is a memoir you don't get the sense that he is trying to gloss over the "bad" parts or minimize his mistakes. He freely says "this was a huge mistake on my part" (or on Kennedy's part). He gives thorough explanations of why certain decisions were made and what he wish he would have done. I highly recommend this for not only the people interested in Robert S. McNamara or this time period but for everyone in general since we need to learn our mistakes as a nation that way we do not repeat them (look at Iraq right now).There is also a documentary, which is a 2 hour interview with Robert S. McNamara that I believe is called "in retrospect" and it focuses on Robert S. McNamara's lessons he learned in Vietnam. I may have the title of the movie wrong but I highly recommend you pick up that movie after you read this book.
cwhouston on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If only more key decision makers on the world stage would make similar literary undertakings. This is RS McNamara's account of his early career and subsequent term as Secretary of Defence under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, focussing on the Vietnam war.There is not much in way of new material or revelations, but it does provide the reader with an insight that cannot be gained by reading other books covering the same area. The main text is followed by extensive appendices covering other interesting material such as McNemara's role as head of the world bank and he has some interesting suggestions about ensuring nuclear non-proliferation. Personally, I would liked to have read more details about McNamara's relationships with other officials.McNamara's writing style is easy to follow and I'd suggest that this is one of the most digestible accounts of the how the US administration handled the conflict.
JustMe869 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
You almost, but not quite, feel sorry for McNamara as he whines about how the Vietnam War wasn't his fault.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
A wonderful and introspective journey from one of our most arrogant officials in recent history. McNamara edges toward a fully vilification of his own policies and he decides to be candid. The constant micromanaging, which even he admits to instead of micromanaging, of his tenure in the State Department did not help as he relates. He also weighs in that the tenuous relationship of the Soviet Union and China was not examined nor was the fighting ability of the North.