Yesterday, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara died at the age of 93. In his time, he served in the administrations of both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. He is remembered chiefly for the role in played in crafting American policy during the Vietnam War.
In his memoirs, published in 1995, Secretary McNamara revealed that he became convinced the United States could not prevail in the Vietnam War relatively early in the conflict, but despite this he remained at his post and continued to supervise the war until he left the Johnson administration in late 1967. 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War was an unmitigated disaster for the United States. Over half a million American troops were committed to the conflict, which was undertaken to prevent Communism from spreading into South Vietnam, The fear was that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow and that this would be disastrous to the interests of the United States. Despite the efforts of the American military, South Vietnam did indeed fall to Communism, but the anticipated fall of the rest of the region never materialized. It is worth asking what the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War gave their lives for.
Secretary McNamara was, in many ways the public face of the Vietnam War. Indeed, it was often referred to as "McNamara's War". As such, his death should be the occasion for some reflection regarding what the Vietnam War really meant for America.
It is a Jeffersonian principle that war is to be avoided at all costs, and must be resorted to only if there is absolutely no other option. It would have been nice if the Bush administration had heeded this advice rather than launching a war of choice against Iraq, a country that posed no threat to the United States. But it would have been even better had the Johnson administration have taken this advice before taking an essentially made-up incident in the Gulf of Tonkin and blowing it up into an illegitimate casus belli.
What difference did it make to the people of the United States what form of government controlled Saigon? Did such an abstract and ideological question justify the expenditure of 58,000 American lives and uncounted billions of dollars from American taxpayers? The support the Vietcong received from many elements of the South Vietnamese population and the distinct lack of willingness to fight among much of the South Vietnamese Army indicates that the South Vietnamese population had little or no interest in embracing the American democratic vision, so why should America have sacrificed for South Vietnam?
The life of Robert McNamara is an object lesson that teaches us to avoid useless and unnecessary interventions in the affairs of other parts of the world. At a time when the United States still has over 56,000 troops permanently stationed in Germany, 33,000 troops in Japan, 28,000 in South Korea, and roughly 10,000 each in the United Kingdom and Italy, this lesson obviously needs to be relearned.
The United States of America is not, and should not be, an empire. McNamara was an agent of empire, and he knew it. His 1995 memoir was an attempt to atone for what he had done wrong three decades before. One hopes that he found peace before his death. But Americans today should heed the indirect lessons of his life, and ensure that their country is never drawn into unnecessary and imperialistic wars, which sacrifice American lives for no good reason.