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IN RETROSPECT:
THE TRAGEDY AND LESSONS OF VIETNAM

ROBERT S. MCNAMARA WITH BRIAN VANDEMARK


9. Troubles Deepen:
January 31, 1966-May 19, 1967

(selections from pp. 236-240)

As the Christmas Bombing Pause ended in late January 1966, President Johnson requested my views on the military outlook in Vietnam. In a memorandum of January 24, 1966, I expressed to him my belief that the Communists had decided to continue vigorously prosecuting the war in the South. They appeared to believe that the war would be a long one, that time was on their side, and that their staying power was superior to ours. They recognized that the large U.S. intervention in 1965 signaled our determination to avoid defeat, and that more U.S. deployments could be expected. I reasoned that the Communists would therefore enlarge their forces by heavier recruitment in the South and expanded infiltration from the North. The Joint Chiefs and I estimated they could increase their combat battalions by 50 percent in 1966 and sustain this larger force on infiltrated supplies of only 140 tons per day, utilizing no more than 70 percent of the Ho Chi Minh Trail's capacity.

To blunt this expected buildup, I recommended increasing U.S. troop levels by 200,000 (as Westy had previously requested), raising the total from 179,000 to 368,000 by year's end, and expanding air operations as planned. But I warned this increase effort probably would not put a "tight ceiling" on enemy operations in South Vietnam because bombing could reduce, but not stop, the supply flow from North Vietnam.

This led me to offer a somber assessment:

This prospect intensified my conviction that the United States needed negotiations leading to a diplomatic resolution of the conflict. I hoped our increased effort would "condition [Hanoi] toward [such] negotiations and an acceptable end to the war."


Between 1965 and 1967, Westy intensified his pursuit of an attrition strategy aimed at inflicting more casualties on the Vietcong and North Vietnamese than they could replace. But the facts proved otherwise. However much Westy, I, and many others wished differently, the evidence showed that our adversaries--through a combination of recruitment in the South and infiltration from the North--expanded their combat numbers substantially. Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces increased in size throughout 1966 and into 1967.

From the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese forces had been giving us poor intelligence and inaccurate reports. Sometimes these inaccuracies were conscious attempts to mislead; at other times they were the product of too much optimism. And sometimes the inaccuracies merely reflected the difficulty of gauging progress accurately.

But I insisted we try to measure progress. As I have emphasized, since my years at Harvard, I had gone by the rule that it is not enough to conceive of an objective and a plan to carry it out; you must monitor the plan to determine whether you are achieving the objective. If you discover you are not, you either revise the plan or change the objective. I was convinced that, while we might not be able to track something as unambiguous as a front line, we could find variables that would indicate our success or failure. So we measured the targets destroyed in the North, the traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the number of captives, the weapons seized, the enemy body count, and so on.

The body count was a measurement of the adversary's manpower losses; we undertook it because one of Westy's objectives was to reach a so-called crossover point, at which Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain. To reach such a point, we needed to have some idea what they could sustain and what their losses were.

Critics point to use of the body count as an example of my obsession with numbers. "This guy McNamara," they said, "he tries to quantify everything." Obviously, there are things you cannot quantify: honor and beauty, for example. But things you can count, you ought to count. Loss of life is one when you are fighting a war of attrition. We tried to use body counts as a measurement to help us figure out what we should be doing in Vietnam to win the war while putting our troops at the least risk. Every attempt to monitor progress in Vietnam during my tenure as secretary of defense was directed toward those goals, but often the reports were misleading.

In the spring of 1967, Westy concluded that the crossover point had at last been reached; the enemy's numbers had stabilized and, perhaps, diminished. The CIA, by contrast, never perceived a diminution in enemy strength. In a May 23, 1967, report, its analysts concluded, "Despite increasingly effective 'search and destroy' operations...the Vietnamese Communists have continued to expand their Main Forces, both by infiltration and by local recruitment....It appears that the Communists can continue to sustain their overall strength during the coming year [emphasis added]."

Whichever judgment was correct--Westy's or the CIA's--I took little comfort, because the Vietcong and North Vietnamese still largely controlled their casualties in a guerrilla war in jungle terrain by choosing where, when, and how long to fight. What is more, by the spring of 1967 they possessed sufficient forces to prevent any substantial extension of the pacification program--particularly in the rural areas where most South Vietnamese lived.

The disagreement between Westmoreland and the CIA was frustrating but unsurprising. Although we had been trying to measure the war's progress realistically, getting accurate data remained difficult. With the numbers we had, there was room for great disparities in analysis, of which this dispute is a good example. The CIA felt that the North Vietnamese had much greater staying power then the administration (and Westy) believed. It turned out the CIA was correct.

How were we to decide which interpretation to accept? This task was hellishly complex when we were not even sure of the accuracy of the reports the interpretations were based on. Without question, we sometimes received erroneous reports. Years later this led to a painful sequence of events when the CBS network mistakenly portrayed Westy as having lied to the president and me. At issue was his reporting of the enemy's so-called Order of Battle--the strength of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces in the field.

A 1982 CBS Reports documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," alleged that Westy ordered his senior intelligence officers knowingly to understate enemy strength in order to bolster his claims of military progress. In effect, CBS argued that by deliberately underreporting Vietcong/North Vietnamese strength in South Vietnam, Westy could demonstrate greater progress through his attrition strategy than had in fact been achieved. I address this issue now to make crystal clear that, while deep differences existed between Westy and me over the course of the war in the South (and between the Joint Chiefs and me over the air war in the North), these differences in no way reflected personal antagonism or lack of trust.

My involvement with the CBS film began on June 6, 1981, shortly before I retired as World Bank president, when CBS Reports producer George Crile III telephoned me at my office. Crile, whom I knew socially--he was the former son-in-law of friends Joe and Susan Mary Alsop--said CBS was preparing a program on Vietnam in which he knew I would wish to participate. He said that CBS had clear evidence, along with supporting testimony from Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and CIA personnel, that General Westmoreland had consciously deceived the president and me on the Order of Battle.


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