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MCNAMARA'S PUBLIC TURNAROUND STIRS U.S.

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara is declining to join in the debate on whether he had an obligation to speak out once he concluded that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable.

It is a question that has come up forcefully since the appearance of his memoirs this week, after nearly 30 years of silence, and he was confronted with it Thursday night on ABC News' "Nightline."But McNamara avoided a direct reply. His answer to his critics, he said, was: "Read the book. Think. Engage in constructive debate."

For five years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he was the nation's chief war strategist. Between 1963 and 1974, the war cost 58,000 American lives. The communists took over South Vietnam the following year.

In a taped interview in the program, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former pilot who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, joined those who said McNamara should have laid out his misgivings once he decided that military efforts could not succeed.

"If he had spoken out in 1967 or 1966 then there perhaps would be a lot more people alive today," McCain said.

McNamara said he, along with Kennedy, Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, came of age in World War II and were shaped by the view that "millions died because we in the West failed to respond to Hitler's threats early enough."

So when Rusk warned that appeasement in Vietnam could encourage the Soviet Union and Communist China and ultimately invite World War III, he and the presidents listened, McNamara said.

Asked later by a reporter whether he had a moral obligation to speak out after he left the Pentagon in 1968 - a point raised by a number of commentators since the book's appearance - McNamara again cited the fear of encouraging Moscow and Beijing.

"We faced, or believed we faced, the threat of Soviet-Chinese aggression at the time," he said. "So the issue was not just withdrawing and carrying a risk to this nation of what Dean Rusk predicted would be World War III but the issue was how to avoid succumbing to the threat of communist aggression while at the same time of reducing our fatalities and reducing the risk of loss of life."

"And the way to do that, or so I thought, was to move to negotiations."