As defense secretary for two presidents - one of John F. Kennedy's "best and brightest" - Robert McNamara helped draw the United States deeply into the Vietnam War.
Now he admits: "We were terribly wrong."With the upcoming release of his memoirs, McNamara is breaking his quarter-century public silence on the war that left 58,000 Americans dead and bitterly divided the country - a conflict, he notes ruefully, that some called "McNamara's War."
The memoirs of other officials, along with declassified documents and other reports, have described how dissension grew in the Johnson White House over Vietnam policy as the war worsened.
McNamara, whose internal criticism led Johnson to replace him in 1968, is the highest-ranking former U.S. official to say publicly and unequivocally that pursuing the war was a mistake.
"We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong," the 78-year-old McNamara told the AP Radio Network's "Newsweek on Air" program.
"We were just wrong, both military leaders and civilian leaders, in failing to recognize the nature of the conflict and failing to recognize early on that the strategy we were following would not accomplish our objective," McNamara said.
McNamara's book, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" (Times Books), is due out this week. The April 17 Newsweek, on newsstands Monday, has excerpts.
McNamara writes that he and other Kennedy aides knew little about Indochina when they first began developing policy toward the region. He now finds it "incredible" that they failed to consider the political, military, financial and human costs of deepening U.S. involvement.
He says President Johnson sought advice from former President Eisenhower on bombing Vietnam. In a Feb. 17, 1965, meeting, Eisenhower counseled that "LBJ's first duty was to contain communism in Southeast Asia," even if it meant threatening nuclear war.
Eisenhower said he hoped a huge ground war wouldn't be necessary but if it were, "So be it." And if the Soviets or Chinese threatened to intervene, Eisenhower said, "We should pass the word back to them to take care lest dire results (i.e. nuclear strikes) occur to them."'
In the AP interview, to be broadcast Sunday, McNamara said, "The first major mistake we made was in exaggerating and misjudging the security of the West and the security of our nation (in case of) the loss of Vietnam to the Communists."
He added: "It wasn't Eisenhower's responsibility, it was Johnson's responsibility, and (Secretary of State) Dean Rusk's and mine."
According to the Newsweek excerpts, North Vietnam made "a very specific peace offer" in 1966 but withdrew it after the United States went ahead with bombing raids that had been delayed by bad weather. Johnson feared that rescheduling the raids "would be interpreted as weakness," McNamara wrote.
McNamara told the AP that he and Henry Kissinger, then a Harvard professor, came close to setting up U.S.-North Vietnamese negotiations in the fall of 1967. "Unfortunately, through, I think, clumsiness on our part, the effort came apart," he said.
He denied that he and Johnson prevented the military from fighting the war with all its resources.
McNamara said he became deeply involved in Vietnam policy soon after he became defense secretary in 1961, one of the White House aides whom Kennedy called "the best and the brightest" of their generation.
The fighting in Indochina escalated, and McNamara remained defense secretary when Johnson became president after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
In 1967, McNamara privately urged Johnson to seek a diplomatic solution to the Vietnam War, but Johnson and other aides rejected the suggestion.
He said he regrets not having pushed Johnson harder and earlier to consider a negotiated settlement to the war. But the stand he did take left him and Johnson "at loggerheads," he writes, and the differences couldn't be bridged.