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Customer Review

on January 17, 2004
I listened to the audio tape of this book because I intended to see Fog of War. The documentary about Robert McNamara's views, expressed in this book. This book gives McNamara's, views on war and peace in the nuclear age based on his experience as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and his service as a staff officer to General Curtis LeMay during WWII. General LeMay's command was responsible of the fire bombing of Japanese cities (bombing that in the aggregate did more damage and took more lives than the nuclear events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). One wonders why, if firebombing was so destructive, was it necessary to use nuclear bombs. McNamara does state that President Truman's decision to use nuclear weapons was correct.
The premise of this book is that given human fallibility and the power of nuclear weapons to destroy entire nations in a few minutes we must be better prepared to solve international problems through diplomatic means or mediation by third parties i.e. the United Nations. Further if there is to be a war it has to be done with multilateral consent and not just one nation squaring off against another.
This book is broader than just McNamara's experience in Vietnam it details his life experiences that led him to his conclusions. Conclusions that include his belief that the Vietnam War was a mistake and that in the case of Japan, General Curtis LeMay's comment that they would all be prosecuted as war criminals because of the fire bombing if we lost the war, was probably correct. This is balanced by the fact, he points out, that sometimes you must do evil to accomplish good i.e. countless American lives were saved by the fire and nuclear bombing of Japan.
McNamara states when we entered the Vietnam War we knew we could not win because we wanted to avoid a larger war with China and possibly Russia. Mr. McNamara knew this in 1962 or 1963 because intelligence reports including CIA evaluations revealed that bombing in itself could not stop North Vietnam from supplying the South with men and supplies and since the supplies of war was generated outside North Vietnam we were powerless to destroy the means of production also. Our leaders knew for every troop commitment by the U.S. the North Vietnamese could match it with an increase of their own troop strength. Further it became obvious that the will to fight in the South basically centered in the Army and not the people. After Diem and his brother were assassinated with U.S. complicity, there was no viable political base to build on. We lost the hearts and minds of the people to the Viet Cong very early.
Mr. McNamara points out that the only way out of Vietnam was unilateral withdrawal because the North knew it was winning and there was nothing to negotiate. Bombing did not seriously interdict their ability to wage the war or recruit men to fight.

So how did we go there in the first place? Mr. McNamara believes it was caused by the lack of experienced U.S. Southeast Asia experts. The fall of China and the subsequent McCarthy witch-hunts had effectively purged our government of knowledgeable experts on the area. He makes the point that to the Vietnamese the war was a fight against colonialist aggressors and a civil war. Vietnam had been in a battle to free itself from Chinese domination and later French domination for a thousand years. The Americans were seen as a new colonialist aggressor while we saw ourselves in a battle to stop communist expansion.
In the end the lives of 58000 Americans and three million Vietnamese (The equivalent of twenty seven million Americans. McNamara loves numbers and their relationships) were lost on misperceptions given as advice to our presidents and political leaders. Advice McNamara disagreed with and which ultimately caused his dismissal by President Johnson. This is documented by statements on tape and internal government documents since released. The hawks appear to be senators, congressmen, cabinet members and outside experts buttressed by the Joint Chiefs who were always for escalation and a military solution which would have been impossible with out a probable third world war with nuclear consequences for every living soul on earth.
McNamara points out in October 1963 the military had advised the invasion of Cuba when unbeknownst to us the Russians had ninety tactical nuclear weapons and about sixty strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba. If Kennedy and Kruschev were unable to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal there would have been a nuclear exchange with the probable end of human civilization as we know it. The same situation occurred in Vietnam if we had followed military advice and escalated the war by using tactical nuclear devices China would felt threatened and entered the war.
McNamara makes the point that in this nuclear age we cannot go to war over a misunderstanding of another nations actions. A nuclear exchange offers no
room for correction or change of policy or goals once its done its all over.
History is plastic as it unfolds and in the heat of the moment one decision can lead to unintended results and history is always plastic in the subsequent interpretation and evaluation of events and so it is with McNamara and his views. One thing McNamara has right is that we cannot have a nuclear exchange by large powers or even lesser powers, ever, or else we will see Armageddon in our time.
This book is a clear statement of the terms of life in the nuclear age. As McNamara points out we are not going to change human nature but communication and understanding can be improved. I have written a longer review of the book and film at
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