(Offer of water)
INT: We've referred, a little bit earlier, to the continual chin regimes that happened after Diem was toppled. How did these changes of regime affect President Johnson and yourself and policy? Did they have no effect at all? What did they do to your...?
RM: We were deeply disturbed, deeply disturbed; and the President, as a politician, was determined to do everything he possibly could to stabilize that government politically. He in effect sent me over there at one time, on one visit with Max Taylor, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs. He said, "I want to see you across that country on TV every day, supporting the President of Vietnam. We have got to stabilize that government." But there are limitations to what external military force can do. External military force cannot reconstruct a failed state, and Vietnam, during much of that period, was a failed state politically. We didn't recognize it as such; we didn't understand the limitations of what we could accomplish, but that is a fact. But he was determined to do everything within his power - economic power, political power, military power - to stabilize that nation politically. It proved impossible.
INT: I want to move briefly on to the Tonkin Gulf. At the time, Sir, what made you think that the second Tonkin Gulf attack had taken place, and do you think, in retrospect, that it did?
RM: Well, first, we were certain at the time that the first attack took place. I believe the date was August 2nd, 1964. We made every effort to be certain that we were right, one way or the other - it had occurred or it hadn't occurred. And it was reported that there were shell fragments, North Vietnamese shell fragments, on the deck of the US destroyer Madox. I actually sent a person out to pick up the shell fragments and bring them to my office, to be sure that the attack did occur. I am confident that it did; I was confident then, I am confident today. That was the August 2nd attack. On August 4th, it was reported another attack occurred. It was not clear then that that attack had occurred. We made every... possible effort to determine whether it had or not. I was in direct communication with the Commander-in-Chief of all of our forces in the Pacific, SINCPAC, by telephone several times during that day, to find out whether it had or hadn't occurred. He had reports from the commanders of the destroyers on the scene; they had what were known as sonar readings: these are sound readings; there were eyewitness reports, and ultimately it was concluded that almost certainly the attack had occurred. But even at the time there was some recognition of a margin of error, so we thought it highly probable but not entirely certain. And because it was highly probable, and because even if it hadn't occurred, there was strong feeling we should have responded to the first attack, which we were positive had occurred, President Johnson decided to respond to the second. I think it is now clear it did not occur. I asked General Zhia myself, when I visited Hanoi in November of 1995, whether it had occurred, and he said no. I accept that.
INT: Moving on - you know more than me, obviously, just how the Tonkin Gulf incident was argued over. Senator Fullbright, of course, questioned you quite firmly on this. I believe your own belief is that the question of deception doesn't arise, but the question of the misuse of the Tonkin Gulf reso... What do you mean by that, the "misuse" of the...?
RM: Was Congress misled regarding the Tonkin Gulf resolution? Did they misunderstand the resolution? My... and it's important... my answer is: yes and no. The resolution is very clear; the English language is clear in its expression in the resolution. The resolution gave full authority to the President to take the nation to war in Southeast Asia. Senator Cooper from Kentucky asked Senator Fullbright, who was the floor manager during the debate, "Does this resolution mean the President will have the authority to take the nation to war in Southeast Asia?" And Senator Fulbright said, "Yes." So there was no misunderstanding on that. But the Senate had been led to believe the President wouldn't use that authority without seeking further counsel from the Senate - which he didn't. And in that sense, I think they were misled. In any event, it was a very serious error on the part of the Johnson Administration. We did not fully debate the actions that led to the introduction of 500,000 troops, either with the Congress or with the public. And that's one of the major lessons: no president should ever take this nation to war without full public debate in the Congress and/or in the public.
INT: Why wasn't it debated, why wasn't it taken...?
RM: Well, that's a very good question, and... the answer is that both the hawks and the doves wished to avoid the debate. At one point, President Johnson asked, I'll call it the leader of the hawks and the leader of the doves in the Senate: "Should we go back and ask the Senate to debate whether we should or shouldn't introduce US forces, using the authority already granted to us by the Tonkin Gulf Resolution?" And both the hawks and the doves said, "No, don't bring it back - it'll tear us apart." And they were right in one sense. They were wrong on their conclusion that the resolution should not have been debated, retroactively; they were right it would have torn them apart. Why would it have torn them apart? Because the nation was divided at that time. Throughout the seven years I was in the Defense Department on Vietnam, the nation was divided. The majority of the people, the press and the Congress, throughout the seven years, up until early 1968, were in favor of preventing the fall of Vietnam, because they believed in the Domino Theory, and they were prepared to send US troops and carrying on US combat operations in Vietnam to prevent that loss. But there was a growing minority, and had the issue actually been debated, it would have torn the Congress apart, and that was one of the reasons why the hawks and doves agreed it shouldn't be debated. Beyond that, the President was fearful that if he raised this issue for public debate, the right wing - and I don't use the word pejoratively... Let me leave out the word "right", "right wing" - let me say that there were many in the country and many in the Congress who believed that we should go all-out militarily to overcome North Vietnam, including invading North Vietnam... and bombing it to the point of genocide. And that was a very powerful force in the society, and the President was fearful that if he engaged in public debate, that that force would prevail; and he was determined - and as a matter of fact, I was determined - to avoid the risks that would follow from applying unlimited military force. In addition to a terrible loss of life that would have resulted from that, there was the risk of engaging China and the Soviet Union in the war overtly; they were covertly supplying logistical support to North Vietnam, but there was a risk of overt confrontation between the US and China and the Soviet Union, overt military confrontation, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. On one or two occasions, the chiefs recommended US military intervention in North Vietnam, and stated that they recognized this might lead to Chinese and/or Soviet military response, in which case, they said, "we might have to consider the use of nuclear weapons." The President was determined to avoid it, I was determined to avoid it. He was fearful public debate would lead to greater pressure for that, and that's one of the reasons - not the only reason, but one of the reasons - he avoided public debate.
INT: By January 27th, I think it was, 1965, you and Bundy were urging military action, which led ...
RM: No, not quite.
INT: Not quite?
RM: Well, let's go off the camera for a second.
INT: What was the substance, Mr. McNamara, of your so-called "fork-in-the-road" memo to the President in January 1965?
RM: Well, this was a memorandum that McGeorge Bundy and I sent to the President, and we said in effect: "Mr. President, we're following a course that... cannot succeed. We cannot csolely in providing training and logistical support. We've got to go beyond that, or we have to get out. And we're not certain which of these two alternatives should be pursued. Each should be debated. We're inclined to think we've got to get further in." Unfortunately, the two alternatives were not fully debated, and we slid into further intervention, which ultimately led to 500,000 troops over a period of two or three years.
INT: (Unclear wo) You have the "fork-in-the-road" memo in January. By February, I believe it is, President Johnson was approving the dispatch of the Marines to Da Nang. And by July of that year, you were committed, I think, to 175,000 men going in. What happened in those six months? It seems an incredible six months.
RM: The events between January and July were such that the North Vietnamese were putting additional pressure on South Vietnam. South Vietnam was unable to respond effectively, and it became more and more clear that President Johnson was going to have to choose between losing South Vietnam or trying to save it by introducing US military force and taking over a major part of the combat mission. He chose, rather than lose it, to introduce US combat forces and take over the combat mission. And that was because he feared the dominoes would fall if he didn't do that. And I think the judgment was wrong - I don't want to say his judgment: the judgment of all of us who were involved was wrong. But that was the fact at the time; that was what motivated him, it was what motivated us.
INT: Now I think it would be right to say... you were, I think... with these men going in, I think there is a tone of optimism that something could be done, that something...
RM: (Overlap) Well, I don't think it's (Coughs) wise to emphasize a tone of optimism, because...
INT: Your report seemed to.
RM: No, I don't think so. Let's go off the film for a second.
INT: ... 175,000 men or whatever, and you got the bombing coming in. What is the actual strategy that was being employed at that early period of the war, when there were masses of...?
RM: The strategy was one of providing additional support to the South Vietnamese, to the point where it was believed they could prevail over the Vietcong, which was being supported by North Vietnam at the time in the South, while at the same time, through the bombing of the North, applying sufficient pressure on the North to lead them to feel that they would pay a very heavy price if they continued to support the Vietcong in the South. And the combination, it was believed, of the increasing strength of the South Vietnamese and US forces in the South, and the cost to the North of continuing to support the opposition to that, the South Vietnamese and US forces in the South, would lead the North to change their policy. That was the strategy that was followed.
INT: Had that strategy been influenced, do you think, by your experiences on Berlin and Cuba, that they would act rationally, that the war wouldn't be worth it? Were you bringing old baggage to new events?
RM: I don't think so. I think it was a strategy that was designed to reduce the cost to a minimum, the US cost and Vietnamese cost, and avoid the risks of escalation.
INT: ... I don't want to get into it or anything, but why didn't the bombing work? Why couldn't it work, and how soon was it you realized that it wouldn't work?
RM: Some of us questioned at the beginning whether it would ever achieve the objectives of others. Some believed that the bombing could prevent the North from infiltrating supplies and personnel sufficient to ensure that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong would prevail in the South; bombing will stop, in a sense, the ability of the North to re-supply the South. Others believed bombing would not stop, that... The record of my testimony before the Congress is clear on that; many of us believed it would be impossible, by bombing, to stop the flow of the small quantity of supplies needed in the South to support the Vietcong. And I think the record shows the bombing didn't prevent that flow of supplies. Secondly, there were those who believed that the bombing would break the will of the North. Others believed it wouldn't. And it didn't. Some believed that the bombing would so reduce the production of the North of equipment needed in the South, that the South would be denied equipment. Others believed that would not be the case. The North was not really the main source of supply for the South. It was China, and to some degree Russia, or Soviet Union... that was sending supplies through the North. So the North was largely an agricultural economy, and that was not given proper attention by those advocates of bombing who thought that the bombing of the North would stop the war in the South.