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 couthat... cannot succeed. We cannot continue solely 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 two or three years.
INT: (Unclear words) 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 judgement was wrong - I don't want to say his judgement: the judgement 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 ... emphasise 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 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 realised 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. 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 the 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.
INT: ... What were your own thoughts about that there might be the so-called "crossover point" when more people wouldn't come then - did you ever think this was seriously likely to happen?
RM: Well, the strategy, as it evolved, became a strategy of attrition, that the South, with US assistance, would inflict such losses on the North, that the flow of supplies and personnel from the North would be unable to replenish it, and the crossover point would come, where the forces of the North and the Vietcong in the South would become weaker and weaker and weaker, because they could not be reinforced, the losses could not be replaced from the North. Others amongst us believed that crossover point would never come. It never did.
INT: There are lots of comments in many, many of the books about the whole question of the body count and the statistics, and were they accurate or weren't they accurate. Do you feel the military was under almost a psychological pressure to look optimistically... (Overlap)
RM: (Overlap) No. No, no, no. No, no, no.
INT: Tell me about your own... (Overlap)
RM: (Overlap) No, no, I don't believe the military was...
INT: Sorry - I was crossing over. Tell me about the figures.
RM: Well, let's stop just a second...
INT: How did you attempt to measure the success or otherwise of the military activities? How did the military do it, and were you successful in the way in which you approached it?
RM: We have been charged with excessive quantification in respect to measurement of progress in Vietnam. And I have no apologies whatsoever for attempting to measure progress. Any military commander, or any in a sense secretary of defence in any war, would surely wish to be prepared at any time to answer the question "Are you winning or not?" and wish to have measures of whether they're winning or not. In a conventional war, it's relatively easy. You have front lines; they're either moving forward in the enemy's territory, or you're being forced back further into yours, so you know whether you're winning or not. This was not that kind of a war. The question was: are we winning? what are the proper measures? are we getting the right information with respect to those measures? We didn't choose the proper measures, and we weren't getting the correct information. That was the problem. It wasn't an erroneous objective - i.e. determining whether you're winning - it was an erroneous judgement of whether you were or not.
INT: So, you are a man with a career of assessing and trying to work things out, and trying to quantify... The military itself is a very skilled organisation. How come you couldn't get that right?
RM: This was much more a civil war than... than a war of aggression. I'm not arguing that there wasn't an element of aggression in it; I'm not arguing that the Chinese and the Soviets might not have tried to use South Vietnam as a launching pad to knock over the dominoes of Malaysia and Thailand and Indonesia and whatever. But what I am arguing is that the conflict within South Vietnam itself had all of the characteristics of a civil war, we didn't look upon it as largely a civil war, and we weren't measuring our progress, as one would have in what was largely a civil war.
INT: In your period of time, do you ththe war could have been prosecuted, in quotes, "more aggressively" than was done, successfully?
RM: It is said that the military operated with one hand tied behind their backs. To the extent that that refers to a restriction on land invasion by US forces on North Vietnam, that's true. But today, General Westmoreland who was the commander in Vietnam at the time, says that while at the time he felt he was constrained, he now understands that that was an effort by the President to prevent the US coming into open conflict, military conflict witChina and the Soviet Union. And Westmoreland says, "Thank God we avoided that. That was a correct policy at the time." Could more military pressure have been applied, in the sense of more bombing of the North? In one sense, no. We dropped two or three times as much bombs in North and South Vietnam as were dropped by all Allied Forces throughout World War II against all enemies. It was a tremendous air effort. But there are certain things bombing can't accomplish. They can't break the will of people under certain circumstances. They didn't break the will of the North Vietnamese. And it cannot stop the movement of the small quantities of supplies that were necessary to support the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese forces in the South. They didn't, and it couldn't; and no additional amount of money... bombing could have.
INT: ... In the years '65, '66 and '67, can you tell me something generally about the press and the public, and the way in which they overwhelmingly looked at the war? If you look at the papers now, everybody seems to be against the war. Was this the situation?
RM: That was not the situation at the time. There was a very interesting response to my book, when I published it about a year or so ago, and... one of the responses was: well, everybody at the time knew that the US shouldn't be involved in Vietnam. And that led, in turn, to several writers saying that just wasn't the case. "We, the press, were there at the time. We saw the majority of the public, the majority of the press, the majority of the Congress, was in favour of the US intervention." And, said one of these writers, Richard Harwood of the Washington Post, there was a very thoughtful and comprehensive study by a political scientist - I believe he said at the University of Illinois - published after the war, which studied the polls and the attitudes of the public, press and Congress, and said that throughout that period, 1961-2-3-4-5-6-7, up until early 1968, the majority of the press, public and Congress favoured the US policy in intervention. Not all, by any means - there was a strong vocal minority against - but the majority favoured it. Now that does not, in my opinion, relieve those of us who were in the leadership - Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Secretaries of State and Defence and National Security Advisers - that does not relieve us of the responsibility to have let the nation out of the war, prevented its intervention and/or let it out. Our job was not to follow the polls, even though they favoured what we were doing. Our job was to determine where the interests of the nation lay and move the nation in that direction. And I think we failed in that respect.
INT: It's very easy to come up with all sorts of queries and almost critical questions, but it seems at this time the policy was going nowhere, and that the policy kept on rolling forward, and you have the sort of bombing, and then there would be a pause, and then there would be bombing, and then there would be a pau(se). What was this supposed to achieve? It seems almost like a tap was being turned on and off.
RM: As early as December 1965, I reported to the President that I believed there was no more than a one-in-three chance - at best a one-in-two chance - that we could achieve our political objectives, i.e. avoiding the loss of South Vietnam, by military means; and I strongly urged, therefore, we increased our efforts on the political track, that we tried to move to negotiations with the North, to avoid the fall of the dominoes; and that, to stimulate a move toward negotiation, we stop the bombing. This was a very controversial move at the time. And we eventually did: we stopped for a month, in December 1965. It was one of about seven different attempts to move to negotiations, to stop the war to negotiate a solution that would yield a satisfactory outcome for the West, which was simply to avoid the loss of all Southeast Asia. Those efforts were unsuccessful. I don't know why. I have proposed to Hanoi that today next year, if you will, that we engage in examining what I think were missed opportunities for each of us, for them and us, to have avoided the war or to have terminated it earlier, with less loss of life, without any adverse effects on the geopolitical situations of either one of us. I very much hope those discussions will take place. We have much to learn from them that can be applied to the world of today and tomorrow. How to avoid these conflicts is something the human race has to learn. This century will go down as the bloodiest century in all of human history. We'll have lost 160 million people, killed by conflict. Is that what we want in the 21st century? I don't think so. If we want to avoid it, we have to learn from our mistakes in this century. Vietnam was one of those.