In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy
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The former secretary of defense and company offer a long-winded, overanalyzed, yet shallow look at the Vietnam War based on McNamara’s interpretation of a series of meetings with former North Vietnamese officials. McNamara still doesn—t get it. His heartless, arrogant, number-crunching management of the Vietnam War 1961—68 was a colossal failure. In an effort, he claims, to figure out why the war was “a tragedy for both sides,” McNamara (In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, not reviewed) in 1995 orchestrated a series of meetings with his former enemies. In doing so, he set up a “process” for the meetings, complete with rigid rules and procedures focusing on “mindsets” and “missed opportunities.” By working through this process, McNamara hoped to get answers to the Big Questions about the war. What he got was this bloated, artless book by committee (his co-authors, James G. Blight, Robert K. Brigham, Thomas J. Biersteker, and Col. Herbert Y. Schandler, are scholars in international affairs) that sheds very little instructive light on the tragedy of Vietnam. McNamara claims that the Vietnamese cooperated at the meeting and that “revelations” were uncovered. The book, however, offers precious few examples of Vietnamese cooperation. The “revelations” consist mostly of rehashed reconstructions of well-known events (the 1954 Geneva Treaty, the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, et al.), along with repetitive, not very revealing analyses of the “mindsets” of leaders of both sides. Yes, it is a wise thing to hear the often-neglected Vietnamese communist leaders’ voices. But despite McNamara’s claim that the meetings contained “real dialogue,” the Vietnamese stick mainly to the party line and the Americans often come off as naive and soft-headed. “You should have asked these questions thirty-five years ago,” former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach says to the Americans. “Then, maybe the war could have been avoided. Now, it is too late.” Too late, indeed. The Vietnamese communists outfoxed McNamara during the Vietnam War; they do it again in this forgettable book.

Pub Date: May 2nd, 1999
ISBN: 1-891620-22-3
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1999