Hart on Basha i Novosejt, '"I Made Mistakes": Robert McNamara's Vietnam War Policy, 1960-1968'

Aurélie Basha i Novosejt
Dan Hart

Aurélie Basha i Novosejt. "I Made Mistakes": Robert McNamara's Vietnam War Policy, 1960-1968. Cambridge Studies in US Foreign Relations Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 338 pp. $49.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-41553-8.

Reviewed by Dan Hart (Harvard University) Published on H-War (June, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55806

“He ensorcells us still,” wrote David M. Kennedy in his review of Fredrik Logevall’s biography of the thirty-fifth president, sending many a reader to their dictionary.[1] If Kennedy “enchants” and “fascinates” us still, what do we make of the apogee of the New Frontier, Robert McNamara? History has not been as kind. The enduring image of McNamara is not of the whip-smart leader of the whiz kids but as a sad and broken man in Errol Morris’s documentary, The Fog of War (2003).

In “I Made Mistakes”: Robert McNamara’s Vietnam Policy, 1960-1968, Aurélie Basha i Novosejt attempts a rehabilitation of McNamara’s battered image, presenting him as a fiercely loyal lieutenant who set aside his personal misgivings about Vietnam in service to the two presidents he served. Basha depicts McNamara as an uber-competent manager focused on remaking the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and she argues that economic concerns led him to advocate for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam by 1965. Basha is a lecturer in American history at the University of Kent. She completed her undergraduate studies and PhD at the London School of Economics and received a master’s in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School. Her accessible and well-researched tome—there are nearly 60 pages of notes supporting the 224 pages of text—is organized into ten chapters. Basha based her research on McNamara’s personal papers, the extensive collections at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and the previously unused private diaries of Assistant Security of Defense John McNaughton, McNamara’s closest confidante.

Basha’s revisionist thesis is an interesting defense of McNamara based on his dominating personal and professional characteristics. Basha portrays him as a man whose abiding faith in the presidents he served was absolute, above the institution, above the country, centered wholly on the man who occupied the Oval Office. Though there is nothing in McNamara’s background to suggest that he would have such fidelity to two men as different as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the characteristic is presented as fact with no explanation. Basha’s McNamara was the manager of a complex organization charged with the sole responsibility of implementing presidential policies. Despite repeated instances in both administrations to become more involved in strategy setting and policymaking, McNamara consistently demurred. As the executioner, not maker, of policy, McNamara viewed his job as designing the most cost-efficient program of men and materiel to carry out the selected policy. His other primary responsibility was to measure the impact of defense spending on the American economy. By contextualizing this framework, Basha reveals the genesis of McNamara’s perspective on Vietnam. When the Kennedy administration took office, there were several economic issues—foremost the balance of payments and a defense budget that accounted for 10 percent of the gross national product—that necessitated the commitment to Vietnam be contained and eventually curtailed.

Influenced by British counterinsurgency expert Robert K. Thompson, who advocated for pacification techniques, including the construction of strategic hamlets, and American ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, who warned of an open-ended commitment to South Vietnam, McNamara embraced the American counterinsurgency effort in South Vietnam as a cost-effective alternative to active military engagement. Basha places great weight on the October 1963 announcement to withdraw one thousand advisors by the end of the year, with the full withdrawal of all American military personnel by the end of 1965. This was the McNamara plan, Basha posits, since he was charged with the oversight of Vietnam starting in mid-1962. But she spends considerably less time and weight on McNamara’s recommendation for over two hundred thousand troops after the Taylor-Rostow mission in late fall of 1961.

The bulk of Basha’s judicious analysis, containing four chapters largely organized topically instead of chronologically, rests on McNamara’s role in the Kennedy administration. A full chapter is devoted to the pivotal month of October 1963, one month prior to the assassinations of both President Ngo Dinh Diem and President Kennedy. The transition from Kennedy to Johnson seemingly led to an accentuation of McNamara’s characteristics. His sense of loyalty led him not only to defend the administration’s policies but also to proffer sanguine reports that stretched credulity; his mastery of the budget enabled him to use accounting gimmicks to obscure the true cost of the war. Of the fateful buildup of troops in mid-1965, Basha writes that McNamara “allowed escalation to go forward under false pretenses and in an economically unsustainable fashion” (p. 181). The last chapter of the book shows a broken McNamara doing his best to rehabilitate his image as a warmonger.

Basha’s work contains a few unforced errors that distract from an otherwise noble attempt at explaining the complicated McNamara. The February 1962 attempted coup on Diem was not the first attempt, but the second, with the November 1960 attempt far more consequential to the South Vietnamese generals who ultimately overthrew Diem. Basha is correct that in his September 1963 interview with Walter Cronkite, Kennedy stated, “in the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it,” but a fuller reading of the interview is warranted. Later in the interview, Kennedy avowed, “but I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.”[2] Basha incorrectly asserts that the Irish-born Vietnamese scholar Patrick Honey advocated against a Diem coup in the fall of 1963. His advice was more nuanced and fatefully prescient: either the American government must support Diem fully, Honey counseled, or he would not last another four weeks. In the waning days of October 1963, Kennedy never ordered Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to discontinue communication with the plotters; there were frenetic calls by the administration seeking assurance that the coup would be successful, but Kennedy never directed a stop to the interaction.

In her coda, Basha eschews a traditional conclusion for a series of brief counterfactual examinations. Many historians disdain counterfactual analysis, but it is an essential aspect of historical analysis. By analyzing unrealized alternatives, counterfactual analysis can provide a critical understanding on why and how history was shaped. Basha’s analysis is careful but in some cases veers into the parlor games that anti-counterfactualists lament. It is therefore useful to explore what Kennedy’s policies may have been if he had not been assassinated, as it elucidates the decisions that Johnson and McNamara did make. But to ponder how McNamara might have acted if his conception of loyalty had been different, or to elide over the real differences over counterinsurgency between the State and Defense Departments—State was focused on “hearts and minds,” Defense on eliminating the enemy—stretches the utility of the analysis.

The subtitle of the work is Robert McNamara’s Vietnam War Policy, and much discussion in the text focuses on strategy and policy, but neither term is clearly defined, and their usage in the book is at times contradictory. McNamara “took control of the administration’s policy in Vietnam” in the spring of 1962 but later recognized “the absence of strategy in Vietnam” (pp. 75, 4). If there was no grand strategy in either administration, Basha portrays McNamara as advocating for a counterinsurgency strategy, the use of air power, a complete withdrawal, and a bombing campaign. By centering on the withdrawal plan, both McNamara and Basha are guilty of not following Dwight Eisenhower’s maxim: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”[3] Or, perhaps Professor Stanley Hoffman stated it more clearly: “The ethics of political action is not the ethics of motives; it is the ethics of consequences.”[4]

The critique of this fine book is no indictment but reflective of the intelligent and provocative case that Basha makes. For fostering this type of discussion over the complex McNamara, she should be rightfully applauded. Basha titled her book from a February 1966 McNamara quote, which was not the confessional it appeared to be. “We’ve made mistakes in Vietnam,” McNamara said, “I’ve made mistakes in Vietnam. But the mistakes I made are not the ones they say I made” (p. 209, emphasis added). If Kennedy continues to ensorcell, then McNamara continues to befuddle.


[1]. David M. Kennedy, “Groomed to Be President,” New York Times, September 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/08/books/review/jfk-fredrik-logevall.html.

[2]. “President Kennedy’s Television Interviews on Vietnam,” September 2 and 9, 1963, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/kentv.htm.

[3]. Dwight Eisenhower to Hamilton Fish Armstrong, December 31, 1950, The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, vol. 11, Columbia University, ed. Louis Galambos (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 1516.

[4]. Stanley Hoffmann, Primacy or World Order: American Foreign Policy since the Cold War (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978), 25.

Citation: Dan Hart. Review of Basha i Novosejt, Aurélie, "I Made Mistakes": Robert McNamara's Vietnam War Policy, 1960-1968. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55806

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

This volume seems mainly concerned with the Kennedy period to McNamara's tenure and stewardship over Defense. In so far as this Review is concerned that would likely be accurate. There are a couple of critical areas which would be potentially more revealing and maybe worth historical thought.

One is the Feb. 65 North Viet Communist attack on Pleiku air base in Vietnam's Central Highlands. This proved a turning point for US policy under Pres. Johnson concerning any US withdrawal from Vietnam; instead leading to the eventual build up and 'limited' war of the mid to late 60s.

Second area, which may be even more valued is the overall impact of McNamara's reorganization to the Defense Dept. under the management principles and practices related to systems analysis and economic approach to warfare practiced. These two focuses had profound impacts both then and likely to the present historically[though am not as aware of the recent history and practices].

More in depth commentary may follow should this thread continue as having entered into the military environment during these ending days to that Johnson-McNamara era in Defense and military History.

Aurélie Basha i Novosejt. "I Made Mistakes": Robert McNamara's Vietnam War Policy, 1960-1968.

These few thoughts are a second reply on the Review concerning McNamara and his history from this new volume, posted on Hwar.

Need to relate, along with the remarks, an illustrative page from US Senate, US Congress 1968 Hearings where Sec. of State Dean Rusk offered his views, then and historically, concerning Vietnam [and the official purpose], Supplemental Appropriations to existing authority, and considerations about finance for US activities in Vietnam. While Sec. Rusk offers considerable commentary on various features of military events, two pages highlight one concern. [1]

This author's volume is somewhat out of context and inaccurate, though the focus upon McNamara alone may be part of that reason. In fact, in Sec. Rusk comments in 1968, upon the importance of a teams' efforts to bring success in US policy and history for Vietnam, he specifically notes mistakes are part of that overall history, not just for one person alone. Indeed, the Senate is also noted for its mistakes as well.

A Title to this volume can well be "We Made Mistakes," as the pages in the Hearings Report published, in1968, set down as the History then.

Wyatt Reader MA
UCLA Whittier College
California Community Colleges/private

[1] Reference: S.3091 To Amend Assistance Act of 1961, March 1968 [Hearings Report] pp.143-144
Sen Gore [D] Tenn. comments on need for a Team approach. '.........mistakes are enough to go around for all....."