The scariest explanation of why Robert McNamara is quitting was suggested--and promptly disavowed--by the Washington Star in an editorial the day after the story broke. The Star said that some persons feared that he was "getting out in advance of some major escalation of the war--an escalation which he cannot bring himself to support." Without much conviction, the Star said it could not believe any such thing.
When the two surviving Generals ofthe Army, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley, said on television the next night that the United States ought to consider an "end run" around the Demilitarized Zone into North Vietnam and "hot pursuit" into Cambodia and Laos, there was talk that McNamara was quitting in a dispute over an invasion plan to carry the ground war beyond South Vietnam's borders. The official story is that McNamara deserves a rest. No one could deny that he does, after nearly seven years of 12-to-16-hour days and six-or-seven-day weeks in the biggest management job in the world.
Both of these leave out what is probably the main point--that McNamara, like many of us but with far more reason than most of us, has become sick of the Vietnam war. This is more than speculation. In private conversations more than a year ago, he indicated that he rather abruptly had lost the old optimism that had led him to report every few months that there was a new feeling of confidence in Vietnam and the victory was just around the corner.
In place of optimism, so this reporter was told, McNamara had reached the painful conclusion that we were bogged down in a war without an end. He would not agree to extreme escalation such as bombing the dikes or the destruction of Hanoi and Haiphong. But he had come to believe that the strategy of gradually increasing military pressure in the North and South either could never bring victory or else, if it could, would take forever.
If the contrived optimism of the recent whirlwind of speeches and briefings by General Westmoreland, Ambassador Bunker and Deputy Ambassador Komer rekindled any of McNamara's old hopefulness, he was mighty quiet about it. He left the floor to the visitors, already doubtlessly thinking of his own exit.
It's too bad he's going, we think, but not for the reasons usually given. He has been a restraining influence on the upward course of the war, as when he argued target-by-target against the most recent extension of the bombing. What's more important for the long-runsurvival, he argued eloquently and publicly against the drive for a fullscale anti-ballistic missile system. On the positive side, he was a main force in pushing the limited test-ban past a suspicious Senate and an unwilling military establishment.
The President, who is a man of great caution, valued McNamara as an offset to the warhawks within his Administration. But from outside the Administration, the view is different. Escalation has been slowed and delayed, but it hasn't been stopped. McNamara has either been overruled or has given ground on the bombing, the troop buildup and even on the small (or anti-Chinese) anti-ballistic missile system. McNamara doesn't deserve his reputation as a "dove." Some of his colleagues say that he joined the rest in a unanimous decision each timethere was a new intensification of the war. They come close to calling him two-faced.
McNamara has performed another service for Johnson. He has been a lightning rod or a heat shield, protecting the President against the superhawks. Vietnam has been "McNamara's war" to those who wanted it bigger as well as to those who wanted it littler. With McNamara gone, it will be Johnson's war. The super-hawks are by far the most formidable critics, and the question is how much of their heatcan LBJ take without his heat shield.
Anyone who could really manage the Pentagon and get the generals and admirals into line as successfully as McNamara did must have our respect and best wishes as he prepares to go on to the World Bank job. It's a big one, especially if Mr. Johnson follows through with a plan he mentioned last September to transfer all US aid to developing nations to the Bank and other multilateral agencies.
But it's sad, too, that the man who did the most in planning the Vietnam war, and probably knows the most about it now, doesn't speak plainly on leaving.
We were looking through a file of those cheerful predictions he made in the years before he soured on the war (if that's what really did happen). There was that beautiful line overheard after a briefing by Ambassador Maxwell Taylor in December 1964. Reporters trooping in for a press conference overheard McNamara say to the President: "It should be impossible for Max to talk to these people without leaving the impression the situation is going to hell." The conference was canceled.
Another burst of candor now would be useful. If McNamara really does think the war is another Edsel, it would be good to hear him say so and recommend that it be junked.
By TNR Editors