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What Will History Make of Colin Powell?
Posted on Jul 11, 2009
Perhaps McNamara believed a war might gild his reputation. His appetite was insatiable; he got his war, but he lost his reputation.
McNamara proved no stranger to shaving the truth and then offering a wholly different set of facts. The alleged Tonkin Gulf Incident in August 1964 provided a pretext for a greatly expanded American role in Vietnam. The National Security Agency initially reported an attack by North Vietnamese PT boats against American destroyers stationed in the gulf, often in the North’s territorial waters. But subsequent reports indicated that “incident” might have resulted from a combination of bad weather and nervous radar and sonar operators. McNamara ignored the second report, and President Johnson then portrayed the “incidents” as “deliberate attacks and open aggression on the high seas.”
Johnson ordered retaliatory airstrikes, and on Aug. 5 submitted a resolution to Congress authorizing him to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Except for the very brave Sens. Wayne Morse, D-Ore, and Ernest Gruening, D-Alaska, Congress immediately folded and gave Johnson and McNamara their blank check.
McNamara did not testify truthfully to Sen. William Fulbright’s committee about the alleged attack in the gulf. Johnson headed off growing criticism of the war by enlarging it—just what he thought he needed to avoid Harry Truman’s burden of a limited war in Korea. Johnson also thought he would not be nagged by the question of “who lost Vietnam?”
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The blame McNamara deservedly receives now must also note that he was at the service of two of our very distinctive Cold Warriors, Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara could not absolve them for their decisions. Similarly, history must remember George W. Bush’s fateful decisions, enabled by Colin Powell (as nicely articulated by Michael Lind here).
McNamara remained unswervingly loyal to Kennedy and Johnson for over 30 years. Finally, toward the end of his life, he admitted the war was a mistake. Rather late, it seems. McNamara had planned, implemented and supported a war that was a total failure. The South Vietnam “domino” fell, but nothing changed geopolitically. There is no Republic of South Vietnam today; officially, there is no Saigon. Our failure must be measured in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and 58,000 American combatants. That is McNamara’s historical burden; that is the truth he never could fully acknowledge for it surely would poison the reputation he hoped that penance, and eventually redemption, might bring him. Truth is an elusive commodity for such people.
Powell and McNamara exemplify the ever-loyal, unquestioning subordinate. McNamara self-righteously invoked Dean Acheson’s quiet departure from the New Deal as his model, but Acheson’s silence did not assure a place at the World Bank for the Truman secretary of state. If McNamara had denounced the war, would it have made a difference? What if the popular Colin Powell had expended some of his political capital and denounced the dubious rationalization for war against Iraq? Perhaps their dramatic gestures would have been wasted. But Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s forceful stand against Nixon in October 1973 is instructive, showing that public resistance to a superior can make a difference.
Justice cannot always be served; but Lincoln reminded us that “we cannot escape history.”
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.
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