BMCR 1996.03.12

1996.03.12, REVIEW ESSAY: In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

, REVIEW ESSAY: In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

It is difficult for students of Thucydides—some of us anyway—to avoid drawing comparisons between his work and the memoirs of other former military leaders, both more and less successful. Such comparisons are not entirely serendipitous, for Thucydides did much to shape that quasi-historical genre of European literature in which retired statesmen and ex-generals have followed. Those with a taste for nineteenth century American history may compare the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant 1 or, less read, but even more brilliant, those of William Tecumseh Sherman (a very Thucydidean figure). 2 Those more keen on British history may prefer The World Crisis, Churchill’s account of the First World War. Many such memoirs could be cited, but the past year has introduced one particular volume that invites a striking (if not very flattering) comparison with Thucydides. Those of us who grew up in the United States during the latter half of twentieth century can be grateful that we have had no personal experience of a Civil War or First World War, but the War in Vietnam, although it was fought far away from North America and although it did not obliterate an entire generation (of Americans), deeply shocked the settled assumptions and values of its time in such a way as to invite comparison with the American Civil War, World War I and even the Peloponnesian War. Thus, I found it hard not to read Robert McNamara, ghostwriter and all, with an eye to Thucydides and that tortured Greek prose which a modern ghost writer would have flattened and undone. Few will be surprised, I suspect, if I find the comparison lopsided, and I see no point in castigating McNamara for failed to match a Great Man of the past, but the comparison is nevertheless instructive. Thucydides—still trotted out in many courses, histories and anthologies as the progenitor of political realism 3—has much in common with his distant intellectual descendent who directed US policy in Vietnam. But, if Thucydides invented realism, the case studies in his history also showed more clearly the limitations of this realism than the Harvard Business School case studies did for McNamara.

In reading Robert McNamara’s memoirs about the Vietnam war, two things particularly struck me. First, despite his many self-serving remarks and disingenuous proofs of personal honesty, I was impressed with the degree to which McNamara had thought through his mistakes: McNamara’s memoirs cannot, for example, compete with the extended (and, in its own way, arguably disingenuous) confessional intensity which Albert Speer projects in his Inside the Third Reich, 4 but then the Johnson administration, whatever its faults, was no Third Reich.

But if the soul searching and admissions of error advertised for this book were indeed present, my second reaction was very different. I was dismayed at the conclusions which McNamara had drawn from his experience. Early in his account, he reproaches himself because neither he nor Dean Rusk performed an adequate analysis—all well and good. What follows, however, is more problematic, for McNamara blithely remarks that “we failed to ask the five most basic questions” about the topic. 5 It does not matter what those questions were—they seem reasonable enough. What matters is the easy assurance with which McNamara identifies what these precise five questions are—five, not six or four, and phrased “just so” in his best corporate briefing style. Where McNamara thought he was admitting error, he revealed that he had had learned almost nothing. The problems, as he sees it, were tactics or procedures: if he had just been able to tick off the right checklist of questions in 1961, he could have helped the United States avoid the worst of the Vietnam mess. After several hundred pages of bullet marked lists and executive summaries, all in pre-digested prose polished by Brian VanDeMark, this breezily repentant narrative reaches its conclusion: a section on the “eleven major causes for our disaster in Vietnam,”6 all neatly laid out in the conclusion for the busy decision maker to scan.

The results seem so neat, the questions raised so simple. Thucydides has his own executive summary passages in which he expresses his conclusions: he publishes case studies about early Greek history (Thuc. 1.2-19), the plague at Athens (Thuc. 2.47-54), and the civil war at Corcyra (Thuc. 3.69-85). Where McNamara provides his bulleted lists or his eleven causes, Thucydides also has a predilection for distilling his conclusions: he offers the primary cause of the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 1.23.6) and, in his overview of Perikles, endorses his strategy in the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 2.65.6-13). Thucydides speaks self-consciously about the methodological problems that confront an historian (Thuc. 1.20-22), and his goal was to “write up,” in the most transparent possible language, what really happened (Thuc. 1.22.2). 7 He was not a Sophokles who revelled in ambiguity, but an analyst who would, I think, have loved to write with the self-assurance of a McNamara. Thucydides, who wrote most of his own history while in exile from Athens, established the literary tradition which McNamara followed: the retrospective analysis of the leader who had fallen from favor.

Nevertheless, Thucydides may have striven for clarity and for simple answers, but he was too keen an observer to smooth out his narrative so as to fit neatly with any of his theories. Despite the occasional explicit conclusions that he draws (e.g. 2.65) and despite the fact that his narrative is remarkable for the critical elements that it marginalizes, 8 Thucydides’ narrative generally invites, rather than precludes, analysis. The final capture and destruction of Plataia fits into its natural chronological slot, but it also constitutes one piece in the carefully wrought structure of book three: the Spartan capture of Plataia follows almost immediately after the Athenian capture of Mytilene, and the narrative ostentatiously invites us to compare the Athenian decision to spare (most of) the Mytileneans with the Spartan resolve to execute all their Plataian prisoners. Thucydides tells us explicitly why he believed that the Spartans made this decision (they needed the Thebans: Thuc. 3.68.4), but, although his disdain for the pretensions of Spartan virtue are clear in episodes such as Melos, he does not explicitly moralize or allows us to draw our own conclusions from the contrast between the Athenians at Mytilene and the Spartans at Plataia. Earlier in the book, he follows the idealizing Funeral Oration of Perikles with his devastating account of the plague—the reader cannot help but compare the grand vision enunciated by Perikles with the harsh limits of human nature brought out by the plague. The plague, however, soon gives way to Perikles’ final speech that recognizes the plague but defends, in heroic terms, the course of action that the statesman had sketched from the beginning (see Thuc. 1.140-144). When Thucydides goes on at Thuc. 2.65 to endorse Perikles’ leadership, his narrative provides us with the materials to undercut Thucydides’ own judgment. While Thucydides as analyst strove to resolve ambiguity and to provide a perfect account for decision makers of later generations (e.g. Thuc. 1.22.4), Thucydides as observer unflinchingly recorded events whether or not they supported his explicit theories.

Contrast McNamara’s memoirs. He takes himself and his colleagues to task for their ignorance of the culture and values of the Vietnamese. Certainly, this is an enormous step forward: Dean Acheson’s generally lucid memoirs, especially where they touch upon American relations with China and the Korean War, suggest that only the most superficial understanding of local cultures and histories contributed to American policy during the decade following the second World War. 9 Nevertheless, the improvement is limited: his weakness, McNamara states, was simply that he did not have enough experts at his side. McNamara remains the same technocrat that he had always been. His brief introductory section describes how his Harvard Business School managerial skills allowed him to serve his country during the Second World War—he even includes a photograph of himself receiving a medal from a five star general for his work. Although he never heard a shot fired in anger and his greatest risk was the hazardous air travel of the day, 10 his contribution to the war effort was important—Albert Speer, who directed the war effort of the competition was arguably worth as much as any fighting general. Nevertheless, McNamara betrays no sensitivity to the ambiguous position in which this placed him, when, twenty years later, he sent eighteen year old boys to die in the jungles of Southeast Asia for a cause in which he no longer believed. (Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, had no illusions about his own brief and bloodless participation in the Black Hawk Indian War. The fact that old men had not sent him in harm’s way rendered his responsibilities a generation later during the Civil War all the more heavy and earned more than one young soldier convicted of cowardice—”leg men,” he called them—a presidential reprieve from execution.) The fury which veterans and widows of Vietnam have, since the publication of his book, directed at this personally decent man has reportedly shocked him. Similarly, McNamara understands how his own loyalties to Henry Ford II, to Kennedy and then to Johnson contributed both to his rise in power and to the mistakes that he made, but his analytical tools seem unable to deal with such intangibles in the making of policy. In the end, McNamara enjoyed an honorable second (or, perhaps counting his time at Ford, third) career, spending more than a decade as the Head of the World Bank, but this task seems to have suited him far better than the analysis of dedicated or venal human beings.

McNamara in his memoirs frequently admits that Vietnam admitted of no simple solutions, but he nevertheless sounds often as if, if he knew then what he knows now, he could have avoided the catastrophes of the past. While I also believe that American policy was mistaken, McNamara seemed to have replaced one set of certainties for another: we do not, in fact, know what would have happened if the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had let South Vietnam go under ten years earlier than it did. Many of us believe that this would have been preferable, but we cannot know this for sure and we must always, as a part of our responsibility as students of the past, keep firmly in our minds the risks inherent in any course of action. The Thucydidean Perikles, in fact, opens his first speech by reminding the Athenians that human resolve, strong at first, often wavers in the crush of events (Thuc. 1.140). When the plague breaks out and savages Athens, where refugees from the countryside packed the city, exacerbating the dubious sanitation conditions and contributing to the plague, what would McNamara have done? I cannot help but think that his memoirs of the Peloponnesian War would have argued that the war had been a mistake and that Athens should have maintained its accommodation with Sparta. While this may well be true, the clarity of hindsight—the production of easy, “eleven point” lessons—would have reduced the value of such a memoir for future leaders, trapped in the shadows and ambiguities of the present.

Whatever his moral judgments, McNamara would understood the pervasive Realpolitik of Thucydides’ Athenians and the brutal questions which the Spartans posed to each of the doomed Plataians (Thuc. 3.53.2, 68.1: “Have you or have you not helped Sparta in the present war?”). But I am far from confident about how deeply he would have understood the arguments of the Plataians and Melians or the ambiguities which lay behind the positions of all those involved. Archidamos’ numbers and McNamara’s bullet lists and outline can only capture so much. For the rest, there are no easy answers. Reading Thucydides is no panacea, but the tortured fifth-century account of the Greek world war, with its contradictions and irresolved tensions, has as much to say now as it ever has.

  • Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969.
  • Cartledge, Paul. “The Silent Women of Thucydides: 2.45.2 Re-Viewed”, in Nomodeiktes: Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald. Ed. Ralph M. Rosen and Joseph Farrell. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. 125-132.
  • Connor, W. R. Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • Crane, Gregory. The Blinded Eye: Thucydides and the Invention of History. Ed Gregory Nagy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.
  • Crane, Gregory. Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Dewald, Carolyn. “Women and Culture in Herodotus’Histories.Women’s Studies 8 (1981): 93-127.
  • Edmunds, Lowell. “Thucydides in the Act of Writing.”Tradizione e Innovazione nella Cultura Greca. Ed. R. Pretagostini. Rome: GEI, 1993. 831-852. Vol. 2.
  • Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. New York: C. L. Webster, 1885. 2 vols.
  • Harvey, David. “Women in Thucydides.”Arethusa 18.1 (1985): 67-90.
  • Hornblower, Simon. “The Religious Dimension of the Peloponnesian War.”HSCP 94 (1992): 169-197. Loraux, Nicole. “Thucydide a ecrit la guerre du Peloponnese.”Metis 1 (1986b): 139-161. McNamara, Robert S., and Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1995. Orwin, Clifford. The Humanity of Thucydides. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. Sereny, Gitta. Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Sherman, William T. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. New York: Da Capo Press, 1984. 2 vols. Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970. Wiedemann, T. E. J. “Thucydides, Women, and the Limits of Rational Analysis.”G&R 30.2 (1983): 163-170.


    [1] Grant, 1885. [2] Sherman’s memoirs contain a striking parallel to the Melian dialogue, which illustrates the play of similarities and differences of that total war which the Athenians on Melos and Sherman in Georgia each espoused: Crane, 1997 compares the realisms of Thucydides and Sherman; see, for example, Sherman’s “Athenian” correspondence with John Bell Hood’s “Melian” position at Sherman, 1984 2.119-125. [3] Thucydidean scholarship has reacted against this, documenting at length the degree to which Thucydides does not fit the cold, calculating role to which he is often assigned: see, for example, Connor, 1984 and Orwin, 1994; Thucydides’ “realism” is a major theme of Crane, 1997. [4] Speer, 1970; on the ambiguities of Speer’s confessional style, see Sereny, 1995. [5] McNamara and VanDeMark, 1995, 39. [6] McNamara and VanDeMark, 1995, 321. [7] Loraux, 1986b, Edmunds, 1993. [8] Thucydides minimizes the importance of Greek religion as a factor in events (e.g. Hornblower, 1992) and the marginal role that he assigns to women in his narrative is famous (women show up roughly one tenth as often in Thucydides as in Herodotus: e.g. Dewald, 1981, Harvey, 1985, Wiedemann, 1983, Cartledge, 1993). The topics that Thucydides pushes to the margins of his history are the main subject of Crane, 1996. [9] Acheson, 1969. [10] McNamara and VanDeMark, 1995, 9; he does not provide comparative statistics for the risk of skirting U-boats on the North Atlantic.