EDITOR'S NOTE: Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's new book on the Vietnam War has stirred outrage among the Vietnamese now living in the U.S. While McNamara argues the war was unwinnable because of South Vietnamese instability, corruption and military ineffectiveness, Vietnamese believe the war was lost in Washington. PNS commentator Lam Quang Thi was a general in the Army of the Vietnam Republic and is the author of Autopsy: The Death of South Vietnam (1985).
SAN JOSE-- Like America's Vietnam vets, Vietnamese in America are furious about former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's new book, "In Retrospect: Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" But the similarities and there.

American vets feel betrayed by the former Pentagon boss, who for twenty years lead a lavish lifestyle in complete disregard of the 58,000 American deaths his self-proclaimed mistakes caused. We Vietnamese, by contrast, are furious that he now alleges South Vietnam's political instability, corruption and inability to defend Vietnamese for what he claims was an unwinnable war.

Before refuting these arguments, I should point out that U.S. global policy during the Cold War was to "contain" communist expansion at all costs. That domino theory was so compelling it led to U.S. involvements in Korean and Vietnam. For McNamara to claim that he could have reversed it merely by recommending disengagement from Vietnam even when Russia and Communist China were actively supporting the "war of liberation" only underscores his enormous arrogance. McNamara also chose to mention the one U.S. move that provided the context for the withdrawal in 1973 -- President Nixon's 1972 visit to China following the breakdown of relations between the two communist giants.

As for the instability of the Government of South Vietnam, the U.S. has largely itself to blame. Not only was it heavily involved in the overthrow of the Diem government on November 1, 1963, but McNamara himself, reportedly acting on President Johnson's instructions, openly hailed General Nguyen Khanh as a hero for staging a successful counter-coup that deposed the plotting generals. And it was then-U.S. Ambassador General Maxwell Taylor who subsequently encouraged the rebellion of the Montagnard tribes to discredit and ultimately oust General Khanh, whom Taylor intensely disliked.

Ironically, McNamara echoes his former media and Congressional critics by singling out South Vietnamese corruption as a prime factor behind America's withdrawal. Yet it was U.S. officials themselves whose patronage system of buying obedience in exchange for favors that nurtured and legitimated that corruption in the first place.

As general during the war, I can speak to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)'s so-called incapacity to defend itself. Our victories at Quang Tri, Kontum And An Loc during North Vietnam's Great Offensive in 1972 amply demonstrated that we could beat back North Vietnam's regular divisions in conventional warfare, provided we received adequate supplies and air support.

The Battle of An Loc, for instance, pitted some 6,350 ARVN men against a force three that size. During the peak of the battle, we had access to only one 105 mm howitzer to provide close support while the enemy attack was backed by an entire artillery division. Whereas we had no tanks, the enemy had two armored regiments. Yet ARVN won. As General Paul Vanuxem, a French veteran of the Indochina War, wrote in 1972 after visiting the liberated city of An Loc: "An Loc was the Verdun of Vietnam, where Vietnam received as in baptism the supreme consecration of her will."

"When military power is applied, is should meet the test of clarity of mission and efficiency," Defense Secretary James Schlesinger once observed. "That was the case in Grenada, but it clearly was not the case in Lebanon." Nor was it the case in Vietnam. Indeed, the real flaw of the Vietnam War was the lack of a clear objective on the side and thus a resulting confusion regarding how to achieve it.

In retrospect, the U.S. could have achieved its policy of containment had it adopted one of two alternative strategies either carry the war to North Vietnam and try to destroy Hanoi's will to fight; or support the government of South Vietnam in fighting a long and protracted war in the South. While the first alternative carried the risk of intervention by Russia and China, that risk was mitigated by the animosity between the two countries, and the fact that neither was threatened directly by the destruction of North Vietnam's war-making machine.

Since the U.S. lacked the guts to adopt this option, the second alternative could have been implemented in conjunction with an intensive Vietnamization program. In other words, the Vietnam War was winnable and should have been won because in war, as General McArthur once said, "there are no substitutes for victory".

In my view, McNamara's book adds nothing new to the already vast library on the Vietnam War. On the other hand, perhaps I should refrain from casting stones at a man who confesses his mistakes in writing. After all, a written confession can be a lucrative way of easing one's conscience.

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