The Books

By The Editors / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007

Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy by Robert S. McNamara, James G. Blight, Robert K. Brigham, Thomas Biersteker, and Herbert Schandler (Public Affairs, 479 pages, $27.50).

By Ralph J. Begleiter '71

So much has been written about the Vietnam War that it seems unlikely another book could contribute much to our understanding of that conflict. Battlefield accounts and stories of the war's psychological fallout have, over the last twenty-five years, made us intimately familiar with Americans' Vietnam experiences and scars. But do we know how the war was engineered? Do we know who made the decisions to keep it going, and why? Anyone who still finds the U.S. government's Vietnam war policy incomprehensible will find a storehouse of intriguing detail, and possibly even a few answers, in Argument Without End, the new book cowritten by the war's principal American architect, Robert S. McNamara.

When McNamara published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam in 1995, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense made headlines with his frank admission that he and his colleagues in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations "were wrong, terribly wrong" to intensify the war. Anyone who had ruminated over the more than three million casualties that resulted was struck by McNamara's willingness to rehash and repeal the decisions that had cost so many lives.

After publishing In Retrospect, McNamara traveled to Hanoi with Watson Institute Professor James Blight, who, along with Adjunct Associate Professor Janet Lang, organized a series of conferences on the war. Although it may seem that the last thing the world needed was another conference on the Vietnam War, the Blight-McNamara conferences - which also included Argument Without End coauthors Robert K. Brigham, Herbert Shandler, and Watson Institute Director Thomas Biersteker - were unique for three reasons.

First, McNamara's involvement en-sured the participation not only of surviving Washington officials deeply involved in carrying out the war and negotiating its peace but also some of the surviving Vietnamese government officials from the same period. Secondly, the first major conference was held in Hanoi, a symbolic step that also provided the opportunity for conversations with some important Vietnamese who helped lead the North Vietnamese government during the 1950s and 1960s, but who were now too old or frail for long-distance travel. Finally, the conferences brought together some of the leading U.S. and Vietnamese scholars of the war for discussions both among themselves and with the unusual collection of former government officials sitting across from them at the conference table.

Argument Without End is the first significant work to emerge from the Blight-McNamara conferences. In the book, McNamara returns once again to relive decisions made more than three decades ago. Only this time his ruminations are confirmed and challenged by the scholars and former officials with whom he has spent so many hours since 1995. As a result, for readers willing to wade through its more than 400 pages, Argument Without End holds the promise of insights that could help prevent a repeat of the mistakes that led to Vietnam, which traumatized the United States for many years after the war ended in 1973.

By way of disclosure, Argument Without End is of more than casual interest to me. As a CNN correspondent, I covered one of the Hanoi conferences, and I moderated the unprecedented dialogue held at Brown in 1997 between the U.S. Ambassador to Hanoi and Vietnam's ambassador to Washington. I had also interviewed several of the book's leading characters, including McNamara and Hanoi's former foreign minister, the late Nguyen Co Thach. I worked closely with Biersteker and Blight, McNamara's coauthors, and produced a CNN broadcast based on their June 1997 Hanoi conference.

On the first day of class last spring, one of Jim Blight's students asked: "Why are older people so emotional about Vietnam?" In response, Blight handed the manuscript of Argument Without End to the class and invited Robert McNamara to sit in on their discussions. "McNamara is, to put it mildly, a practical person who seeks the bottom line for the present," Blight says, "especially when he looks back at a history in which he played a major role."

Blight hopes that Argument will not trigger the same polarized response as McNamara's 1995 memoir, In Retrospect. He is buoyed by such examples as the question posed in a Japanese documentary based on conferences that form the basis of the book: "How was it possible for these former enemies to confront one another in this honest fashion? And why cannot we - the Japanese people - begin to confront our own past in an honest fashion?"At the end of the semester, the student from Blight's seminar concluded that older people are emotional about Vietnam because in Blight's words "so many mistakes were made and so many people were killed because of misunderstandings." Blight thinks the student got it right: "I told her I hope she becomes secretary of state someday, so she can put this insight into practice." - Michael Lukas '02

The conclusions McNamara and his colleagues reach in Argument are hardly earth-shattering. Biersteker conveys the major conclusion simply: "The fundamental enemy - the root cause of the agony over the Vietnam War - was mutual ignorance." But Chester Cooper, a Vietnam-era CIA and State Department official who was a part of the Johnson administration's management of war policy and a participant in the first Hanoi conference, put it more pointedly in a candid moment during the 1997 discussions: "I am beginning to think that not only did we not understand each other; I'm beginning to think we did not want to understand each other." Cooper comes across as an earnest former policymaker confronting his own misunderstandings decades later.

McNamara is the ostensible star of Argument. With all the clout and baggage of his years running the Vietnam War as defense secretary, McNamara interprets new evidence to fit the late-life revelation that he began to articulate when he wrote In Retrospect. Plainly, McNamara is sorting out the failure of his own leadership during Vietnam, hoping that the "lessons" he draws might be applied to conflicts festering at the end of the twentieth century, such as those in Korea, India, Pakistan, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. With a cluelessness that will seem mindboggling to any baby boomer who was in college while McNamara was sending more than 500,000 Americans and thousands of bombing sorties to Vietnam, he asserts today that foreign policy should be conducted on the basis of "a strong moral foundation" and that "there is no justification" for "the level of killing that has occurred in the twentieth century." (McNamara acknowledges that "historical naďvete" - his own and that of his colleagues and the American public supporting the war in the 1960s - "got us into trouble.")

The real stars of Argument are less well known. They are the former Vietnamese officials and scholars who lectured their American counterparts in Hanoi and at a second, more fruitful conference convened by the Watson Institute in Italy in July 1998, from which journalists and most observers were excluded. "You are right about the Americans and wrong about the Vietnamese," said Luu Van Loi, a former Vietminh diplomat, after months of dialogue about the cultural gulf separating Hanoi and Washington. Another former North Vietnamese representative, the rapid-fire speaker Brown's scholars came to call "Pepperpot," Luu Doan Huynh, quietly admits that the Vietnamese were unsophisticated enough in the 1950s to fail to understand U.S. interests and capabilities in southeast Asia. "Pepperpot" later shrugs off protestations by his American peers that Washington did not consider itself Vietnam's enemy in the 1950s. In reply, Luu points out that U.S. funds underwrote ammunition for the French fighting in Indochina. "Blood," he said, "speaks with a terrible voice."

McNamara himself later endorses Luu Doan Huynh's conclusion that "all the way through this bloody affair, we had many wrong ideas about each other. I ask myself: 'How is this possible?' " His strident voice proposes several theories of "missed opportunities" for peace, and draws conclusions from much evidence that is made public here for the first time. There is, we discover, something to be gained from sitting down and talking: new information. Among Argument's highlights are: new evidence about who ordered the August 1964 attack on American ships in the Tonkin Gulf, the attack that prompted Washington to escalate the war; previously unknown insights into Hanoi's role (if any) in the February 1965 attack which killed American troops at Pleiku and led to the massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam that came to be known as Rolling Thunder; and detailed analyses from both sides of a series of failed diplomatic initiatives with such code names as "MAYFLOWER," "PINTA," and "XYZ," initiatives that were conducted during the height of the war's escalation. Blight and Brigham modestly claim the new evidence is "convincing," if not "irrefutable and final."

In the broadest sense, Argument Without End is a book about the self-defeating logic that sometimes serves as the justification for war. The authors' examination of the real-life, nitty-gritty details of who said what to whom, when they said it, and how it was interpreted may not provide us with an Oliver Stone-style screenplay, but it does get us closer to the truth as stated by retired U.S. Army Col. Herbert Schandler: "The achievement of a military victory by U.S. forces in Vietnam was, indeed, a dangerous illusion."

Ralph J. Begleiter is Distinguished Journalist in Residence at the University of Delaware. He was CNN's World Affairs Correspondent from 1981 to 1999.



Against the Tide by Cornelia Dean '69 (Columbia University Press, 279 pages, $24.95).


By Norman Boucher

If you can see the ocean when you look out your living room window, this book does not contain good news. As tragically demonstrated by the hurricanes and storms that battered the central Atlantic coast this summer, beaches are not good places on which to build houses.

In Against the Tide, New York Times science editor Cornelia Dean explains with remarkable clarity that beaches are what geologists like to call a "dynamic" environment directly affected by natural actions many miles away. A river carrying silt to the sea, for example, deposits its load just offshore, where ocean currents both rearrange some of this sediment into sandbars and beaches near the river's mouth and carry literally tons of the stuff parallel to the coastline before depositing it at a distant beach. At the same time, rising sea levels, winter storms, and an inexorable process of erosion and rebuilding all contribute to making most beaches a temporary natural phenomenon. As one coastal geologist notes in Against the Tide, "There is no stasis at the shoreline. When people are building large buildings on the edge of the shoreline, why are they astounded when the shoreline shifts?"

The astonishment is rooted in the activities of what Dean labels the "constituency of ignorance." Many beaches are the location of some of the priciest real estate around, which means that the social and economic interests of many individuals and communities depend on beaches that stay put. As a result, many public heads are quite literally in the sand. "In a contest between the abstract idea that seawalls damage beaches," Dean writes about one common method for stabilizing shoreline, "and the all-too-certain reality that one's house is about to fall to the sea, reality wins out." It's a classic example of a conflict between humans and nature, and, predictably, the human response has been to dig in.

Dean is particularly good at making complex geophysical information easily accessible and is even better at sketching the many layers of conflict that coastline protection creates. Although her is an advocate for letting nature take its course wherever possible, Dean's integrity as a reporter keeps her away from the simplicities of the polemicist. She generally is critical of attempts to control beach erosion but includes in her book descriptions of techniques that seem to work, at least in a particular location on the short term.

Against the Tide describes the three ways communities battle beach erosion. The least effective is to "armor" the shoreline against offshore currents by building jetties or seawalls. Beach nourishment, the practice of building up a beach by pumping tons of sand onto it, can be more effective, although, because it may have to done yearly, the technique quickly becomes very expensive. Best of all, in Dean's view, is simply pulling buildings back from the shoreline, an alternative that is inconceivable to many coastal homeowners and hoteliers.

As environmentalists have long complained, the conflict over coastal development is fueled by a panoply of public policies that subtly encourage development along beaches. One of the most controversial is the National Flood Insurance Program, which aims to reduce federal disaster relief payouts by requiring stricter construction standards for buildings along the coast. Unfortunately, in exchange for following the stricter standards, property owners are allowed to buy federal flood insurance for just a few hundred dollars, a practice that, in the words of one geologist, is like insuring people who live on the lip of a volcano.

With so much at stake, public officials are unlikely to soon overhaul coastal-development policies. "American political institutions, even our national mythology, are ill-suited to the indeterminacy and elasticity of nature," Dean writes in one of Against the Tide's more eloquent passages. "Faced with a problem such as beach erosion, our reponse is to solve it, not to live with it. It would almost be un-American to concede that it is beyond us, that it is we who must adapt to the ocean, not the other way around."

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November / December 1999