Reading Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect moved me to the core. I was in Vietnam on and off for thirteen years and barely survived the fall of Saigon. I watched as Americans turned against the war, and Congress responded by eliminating first air support on the battlefield, then financial support for the South Vietnamese government. I watched as South Vietnamese army troops went without pay, desertions became rampant, and units had no money to replace weapons lost in combat. I watched as, despite that, on the whole, South Vietnamese defense against North Vietnamese aggression was courageous. The South Vietnamese 18th Infantry Regiment’s long and tough fight to save Xuan Loc against forces that greatly outnumbered them ended on 21 April 1975, when the city fell to the communists. Xuan Loc was the last obstacle to the North Vietnamese in their drive on Saigon. When it was lost, I knew Saigon was lost, too.
McNamara didn’t write a detailed history of what happened after 1968, when he left the U.S. government to become the head of the World Bank. He was, after all, telling his own story, not that of those who followed him. But his sense of loss over the mistakes he made and those of the presidents he served is palpable.
McNamara doesn’t talk about the Vietnam Memorial (the Wall) on the National Mall. But I know from reading Brian VanDeMark’s Road to Disaster (see my review at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/road-to-disaster-a-new-history-of-americas-descent-into-vietnam) that he made several trips to visit the memorial. He never did it publicly. He went alone, in the dark of night. No one knew he had been there or observed his anguish.