August 1967: US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara Testifies that Bombing is Ineffective in Vietnam

Despite a relatively optimistic view of the war at the beginning of 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had taken a very different view of the war’s prospects by the year’s end. In the video below, a recorded telephone conversation between President Johnson and McNamara reveals the source of Johnson’s misplaced casualty figures as well as the pressure McNamara was under to explain the war to the press at the beginning of 1967.

LBJ and Robert McNamara, 1/25/67, 8.05P, published by the LBJ Library, 28 January 2013.

In August 1967, however, during an address to a Senate sub-committee, Robert McNamara testified that pacification was not working and US bombing raids against North Vietnam had not achieved their objectives. McNamara maintained that the movement of supplies to South Vietnam had not been reduced and neither the economy nor the morale of the North Vietnamese army had been broken.

It was a startling revelation, given America’s commitment to the war up until that point. As well as bombing operations Flaming Dart and Rolling Thunder, major ground war efforts such as Operation Cedar Falls in the same year were a huge blow to morale among US citizens already strongly opposed to the war’s escalation. During 1967, American troop strength was recorded at 400,000 men. By the years’ end, it would rise to 500,000 men. With 11,300 American deaths that year, social discord within the US had risen to a breaking point.

By November 1967, McNamara had written a memorandum to President Johnson in which he recommended that the president freeze troop levels, stop bombing North Vietnam and turn over ground fighting to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). McNamara by then believed the US could not win the war in Vietnam. His advice to Johnson at that time was not well received and thus ignored.

Within a few months of his memo to President Johnson – by the end of February 1968 – Robert McNamara was a persona non grata in the Johnson administration. He would resign as secretary of defence and move on to head the World Bank. In his retirement, McNamara admitted to the failure of America’s involvement in Vietnam in his book The Fog of War. To wit: “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” In the film documentary version of Fog of War (below), Robert McNamara explained it further:

Episode 9: Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara, published by Laertiin, 12 February 2010.

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