08/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harold P. Ford on Robert McNamara in Retrospect

While an undergraduate at Davidson College, Harold P. Ford was my political science professor in the years (1955-57) he was on leave from the Central Intelligence Agency. *

In addition to the Soviet Union and Communist China, there was one other country to which professor Ford devoted special attention: Vietnam. (Or, The Two Viet-Nams, as in Bernard Fall's title.) Before Robert McNamara became Secretary of Defense in 1961, and after the French defeat at Dienbienphu, his students were taught to view the conflict in Vietnam as basically a civil war and not as an extension of monolithic communism in the Cold War. This was a conclusion that Robert McNamara was to reach after the Vietnam War was over. Only late in life did he publish an apologia claiming that he had known for some time before he left the Pentagon that the United States could not win, but he had not been willing to undermine American morale by saying so.

Robert McNamara published his Vietnam memoir in 1995: In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. One of the most trenchant reviews of the book was written by Harold Ford in 1996: Revisiting Vietnam: Thoughts Engendered by Robert McNamara's In Retrospect. Ford later wrote the prize-winning book, CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes, 1962-1968.

In his own retrospective overview, Ford concluded that, from the early 1950's onward, the CIA's assessments on Vietnam--in the main--proved to be more accurate than those manufactured in the Pentagon or State Department. Fairly consistently, for example, the analyses had shown that ill-founded official American claims of great progress in the field distorted reality to the detriment of policy objectives. CIA's record of candor was all the more remarkable because its working-level officers often had to brave pressures from senior political and military officials to "get on the team" and support the war effort with more optimistic findings and estimates.

The CIA's more experienced Indochina hands had consistently argued, in 1963-1965, that substantially increasing U.S. combat operations in Vietnam was misguided because the war was essentially a political-military struggle which had to be won in the South, primarily by the South Vietnamese.

Both in his review and in the book, Hal Ford took McNamara to task on several points, but on none more severely than the latter's complaint that "there were no Vietnam experts" (sic) at hand to whom top policymakers could turn for advice. The charge revealed that McNamara and his colleagues, at a minimum, were ignorant of the credentials of Agency officers.

Many CIA officers, Ford wrote, had simply not accepted the widespread assumption among President Johnson's advisers that North Vietnamese aggression was "essentially one thrust of a global campaign of conquest masterminded in Moscow and Beijing." (From personal experience, this writer can attest that the assumption was gospel with Secretary of State Dean Rusk.) Moreover, the Office of National Estimates (ONE) had had the audacity to doubt "the core belief of the American political-military establishment that the fall of Saigon would necessarily lead to an inexorable Communist takeover of all Southeast Asia."

Of special note, Hal Ford highlighted one of the strangest episodes related in Robert McNamara's In Retrospect. As late as September 1967, well after the SecDef had developed serious misgivings about America's commitment in Vietnam, DCI Richard Helms had submitted an "eyes only" memo to President Johnson entitled: "Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam." As cited by McNamara in his book, the assessment concluded that--although there was a real downside to failure in Vietnam-- "the risks are probably more limited and controllable than most previous argument has indicated." McNamara wrote that this highly sensitive document showed that the "CIA's most senior analysts believed we could have withdrawn from Vietnam without any permanent damage to U.S. or Western security."

Yet, McNamara added, he had not seen this unique Agency document -- "full of sophisticated reporting and analysis" -- until he was in the midst of researching In Retrospect. He suggested that this fact possibly revealed an "idiosyncratic secretiveness" in an autocratic President Johnson and, in any case, it was "certainly no way to run a government. However, it would be simplistic to attribute a president's failure to such factors. Subordinates ought to find ways to compensate for idiosyncrasies in their leader's style. It remained our responsibility to identify the contradictions in policy, force them to the surface, and debate them. Had we done so, we might have changed the policy." [It was always "we," not "I," per Errol Morris of The Fog of War film.]

Richard Helms had informed the President, via sealed envelope, that he had asked "one of my most experienced intelligence analysts in the Office of National Estimates to attempt to set forth what the United States stake is in that struggle. I believe that you will find it interesting."

* [After serving as a naval officer in the Pacific in WW II, Hal Ford joined the CIA's Office of Policy Coordination in 1950; later served as CIA station chief on Taiwan in the late 1960's. Beginning in 1952, he was on and off a senior analyst on Indochina questions; and served as chief of ONE's Far East staff, and as CIA's representative on various inter-agency policymaking groups concerned with Indochina. Spending the balance of his career in intelligence analysis, Ford became staff chief of the Office of National Estimates (ONE) in the middle sixties, and drafted many NIE's (National Intelligence Estimates) on Vietnam. After making an extraordinary transition to become a senior staff member of the new oversight Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Ford returned to the CIA in 1980 and helped form the new National Intelligence Council (NIC)--the successor to ONE. He served as the NIC's vice-chairman and acting chairman before retirement. He was awarded the Intelligence Community's National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal. He continues to be an astute observer of American foreign policy while residing at the Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, MD.]