Robert McNamara died early today at the age of 93. C-SPAN has made available a clip of a 1995 Booknotes interview in which the former Secretary of Defense and architect of the Vietnam War discusses the impact of the press and coverage of that war.
C-SPAN: What did you think the impact of the press was?
McNAMARA: Well, I think two things. Number one, this was the first war — and people don’t understand this to this day — the first war in which the press acted without censorship, and I think that was good. The second point is that many people today — and I’ve heard it expressed within the last week or so — believe that, well, it was the press that lost the war, that if they’d just kept their mouth shut, the people wouldn’t have turned away from it and we’d have had the American people behind it and we could have won. That is totally wrong. We were fighting — and we didn’t realize it — a civil war. Now, true, obviously there were Soviet and Chinese influence and support and no question that the communists were trying to control South Vietnam, but it was basically a civil war. And one of the things we should learn is you can’t fight and win a civil war with outside troops, and particularly not when the political structure in a country is dissolved. So it wasn’t the press that was the problem. The problem was that we were in the wrong place with the wrong tactics.