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FOR 20 YEARS AMERICANS have been trying to learn the lessons of Vietnam while disagreeing on what they are. Given that endless debate, it was inevitable that Robert McNamara would conclude his controversial new book, In Retrospect, with a chapter on the lessons of the war. "I don't think the country has yet learned the lessons," he said in an interview with Time last week. "If it had, I wouldn't have written the book." McNamara points to the dangers of underestimating nationalism, of faulty evaluations, of asking the military to achieve more than weapons can deliver. The nation worries through that sort of list every time it sends its troops abroad, to Grenada or Panama or Somalia, fearing that the intervention may turn into "another Vietnam." But wars do not repeat themselves; each arises from a unique set of circumstances. The forces that led the U.S. to fight in Vietnam at all, and in the manner that it did, have changed forever. Another Vietnam is as likely as another Bunker Hill.

The war was not even about Vietnam. It was a protracted battle of the cold war, fought to block the extension of communist power in Asia. The U.S. commitment to South Vietnam was sealed in 1954 when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles went to Geneva for the nine-delegation conference on Indochina. He was determined to keep the French from turning their holdings over to Ho Chi Minh. After the conference decided to partition Vietnam for two years pending elections, the U.S. and South Vietnam went to work to make the partition permanent.

The remarkable thing now about the American involvement in Vietnam is that it was not remarkable then. It reflected a mainstream consensus that if South Vietnam fell to communism, then other dominoes like Thailand, Malaysia, even Indonesia could be next. Dulles' successors believed that they were following the lessons of World War II when they committed American troops to fight in Vietnam. If Hitler had been challenged early, they were convinced, the carnage of World War II might have been avoided. Now, by challenging Chinese and Soviet aggression in Vietnam, they hoped to head off World War III.

Because Vietnam was a hot war in the midst of a cold war, it was afflicted with contradictions. On the one hand, America's leaders assumed they had to fight; but at the same time, the U.S. had to fight within tight, self-set limits, fearful that using too much force would prompt China to intervene.

The lessons of Korea, where the U.S. had last fought a limited war to keep a country divided, were also very topical in Washington during the 1960s. "We had tried this approach before," wrote Dean Rusk, who was Secretary of State for most of the Vietnam years, "and it had worked; indeed we had to make it work to avoid slipping into general war." Recalls McGeorge Bundy, who served as National Security Adviser to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson: "The image of our success in Korea was much in our minds. I used to say to myself, 'We haven't lost as many as in Korea.' Then we went past that number."

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