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Such conditions for intervention constitute a Platonic ideal. To the extent Weinberger's list is followed, it is a rigid rule book that would keep American troops out of almost everywhere. If it is applied loosely, however, it is simply a set of common-sense precautions any President would take if he could. Even Vietnam does not measure up badly on that scale. For years the war was popular, the U.S. had a clear goal in defending the South, it was convinced intervention was in the national interest and, with a ratio of about 20 North Vietnamese killed for each American, decisive victory at first seemed possible.

George Bush brushed aside the Weinberger rules when he sent the Army first after General Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama and later to Somalia to safeguard relief shipments. Bill Clinton felt free to ignore the rules in Haiti, which is what a President gets paid for deciding when the nation's vital interests are at stake and trying to rally the support he needs. "Military force," says Brent Scowcroft, who was National Security Adviser to George Bush, "ought to be an instrument of U.S. foreign policy and interests. That means you use it sometimes when you don't have popular support or when you have very limited goals." Says Seth Tillman, who was a staff member of Senator J. William Fulbright's Foreign Relations Committee during the 1960s: "The lesson of Vietnam is to forget about Vietnam. Be very discriminating about your interests and the feasibility of protecting them."

When McNamara confesses in his book, "We were wrong, terribly wrong," he means mostly that he and his colleagues misjudged the nature of the cold war and the role Vietnam played in it. In a 1991 interview with Time, McNamara recalled, "We thought there was considerable evidence China intended to extend its hegemony across Southeast Asia and perhaps beyond." But he added, "I'm not at all sure now." While many Americans agree with him that the domino theory was probably founded on an illusion, not everyone is convinced. Rusk was not, and neither is Walt Rostow, who was special assistant to L.B.J. "This was a war about the balance of power in all of Southeast Asia," says Rostow. "We lost the battle in Vietnam, but we won the war in Southeast Asia."

This is a crucial question. Did the Vietnam War, tragedy though it was, provide the time and security from the communist threat for Asia to develop its present independence and booming free-market prosperity? The argument on that is still ongoing. If the question is ever resolved, it will be done by historians, not by today's politicians and citizens. And the answer will come with a proviso: it will offer no guide to the future.

--Reported by Bonnie Angelo/ New York and Mark Thompson/Washington

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