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Vietnam War defense secretary seeks reconciliation in Hanoi

Hanoi street

McNamara to meet old foes

Tom Mintier

November 8, 1995
Web posted at: 10:25 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Tom Mintier

HANOI, Vietnam (CNN) -- For Robert McNamara (9K JPEG image) it is probably a place he thought he would never see: downtown Hanoi. In Vietnam for the first time since the Vietnam War ended 20 years ago, McNamara is staying at a first class hotel just blocks away from the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," a prison that once housed captured American pilots.

The former U.S. secretary of defense is in the country to promote a conference next year in the United States on the Vietnam War. He will invite Vietnamese leaders who shaped Vietnam's war policy in the '60s to talk about the past.

McNamara did not have much to say to the press except that his first impressions of Vietnam were "very favorable."

"It was a very, very good start to my visit," he said as he entered his hotel. "I think I'm scheduled to have a press briefing on the day I leave. I'll be happy to talk to you then."

Gen. Giap

High on his agenda is a meeting on Thursday with General Vo Nguyen Giap, the chief architect of Vietnam's military victories over both France and the United States. Giap has previously had meetings with other of his American counterparts, including one last September with retired U.S. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the man who carried out the decision to use chemical defoliants in Vietnam.

young McNamara

McNamara was the U.S. secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968, during the massive build-up of troops in Vietnam under two U.S. presidents, Kennedy and Johnson. Just this year, he admitted in his published memoirs that American participation in the war was a mistake and U.S. troops should have pulled out as early as 1963. It wasn't until a decade later, in 1973, that the last combat troops left South Vietnam. More than 58,000 Americans died in the war.

The purpose of the trip, according to the group sponsoring McNamara's visit, the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, is not to rehash the war but to learn from it. "There has been absolutely no hostility," said the Council's Karen Seghrue. "In fact, they've expressed great appreciation for his trip here and great hopes that it will stimulate further reconciliation between the two countries."

soldiers in Vietnam

Wednesday afternoon, McNamara visited Vietnam Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam, but like other meetings being held in Hanoi, reporters were not welcome. All events on the trip have been held behind closed doors, apparently at the request not of the Vietnamese but of the American visitors. The U.S. delegation may feel the Vietnamese will be more willing to speak their minds if cameras and microphones are not present.

In his book, McNamara talked about how and why the U.S. government missed opportunities to prevent or shorten the war. What his mission hopes to accomplish is a better understanding of how decisions were made in North Vietnam during the war.

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