How effective was the McNamara Line? Father and son seem to differ

I was curious to read what the son of the late Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara had to say about his father and his role waging the ill-fated Vietnam conflict.

Craig McNamara’s book — “Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, From Vietnam to Today” — is a ramble through his own rambling life and lifestyle with the occasional attempt to understand and explain his father and his role in the Southeast Asia military excursion (It was never a declared war.). The later attempt is largely for naught.

It was not until the closing pages of the book that the scion touches on my “relationship” with the former secretary. As in Robert McNamara’s autobiography “In Retrospect,” it is a brief interlude.

In 2018 Craig McNamara, who avoided the Vietnam-era draft due to ulcers, visited Vietnam with a group put together by Vietnam veteran and member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Chuck Searcy. He writes on page 243:

“One afternoon, Chuck and I were driving on a road through a forested area, and he told me that we were going to pass something called the McNamara Line, an installation in the former DMZ where my father had conceived of dropping a series of electronic sensors from planes in order to pick up enemy troop movements. It didn’t work, Chuck explained to me, because the cutting-edge sensors frequently picked up the sounds of animals and other ambient noise. Chuck said that there was a carved stone slab in the jungle somewhere commemorating the folly of Robert McNamara.

“As we were driving, I spotted something off the road. ‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Is that it?’

“Chuck hit the brakes. We got out of the car and went off the road, hacking through a few feet of jungle with a machete. There was a plaque not unlike the marker I had made for my mother’s grave. It read, according to Chuck’s translation:

“The ‘Magic Eye’ of the McNamara Electronic Fence, an evidence of the humiliating defeat of the U.S. Empire in 1975.”

Both the son and the father make no mention of the fact that calling it the McNamara Line is a pejorative allusion to the spectacular World War II failure known as the Maginot Line.

Those of us who worked on it generally called it McNamara’s Wall. Those sensors were much more that just listening devices. There were also ones that detected odors and ones that detected seismic vibrations, such as those created by weapons-laden bicycles.

“In Retrospect” gave its short shrift to this endeavor on page 246 (The braces are mine, parens are his.):

“They concluded the bombing [of the Ho Chi Minh freeway, as we called it] had indeed been ineffective and recommended building a ‘barrier’ as an alternative means of checking infiltration. This concept, which had first come to my attention in the spring of 1966, would involve laying down a complex belt of mines and sensors across the Demilitarized Zone and the Laotian panhandle to the west. (the sensors would guide our attack aircraft to enemy forces on the move.) The barrier would be costly [That was the most secret aspect of the whole damned thing. Each of those sensors was said to cost the same as a Volkswagen beetle, which then was about $2,000.], but because our bombing was ineffective, I authorized it … Once it was put in place, the barrier was intended to increase infiltration losses. And it did.”

It wasn’t actually McNamara’s idea but rather a gaggle of anonymous advisers. And its effectiveness was questionable, as the plaque attested.

McNamara wrote that he had misgivings about the conduct of the war as early as 1967, which, coincidentally, was about when his Air Force decided to send me to Nahkon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base to work on his wall at Task Force Alpha. The base, Naked Fanny, as we called it, was a short but perilous bus ride to the town of Nahkon Phanom on the banks of the Mekong River just across from Laos. It was where Johnny’s Ice Cream Parlor kept the Singha beer in the ice cream freezer.

For me and thousands of others whose lives were changed, it might have been better for him to express his misgivings sooner.

His intelligence, from people with brass on their shoulders, and mine, from inside a computer-filled, air-conditioned tin shed in the jungle, tended to differ.

In those computers we kept track of what was being bombed, secondary explosions and fires, even sightings of POWs, which the F4s were supposed to avoid. But based on the assumption the POWs were moved frequently, the sightings were to be scrubbed after five days. After awhile, not being a fan of assumptions or bombing of POWs, I stopped removing them. But someone else would later.

It was all so antiseptic, so high-tech compared to what was on the ground, beneath the three-tiered canopy of jungle, in the mud and the rain, the insects and the snakes.

Besides, how did a local farmer sound, smell or shake the ground differently from an invading Viet Cong?

By the time Saigon fell, I had finished college on the G.I. Bill and was working as a city editor at a small Texas daily newspaper. After working in an outfit where information was on a need to know basis, I had chosen to work in a field where the watchword was right to know. So, I guess you could say it changed my life, as I’m sure it did many others, including the 58,000 whose lives it ended prematurely.

All these years later, is it pointless to ask what might have been? Craig McNamara seems to face the same quandary.

Thomas Mitchell, next to never used bunker outside his hooch on Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base just across the Mekong River from Laos.

9 comments on “How effective was the McNamara Line? Father and son seem to differ

  1. Bill says:

    I appreciated reading your post. It brought back memories.

    I spent some time in Udorn Thailand in 1961-62 with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Unit, a reinforced Marine infantry battalion. We were told that our mission was to provide a blocking force to deter VC incursions,into Northern Thailand, Supposedly Communist incursions from well as Cambodia and Viet Nam were getting . more intense. We were told that we were to be a “show of force” to deter incursions and attacks and were told we there to provide a presence since the Thai Forces needed backup.

    In reality it was part of the build up to the larger objective of aiding the South Vietnamese government which had actually had its beginning in 1954 under President Eisenhower. Eisenhower sent a letter of support to then President Ngo Dinh Diem pledging support.

    Though it was not known at the time by us grunts, ,President Kennedy was upping the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. Kennedy wanted Diem, who was a Catholic like himself to succeed and so on May 11, 1961, Kennedy ordered 400 U.S. Special Forces troops into Vietnam, along with an additional 100 military advisers to help train the South Vietnamese military. We had no combat units in Viet Nam but did have numerous advisors ad one lone Marine Helicopter Squadron.

    None of us in Udorn knew of what was really going on but we began to think a bit when several of us junior officers were sent from Thailand to Viet Nam and attached to various entities. One friend was attached to the MAG in Saigon and my good buddy John DeBellis and I were sent to the Marine Helicopter Squadron in Soc Trang which was participating in operations being conducted ty RVN forces as well as several private armies headed up by
    Catholic priests. Soc Trang is in the Vietnamese Delta.

    From there it was back to the States and then out of the Corps and to dollege for my B.A. and law school.

    By the time of the fall of Saigon I was practicing law.

  2. Sounds like the experience influenced you, too.

  3. Bill says:

    It did. I was not involved in the hell it later became and only saw a little combat. It did leave me with a few bad dreams for a while and a measure of anguish and guilt over the fact that dome of my friends and comrades in arms are inscribed on that black wall in D.C..

    Maybe McNamara et. al. thought that they could avoid another Dienbinphu by dropping sensors so they would not be surprised like the French who had no idea that they were being surrounded st Dien bin phu with troops and artillery that had been painfully and slowly gathered under cover or darkness and the jungle canopy.

    When I was there, our leaders were setting up the strategic hamlets which in theory provided some safety by gathering the good guys into somewhat fortified hamlet during the night and allowing them to come out during the day to farm and do commerce.

    The fact was that you thereby ceded the entire countryside to the Viet Cong at night.

    Plus, you never were quite sure of who the good guys were. I went on one RVN operation against what had been reported as a VC company which turned out to be a VC battalion. Repeated calls on the RVN Colonel to commit his Reserves went unheeded. Later we found out that he was first cousin to the VC Commander.

  4. Athos says:

    The draft ended the year before I would have been called. My number (I think) was 41 or 42. By then we had a cease fire with the North, so even if drafted, chances were I’d spend my time in Germany.

    Walter F-en Cronkite. Was that the start of the propaganda evening news destruction of America’s morals? Was that the evidence of Eisenhower’s military industrial complex take over?

    Is there really anyway to sugarcoat “War is Hell”? Or to have any other objective than winning the war? If we were (are) so afraid of a nuclear reaction from Russia or China, what are we going to do when Iran gets the bomb?

  5. Athos says:

    Tom, any thoughts on tomorrow’s primary?

  6. The JP races are had to judge. Despite some misgivings I think I’m voting for Laxalt, Heller, Anthony, Scotti, Chattah, McMahill. That could change overnight if new info comes along.

  7. Athos says:

    Thank you. I was leaning McMahill for sheriff, and you pushed me over the top. I’ve met and love Dean Heller but I’m going with John Lee. Loved how he cut spending in N.L.V as mayor and hope he can do the same for Nevada.

    And how can you NOT vote for Stravros? We need more fighters….

  8. Lee is a decent choice, though it took him a while to change parties.

  9. Athos says:

    All for naught.

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