In the final months of 1995, Robert McNamara went on an interview tour to promote his new memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.[1] It was much awaited: from 1961 to 1968, as Secretary of Defense for J.F. Kennedy and L.B. Johnson, McNamara assisted in lording over the worst military failure in US history.  The Vietnam War cost some 60,000 American and 3.4 million Vietnamese lives, and he was its emblem.  The interviews did not disappoint.  In one he cried, in another he admitted that he warned the president very early that victory was impossible.  “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why,” he said.[2]

But to the history graduate student who I was, the most shocking was his explanation of this catastrophic mistake: “We badly misread China’s objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive for regional hegemony” was McNamara’s explanation.  “We also totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh’s movement.”[3]  I was not alone in my astonishment.  A few years later, McNamara would recount the same sentiment from Nguyen Co Thach, the former foreign minister of Vietnam: “Mr. McNamara, you must have never read a history book,” he recalled being told, “if you had, you’d know that we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. Don’t you understand that we were fighting the Chinese for 1,000 years?”[4]  Jim Lehrer, whose interview with McNamara I was watching also shared the astonishment.  ‘What do you mean ‘we didn’t know’?’ I remember him asking, ‘didn’t you preside over the most powerful and well-endowed intelligence machinery in the world?’

McNamara’s answer came back to mind when the Acting Minister of Education declared that six ARC grants, among them two dealing with current Chinese culture, “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest.”[5]  The Vietnam War cost the US an estimated one trillion USD and irretrievably damaged its national interests, because it entered it in complete ignorance.  The State Department did not have anyone with knowledge of communism, China or Southeast Asia, McNamara continued to explain, because a decade earlier, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had removed anyone with any interest in these subjects.

There is a clear, tangible and sometimes horrendous price to ignorance.  The fact that this price often reveals itself only in hindsight is one fundamental reason why it is a prime national interest – of all nations – that politicians, the masters of the here and now, avoid interfering with research.  Free research is not a failsafe route to some Truth beaconing at the end of the search, but politicised research is an unfailing recipe for not knowing anything we don’t want to know.  The minister’s choice of projects to censor demonstrates that such interference is also bound to thwart new questions – questions to which we are not sure what the answers would be, and whether we would like to hear them.  That was the damage of McCarthyism: not the wrong answers, but the prohibition of questions.  It meant that no one around McNamara and the presidents under whom he served knew how to ask, for example, whether the Domino Theory – according to which every country falling to communist influence will bring the fall of the next country – is anything but an attractive metaphor.  It is dangerous, expensive, and frivolous to not ask strange questions, and they are asked only if and where free research is supported and celebrated.

This is not because researchers are creatures uniquely gifted for letting their imagination and curiosity roam free into the uncharted.  Quite the opposite: as McNamara sadly recalled, the Domino Theory was as much an unquestioned dogma in the academy as it was in the corridors of the State Department.[6]  Scientists and scholars and the institutions they usually congregate in are mostly driven, like most people and institutions, by greed, vanity and ambition.  When their success is dictated by obtaining research grants, and when obtaining those depends on chiming “national interest” dogmas defined by the powers that momentarily be, they will chime those dogmas.  This is why schemes like the ARC Discovery Projects exist: to sanction unexpected questions even – and especially – when they may lead to uncomfortable answers.  National interest dictates that they will not be subjected to the common wisdom of the present; that they will be kept out of the political realm, where the present is at stake.

Ofer Gal, University of Sydney


[1] McNamara, Robert: In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Random House, 1995).

[2] McNamara, In Retrospect, xvii.

[3] Robert Scheer, LA Times, April 11, 1995.

[4] Erol Morris: Fog of War.

[5] Joseph Brookes, InnovationAus, December 24, 2022.

[6] Fog of War.


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