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May 16, 1984, Page 00024 The New York Times Archives

In two days of questioning this spring, Robert S. McNamara said he ceased to believe that the Vietnam War could be won not long after American combat troops were committed to the conflict in 1965.

Mr. McNamara, the Seretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, who was known for his appetite for facts and figures, also said he lost faith in the military statistics that he helped create because ''they made no sense.''

Mr. McNamara has resolutely refused to discuss in public the Vietnam War and his role in it since he resigned as Secretary of Defense on Feb. 28, 1968. However, in late March of this year he was subpoenaed to give a deposition in the libel suit brought by Gen. William C. Westmoreland against CBS Inc.

The suit arose after CBS News suggested in a documentary broadcast Jan. 23, 1982, that the American military, and specifically General Westmoreland, had altered figures on the strength of enemy forces in Vietnam to make it appear that the United States was winning the war. The general, now retired, commanded American forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968.

Reluctant and Unresponsive

The initial McNamara deposition runs to 444 pages, and lawyers said he would probably be called for futher deposition.

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Despite Mr. McNamara's strong reluctance to discuss the war at all and his apparent unresponsiveness to many questions, his deposition portrays a public servant unwilling to come to terms with his past record and a one-time policy maker who grudgingly continued to administer what he believed was a lost war.

At one point in the two-day questioning, Mr. McNamara said he would resist to the limits of his legal power having to discuss the war. After an ''off-the-record'' interlude, in which his own attorney may have convinced him that he had little recourse, he went on to give what students of the Vietnam conflict may regard as his most complete accounting of his stewardship.

However, early in the deposition, taken in Washington, he said: ''I want it clear on the record that you are extracting these answers from me against my wishes. I have never spoken publicly on Vietnam. I have no intention of doing so.''

Mr. McNamara said the events in question occurred 20 years ago and ''my memory is imperfect.''

''I was a particpant in a decision- making process,'' he added. ''I do not believe a participant should be judge of his own actions or the validity of those actions.'' Unable to Recall His Opinions

On more than 100 occasions, Mr. McNamara protested that he could not recall his opinions or those of others during the war or basic facts about the conflict. At one point he said he was unable to recall the opinions of any other major policy maker. Yet, at other points in the deposition, his memory seemed more firm.

Under the persistent questioning of David Boies, a lawyer in the New York firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which represents CBS, Mr. McNamara made these points:

- Of the war, he testified, ''I did not believe it could be won militarily.'' He said he came to this view in 1966 ''if not earlier.'' He later said that it might have been 1965.

- He was almost contemptuous of the bombing program in North Vietnam, testifying that he doubted it had any chance of forcing North Vietnam either to end the war or to neogtiate. He said he never recommended a sharply reduced bombing schedule but, instead, tried to hold bombing to moderate levels.

- ''For a considerable period of time,'' the former Defense Secretary said, he and President Johnson disagreed about the conduct of the war and ''eventually came to a parting of the ways.'' But he professed to be totally unable to recall his discussions with the President before leaving office. Did he resign or was he asked to do so? ''I'm not sure I decided. It would have been the President who decides.'' Mr. McNamara asserted the President never gave him an explanation of the necessity for his departure from the Pentagon.

- Throughout 1967, Mr. McNamara testified, he successfully resisted a request by General Westmoreland that 200,000 troops be added to the more than 500,000 troops already fighting in Vietnam. ''I believed it would carry human and political costs disproportionate to any military advantages it would bring,'' the former Secretary said. ''At a certain point one would come to the conclusion, as I did in 1967, that we had gone as far as we could or should to assist the South Vietnamese to help themselves, and if they couldn't we shouldn't go further.''

- At one point Mr. McNamara said it was fair and correct to say that he had asked for more and more statistics by which to measure the conduct of the war. He added, ''Statistics are nothing other than the means of convenying information and recognizing that information is frequently imprecise; it is better to have as much coverage as one can get.''

- But he subsequently stressed and re-stressed his growing disenchantment with the military reporting from Vietnam. ''Because,'' he said, ''you couldn't reconcile the number'' of the enemy, ''the level of infiltration, the body count and the resultant figures. It just didn't add up. I never did get the answer, because there weren't any answers.'' Mr. McNamara protested he could never get ''a balanced equation.'' Mathematical Inconsistency

This was a reference to the mathematical inconsistency, often noted by reporters who were thereafter derided, of high ''body counts,'' relatively low estimates of infiltration from North Vietnam, low estimates of recruitment by Communist forces and essentially no total of wounded and sick forces. A Central Intelligence Agency document that came to light in preparations for the CBS-Westmoreland trial said the United States was statistically, although not actually, running out of ''people to fight.''

Another C.I.A. document called the military figures ''the greatest snow job since Potemkin built his village.''

''People have criticized me for stressing this very brutal concept of body count,'' Mr. McNamara testified. ''It was, in a sense, a terrible thing, but if you're Secretary of Defense and you're concerned about whether you are progressing militarily and it is said to be a 'war of attrition' then it is important to try to understand whether you are accomplishing the attrition or not.'' Deception Was Inconceivable

Mr. McNamara, who could be a witness on behalf of General Westmoreland when the case comes to trial, repeatedly stated his belief that it was inconceivable that the general or the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam could or would have attempted to deceive Mr. McNamara.

However, he also testified that he had long believed that infiltration of North Vietnamese troops into the South was substanially larger than the ''reports had indicated.'' In one of the most arresting statements of his deposition, the former Defense Secretary said, ''It could have been substantially higher, by, uh, a factor of two or three or 10.''

Could infiltration have been 50 percent higher than reported? he was asked. ''Oh, at least,'' the former Secretary answered.

At one point, Mr. McNamara said he had stopped arguing about statistics and went on to tell General Westmoreland that if he needed 200,000 more troops ''it doesn't sound to me like you are winning.''

Cables and documents uncovered in preparations for the trial show that General Westmoreland was asking for more troops on the military doctrine of ''reinforcing success.'' It was General Westmoreland's contention from April to December of 1967 that the war was being demonstrably won.

To add 200,000 men to the troop strength in Vietnam, Mr. McNamara testified, would have required the United States to call up 500,000 more draftees or reserves and to add $10 billion to the nation's 1968 military budget. Although such a dollar figure now seems low, it was substantial in 1967. 'Evidence of Progress'

At one point in the deposition, Mr. McNamara was handed a declassified memorandum by Walt W. Rostow, the national security adviser to President Johnson, written in 1967. The memo contained charts purporting to show that effective enemy military strength had dropped from 285,000 in the third quarter of 1966 to 242,000 in the third quater of 1967, and said the statistics were ''evidence of progress'' in the war. (The validity of these figures are central to the Westmoreland libel case.)

''By implication,'' Mr. McNamara said, Mr. Rostow was suggesting that ''McNamara doesn't know what the hell he is talking about.''

This, however, was one of the few hostile or semi-hostile remarks in the former Secretary's extended testimony. In fact, Mr. McNamara repeatedly stressed that he was uncertain, or at least reluctant to state, that he had been right and others had been wrong. ''They could well have been right,'' he testified.

Despite his oft-repeated ''skepticism'' about Vietnam War statistics, Mr. McNamara strenuously reiterated a belief that it was simply not possible that either Pentagon or White House bureaucrats would have attempted to deceive him about the course of the war or about the statistics meant to chart that course. Confronted With Affidavits

In some ways this was the most interesting part of the former Defense Secretary's deposition. Although he originated a number of weapons systems that ran into serious production and cost problems, he testified in the deposition that ''no responsible military officer would ever hold information from a superior that conceivably could bear on the superior's rightful decision-making power.''

When confronted with affidavits and depositions from former and present military intelligence officers who had sworn that they engaged in wrongful or intellectually dishonest practices in Vietnam, Mr. McNamara expressed disbelief, saying, ''That is not the nature of a Government - when people understand that a wrong is being done, somebody talks about it.''

Partly because the heart of CBS's defense against the libel suit is that a substantial number of field grade and junior officers, as well as civilian officials of the C.I.A., have said they knew they were engaged in wrongful behavior by suppressing high estimates of enemy strength, Mr. McNamara was repeatedly brought back to this point. Repeatedly he said it was ''inconceivable'' that this could be the case.

He also said, however, that ''if it occurred, I think I was derelict in not, uh, being aware of it.'' Testimony to Congress

Mr. McNamara also strongly denied that he ever misled Congress or the public about his increasingly gloomy views about Vietnam or told them anything different from his dissent to President Johnson, which was exemplified by a strong memorandum to the President in the spring of 1967. Mr. Boies, the examining attorney, then drew Mr. McNamara's attention to testimony he gave to Congress in 1967 in which he said that as ''best we can tell,'' the Vietnamese Communists suffered 50,000 killed in 1966 as well as serious losses to defection, wounds and disease. ''When you recognize that a force of some 250,000- 270,000 is absorbing losses at this rate,'' he testified before Congress, ''I think you immediately ask yourself how long will that force be willing to fight.''

''What I think I was trying to indicate to that committee,'' Mr. McNamara said in the deposition, was that ''I had been skeptical for a long, long time about the data relating to operations in Vietnam. It's typical of my concern at the time, and I never withheld that concern, to the best of my knowledge, from the Congress or the public.'' He added, ''I didn't say one thing to the President and a different thing to the Congress, ever.''

Mr. McNamara's attention was then drawn to his appearance at a January 1967 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which Senator John L. McClellan, Democrat of Arkasnsas, now deceased, asked if Mr. McNamara could give the people some ''reassurance we are on the right track and that we can expect to be successful in the course we are pursuing?''

''Yes,'' Mr. McNamara answered, ''I think we can definitely give such a statement.'' He cited an optimistic statement by Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said, ''I think he can give you a statement which indicates that we believe we are on the right track and that will lead to a successful conclusion of the war, but he cannot predict when it is going to end.''

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