Bennett Ramberg

As Robert Gates assumed the Pentagon’s helm on Monday, he could do well to study the legacy of another defence secretary who replaced an embattled predecessor in time of war.

On March 1, 1968, Clark Clifford took the reins from Robert McNamara as Washington’s Vietnam fortunes spiralled downward. Seventeen months later — six months after his tenure ended — Clifford wrote a mea culpa in the journal Foreign Affairs, calling it “the most important article of my life.” “For the first time,” Clifford reminisced in his later memoir, “a major participant in shaping the Vietnam policy had admitted that we had been mistaken and outlined a strategy for American disengagement.” But the atonement came too late. Now it is Gates’ turn to move on Iraq as he replaces another failed predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. During his Senate confirmation, Gates declared that he was ready: “I did not come back to Washington to be a bump on a log and not to say exactly what I think ...” If Gates is to be true to his word, he must avoid the perils that Clifford failed to navigate.

For years, Clifford acted as President Lyndon Johnson’s private Vietnam adviser. In a May 17, 1965, memo, he warned: “Our ground forces in South Vietnam should be kept to a minimum” to protect our installations and property in the country. Any substantial increase could result in a “quagmire ... without a realistic hope of ultimate victory.” North Vietnam’s deadly January 1968 Tet offensive would chasten Clifford, tapping into his original skepticism about the war. But he decided to keep his views private and reveal them to the president only “gradually”. By the summer, Clifford mustered the courage to tell Johnson that Vietnam was lost. But LBJ would not hear it. He would not be the first president to lose a foreign war.

Having spent his political capital, Clifford realised his friendship with Johnson “would never be the same.” Yet loyalty prevented resignation; likewise, it blocked levelling with the American people. Asked to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he declined. In confidence, he told his friend and committee chairman, Sentor William Fulbright, “I can no longer support in good conscience the president’s policy.”

In a May 17, 1968, address in Minneapolis, Minnesota, LBJ beat the drum, calling for a “total national effort to win the war. We will — make no mistake about it — win.” The future had another outcome in store. Vietnam continues to haunt America. But unlike Clifford, Gates comes to the current conflict with a clean slate. He has not publicly pushed any position to resolve the quagmire.

Furthermore, he does not have a close personal relationship with President Bush that would compromise his advice. Gates has a fresh opportunity to speak “frankly” not only to Bush but to the American people about the state of the war. Clifford’s legacy suggests nothing less will do. Public contrition after public service will be too late.