LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail

LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail

By Peter L. W. Osnos

Announcing this spring  a book-length Substack serial from Peter Osnos’ Platform that will feature weekly chapters from the narrative LBJ and McNamara:The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail. It is based on my years of work with Robert McNamara on his memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. The project also draws on the Lyndon Johnson tapes, Lady Bird Johnson’s White House diaries, McGeorge Bundy’s unfinished Vietnam memoir and other works of history as well as my own years as the Vietnam correspondent of The Washington Post.

Each week starting in June the chapters will be posted on Substack as well as on this site. Coming also in the next few weeks will be an audio of the interview sessions from July 18 and 19, 1994.

Robert McNamara working with his editors on his memoir Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam:

Advance Praise

“Utilizing his unprecedented access to the record, Peter Osnos has excavated the complex relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert S. McNamara. Osnos expertly pulls back the curtain, revealing the central role that the character and personalities of these two complicated men played in the decision to escalate the war. We learn something new on almost every page.”
— Robert K. Brigham, Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations, Vassar College, and author of Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam

LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail brings to one of history’s most-well covered topics new insights and a deeper understanding of Johnson and McNamara than we have ever had. . . . The approaching fifty-year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam debacle offers the right moment to learn anew.”
— Daniel Weiss, Homewood Professor of the Humanities, Johns Hopkins University; president emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and author of In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam

LBJ and McNamara is a perceptive treatment of the complex but crucial relationship at the heart of U.S. decision making on Vietnam. Peter Osnos vividly conveys how tragedy defined not just the Vietnam war in popular memory but the relationship between two historic figures of twentieth-century America.”
— Brian VanDeMark, Professor of History, United States Naval Academy, and author of Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent into Vietnam

Sources and Acknowledgments

LBJ and McNamara: The Vietnam Partnership Destined to Fail is meant to combine historical research and personal experience that results in a portrayal that is closer to the reality of the subject than either retrospective scholarship or journalism separately would produce. I have listed below the books that were consulted with that objective.

Following this listing are categories of acknowledgments, beginning with work on this project and extending back more than a half century, to the years when the Indochina wars were underway and I observed and wrote about them for The Washington Post.


Beschloss, Michael. Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times. New York: Crown, 2018.

——. Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

——. Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Boomhower, Ray E. The Ultimate Protest: Malcolm W. Browne, Thich Quang Duc, and the News Photograph That Stunned the World. Albuquerque: High Road Books, 2024.

Busby, Horace. The Thirty-First of March: An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson’s Final Days in Office. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Califano, Joseph A. Jr. The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

——. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

——. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

——. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

Clifford, Clark, with Richard Holbrooke. Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1991.

Dobrynin, Anatoly. In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents. New York: Times Books, 1995.

Goldstein, Gordon M. Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008.

Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.

McMaster, H.R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

McNamara, Craig. Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2022.

McNamara, Robert S., with Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995.

The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson. Volume I. Edited by Max Holland. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

——. Volume II. Edited by Robert David Johnson and David Shreve. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

——. Volume III. Edited By Kent B.  Germany and Robert David Johnson. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Sweig, Julia. Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight. New York: Random House, 2021.

VanDeMark, Brian. Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent into Vietnam. New York: Custom House, 2018.



Recognizing assistance and the contributions of other people carries the risk of omitting names that either should be included or expected to be. This therefore is doubtless not everyone — and to those left unmentioned, my apologies.

Among these names, there are those, inevitably, who have died. They are included in memoriam. Hail and farewell!

For this book:

The editor was Paul Golob, who has been doing this sort of work now long enough to be legendary in the craft and to whom my thanks are limitless.

Maryellen Tseng designed the cover and graphic which so completely captures the message of the narrative.

Charles DeMontebello, the audio editor and producer, assembled what we are calling the appendix, intended to provide a sense of the process that led to McNamara’s explanatory memoir In Retrospect.

I have relied on the expertise of the historians Robert Brigham and Brian VanDeMark for accuracy on events and dates. Errors that may remain are mine. The conclusions drawn from the narrative are not necessarily those with which they agree.

When he learned of this project, Robert Caro asked to read it in manuscript as a possible insight into McNamara for his indisputably brilliant biography of Lyndon Johnson.

At Times Books for In Retrospect, Geoff Shandler was my editorial colleague and as a representative of the generation that came after the war, provided perspective that was very valuable.

The writer Peter Petre joined us for the last draft, bringing a fresh view and a skilled pen that helped give the book the tone that still reads to well all these years later.

The Times Books team, long now gone from our Random House connections, were supportive and most of all proud of the book, despite the criticism McNamara underwent at the time. Our fax machines were humming with what today would mainly be vituperative emails and texts.

In addition to editing the memoirs of Robert McNamara, Clark Clifford, and Anatoly Dobrynin at Random House, Times Books, and PublicAffairs, I was responsible as editor and/or publisher for a number of other Vietnam-related books. Here are the authors: Elizabeth Becker, Malcolm Browne, Ward Just, Wendy Larsen and Tran Thi Nga, Jack Laurence, William Prochnau, Morley Safer, Daniel Weiss.

Over the years, friends have deepened my understanding of what happened in the war: Ray Burghardt and his late wife Susan; Frankie Fitzgerald, Les Gelb, Jim Hoge, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Jim Sterba, I. F. Stone.

And correspondents who worked in Saigon for The Washington Post in those years: Peter Braestrup, Michael Getler, H. D. S. Greenway, Peter A. Jay, Robert G. Kaiser, Lee Lescaze, Thomas W. Lippman, Laurence Stern, George W. Wilson. Charles Benoit and Ron Moreau, the Vietnamese speakers who made it possible for us to travel, and Vu-Thuy Hoang, our superb Saigon-based political reporter.

At other publications, the cohort included Kevin Buckley, Peter Kann, Mark Meredith, Maynard Parker, Jean Claude Pomonti, James Pringle, Nick Profitt, William Shawcross, Martin Woollacott, and the photographers David Burnett and Mark Godfrey.

Down the hall from our offices at 203 Tu Do Street was the formidable New York Times bureau, led by Alvin Shuster and then Craig R. Whitney and a revolving group of superstar correspondents that Shuster and Whitney superbly managed.

The point of mentioning these names is that this project reflects their influence in shaping the sense that I could take on the challenge of explaining the roles of Johnson and McNamara in the war we all saw unfold and end so badly.

And finally, Susan Sherer Osnos, who came to Saigon to work for the Lawyers Military Defense Committee and came home to a career in human rights with the man who, to his great and continuing joy, she married.

And to Katherine Sanford, our daughter, who carries the instinct that enables her to take the eighth-grade class from Lagunitas Middle School in Marin County, California, to Alabama and Georgia to encounter civil rights, another great American issue of that era.

And Evan, who thirty years after his father and mother arrived in Vietnam, embedded with Marines and covered the war in Iraq with distinction that, having been to another war, we could judge.

Whatever else the “American war” in Vietnam did a half century ago, the impression it left was indelible.