THE words, 'we were wrong, terribly wrong', are not the kind of epitaph any major public figure would wish to see on his tombstone. Yet whether he likes it or not, Robert McNamara may already have written it on his own behalf. Since the former United States secretary of defence published his memoirs of the Vietnam War years, many supporters, critics, pundits and editorial writers have seized the phrase, elevating it to the dubious heights of modern mythology. When Mr McNamara ruled the Pentagon and committed thousands of young troops to a fruitless task in Indochina, the media dubbed Vietnam 'McNamara's War'. And since leaving the government in 1968 he has refused to discuss the conflict, his role in it, or the scars it left on the nation's psyche. So in writing In Retrospect - the book veteran correspondent Bernie Kalb sardonically dubs his 'mea culpa ' - and in shedding public tears on prime-time television, it seems Mr McNamara felt it was finally time to assuage his conscience. But his main motive, he writes, was because 'I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders'. Quite apart from the wave of anti-war protests which swept the nation from 1965, it has long been accepted that the campaign of escalation and disinformation embarked upon by McNamara and, later, Henry Kissinger did lead to a climate of distrust among the public of the machinations of government. And if that trust - weakened even further by the Watergate drama - is something from which the nation never quite recovered, Mr McNamara realises he is partly to blame. What he may not have counted on, however, is that 30 years later he is still indelibly tarred with the same brush, and that 400 pages of saying sorry is never going to be enough. The 58,000 names etched into the granite of the Vietnam Wall memorial are in themselves enough to ensure that McNamara's War has changed the American consciousness, if not for good, then for many more years to come. And far from receiving the accolades and gratitude that he may have been hoping for from the book, the almost universal disdain its publication has spawned is perfect proof of the state of mind of a nation for whom the fall of Saigon is still far from being the final word. The New York Times, which supported the war in its early years, rose to its full height with a blistering editorial. 'Perhaps the only value of In Retrospect is to remind us never to forget that these were men who in the full hubristic glow of their power would not listen to logical warning or ethical appeal,' it wrote. 'Three million Vietnamese died. Fifty-eight thousand Americans got to come home in body bags. Mr McNamara, while tormented by his role in the war, got a sinecure at the World Bank and summers at the [Martha's] Vineyard.' John McCain, the senator who spent five years in a Viet Cong PoW camp said: 'I wonder sometimes if Secretary McNamara's revelations are more for his own benefit so he can sleep at night, than it is to provide information to the American people.' This week, a string of veterans' groups, angered by the book's revelations of mistakes and misjudgments by the Washington elite, demanded its author at least donate his royalties to their cause. 'You're damn right I'm angry. It's a slap in the face to everyone who has ever worn the uniform,' said John Sales, of the Blinded American Veterans Foundation. 'It was McNamara and his ilk that had us fight the war the wrong way. He's a disgrace.' One of the few to say something positive about the book was President Clinton. Perhaps indelicately, he greeted its conclusions as a 'vindication' of his anti-war, draft-dodging stance during the 60s. Had he wished to offer New York Times-style condemnation of McNamara's role in the war, he probably would have passed - it was, after all, the author's house at the trendy Martha's Vineyard hideaway that housed the president during a recent summer holiday. Mr Kalb, a CNN presenter who covered the war for CBS, and spent many years in Hong Kong, said he still bore 'emotional shrapnel' from the experience - a fate common to most people who witnessed the horror of what went on. The veteran journalist is a walking manifestation of the disenchantment with the power elite so mourned by the former Defence Secretary. He took time off from journalism in the mid-80s to become chief spokesman at the State Department - a job he quit in protest because of his disgust at what he called 'a campaign of disinformation' on foreign policy. America was, he felt, lying about events in Libya in order to justify its aggressive policy towards one of its favourite rogue states. That experience, together with a host of recent mistakes in fields as diverse as Somalia and Haiti, have convinced him that the lessons of Vietnam have never been learned in Washington. 'So much of what McNamara is saying was there on the streets of America 20 years ago,' he said. As Mr Kalb pointed out, a new generation of Americans have grown up which can barely identify in which country Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) is located. But for their elders, two decades has done nothing to stifle a bitter debate. James Clad, professor of Southeast Asian studies at Georgetown University, is more cynical than most about the so-called 'loss of innocence' inflicted on the US by the tragedy of Vietnam. But he does agree with the idea that the war signalled the first break in the 'New Deal consensus' - the sense of togetherness rebuilt during the depression by President Franklin Roosevelt. And while he rejects a direct link between Vietnam and the country's social ills of the 90s, he notes that a great many social studies charting a decline in education and literacy and the rise of inner-city crime tend to take 1965 - the height of the Vietnam escalation - as a benchmark. Yet for all the damage Vietnam did to the American dream, Professor Clad is another who believes America has learned little. 'Foreign policy continues to be led by people who think that this is the centre of the universe. We still behave unilaterally.' And despite the publicity over a book such as McNamara's, Professor Clad believes America is still unable to utter the word 'defeat' in the same sentence as 'Vietnam'. 'Vietnam is seen as a great defeat, but that is a word that still cannot be uttered in polite society. It is still always the 'fall of Saigon' ', he said.