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Robert McNamara


Robert McNamara died a week ago today. He left the Department of Defense on my 16th birthday, having stopped believing in the US mission in Vietnam long before that, but never speaking out publicly against it. His failure to alter the course he was largely responsible for setting was high in his list of sins.

Perhaps because of my age, I have focused more over the years on Kissinger’s Vietnam sins than McNamara’s, though of course without McNamara (and Johnson and Bundy), there would be no Kissinger. Nonetheless, Kissinger was the architect of war strategy when I went off to college in 1969 and when I registered for the draft in 1970, so he’s the one whose sins I have carried with me for decades.

On a side note, I didn’t have a birthday in 1970. This led me to imagine that maybe I wouldn’t turn 18, thereby being free from registering. But I decided the government wouldn’t see it that way. I also had a related hope, a year and a half later, when the draft lottery for my birth year was held in August 1971, that they might leave out February 29. They didn’t. (On the other hand, the date drew number 305, so I had nothing to complain about.)

As for McNamara, Errol Morris had a blog post about him in the NYT last Tuesday. Morris, of course, made the 2004 documentary Fog of War, drawn from Morris’s interviews of McNamara. Here’s an excerpt from his post:

It’s impossible to mention his name without starting an argument. Mr. McNamara engendered strong opinions, particularly among those who came of age in the 1960s. People have wanted to know, “Did he ever say he was sorry?” They wanted an apology for his role in Vietnam. The publication of his memoir “In Retrospect” (in 1995) only seemed to make people angrier with him.

He said, “We were wrong.” He was reluctant to use the first person. It was always “we,” not “I.” But he did say it. It might not have been enough for many people, but it was an unmistakable admission of error. Still, how do you say you’re sorry for history? It’s impossible to see him as unaware of the role he played in World War II or in Vietnam. What he did give us was his struggle to understand the meaning of what he had done. We got to see him wrestle with history. And thus he serves as an object lesson to many of us.

His refusal to come out against the Vietnam War, particularly as it continued after he left the Defense Department, has angered many. There’s ample evidence that he felt the war was wrong. Why did he remain silent until the 1990s, when “In Retrospect” was published? That is something that people will probably never forgive him for. But he had an implacable sense of rectitude about what was permissible and what was not. In his mind, he probably remained secretary of defense until the day he died.

An excerpt also from James Fallows at his Atlantic blog:

In 1995, when McNamara published his In Retrospect memoir of the Vietnam War, I reacted very harshly in an NPR commentary. My argument was that he had missed his chance for a respectful hearing for his admission that the war in Vietnam was a mistake. If he hadn’t done anything about that war when it could have made a difference, then there was no reason to, in effect, ask for public sympathy and understanding for his belated recognition of error.

My tone then was harsher than I would be now. Perhaps that’s just because I’m older; perhaps because McNamara has now died; perhaps because he had fifteen more years to be involved in worthy causes, mainly containing the risk of nuclear war or accident. But mainly I think it is because of Errol Morris’ remarkable 2003 film The Fog of War, which portrayed McNamara as a combative and hyper-competitive man (in his 80s, he was still pointing out that he had been top of his elementary-school class) but as a person of moral seriousness who agonized not just about Vietnam but also the fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II, which he had helped plans as a young defense analyst.

And Michael Kinsley, out of context, in a New Yorker article last year:

On an airplane seven or eight years ago, I turned and discovered Robert McNamara in the next seat. He is ninety-one now, so he must have been more than eighty at the time. I asked him why he was going to Denver. He said that he was meeting a female friend at the airport and heading for Aspen. It seems that when his wife died he had commissioned in her memory one of a chain of primitive huts on a trail between Aspen and Vail. Now he was going to ski the trail and stay in the huts with his lady. He told me this, then beamed, like my friend in the pool.

Well, life is unfair, but let’s not get carried away. Longevity is not a zero-sum game. A longer life for Robert McNamara doesn’t mean a shorter life for you or me or the average citizen of Vietnam. He’s done that damage, and at his age he won’t be doing more. In fact, he seems to have been spending the gift of a long life trying to make amends—mainly, as he described his recent agenda to me, by flying around the world to conferences where the world’s suffering is deplored. Nevertheless.

Still, to get to that view of things, I had to suppress an irrational feeling that McNamara had won big in a game he shouldn’t have been entitled to play.

Categories: Biography, History, Politics
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