What a strange feeling it is for those of our era to hear that Robert McNamara is dead. Widely reviled for the Vietnam War, he later expressed great
July 6, 2009

What a strange feeling it is for those of our era to hear that Robert McNamara is dead. Widely reviled for the Vietnam War, he later expressed great ambivalence in the documentary "The Fog of War." He was a liberal, but of that time - for instance, as Secretary of Defense, he signed a directive that forbade military men and women from patronizing segregated establishments in the communities surrounding a military base - but continued the war long after he knew it was a lost cause.

Mr. McNamara is best remembered — and in some quarters still reviled — for the seven years he spent at the Pentagon and the part he played in waging the Vietnam War. The controversy that erupted in 1995 when he published his memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” demonstrated the extent to which the scars he bore remained unhealed.

No one person can be assigned responsibility for escalating the US role in the conflict. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk: Each played his part. To many, though, it was “McNamara’s war,” as US Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon once put it.

“I don’t object to its being called McNamara’s war,” Mr. McNamara said during a 1964 press conference. “I think it is a very important war, and I am pleased to be identified with it and do whatever I can to win it.”

Those words would come to haunt him.

[...] Kennedy reportedly wanted Mr. McNamara to replace Rusk as secretary of state in his second administration. And Robert Kennedy said he and his brother speculated about supporting Mr. McNamara for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968.

The Kennedys were not alone in falling under the spell of the McNamara mystique. Johnson offered him the vice-presidential nomination in 1964. “He’s the best man available,” LBJ told a friend. When Mr. McNamara declined, Johnson pronounced him “No. 1 executive vice president in charge of the Cabinet.” He later awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

US Senator Barry Goldwater, who would become a harsh critic, initially hailed Mr. McNamara as “one of the best secretaries ever, an IBM machine with legs.” David Halberstam, who would later assail Mr. McNamara in his book “The Best and the Brightest,” wrote in 1963 that “McNamara may well be this country’s most distinguished civil servant of the last decade.”

[...] Yet much of Mr. McNamara’s fascination sprang from how he could subvert that image. This supreme bean-counter also loved poetry. This avatar of detachment and abstract reasoning was prone to bouts of weeping


The bouts increased as the war dragged on. “He does it all the time now,” a secretary remarked shortly before Mr. McNamara left the Pentagon, in 1968. “He cries into the curtain.”

The term “McNamara’s war” arose from his very public enthusiasm for a military solution to the conflict. As the statistics that crossed Mr. McNamara’s desk more and more indicated the improbability of victory, the term remained fitting. For no one waging the war endured such agonies of doubt: He mirrored the nation’s own consternation. “My sense of the war gradually shifted from concern to skepticism to frustration to anguish,” Mr. McNamara later wrote.

To arrive at some better understanding of how things could have gone so wrong, Mr. McNamara commissioned a study called “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967.” The public would come to know it by another name: “The Pentagon Papers.”

A man of phenomenal abilities, Mr. McNamara discovered how few of them were suited to the demands of Vietnam. “I had always been confident that every problem could be solved,” he wrote in his memoir, “but now I found myself confronting one — involving national pride and human life — that could not.”

Mr. McNamara’s 13 years as president of the World Bank were widely seen as an act of atonement for what he had done in Vietnam, though he denied this. He increased tenfold the amount of money the bank had out on loans. In particular, he championed the Third World, tripling the bank’s loans to developing countries and shifting its emphasis from large-scale industrial projects to rural development and population control. He also began publication of an annual World Development Report.

After leaving the bank, Mr. McNamara emerged as an elder statesman in the field of nuclear affairs. He had played a leading part in bringing about a limited test-ban treaty in 1963, and his propounding the concept of mutual assured destruction, the cornerstone of the nuclear balance of power for much of the Cold War, may have been his single most important legacy as defense secretary. Such credentials gave weight to Mr. McNamara’s advocacy of a nuclear freeze and a US policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.

Elder statesman or no, Mr. McNamara remained a controversial figure, as the media firestorm that greeted “In Retrospect” made plain. Mr. McNamara’s growing doubts about the Vietnam War were widely known as early as his final months at the Pentagon, but he had never directly addressed the subject. Now he put them on the record. “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong,” he wrote. “We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

The words were front-page news. “His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers,” a New York Times editorial declared. “What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.” The New Republic asked, “Has any single American of this century done more harm than Robert McNamara?”

Despite such withering criticism, Mr. McNamara remained a figure of public fascination. In 2003, the filmmaker Errol Morris released an Academy Award-winning documentary about him, “The Fog of War.”

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