The tormented Robert McNamara
My local newspaper recently carried an editorial cartoon showing Robert McNamara, the controversial former Secretary of Defense who died on July 6, standing in front of St. Peter in heaven.
"There are 58,000 soldiers in here who'd like to have a word with you," St. Peter angrily tells McNamara, citing the number of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam. Taking a similarly harsh view of McNamara, the New York Times' front-page headline reporting his death described McNamara as "Architect of Futile War."
From the start, I vigorously opposed the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But I believe that McNamara has been unfairly vilified as the person primarily responsible for the war.
McNamara, a Republican, knew nothing about Vietnam when President Kennedy selected him in 1961 to head the Pentagon. McNamara had been president of Ford Motor Co., where he had gained a national reputation as the ultimate professional manager.
The seeds were sown for a U.S. role in Vietnam as far back as the Truman Administration. After World War II ended, Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of Vietnam's independence movement, sought U.S. aid to gain freedom from French colonial rule.
With the Cold War already under way, President Truman ignored his plea. Had Truman, and later President Eisenhower, shown some sympathy for the Vietnamese independence cause, perhaps Ho's regime might have tempered its Soviet ties.
France finally granted Vietnam its independence only after its disastrous military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The country was split in two. A pro-Soviet regime was established in the north and a pro-Western government was created in the south. The two states were soon at war, with North Vietnam sponsoring a Communist insurgency, the Viet Kong, in South Vietnam.
U.S. military advisers began to arrive in 1959 to support the battle against the Communist forces. When he became president, Kennedy expanded the number of American military advisers from a few hundred to about 17,000. In 1963 his successor, President Johnson, sent U.S. combat units in for the first time to fight the Communists. By 1975, when the U.S. forces finally departed from Vietnam, President Nixon had expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia.
To use George W. Bush's terminology, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were the "deciders" in getting the U.S. involved in Vietnam and for prolonging the war for 15 years. Robert McNamara, who had such a prominent role in Vietnam, quit the Pentagon in early 1968 after belatedly deciding that it was a mistake for the U.S. to continue the war.
As Business Week's Pentagon correspondent for nearly a decade until 1963, I have long had a personal interest in McNamara's career. I interviewed him several times and consider him to be one of the most interesting men I've ever met.
In an industry where eggheads rarely flourished, McNamara made his mark as a thoroughgoing intellectual in his years at Ford Motor Co. He shunned Detroit society, socialized little with auto industry tycoons, and lived instead in Ann Arbor, a university town 40 miles away. His friends there were largely professors and the kind of academic people who go into business. I reported and wrote a cover story about McNamara for Business Week's Feb. 11, 1961 issue.
Although I considered the Vietnam war a tragic blunder, I concede that McNamara vigorously improved the management of the Defense Dept. He firmly unified the three military services that had been plagued by costly rivalry and wasteful duplication of weapons development. He also strengthened civilian authority over the military establishment and enforced managerial control over the billions of dollars worth of military procurement.
Despite McNamara's sudden policy disagreement with the President over Vietnam, Johnson obviously thought so highly of McNamara that he recommended him to become head of the World Bank, where he served until 1981. In his years there, McNamara shifted the bank's focus to the problem of world poverty.
"[McNamara] is like a jackhammer," President Johnson once said. "No human being can take what he takes. He drives too hard. He's too perfect."
I developed a great deal of sympathy for McNamara after he left the Pentagon. For many years before his death, he was seriously tormented by the prominent role he had played in the tragic events in Vietnam. In books, articles, speeches, and a widely publicized documentary film, The Fog of War, McNamara became an anti-war crusader. He was particularly critical of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
McNamara died at age 93. He spent the final years of his life wrestling with the Vietnam war's moral consequences. He lived long enough to see how terribly wrong he had been and how much turmoil and tragedy the war brought to both Vietnam and the U.S. It was rare to see a man of McNamara's stature repent so publicly.