Saturday, August 01, 2009

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.

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Blogger Sylvia K said...

As always, I learn something important from your posts. And in this one I learned things about McNamara that I didn't know and that I'm glad to have learned. Thank you for a different perspective and a different look at the man. I always learn from you, Mort. And always appreciate it! And it's always good to see that you have posted!


Saturday, August 01, 2009 9:37:00 PM  
Blogger Vagabonde said...

You brought back many memories to me. The war in Indochina – I remember younger friends of my father coming back from the battle of Diên Biên Phu – I was 14 years old at the time and really did not understand all the ramifications. I had heard though that the French wanted to get out of Indochina since the early 50s but had to stay because the USA wanted them to. Then came the war in Vietnam and I was living in San Francisco. I remember marching against it on Market Street (I was against wars one reason being my father having been so badly hurt in WWII). But I never put 2 and 2 together or remembered what was said in France until I saw the movie “The Quiet American” I really cried at the movie when I realized that these wars could have been averted if France had not accepted to go on with the war in Indochina with US money and if the OSS had not sent their men to do their dirty work. After WWII De Gaulle at first wanted to keep the Indochina colony but then realized that it was better to give Indochina their independence. The US refused because they were afraid SE Asia would become communist so they financed (forced) France’s war (this was undercover, not well known). Later on when de Gaulle told the US not to start the war in Vietnam he was told off and relations cooled with France. (Just like when French President Chirac advised Bush not to start the Iraq war.) Such terrible loss of life. I did not like McNamara then but finally thought that he had a lot of courage to come out and say that he had been mistaken and was sorry. It takes a lot to admit to the world that you were wrong, not many men do it.

Saturday, August 01, 2009 9:56:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks for the reminder, Mort. I agree with you that McNamara's very public mea culpa was an example for more to follow. I can think of a couple of contemporary candidates but have little hope that they will follow his model. Too long on hubris and to short on character.

Sunday, August 02, 2009 1:21:00 PM  
Blogger Darlene said...

It takes a big man to admit that he was wrong. That went a long way to redeem McNamara in my estimation.

I wonder if Bush Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others will ever admit they were wrong for their part in the Iraq war.

Sunday, August 02, 2009 2:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Document 7 : Kissinger and World Bank President Robert McNamara, 3 January 1973, 5:45 p.m.
Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Project, Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversations Transcripts, Chronological File, Box 17, 1973 2-6

Long before he was ready to acknowledge that he had been "terribly wrong" on Vietnam, Robert McNamara privately offered his support for Kissinger's Vietnam War endgame. Apparently a fan, McNamara told Kissinger that he was "the man who finally got us out of there." Not questioning the Christmas bombing, McNamara observed that "not everybody is as critical as some of those damn columnists." Both agreed that ending the U.S. fighting role in Vietnam required a "conscious ambiguity"; in other words, an unambiguous U.S. diplomatic victory was impossible (for example, the U.S. would have to accept the presence of North Vietnamese forces in the South). That McNamara referred to the war as "the damn thing" suggested a deeper level of discomfort that he would not discuss in public for many years. a Dutch farmer

Monday, August 03, 2009 12:29:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Standing at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, reading some of the more than fifty thousand names carved into that long, winding, cold and silent slab of black granite I wondered how many more senseless and tragic wars will our nation blunder and bluster into before we come to our senses.

"How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind."

Wednesday, August 05, 2009 9:31:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

I am most appreciative of your account here re McNamara giving me a different perspective of him and his portion of responsibility for Vietnam.

So many years ago, but I still vividly recall the teletype machine bell ringing at our TV station with NBC's announcement of a special program re The Gulf of Tonkin event to be aired that night preempting programming. As I ripped off the program information announcement copies little did I realize the nightmare that would ensue. Now we know that whole Tonkin event was as phony as Bush's claims for attacking Iraq.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009 4:38:00 AM  

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