Robert Strange McNamara died yesterday at his home in Washington. He was 93.
The former Harvard professor , Army vet, Legion of Merit recipient, and Ford Motors wunderkind served as America’s eighth Secretary of Defense, from 1961-1968, under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Mr. McNamara was the keystone and epitome of “the best and the brightest” —as ironically and indelibly tagged by David Halberstam— who planned and executed the Vietnam War.
He resigned from the Pentagon in 1968. Although the Vietnam War was already the most controversial and divisive issue in American life, and although he remained on the scene as President of the World Bank until 1981, his desire to withdraw from the spotlight was welcomed by his fellow Democrats and accepted by a compliant media.
In 1995 he published a Vietnam memoir —Retrospect— which failed to satisfy most critics. Its apologies were too little and far too late for the war’s opponents; its explanation of the domino-dominated thinking at the time was too pallid for its supporters; and his attempt at personal revisionism —presenting himself as a doubter and even a dissenter from the policies he was promulgating— was deemed unworthy.
The news of his death occasioned some fond and pained reminiscences. But the notices —universally accepting an unreconstructed anti-war orthodoxy (the headline of his obituary in The New York Times is “Architect of Futile War”)— ranged from detached to reserved to resentful.
It will be sad for Mr. McNamara —who did the state some service— and tragic for the nation if his passing doesn’t generate some thoughtful and productive discussion about Vietnam and its meaning for America. The possibility that this might have happened with the Kerry candidacy in 2004 and the McCain candidacy in 2008 were unrealized.
The Vietnam War was the central American political, social, and intellectual watershed of the 20th Century. The bitterness it bred has now become inbred; and until we work it through and work it out, America will have unfinished business with itself.
The Vietnam War was the central fact of Richard Nixon’s presidency. By the time he was elected President in November 1968, the leaders of the two Democratic administrations and the intellectual and political and media elites that had conceived, executed, escalated, and supported it, were suddenly war weary and gun shy.
The generals were now saying that it was unwinnable; and the newly-activated anti-war movement that represented a large part of the Democratic Party’s political base, was saying that it was unconscionable. So many, most ignobly, turned on a dime (or on twenty-one billion 1968 dollars) and used the war they had declared and waged and so recently supported as a partisan stick with which to beat the new Republican President.
RN knew that he would have received widespread political, academic, and media support if he had just ended the war in his first months in office by declaring victory and bringing the troops home. And he well knew that, after only a few months, the hated “Johnson’s War: would become the doubly hated “Nixon’s War.” The prospect of starting on an up beat and with a clean slate must have been tempting.
It was, and is, possible to disagree with the way RN decided to end the Vietnam War. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is highly critical. But the wisdom of his insistence on combining negotiations with the enemy, preparing South Vietnam for American withdrawal, and honoring commitments to allies —what he defined as “peace with honor”— is already being viewed more positively by a new generation of Vietnam scholars.
But it is impossible to have any respect for the people who took advantage of the conveniently agreed upon collective amnesia regarding their activities from 1960 through 1968 to erase their consciences, rewrite their biographies, and advance their personal and political careers.
Whether it was the result of decency or shame —or both— it was to Robert McNamara’s credit that he at least remained quiet during that period —1968-1975— that was, for so many, such a scoundrel time.