Robert McNamara’s war

For those of you who didn’t live during the Vietnam War era, you might have a better sense of who former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was if I tell you he was the Donald Rumsfeld of the ’60s.

McNamara, one of Washington’s “The Best and the Brightest” has died at age 93.

He gave us Vietnam. Like Rumsfeld, he was reviled by the war’s opponents. In his book, the late David Halberstam said McNamara “did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.”

“I don’t object to its being called McNamara’s war,” he said in 1964. “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.”

A memoir he wrote in the ’90s revealed how much his soul was tortured by his war. He revealed that he had misgivings about the war as early as 1967, but continued to publicly support it anyway. That opened up a barely-scabbed-over sore. The U.S. suffered over 93,000 casualities — dead and wounded — from 1967 to the end of the war.

“We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong,” McNamara told The Associated Press 15 years ago.

  • mulad

    Yeah, I was probably born at least a decade too late to link McNamara to anything, whether good or bad. However, I did sit down and watch “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” a few years ago, though the stuff I remember from the film revolves much more around what he’d done earlier in life during World War II. We occasionally talk about the bombing and firebombing that the Allies did, but this was the first movie to really impress upon me how much bombing there was toward the tail end of the war when the tide had already turned.

    I didn’t put much stock in the “lessons” of the film, but it was really interesting anyway. There were definitely some moments where I looked at the screen and couldn’t believe what he was saying, but most of the stuff was recounting history from a very unique vantage point.

  • Craig Westover

    One of the most interesting aspects of McNamara’s mea culpa was the fear that resistance to the draft would spread. It was not radicals burning draft cards that worried the Kennedy administration. They tended to strengthen support for the war. It was the few war protesters (Joan Baez’s husband David, for example) who were quietly turning in their draft cards and taking prison terms by refusing CO status that worred the administration. According to McNamara, the government’s fear was nightly news shots of white suburban boys doing a perp walk for not complying with the draft.

    Unfortunately, too few of us in that era had the understanding of the threat or the courage to be the first ones to go to prison. McNamera’s worst nightmare never came to pass.

    Fast forward to today. How many Americans might be willing to just say no and voluntarily do prison time instead of paying $5K for not filling out the Community Survey, which is an unconstitutional rider on the obligation to provide census data — additional information the government cannot constitutionally gather?

    Unfortunately, while some of us have learned the lesson, too few of us understand the threat or have the courage to be the first ones to drink the new flavor of hemlock. And Washington bureaucracys sleep undisturbed.

  • GregS

    It would be nice to hear a few mea-culpa’s from the people who served the totalitarians who won that war.

    It should have came when over 1 million people were imprisoned without formal charge or trial and 165,000 were murdered in re-education camps.

    Or when over a million more became boat people, most of whom were ethnic Chinese whose only crime was to get caught in a proxy war between Russia and China.

    In a world enraged at George Bush’s meager violations of law in the wake of 9/11, the lack of outrage during the aftermath of Vietnam screams volumes.

  • Jon

    In other news, Robert McNamara is dead.

    A quote from McNamara once he realized the errors of Vietnam: “(the United States) has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so.”

    So sad no one in the White House or Pentagon was reading these memoirs around 2003. We’ll eventually learn these lessons, one way or the other.