Major news items this summer evoked nostalgia at every turn: 40th anniversaries of Woodstock and Apollo 11; deaths of celebrities like Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon and Karl Malden. Saying farewell to Walter Cronkite alone dredged up reminiscences of dozens of world events he reported on.
Possibly lost in the news cycle was the death on July 6 of Robert S. McNamara at age 93. He was surely the most influential secretary of defense in U.S. history, serving from 1961 to 1968, during such events as the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis and the massive escalation of America’s involvement in Vietnam. While Mr. McNamara accomplished much in his remarkable life, filling top posts at Ford and the World Bank, his name will always be linked with the war in Vietnam (“McNamara’s War”).
Late baby boomers like Barack Obama and me (we were born in the first year of Kennedy’s presidency) mostly knew about McNamara after the fact. By the time I reached college, one could (and I eagerly did!) take courses in diplomatic history and political science that covered the Vietnam conflict and the role McNamara played in it. My interest in moral evaluations of America’s role in Vietnam was revived by the fascinating 2003 documentary “The Fog of War,” in which McNamara consented to be filmed reflecting at great length, and with no absence of emotion and even contrition, on the quagmire in Southeast Asia.
Several obituaries likened McNamara to a figure from a Greek tragedy, with a tragic flaw intricately related to his greatest attribute: a keen mind dedicated to charting precise courses of action based on the best available facts and figures. President Kennedy lured him into his cabinet with the flattering comment that McNamara was the smartest man he had ever met.
Yet, despite a knack for systems analysis and technical insight, however brilliant and well informed, McNamara and his Pentagon “whiz kids” somehow missed the human factor in modern warfare. For all their precise calculations surrounding America’s in-volvement in cold war-era Vietnam, even our best and brightest grossly underestimated the tenacity of those fighting in what they considered a struggle for national liberation from Western colonialism. Add to this miscalculation the loss of support from average Americans due to a vigorous antiwar movement and media exposure to the horrors of war, and the outcome in Southeast Asia now appears inevitable.
To his credit, McNamara in retirement labored to articulate the central lessons to be appropriated for U.S. foreign policy: avoid over-reliance on quantitative data, like body counts and firepower superiority, and do not overlook those pivotal factors that touch the hearts and minds of the people, without which modern warfare is unwinnable.
The most excruciating moral questions, less than fully resolved in his late-in-life memoirs and in interviews that probed his mind, involve what the secretary should have done as he came to the realization, near the end of his Pentagon tenure, that war in Vietnam was an unwinnable proposition. Poring over troubling evidence, he faced the perennial dilemma of the statesman serving a demanding superior. McNamara, however, failed the honesty test, as he was unable to push the point with President Johnson. Hundreds of thousands more civilians and soldiers would die before the United States left Vietnam. The ethics of war haunted McNamara’s final decades. His death was met more with pity and scorn than admiration.
The more I ponder the life and times of Robert McNamara, the more I feel a sense of relief that I will never be in a position to send people to their death, whether for arguably good causes or transparently unjustifiable causes. On the larger scale, it renews my conviction that every sane, peace-loving person should be vigilant to press those who do shoulder the burdens of office not to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam.
Of course, Vietnam was not the last dubious land war in Asia that the United States has entered, and many have drawn parallels to our current involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. I suspect we will be grappling with the moral lessons tangled up with the life of Robert McNamara long after we have gotten over the summer 2009 deaths of celebrities like Farrah Fawcett and the ad pitchman Billy Mays.