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Remembering McNamara

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Posted on Jul 6, 2009
AP photo / John Rous

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, left, walks with President John F. Kennedy during a visit to the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod in July 1961.

By Robert Scheer

In memory of Robert McNamara, we post this article by Robert Scheer, published in 1995 in the Los Angeles Times.

Back at his retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, where he headed directly after San Diego, the last stop on his national book tour, Robert Strange McNamara must be satisfied. After a month of talks shows, speeches and interviews, his book was solidly at the top of the bestseller list, and none of his critics had landed a glove.

Despite confirming the nation’s darkest suspicions about the irrationality of what was once widely known as “McNamara’s war,” the man seemed, at the California end of his tour, to be having fun.

Once again, the familiar, erect and always confident figure of McNamara stood before an attentive audience with a hoarse-voiced answer for everything. But this time, millions were not dying, and respectful World Affairs Council audiences in San Francisco and Los Angeles, many of whom had themselves supported the war, now laughed easily at his jokes.

Best-selling authors do well on the lecture circuit, no matter their transgressions and crimes, as both Henry Kissinger and G. Gordon Liddy have demonstrated. And, audiences seem to recognize, McNamara is someone with the uncommon courage to admit that he was “terribly wrong.”


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He is high energy, informed, good humored and quick with the Washington power connection. Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post, where he has been a director, gave him “a wonderful book party,” and his other friends in the capital have been “most supportive.”

About to turn 79, he has been there and done it all-Ford Motor Co. president, Defense Department secretary and chairman of the World Bank, where he always climbed the 12 floors to his office. He walks or runs miles every day and seems not much changed from the time three decades ago when he daily rationalized a war that he now admits was without purpose.

Easily shuttling between memories of Henry Ford, John F. Kennedy and Deng Xiao-ping, it seems almost that history exists for the benefit of his performance. Never is there the slightest suggestion that he is not to be trusted with yet another opportunity to manage our affairs. He exudes an air of decency and social concern. So what that he once went wrong? Even then, he notes often, Lyndon Johnson granted him the Medal of Freedom, “the nation’s highest civilian honor.”

Confession is a miraculous balm, and it is difficult to remain angry with McNamara. To a dwindling number who yet remember, such as the GI’s widow who attended his San Francisco talk, he’s still something of a war criminal who aided energetically in the death of almost 60,000 men like her husband. And a Vietnamese woman there was shocked that McNamara had not once mentioned the millions of Vietnamese who died in his war. But he’s a very forceful public lecturer, and by the end of his talk, even the war widow seemed less outraged than numbed.

McNamara remains possessed of an incessant optimism that is fueled by defeat and easily accommodates error. On a plane ride down to Los Angeles, he asked what I thought of his talk, and I noted the Vietnamese casualty omission. “I couldn’t agree with you more!” he roared, head reared back and finger puncturing the air, “3.2 million, those are the latest figures from Hanoi, the French press published them last week.”

Once again we were in a briefing on body counts, and he was in charge with the latest figures, and once again, any personal responsibility for the deaths seemed to elude him. Finally one understands the desperate shrillness of the anti-war movement, as an attempt to tug at the arm if not the inaccessible soul of this impervious man. He did, however, incorporate the figure for Vietnamese dead as a “by the way” in his talk the next day at L.A’s Biltmore Hotel.

What a contradiction this man presents. He tears up on television but can go on for hours about the logistics of the war without the scantiest reference to the human pain that was caused.

He is an elitist of the worst sort, contemptuous of those of lesser rank who might have corrected his egregious wrongs. But he is also personally unpretentious; he schleps his own luggage, waits for his plane in the common terminal waiting area-not VIP lounges-and rides coach. He is a strong advocate for the environment of this country, although he continues to show no real interest in the ecological destruction of Vietnam.

No one speaks more eloquently in support of public education, and he expresses deeply felt concern that the University of California, which gave this Depression kid a big start in life as a student at UC Berkeley, is now starved for funds.

“I would not have been able to go to a first-class college had it not been for the fact that Berkeley was essentially free. I and others like me then moved into positions in the society where we could pay that back.”

If there is a center to McNamara, it is to be found in the expectations raised by the university and the opportunities it offered for the talented to rise. His is the peculiar American elitism born of blind faith in the meritocracy, and he evidences not the slightest doubt that this former whiz kid is still the one to be consulted about our thorniest problems:

“Read my 11 points on why we went wrong in Vietnam and you’ll know why we shouldn’t go into Bosnia,” or, “The most important section to read in my book is the appendix on nuclear weapons-that problem is still with us.”

True enough, but how did a man so bright and obviously well-intentioned go so wrong before?

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, July 8, 2009 at 4:00 pm Link to this comment

Welcome to Hell Robert McNamara.

Aside from fomenting the Vietnam escalation, he also recalled the rescue effort from the USS Liberty while it was under attack by Israel on June 8, 1967.

For his turning his back on U.S. military under attack by our “special friend”, he will live in infamy in hearts and minds of many Americans of his generation.

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By Folktruther, July 8, 2009 at 12:59 pm Link to this comment

Great story, Amon.  We merely dream, some people act.

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By RBShea, July 8, 2009 at 4:58 am Link to this comment

The post by Amon Drool fails, for whatever reason, to credit Paul Hendrickson’s “The Living and the Dead” book as the source for that quoted anecdote.
A must read for insights into McNamara’s own story and his impact on five lives, American and Vietnamese. It’s a strong counterpoint to the “rationality” represented by McNamara and its current proponents such as Cheney, Wolfowitz and their ilk.

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By Amon Drool, July 7, 2009 at 11:21 pm Link to this comment

from a posting over a common dreams entitled “Reading an Obit with Great Pleasure”

“The most bizarre incident involving McNamara occurred when he was president of the World Bank and, off on his summer holiday, he caught the Marth Vineyard’s ferry. It was a night crossing in bad weather. McNamara was in the salon, drink in hand, schmoozing with fellow passengers. On the deck outside a vineyard loca, a hippie artist, glanced through the window and did a double-take. The artist was outraged to see McNamara, whom he viewed as a war criminal, so enjoying himself.
He immediately opened the door and told McNamara there was a radiophone call for him on the bridge. McNamara set down his drink and stepped outside. The artist immediately grabbed him, wrestled him to the railing and pushed him over the side. McNamara managed to get his fingers through the holes in the metal plate that ran from the top of the railing to the scuppers.
McNamara was screaming bloody murder; the artist was prying his fingers loose one at a time. Someone heard the racket and pulled the artist off.
By the time the ferry docked in the vineyard M cNamara had decided against filing charges against the artist, and he was freed and walked away.”

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By KDelphi, July 7, 2009 at 1:41 pm Link to this comment

I, on the other hand, have no “problem” being “angry” with McNamara

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By Folktruther, July 7, 2009 at 1:14 pm Link to this comment

I’m sorry you think so, Virgina.

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Virginia777's avatar

By Virginia777, July 7, 2009 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment

FT - you are the pseudo-progressive, you and your troll friends.

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By dr wu, July 7, 2009 at 11:13 am Link to this comment

RIP. as they say—rot in peace, Mr. McNamara. However, he’s no more villainous than our other invaders and occupiers—the clique that got us California, Indian lands, the Philippines, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, who invaded Panama, bombed Belgrade, and on and on…

Why all the killing, torture and pillage?

We preach non-violence and women’s rights but we practice overthrow and torture. We think we’re good but there’s evil in our hearts. Some say it’s because we killed off the Indians and enslaved the blacks; we projected our evil onto everyone else and that’s why we’re such international villains. Me, I don’t know—but crazy is what crazy does..

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By Folktruther, July 7, 2009 at 9:14 am Link to this comment

the sanitizing of this number crunching war criminal is one of the reasons that that American people do not have an idea of the true history of the US. The robbery, repression, torture and mass murder of US power is convered over by the deceit of high purpose and American ideals, and of the extolling of war crminals like McNammarua.

It is the function of pseudo-Progressive journalists like Scheer to rehabilitate the horrible to maintain the crediblity of the US polity as it goes on to its next horror.  I live in LA and read this column fifteen years ago, before the Iraqi war.  I did not have the same feeling against it then as I do now.  But columns like this led to the Iraqi war and the War on Terrorism, the powerful being aussred that they would be honored in their life and death regardless of the horrors they committed.

Scheer can be proud of himself for serving the American power system.  He does not, in this column, serve the American people.

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By Old Geezer Pilot, July 7, 2009 at 7:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

From yesterday’s obit in the NYT:

“...Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen,” The New York Times said in a widely discussed editorial, written by the page’s editor at the time, Howell Raines. “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late…”

By then he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare…”

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Paul_GA's avatar

By Paul_GA, July 7, 2009 at 6:13 am Link to this comment

Many, if not most, of you will not agree with this sentiment, but thinking of McNamara’s passing made me recall it:

“There is a life after this life, and all that is not punished and repaid here will be punished and repaid there.” ~ Martin Luther

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By KISS, July 7, 2009 at 6:02 am Link to this comment

The inventor of the Edsel, Ford’s folly, and the conductor of mass slaughter of a million plus people who had committed no crime, and the leader of a one world order bank, that cause upheaval world wide, suffered from a disorder of the mind that psychologists have yet to name and cure. Egotism falls way too short to describe these criminals with no conscience.Sociopaths?,worse that that. Maybe someday medicine will cure these diseased carriers and mass murderers.

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By godistwaddle, July 7, 2009 at 2:49 am Link to this comment

Someone brighter than I said, “Stupidity is the only sin.”  McNamara—a stupid brilliant guy, and a war criminal on the level of Pol Pot.  There being no hell, we really should make sure Bush, Rice, Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al., hang HERE.

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By marcus medler, July 7, 2009 at 2:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree he is best forgotten. It is a virtual impossibility to try and understand the leg men of the criminal elite that run the imperial U.S. Their own rationalizations are of marginal interest.

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By ecronotics, July 6, 2009 at 9:46 pm Link to this comment

We have hanged Gen. Yamashita and other NAZI leaders for crimes against humanity during WWII.  I wonder why have we not condemned McNamara for his crimes against millions of Vietnamese people and thousands US soldiers who lost their lives because of such “terrible” error.  Can we ask a post-humus apology for his crimes?

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By Xntrk, July 6, 2009 at 9:15 pm Link to this comment

The other problem I have with McNamara is that he made MBAs the in crowd in US manufacturing plants. The demise of American industry may very well date from these assholes take-over. They popularized the ‘bottom line’ over long-term investments and re-investing in industry for the good of the country.

I guess you could say he not only had major responsibility for Vietnam, but also the destruction of our real security, which was/is dependent on the well-being of the Working Class as well as the MBAs and coupon clippers.

I had no use for the man in the early 60s, and my opinion was not changed when he puplished his mea culpa.

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By Paracelsus, July 6, 2009 at 9:06 pm Link to this comment

@ BruSays

These are times I sometimes wish I believed in heaven and hell. But this “wretch” is almost too good for hell.

I am afraid he is so out of touch with human feeling that if you put him in Hell, he would not know to feel any pain.
Yep, what you said, too.

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By BruSays, July 6, 2009 at 7:59 pm Link to this comment

To Mary Ann McNeely and Paracelsus…

These are times I sometimes wish I believed in heaven and hell. But this “wretch” is almost too good for hell.

I remember him in the documentary, “The Fog of War,” saying that it wasn’t till years after we’d pulled out of Vietnam that he realized our efforts were doomed. We thought we were fighting against communism but to the Vietnamese, it was a civil war. You can never win someone else’s civil war. Duh.

Fast forward to 2019 or so, and we’ll be hearing Rumsfeld apologize for his hand in the war on Iraq. If there’s any justice, McNamamara will be there in the warm place to welcome him - and Bush, Cheney and Rice, as well.

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By emmanuel, July 6, 2009 at 7:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good article Robert and truthdig. It is a truthful description of a disturbed man whose self interest, pride and ambition overshadowed the truth and what is good. He is a person worth forgotten.

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By anonymous, July 6, 2009 at 5:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

George H. W. Bush can cry on cue as well, and launched what Pope John Paul II considered an unjust war, responsible for killing an awful lot of Iraqi civilians. And then Rumsfeld’s war in Iraq repeated many of the mistakes made in the US war in Vietnam.

One left-field thought: McNamara helps make the case against providing a free college education. Don’t you think our society would be better off if everyone had to work at least a little bit to help pay for their college tuition?

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By ardee, July 6, 2009 at 12:44 pm Link to this comment

Once more into the breach I guess…In the interest of fairness the guy did beg JFK to produce a timetable for withdrawal of our troops from Viet Nam. Further McNamara quit the Johnson administration over the issue of the war.

Furthering the fairness doctrine I add that McNamara , along with General Curtis LeMay, planned the Dresden firebombing that slaughtered one hundred thousand souls one evening. ( read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five).

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By Paracelsus, July 6, 2009 at 12:25 pm Link to this comment

Rot in hell, you wretch!

What you said.

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By Mary Ann McNeely, July 6, 2009 at 12:22 pm Link to this comment

Rot in hell, you wretch!

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By Paracelsus, July 6, 2009 at 12:18 pm Link to this comment

McNamara is your text book case of a banal, bland, and ingratiating psychopath. He is a smiling, pleasant demon. He is incapable of true deep empathy though he can cry on cue very well. His emotional depth is a mile wide and an inch deep. If you want to understand the political class in microcosm, then you can do know better than use McNamara as an exemplar of a pleasing, and gracious toady. His mathematical abilities would probably diminish if he became more human. These are the people who run our world.

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