Mar 16, 2014
Posted on Jul 6, 2009
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.”
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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