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Remembering McNamara

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

(Page 2)

“We didn’t know,” is the awkward answer offered to interviewers and audiences by a man who prides himself on always being in the know. Because of the ravages of McCarthyism, the State Department lacked expertise on China and was oblivious to the historic tensions between that country and Vietnam. Nor were they aware of the depths of Vietnamese nationalism as represented by the people we defined as the enemy.

When asked about the many scholars and even some people in the government who did know better, McNamara got a bit impatient, suggesting that an interviewer should know such people were too low down the line to be noticed: “Yeah, when you are the President and the Secretary and the National Security Adviser, you just can’t be in touch with all these scholars in the country. We just didn’t have at the senior level the people we should have had.”

Finally, why didn’t he listen to all of those people, his son included, in the anti-war movement?

“I think in a sense the protesters were right, I was wrong, but you’ve got to understand where I came from.”


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Where he came from, he concedes in a moment of reflection, is Plato’s Republic, and the assurance that the very best, like him, will be selected and should be heeded. The elitism, born of drive and talent that he has in ample quantities, is in his blood to this day.

To be fair, McNamara has dwelt in the highest corridors of power, and he knows that he compares very well to the competition. If you think he and Johnson were wild on Vietnam, you should have heard from the hawks on their right. It is McNamara’s proudest boast that he stopped our country’s destruction of Vietnam just this side of genocide, if not nuclear war.

When the charge is raised that he could have done more to win the war, for the first time he gets incensed, as befits one who was willing to march his country to the brink, but who prides himself on a sense of limits:

“Look, we dropped three to four times the tonnage on that tiny little area as were dropped by the Allies in all the theaters in World War II over a period of five years. It was unbelievable. We killed—there were killed—3,200,000 Vietnamese, excluding the South Vietnamese military. My God! The killing, the tonnage—it was fantastic. The problem was that we were trying to do something that was militarily impossible-we were trying to break the will; I don’t think we can break the will by bombing short of genocide.”

When he speaks, a frequently asked question is whether he will share profits with American veterans or the Vietnamese. His answer is that two-thirds of the profit is needed to cover research costs, and the rest will be divided to benefit a long list of mostly domestic charities.

McNamara has never visited Vietnam since his time in office and seems disconnected from developments in a country whose fate once so preoccupied him. If he feels any guilt for the carnage he wrought, it is quickly obscured by his obsession with the pragmatism of the moment. His is clearly a life unexamined, other than for items on an ever-expanding resume.

Which is not to say he is without social conscience. The infuriating thing about McNamara is that he is clearly a good man who committed dastardly wrongs. How is it that one can order carpet-bombing of a massive peasant population and then turn around and become an advocate for the poor at the World Bank, all in one lifetime?

The book we need to read, but which he will never write, is about the capacity of decent people to accommodate evil. But introspection is not McNamara’s style.

Although of advanced age, McNamara’s thoughts remain rooted in the secular. Once a Presbyterian elder, he no longer maintains church affiliation, and when asked about his enduring social concerns, they seem rooted in the traumas and ideals of his youth: “I grew up in the Depression, a time when 25% of the adult males of this country were unemployed. Classmates had parents who committed suicide because they couldn’t provide for their family. Then I went to sea as a sailor (merchant marine), and I saw the conditions, the labor that was operating out there, absolutely disgraceful conditions, so I have never forgotten those days.”

He expressed shock that some of these problems persist today: “I think it is an absolute disgrace that in the capital of the richest country in the world, the infant mortality rate is twice that of Castro’s Cuba. I strongly believe in private enterprise, but I strongly believe in the need for government participation.”

Given his passion for social issues, he said he would have much preferred a Cabinet position running Health, Education and Welfare instead of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

It’s a bit late, but one wondered how different this country might now be if the enormous energy, talent and conviction of Robert Strange McNamara had been unleashed in the War on Poverty instead of the war in Vietnam.

He nodded in agreement and then with an “oh, well” shrug, shook my hand, grabbed his bag from the overhead and, as is his style, pushed to be one of the first off the plane.

Originally published under the title “Born of Blind Faith—Robert McNamara believed he would ascend in a meritocracy. And with good reason. So what went so `terribly wrong’?” in the Los Angeles Times on May 16, 1995.

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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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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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