Mar 9, 2014
Posted on Jul 6, 2009
“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.”
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.
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