By Robert Scheer
Why not speak ill of the dead?
Robert McNamara, who died this week, was a complex man—charming even, in a blustery way, and someone I found quite thoughtful when I interviewed him. In the third act of his life he was often an advocate for enlightened positions on world poverty and the dangers of the nuclear arms race. But whatever his better nature, it was the stark evil he perpetrated as secretary of defense that must indelibly frame our memory of him.
To not speak out fully because of respect for the deceased would be to mock the memory of the millions of innocent people McNamara caused to be maimed and killed in a war that he later freely admitted never made any sense. Much has been made of the fact that he recanted his support for the war, but that came 20 years after the holocaust he visited upon Vietnam was over.
Is holocaust too emotionally charged a word? How many millions of dead innocent civilians does it take to qualify labels like holocaust, genocide or terrorism? How many of the limbless victims of his fragmentation bombs and land mines whom I saw in Vietnam during and after the war? Or are America’s leaders always to be exempted from such questions? Perhaps if McNamara had been held legally accountable for his actions, the architects of the Iraq debacle might have paused.
Instead, McNamara was honored with the Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson, to whom he had written a private memo nine months earlier offering this assessment of their Vietnam carnage: “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”
He knew it then, and, give him this, the dimensions of that horror never left him. When I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times in 1995, after the publication of his confessional memoir, his assessment of the madness he had unleashed was all too clear:
“Look, we dropped three to four times the tonnage on that tiny little area as were dropped by the Allies in all of 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.”
We—no, he—couldn’t break their will because their fight was for national independence. They had defeated the French and would defeat the Americans who took over when French colonialists gave up the ghost. The war was a lie from the first. It never had anything to do with the freedom of the Vietnamese (we installed one tyrant after another in power), but instead had to do with our irrational Cold War obsession with “international communism.” Irrational, as President Richard Nixon acknowledged when he embraced détente with the Soviet communists, toasted China’s fierce communist Mao Tse-tung and then escalated the war against “communist” Vietnam and neutral Cambodia.
It was always a lie and our leaders knew it, but that did not give them pause. Both Johnson and Nixon make it quite clear on their White House tapes that the mindless killing, McNamara’s infamous body count, was about domestic politics and never security.
The lies are clearly revealed in the Pentagon Papers study that McNamara commissioned, but they were made public only through the bravery of Daniel Ellsberg. Yet when Ellsberg, a former Marine who had worked for McNamara in the Pentagon, was in the docket facing the full wrath of Nixon’s Justice Department, McNamara would lift not a finger in his defense. Worse, as Ellsberg reminded me this week, McNamara threatened that if subpoenaed to testify at the trial by Ellsberg’s defense team, “I would hurt your client badly.”
Not as badly as those he killed or severely wounded. Not as badly as the almost 59,000 American soldiers killed and the many more horribly hurt. One of them was the writer and activist Ron Kovic, who as a kid from Long Island was seduced by McNamara’s lies into volunteering for two tours in Vietnam. Eventually, struggling with his mostly paralyzed body, he spoke out against the war in the hope that others would not have to suffer as he did (and still does). Meanwhile, McNamara maintained his golden silence, even as Richard Nixon managed to kill and maim millions more. What McNamara did was evil—deeply so.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, confers with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in November 1963.