Robert S. McNamara: In Memoriam

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The family of Robert S. McNamara sent out cards recently to those who offered condolences after he died last month. In accordance with his wishes, said the card, "there will be no funeral or memorial service and his ashes will be placed in Snowmass, Colorado and Martha's Vineyard." I can hear McNamara's gravelly voice and picture him waving his hand to lend emphasis to his determination not to be extolled--or denounced by a protestor--at a posthumous event. In different circumstances, he might have been persuaded otherwise. After years of saying he wouldn't, McNamara did finally reflect deeply in print and on film about the Vietnam War and his role in it. But it would be inconceivable, I suppose, for his survivors to overrule McNamara's fiat that the scattering of his remains be the only ceremonial recognition of his very full, very long, and very controversial life.

I won't use this piece to offer a McNamara eulogy either. The legacy of Vietnam in lives lost or wasted; the uselessness of a crusade to curtail Chinese influence in Vietnam where it was never welcomed, even by Vietnam's own Communist leaders; and the arrogance of American ignorance about our choice of allies and enemies in Southeast Asia are all very serious matters that can never be erased from the historical record.


But for a decade, starting in the early 1990s, I worked closely with McNamara on three books--his memoir, In Retrospect; Argument Without End, based on his meetings in Hanoi with former North Vietnamese adversaries; and Wilson's Ghost, his perspective on internationalism in the twenty-first century. In particular, the memoir gave me a personal insight to McNamara and the burden Vietnam placed on his mind and spirit. Among those responsible for America's Indochina war, only McNamara grappled publicly with the consequences of the conflicts in his lifetime. Earlier this year, the reflections of McGeorge Bundy, the powerful and brilliant national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, were contained in Lessons in Disaster, a book of interviews published after his death by Gordon Goldstein. Like McNamara, Bundy spent years after leaving the government in honorable service. Bundy was president of the Ford Foundation while McNamara became an effective World Bank president. It was McNamara's years in government from 1961 to 1968, however, that defined his reputation, even more than Bundy's had.

I barely knew McNamara when Times Books, then an imprint of Random House, was approached by the agent Sterling Lord about publishing an autobiography. After a meeting with Bob and with the approval of my boss, Harry Evans, we acquired the book for $350,000, a lot of money for the life story of an unpopular public figure with no known inclination to display his anguish over the war. The gossip was that McNamara would tear up at small social occasions in talking about Vietnam. But when he discussed the book with me, Vietnam was only going to be one chapter in a work that would include the years he led the Ford Motor Company, his reforms at the Pentagon, the World Bank tenure, and his efforts on behalf of nuclear disarmament.

I suggested (perhaps even implored) that Bob write the Vietnam chapter first since, I argued, it was likely to be read most closely. McNamara returned some months later with about 100,000 words that became the basis of the book. The early drafts were arch in tone with a formal narrative style yet made the points about the U.S. failure to understand Vietnam as a nation and as a security threat. He explained how the structure of American decision making in the 1960s increased the likelihood of misjudging the strategic stakes and how the administrations he served moved toward quagmire and defeat. Gradually, the young editor working with me, Geoff Shandler, and I were able to personalize McNamara's language. It was only in our very last meetings, as the book was about to go to press, that Bob devised what became the memoir's signature sentence: The war was "wrong, terribly wrong . . . and we owe it to future generations to explain why."  appeared in early spring 1995 and evoked vituperation. Howell Raines wrote an editorial in the New York Times that said "Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen." After McNamara dabbed at his eyes in an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC, the image of his crying was relentlessly replayed. The New Yorker's review of the book was accompanied by a cartoon of Bob with missiles dripping from his eyes. At an event at Harvard's Kennedy School, a Vietnam veteran heckled McNamara until he blurted "shut up."

The next morning at dawn, McNamara came to my hotel room. I though he might be preparing to call off the rest of his book tour. Instead, Bob said he wanted to continue and regretted the outburst and his inability to persuade Americans that it was worth considering his explanation of the war's origins and outcome. Despite the attacks, the book reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list and was one of the top selling nonfiction titles of the year. Bob seemed gratified by that success and relieved that he had finally said what he believed.

 In 2001, Bob called to say the filmmaker Erroll Morris wanted to make a film about him to be called The Fog of War. Since McNamara had no idea who Morris was, he asked me what I thought. "What is your capacity for further vilification and condemnation?" I asked, assuming that Morris would trap McNamara into self-description as a war criminal. Ultimately, that is not what happened. The film was revealing and nuanced and won an Oscar for best documentary film of 2003.

Far more than his books ever could, the film reached mass audiences with the human failures that wars represents and the confusion that so often accompanies them. "We burned to death 100,000 civilians in Tokyo," McNamara recalled of his role as a target spotter in World War II, noting that, had the U.S. had lost the war, he might have been prosecuted. "What makes it immoral if you lose," he asks the camera, "and not immoral if you win?" Bob McNamara knew he could not justify Vietnam. But in the rest of his life, he made a genuine effort to prevent comparable catastrophes. The family's card contains these parting thoughts written by Bob in 1999: "I will hope, as well, to see others continuing to pursue the objectives which I have sought (very imperfectly at times) to move the world toward peace among peoples and nations and to accelerate economic and social progress for the least advantaged among us."

In Retrospect

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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