On Robert S. McNamara

By James Fallows

1) I never had any kind of in-person discussion with him. The closest I came was during the Vietnam era, when he was making what he thought would be a routine visit to Harvard -- and to his enormous surprise was engulfed by seas of protestors who immobilized his car and yelled "Murderer!" at him. I was a newly arrived freshman and was walking down to sports practice when I found the street full of people and police surrounding a big black limo. Thirty years later, I ended up sitting next to McNamara on a DC subway car and decided not to say anything.

2) I know some of his relatives and in-laws. They loved and also respected him, and I am sorry for the loss of their father and grandfather.

3) In 1995, when McNamara published his In Retrospect memoir of the Vietnam War, I reacted very harshly in an NPR commentary. My argument was that he had missed his chance for a respectful hearing for his admission that the war in Vietnam was a mistake. If he hadn't done anything about that war when it could have made a difference, then there was no reason to, in effect, ask for public sympathy and understanding for his belated recognition of error. (Quotes after the jump.)

My tone then was harsher than I would be now. Perhaps that's just because I'm older; perhaps because McNamara has now died; perhaps because he had fifteen more years to be involved in worthy causes, mainly containing the risk of nuclear war or accident. But mainly I think it is because of Errol Morris' remarkable 2003 film The Fog of War, which portrayed McNamara as a combative and hyper-competitive man (in his 80s, he was still pointing out that he had been top of his elementary-school class) but as a person of moral seriousness who agonized not just about Vietnam but also the fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II, which he had helped plans as a young defense analyst.

4) In an interview with Sam Stein of Huffington Post, Errol Morris talks about McNamara's moral seriousness and Morris' ultimate respect and sympathy for him. He also echoes the main grounds of my attack on McNamara from the time In Retrospect was published:

"I share one thing with McNamara's critics. As a friend of mine said to me, I can forgive him for Vietnam. I can forgive him for this. I can forgive him for that. But I can never forgive him for not speaking up about the war in the years following his resignation as defense secretary. I kind of agree that was his most significant failing."

5) The greatest defense of McNamara's life and works will, I suspect, rest not on his poverty-alleviation projects as head of the World Bank but instead on his consistent efforts, from the Kennedy administration onward, to reduce the risk of accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons. This included his role during the most dangerous moment of of the Cold War era, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.*  

6) Among many reasons to mourn David Halberstam's death in a traffic accident two years ago is the loss of the opportunity to hear his retrospect on McNamara. In The Best and the Brightest Halberstam wrote the passage that framed understanding of McNamara for years to come, which wound up this way:

He did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.

7) Among many reasons to be grateful for Walter Pincus' continued presence at the Washington Post is this appreciation of his friend McNamara.

* Update: In Slate, Fred Kaplan presents the evidence that McNamara actually took a more bellicose stance during the Cuban Missile Crisis than he later claimed.
 
RIP -- a more freighted wish than in most cases, given McNamara's troubled recent decades. Harsh passages after the jump.
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From NPR commentary, "Too Late to Say You're Sorry," April 11, 1995.

By the time he left in 1968, McNamara knew the war to be unwinnable - he now says. But he did not speak up in 1969, as Richard Nixon prepared for four more years of combat; or in 1975, after America's humiliating exit from Saigon; or through the 1970s, when Vietnam veterans were being reviled; or through the 1980s, when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was being built and campaigns for reconciliation were underway. He remained silent in 1988 and 1992, when first Dan Quayle and then Bill Clinton were raked-over for having avoided combat at a time when McNamara believed - secretly - that combat was futile.

At any of those moments McNamara could have helped his country - saving lives, reducing recriminations - by saying that he had changed his famously powerful mind about Vietnam. And at every moment he failed to speak....


In the cycles of life, the desire to square accounts is natural, but Robert McNamara has forfeited his right to do so in public. You missed your chance, Mr. Secretary. It would have been better to go out silently, if you could not find the courage to speak when it would have done your country any good.


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/07/on-robert-s-mcnamara/20796/