Robert S. McNamara: The War Wizard Passes


John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington DC and director of its Vietnam and Iraq Documentation Projects. His current book is Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (University Press of Kansas).

Americans no doubt will view the death of Robert S. McNamara with considerable ambivalence. The 93-year old McNamara has fingerprints on many of the key events of his era, whether it be innovation of the nuclear doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” the acceptance of seat belts in automobiles, the studies behind the firebombing of Japan in World War II, the response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the conduct of the Vietnam war, or the Third World development policies of the World Bank. Auto enthusiasts have probably not forgiven McNamara for championing the Edsel when he worked as president of the Ford Motor Company, any more than have defense hawks for McNamara’s implantation of “whiz kid” systems analysts at the Pentagon. But for most Americans it will be McNamara’s role on Vietnam that defines his place in history. The public outpouring of scorn that followed McNamara’s 1995 memoir In Retrospect amply illustrates the controversy that surrounded him. Many were angry that McNamara, the war criminal, let tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese go to their deaths; while others vilified the man, who served Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as secretary of defense, for holding back U.S. airpower and the military in the Southeast Asian war.

Robert Strange McNamara was nothing if not a complex character, by turns hard-nosed, even savage, then sensitive, but always acute and aware, if not attuned to the full implications of what he was seeing. It is probably fair to say that McNamara approached life—and policy—as a puzzle, the pieces of which, if he could only find them and fit them in place, would yield a brighter future. That problem-solving attitude McNamara took with him into World War II, Ford, the Kennedy-Johnson era Pentagon, and the World Bank. The technique was both McNamara’s gift and his curse, giving him a different lens to find ways forward but also rigidities and limitations that restricted his vision. His core notion, in my view, is that anything could be managed. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Vietnam war, of which McNamara was a principal architect.

A great deal of the controversy over the book In Retrospect flowed from McNamara’s effort to show that he had not merely looked at Vietnam from the simple perspective of the warfighter. McNamara wrote of the lack of American understanding of Vietnam, his efforts to inject dynamism into war strategy, and even a role in Johnson administration peace feelers to North Vietnam. He admitted failure at certain key moments to force a deeper debate over whether to escalate in Vietnam, and came to apologize for his role. All this engendered belly laughs from many, not to mention heaps of sarcasm and outright rejection.

The irony in all this is that the formerly secret records of the Vietnam war bear out McNamara’s account. He certainly did attempt to manage the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Air Force generals who champed at the bit, but the record shows—and the analysts who wrote the Pentagon Papers confirm—that the generals were never able to promise a sure solution to the dilemmas of Vietnam. McNamara’s periodic memoranda to President Johnson show skepticism as early as 1965. Moreover, as documented in my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975, McNamara finally did compel Lyndon Johnson in late 1967 to reconsider U.S. escalation strategy, contributing to LBJ’s change of heart after the Tet Offensive. That act, which amounted to McNamara falling on his sword, also led to President Johnson booting him out of the administration.

Long after, in retirement, Robert McNamara did something almost none of his colleagues from the Vietnam war era attempted, which was to systematically revisit the record of those days in a view toward trying to understand what had happened. I have known Mr. McNamara, very slightly to be sure, for almost twenty years. We first met when I interviewed him for a book I was writing in conjunction with a veteran of the Battle of Khe Sanh. We collaborated most closely during the period from 1996 to 1998, when McNamara was a moving force behind an effort to bring together former top officials and historians from both the United States and North Vietnam to directly discuss the course of the war. Organized by the Brown University academics James Blight and janet lang [this is how she signs her name], the resulting conference took place in Hanoi with preparatory and follow-up sessions elsewhere. I compiled the documentary briefing book for that conference and numbered among the historians on the U.S. delegation.

I mention this to introduce a story that I think illustrates Robert McNamara’s sensibilities as well as his limitations. In the briefing book were a pair of CIA memoranda that dealt directly with the notorious “Domino Theory,” one of the justifications for war frequently cited by U.S. officials, McNamara not least among them. The CIA papers, one from 1964, the other from 1968, neatly boxed the high period of American escalation, and called into question the essential rationale of the argument. The delegation was in Bangkok, en route to Hanoi, and I was sunning by a pool, when McNamara came over to me and sat down. He wanted to talk about the 1968 CIA memo, which of course lent weight to McNamara’s 1967 de-escalation arguments. He was very excited. He asked if there were other documents like that—and I mentioned the 1964 paper. That had been written at the dawn of escalation, when McNamara was on board for the ride. He was not interested in that paper. Robert McNamara wanted an inquiry, but one within specific boundaries that were inside his head.

Similarly, there was much talk about the peace feeler codenamed “Pennsylvania” in which McNamara had effectively acted in place of Secretary of State Dean Rusk. There the blinder was that the approach to Hanoi was about peace talks themselves, not about starting negotiations. As the actual Vietnam peace talks would demonstrate there was a big gap between the sides when it came to a settlement. McNamara had telescoped from opening talks to peace in Vietnam.

For all his rigidities and dualities—not just on Vietnam but in everything in which he participated—Robert S. McNamara at least sought to understand what had happened and his role in key events of the time. And he felt remorse, which is more than can be said for some of his contemporaries. Moreover, Robert McNamara accepted the criticisms heaped upon him without flinching. For these things he deserves some credit.

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Sam Leland - 7/15/2009

First, there exists evidence that contrasts that of Porter's findings and conclusions. There are a number of recordings between LBJ and McNamara that reflect the president demonstrating an aggressive stance towards taking action in Vietnam while McNamara expresses caution but is ultimately overruled. The Gulf of Tonkin incident is too complicated and confusing a situation to draw any solid conclusions about what actually happened. In particular, it's hard to call McNamara as strong a term as "war criminal" based on his actions involving an incident with faulty intelligence. See Errol Morris's "The Fog of War" for an alternative explanation.

Secondly, the idea of McNamara as a war criminal isn't what we're debating. Like I said in my first post, by no means am I providing an alibi for the man and what he did. McNamara made mistakes, and many Americans died because of those mistakes. But for us to simply look back on his legacy and blame him for Vietnam is irrational and backwards. Instead, it is our duty as citizens to educate ourselves about the misdoings of the past and take measures to ensure that those same misdoings do not occur again. I would ask you to revisit Bob Herbert's column to better understand the perspective against which I debate.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/15/2009

First, read recent article "Gareth Porter: Robert McNamara deceived LBJ on Gulf of Tonkin, documents show" on HNN pages.
Secondly, by "minister of defense" I
meant - in McNamara's case - US Secretary of Defense (which in some other NATO countries corresponds to Minister of Defense.)
And, yes, I meant that no high US or NATO governmental official has ever been held accountable for war crimes or crimes against humanity over the Cold War time period or after (in sharp difference with some such officials in the governments considered the US or NATO block's adversaries). If you can name one, I'll publicly apologize.

Sam Leland - 7/15/2009

I would be interested to know what "US archival documents" you're talking about.

When was McNamara ever the US/NATO countries "minister of defense"? Are you referring to the position of Chairman of the NATO Military Committee? If so, McNamara never held that position.

If you're claiming that he was not a war criminal because he held a high government office, look at the plethora of government officials that had been indicted for war crimes in the 20th Century.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/10/2009

<he appears as a downright criminal.>
Just "appears"?
According to the US archival documents he was a war criminal - fair and square, at least he would have been pronounced as such, if he were not the US/NATO countries minister of defense.

Sam Leland - 7/7/2009

Mr. Prados-

I must say that your column on Mr. McNamara demonstrates a far more balanced and insightful perspective than that of Bob Herbert's article in The New York Times.

While I sympathize with Mr. Herbert's passionate feelings derived from a generation plagued by an unnecessary and taxing war (as well as appreciating his service in the military), I disagree with his vehemently one-sided view of Mr. McNamara as a cunning, arrogant, and ultimately evil figure. While he made a number of mistakes during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, as you write, he "at least sought to understand what had happened and his role in key events at the time," and also "felt remorse, which is more than can be said for some of his contemporaries." There was not just one single man responsible for the conflict in Vietnam- it was a collaboration of different political powers. Yet in an unforgiving world, Mr. McNamara took the rare courage to state that his course had not been the right one.

I would argue that now, at his passing, it is meaningless and ignorant to simply blast a man who was covered in guilt for the latter half of his life. Following the war, Mr. McNamara famously emerged saying that he was “wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam. Mr. Herbert, who expresses "nothing but utter contempt for his concession," fails to grasp the fact that McNamara was, in essence, a human being. Human beings make mistakes, and more often than not, never admit those mistakes were made. McNamara’s willingness to admit he was wrong is both admirable and respectable, and in no way does he deserve to be unfairly vilified and shamed upon his passing.

I think the real tragedy is that, even with the Vietnam chapter serving as a warning, we have invaded a foreign country that is, by all standards, foreign to us. We went into Iraq with the hopes of installing freedom and democracy to an unknown society, and the result has been more seemingly unnecessary loss. Why wasn’t the era of Vietnam examined more closely before the decision to go in March 2003? Why didn’t the administration look at the mistakes that Mr. McNamara openly admitted he made, and conclude that there was no positive future for a war in Iraq?

By no means am I creating an alibi for Mr. McNamara. Rather, I am criticizing the polarizing bias within Mr. Herbert’s column that fails to do justice to the legacy of one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century. In Mr. Herbert’s column, McNamara is not even painted as being controversial- he appears as a downright criminal. If we are to progress as a society and as individuals, we must examine the mistakes of the past and learn from them rather than thrust the blame on one man.