I first met Robert McNamara in the summer of 1967. The meeting had been arranged by Jerome Wiesner, then the provost of MIT. I had just returned from a trip to South Vietnam, where, as a reporter for The New Yorker, I had witnessed the substantial destruction, by American air power, of two provinces, Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh. Flying in the back seat of Forward Air Control planes–small Cessnas that coordinate the bombing and strafing runs by radio contact with both ground forces and the bomber pilots–I measured the destruction that had already occurred and witnessed at first hand the destruction of villages as it transpired. The policies were clear. Leaflets dropped on villages had announced, “The Vietcong hide among innocent women and children in your villages…. If the Vietcong in this area use you or your village for this purpose, you can expect death from the sky.” Death from the sky came. After it had, more leaflets were dropped, informing the villagers, “Your village was bombed because you harbored Vietcong…. Your village will be bombed again if you harbor the Vietcong in any way.” The results were also clear. As I could see from the air, in Quang Ngai province some 70 percent of the villages had been destroyed. All this, in one of the euphemisms that were the lingua franca of the Vietnam War, was called “the air war.” Actually, it was one-sided air slaughter, mostly of civilians. I was 23 years old at the time, and had no notion of what a war crime was; but it became clear to me later that that was what I had been witnessing, day after day. (Five months after I left, in March of 1968, American troops committed the massacre at My Lai, in which some 350 people were killed.)
Wiesner, a friend of McNamara’s, thought he should know what I had seen, and the purpose of the meeting, which by agreement was to be held confidential, was to tell him. I didn’t know it, but his loss of faith in the war was already well underway, and that November, he would leave office to take up the presidency of the World Bank. The familiar figure with the glinting, rimless glasses and the rigid hair forced back, as if it were spun glass, greeted me at the door of his seemingly tennis-court-size office overlooking the River Entrance of the Pentagon and, in the distance, the Washington monument. In the man I met, I felt a prodigious, ceaseless, restless energy that I suspected he could not turn off if he wanted to. Doing one thing, he seemed already to be thinking about the next, or the thing after that. At rest, he seemed to be moving more quickly than most people when running. As I began to recount my observations, he pinned me with a stare. My feeling was that he was not precisely a good listener but might, in his self-directed way, be a good absorber of information. He took me to a map of Vietnam on an easel at the back of his office, and asked me to locate the areas of destruction. I felt that the request was a test–one I happened to be excellently prepared to take, as I had carried maps with me in the forward air control planes, and measured levels of destruction in the entire province of Quang Ngai. He seemed deeply engaged, but made no comment, asking me only if I had anything in writing. I said I did, but that it was in longhand. He suggested that I produce a typed copy, and provided me with the office just down the hall of a general who was away, if memory serves, in Africa. What he did not know was that the article was book-length. It turned out to take three days to dictate the piece into the general’s Dictaphone, with chapter after chapter emerging perfectly typed from the bowels of the Pentagon.