Remembering Robert McNamara
When I next spoke at length with McNamara, in 1998, it was not about Vietnam but about nuclear arms, on which we were agreed as much as we had disagreed about Vietnam: we both believed that the only decent and sensible thing to do with the bomb was to get rid of it. McNamara's turnabout in the nuclear matter was dramatic. More than any other government official, he had been responsible for institutionalizing the prime strategic doctrine of the nuclear age, deterrence, otherwise known as mutual assured destruction. Now he wanted to dispense with it. But in fact, by then we were closer on Vietnam as well, for he had, after two decades of silence regarding the war, published his book In Retrospect, in which he repudiated his former justifications for the war, famously writing of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, "We were wrong, terribly wrong." He had also revealed an emotional side under the platinum exterior. We know now that at a meeting within the government to say farewell to him as Secretary of Defense, he wept as he acknowledged the uselessness of the bombing of Vietnam. Was he thinking of the devastated villages of Quang Ngai? I don't know. On many occasions when confessing his errors regarding Vietnam, his voice shook or cracked and tears came to his eyes. Like a certain kind of man of his generation, he was emotional without being introspective. The book was "retrospective," not introspective--it was public reflection on a public matter, and contained almost nothing in the way of soul-searching. In its tone and style the book, though it had to be written out of a profound reservoir of feeling, reached for the stable- ground objective analysis.
Many critics have asserted, rightly, I think, that he stopped short of full understanding, that he sought to hold fast to claims of noble intentions that the record cannot sustain. The issue is how noble intentions really are when the facts that show their results turning to horror are readily at hand yet overlooked. Should McNamara have been more forthcoming in his regrets? He should. Should he have expressed them earlier? Certainly. Should he have resigned in protest once he understood that the war was futile and wrong? Yes. Should he never have recommended the war or presided over it in the first place, and should there never been an American war in Vietnam? Oh, Lord, yes! Recent American history with Vietnam subtracted? What a vision of a better country that was attainable but lost. Certainly, if one puts McNamara's tears in one pan of a scales and the deaths of 3 million Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans in the other, there is no doubt which way the scales would tip.
On the other hand, how many public figures of his importance have ever expressed any regret at all for their mistakes and follies and crimes? As the decades of the twentieth century rolled by, the heaps of corpses towered, ever higher, up to the skies, and now they pile up again in the new century, but how many of those in high office who have made these things happen have ever said, "I made a mistake," or "I was terribly wrong," or shed a tear over their actions? I come up with: one, Robert McNamara. I deduce that such acts of repentance are very hard to perform.
If a statue is ever made to him, as probably there will not be, let it show him weeping. It was the best of him.