Monday, July 6, 2009

Robert S. McNamara — 1916-2009

Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, has died.

Serving Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to 1968, Mr. McNamara oversaw hundreds of military missions, thousands of nuclear weapons and billions of dollars in military spending and foreign arms sales. He also enlarged the defense secretary’s role, handling foreign diplomacy and the dispatch of troops to enforce civil rights in the South.

“He’s like a jackhammer,” President Johnson said. “No human being can take what he takes. He drives too hard. He is too perfect.”

As early as April 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, called Vietnam “McNamara’s War.” Mr. McNamara did not object. “I am pleased to be identified with it,” he said, “and do whatever I can to win it.”

Half a million American soldiers went to war on his watch. More than 16,000 died; 42,000 more would fall in the seven years to come.

The war became his personal nightmare. Nothing he did, none of the tools at his command — the power of American weapons, the forces of technology and logic or the strength of American soldiers — could stop the armies of North Vietnam. He concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life.

In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was “wrong, terribly wrong.” In return, he faced a firestorm of scorn.

“Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen,” The New York Times said in an unsigned, widely discussed editorial, written by the page’s editor at the time, Howell Raines. “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”

By then he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.

Mr. McNamara came to epitomize what David Halberstam called “the best and the brightest”; the Ivy League intellectuals whose foreign policy decisions — and fear of being seen as “soft” on communism — led us into Vietnam.

That Mr. McNamara felt remorse and sought to put things right shows that he learned something deep and life-changing. I have my doubts that more recent former Secretaries of Defense will ever find such enlightenment, however late it comes in life.

On a personal note, Mr. McNamara’s son Craig was a counselor at a camp I went to in 1966. We all knew who his father was, but as far as I know, none of the other campers ever talked about it. (Not much of a surprise; we were all 13 or so, and not especially politically savvy.) I remember him as a nice and funny guy, enjoying his summer with a bunch of kids hiking through the Tetons.

I hold him and his family in the Light.