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ROBERT S. McNAMARA 1916-2009

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara Is Remembered as a Complicated Man

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Summers were spent in Snowmass, Colo., near Aspen, and in those mountains, he scattered the ashes of his first wife near a rustic memorial he built in her honor on a cross-country ski trail.

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He was central to the Georgetown social whirl, where what was seen as unpleasantness in Southeast Asia became a subject to be avoided in his presence, and he was said to mist up when it came up.

He once reportedly told Fidel Castro -- it was likely a slip of the tongue -- that he would look "down from Hell" on Castro's future anniversaries of the Cuban missile crisis.

Studiously rational and eternally buttoned-up, Robert McNamara crafted a career that went through as many phases as Picasso's art, from Ford Motor Co. to the Pentagon to the World Bank. For the latter part of his life, he never stopped fretting over Vietnam. The old cocksureness had left him, he was obviously haunted. He attempted to exorcise the ghosts in a memoir and a documentary film.

To the end, he was still trying to fathom his own legacy, and here are the voices of some who watched him along the way.

"I had two conversations with him in my entire life. I still scratch my head about them. He was president of the World Bank, and I was beginning the effort to build the memorial. I called him up and said this is what we're going to do, we're going to build this memorial, we're going to recognize the veterans and heal the wounds of the country. He was very enthusiastic about it. He said, 'I don't personally have a lot of money.' But he says: 'I do know the people who have it. I want to pledge my support and we will find a way to help you raise the money for this.' Then he stopped returning my phone calls.

"Twenty-plus years later, I got him on the phone, and I was relating to him this land mine removal project in Vietnam: We find them and we blow them up. We had a very extended conversation that went on for half an hour. He said, 'Well, I just have a feeling that if I were to help you, because of the people who dislike me, it would work to your detriment. I wish I could help you but I can't. I would only hurt you by helping you.' "

-- Jan Scruggs, president, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

"We had dinner at Kay Graham's house and he happened to be sitting next to me. And we talked about what if you had to make a choice between being poor in India -- a democracy -- or having economic security in a communist regime.

"I'm pretty certain he would have chosen the democracy in India, but it was an interesting question. . . . Can you have democracy without an economic foundation underneath it?"

-- Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian

"Out here [in Colorado] we became hiking buddies and skiing buddies over the years. We knew [the McNamaras] as lovers of the outdoors, and of course, Bob had endless energy and endless enthusiasm about the outdoors, and about conservation. In her honor [McNamara's first wife, Margy] he built Margy's Hut, which is part of the hut system up here.


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