Touched Hearts & Minds

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.

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.

"The other thing that I remember about him, that sticks in my mind as being very moving and interesting as an old Washingtonian: He was the only major public figure that I remember who did a major turnaround. He was a systems man and engineered Vietnam, and years after it was over, he really had a change of heart. He had a public reversal of what he really believed. I think he believed in the end our involvement was the wrong thing. I don't know many public officials who have done that kind of 180. He's remarkable in that sense and a very positive image for us all to rethink what we've done in our lives.

"[The war] was off-limits while he was in office and for the first eight years afterwards. Washington society used to be quite polite and forgiving; discussions are had but they're not accusatory."

-- Jessica Catto, environmental writer, wife of former ambassador Henry E. Catto

"I first heard about him in the early 1960s when a dean at the University of Michigan, where I was the editor of the paper, told me I would really like Bob McNamara, who was going to the Kennedy administration because he was well known in Michigan as president of the Ford Motor Company. He was part of a new generation of young men who thought the computer was the tool for a new kind of scientific management.

"It's all there for anyone to see in the final minutes of the documentary 'The Fog of War,' where he appears to be affirming his latter-day acceptance that Vietnam was a mistake, then he appears to take it back. I don't know what he's saying there at the end. All I can conclude is that Vietnam invaded him and he never understood the effect. It took 30 years to say it was a mistake, and he said it thoughtfully and he said it well, but it was far more than a mistake. He wasn't able to come to terms with it being his mistake, his disaster."

-- Tom Hayden, antiwar activist

"I ran into him in 1962 in Vietnam. He gave this extremely optimistic press conference. I said to him, 'Mr. Secretary, how can you be so optimistic so soon?' He said, 'Every indication we have shows we're winning this war.'

"Robert McNamara, to me, was a haunted man. He was haunted by the ghost of the war in Vietnam, and he never managed to exorcise it. It was the defining experience of his life. It was the major defining challenge of his life.

"He tried to exorcise the ghost of the war with his book on the war. The exorcism didn't work. McNamara had an extremely powerful ego, and he couldn't bring himself to apologize for what he'd done in Vietnam. He wrote what was an excuse, it took the form of a purported explanation that came across as an excuse.

"He was a man who wanted to do good and tried to do good, but he could never get over that experience of Vietnam. When a public man fails in an experience that big, and feels responsible for the losses -- tens of thousands of lives -- he never gets over it."

-- Neil Sheehan, journalist and author of "A Bright Shining Lie"

"It was kind of a gossipy thing that Bob would go to cocktail parties and weep. Bob had this weird tic, when he would talk about the war sometimes, he would not weep so much as he would tear up. There was an emotional edge to his feelings. What was so fascinating about it was that after this book was written that stopped.

"What happened was that in early '90s, he decided to write a memoir. . . . He went away and he came back with 100,000 words on Vietnam. . . . It was really only at the end of that process that Bob could bring himself to say what became the iconic signature of the book, which was the war was wrong, terribly wrong and we owe it to future generations to explain why.

"Bob McNamara is the only one of the architects of the Vietnam War who went back over the events of the time to say: Here's what we did wrong and these are the lessons that should be learned from it. It took a lot of courage. I felt that once he had done it, he was himself immensely relieved and I think the rest of his life was easier for him because he had made his peace with what he had to say.

"His work at the World Bank was a reflection of his determination to make some sort of contribution to social and economic equality. . . . He was seeking vindication, redemption. . . . Bob went on after Vietnam to do everything he could to deal with poverty, to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation and generally leave the world a better place than he found it.

"Bob McNamara was hands-down the most controversial human being I have ever come into close contact with. To this day there are people who, when you mention the McNamara name, their jaws set and there is rage."

-- Peter Osnos, editor and publisher

"He was for me the greatest president of the World Bank. He changed the focus from project to people and to concern about poverty. I always regarded him as a compass for my work. I hope that his influence on the Bank never dies."

-- James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank

"Robert McNamara was noble man who did great services for his country and the world in a turbulent period."

-- Henry Kissinger

"I knew Robert McNamara as president of the World Bank, a position in which I believe he excelled over all others. He wisely and effectively used the resources of the bank as it was designed, especially to improve the lives of the most needy people and to ensure that loans and grants were expended effectively by recipient governments. His personal involvement, or 'hands-on' approach, paid rich dividends. One of his most notable projects, in which the Carter Center was directly involved, was the crusade against onchocerciasis, or river blindness in Africa. We have continued this effort in several African nations and in six countries of South America."

-- Jimmy Carter

"What I did see was a kind of almost inflexible code. Before he ever came up to Cambridge for the first interview, I had an odd experience. He agreed to come up, but I believe he was confused and thought I was part of his book tour. He had asked a number of people about me, and he was warned. He called me up and said he was canceling the interview and went on and on and on about it. At the very end, he said, 'But I said I'm doing it so I'll do it.' It's just typical! He had this desire to -- I can't quite say argue -- but he would always be endlessly negotiating. I told this story to a close friend of mine -- that whole I can't do it, but I'm doing it anyway -- and my friend said to me, 'That's right! That's the story of Vietnam!'

"McNamara saw himself as the servant of the president; he said many times he had not been elected to public office, and I've come to believe that the impetus for escalation came from Johnson and not McNamara. Here you have a man who may have done something very important -- he was a moderating influence against the possibility of nuclear conflict.

"History is extraordinarily complex and the problems he had to do deal with are extraordinarily complex. He was reminding himself and me that war is, if anything, the supreme example of unintended consequences. One of the reasons to avoid war is that we don't know what it will bring.

"Knowing him is endlessly fascinating. Really having to make decisions that involve the lives of millions of people. Most of us are lucky never to have been put in that position. Yeah, I say lucky."

-- Errol Morris, filmmaker, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara"

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