By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Robert S. McNamara's last message to his wife, Diana, was typical, no nonsense. "No funeral/memorial service" was the way it began.
But he continued, "I leave this earth believing that I have been blessed with a wife, children and friends who have brought me love and happiness beyond compare." To this not-very-religious man, "Heaven . . . will be to remain in their hearts and memories as warm and close as we were in life."
My wife and I were among those lucky enough to be among those friends. Over 20 years, we had many dinners together, often followed by Kennedy Center symphonic concerts for music we all loved. A little over three months ago, at one of his last public outings, we had lunch together at the Cosmos Club with our wives. He was lucid but frail. Hopeful about initial steps taken by President Obama on nuclear weapons, but fearful about the nation's growing involvement in Afghanistan -- a situation so much like Vietnam.
Nuclear weapons and Vietnam were the way he and I first met, but back in the 1960s, it was in a totally different context. During an 18-month sabbatical from journalism, I worked for Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Over those months, then-Defense Secretary McNamara was first an architect of the successful U.S. response to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and, the next year, a proponent of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. In the fall of 1963, McNamara and Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor recommended a reduction of U.S. troops acting as trainers in Vietnam because they thought the war was going well and that -- another belief that turned out to be wrong -- they could use the reduction to force the leaders of South Vietnam to reform their government.
Later, however, McNamara presided over not just the buildup of the U.S. nuclear arsenal but also the enormous enlargement and public justification of the Vietnam War, actions that were destructive abroad and here at home. Those decisions in the 1960s haunted him until the day he died.
Initially, with his move from the Pentagon to the World Bank, he appeared to want to make up for a destructive past with a creative future. But those 13 years of trying to do good for the less fortunate around the world did not shake the demons still within him. Neither did the books he wrote or co-wrote about the war. Introspection took hold in the 1990s, as he tried to understand others' sharp criticism of his books, in which he initially disclosed his privately voiced opposition to the war while still at the Pentagon.
But it was in his interviews with filmmaker Errol Morris, which became the Oscar-winning 2004 documentary "The Fog of War," and during the many conversations he had with students who had seen the film, that he began to find peace with himself.
In the film, McNamara said, "At my age, 85, I'm at an age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on."
"Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning" was one lesson headlined in the Morris film that has direct application to today. "What makes us omniscient?" asked McNamara, referring to Vietnam but also looking at the world then around him. "Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning."
In November 1967, McNamara presented President Lyndon B. Johnson with a memo that said: "The course we're on is totally wrong. We've got to change it. Cut back at what we're doing in Vietnam. We've got to reduce the casualties."
McNamara, in the film, said he told Johnson, "I know that it may contain recommendations and statements that you do not agree with and do not support," and added: "I never heard from him."
Thereafter, among rumors in Washington that McNamara was facing a nervous breakdown, the announcement came that he was leaving to go to the World Bank.
In another move that has echoes in recent years, McNamara said of his time with Johnson: "That's the way it ended. Except for one thing: He awarded me the Medal of Freedom in a very beautiful ceremony at the White House. And he was very, very warm in his comments. And I became so emotional, I could not respond."
In his last major article, titled "Apocalypse Soon" and published in Foreign Policy magazine in 2005, McNamara expressed his concerns about the immorality and danger of placing reliance on nuclear weapons as foreign policy tools. He particularly focused on the United States and Russia having the weapons on alert. Those arms "are potent signs that the United States is not seriously working toward the elimination of its arsenal and raises troubling questions as to why any other state should restrain its nuclear ambitions," he wrote.
In that final message to his wife, he summed up his hope of the future: for "others continuing to pursue the objectives which I have sought (very imperfectly at times) to move the world toward peace among people and nations and to accelerate economic and social progress for the least advantaged among us."