A McNamara Lesson: When to Walk Out

By Jeffrey H. Smith
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Beginning with "In Retrospect" in 1995, Robert S. McNamara began publicly to explain his doubts about the Vietnam War and his break with President Lyndon Johnson. It's not clear when he first had these doubts, but he expressed them to Johnson, in memos, in May and November of 1967. In the May memo, he referred to the war as "a major national disaster." But the public knew little of his dissent.

Why did it take him so long to recognize something so obvious? If he had questioned the war even sooner, as he later asserted, why didn't he speak out?

To most Americans, Vietnam is "McNamara's war." McNamara was haunted by the war long after he left office in 1968 and repeatedly tried to explain what went wrong. He wrote several books spelling out the "lessons" (his word) we should learn from the tragedy of Vietnam. Many Americans brushed them aside because of the deep anger they felt toward McNamara and the war.

The anger is understandable. More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, including 32 of my West Point classmates. It is hard, if not impossible, for my generation to believe that the cost in blood was justified by valid national objectives.

Would it have changed the course of the war and prevented tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese deaths if McNamara had spoken out sooner? Would we have listened to him more attentively in recent years if he had resigned in protest?

Unlike other democracies, the United States does not have a tradition of resignation in protest. It is frowned upon and rarely done. Senior officials who resign in protest typically enjoy headlines for a few days but are dismissed by the administration as malcontents and often fade away. Rarely are they asked to serve again in top positions, even if history proves them correct. A president is unlikely to want someone on his team who might stage an ugly resignation.

But, as New York University's Thomas Franck argued years ago in a thoughtful book, "Resignation in Protest," we might be aided by more such resignations. Our democracy is founded on the belief that open debate leads to better decisions. That debate is often best informed by insiders with unique knowledge on a given issue.

Senior officials who are deeply troubled by administration positions face difficult choices. Some quietly resign. A few resign in protest and see their stature enhanced, most notably Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who resigned rather than obey Richard Nixon's order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Sometimes a threatened resignation can change policy, such as during the Bush administration, when the actions of Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey and Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith led to a change in the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program. Most often, though, senior officials who differ with the president soldier on, hoping to change policy. Sometimes they succeed. But in critical matters -- particularly those involving war and peace -- the highest standards are required. Senior officials who stay when they disagree with the president are inherently less credible when they later criticize the policy they helped formulate and execute. Former secretary of state Colin Powell appears, painfully, to recognize this.

When I worked with McNamara late in his life, I saw his great frustration that his message was not getting through. While he was concerned about his legacy, I believe his objectives went much deeper.

Senior officials should understand that if they disagree with a policy yet soldier on, they put their own credibility at risk. At the end of the day, that's all any of us really have. Robert McNamara is often vilified, but he has much to teach us. We should listen.

The writer is a partner at Arnold & Porter.

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