Remembering McNamara
Directed U.S. Military Buildup in Southeast Asia During Critical Early Years of Vietnam Conflict

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Monday, July 6, 2009 1:00 PM

Robert Strange McNamara, the former secretary of defense whose record as a leading executive of industry and a chieftain of foreign financial aid was all but erased from public memory by his reputation as the primary architect of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, died early this morning at age 93. Family members said McNamara died at his home in Northwest Washington. They did not give a cause of death.

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Monday, July 6, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his tenure as defense secretary during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson and as a key figure in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile confrontation with the Soviet Union.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Bob -- I wrote a biography of McNamara, "Promise and Power," published in 1993. For the record, he told me he did not quit over the grim outlook in Vietnam because he wasn't that sure he was right, and because holding on could force Hanoi's hand politically, in his view. Therefore, the deaths of additional Americans at that time (1965 ff) were not in vain.

My personal opinion is that his 1995 book "In Retrospect" gave the impression he thought the war was 'totally wrong' at the time -- which is not what his record shows -- at all! He went on telling the president they could bring off something-or-other, albeit in more pessimistic terms.

Some people want to seem on the right side of history even when they were on what 'in retrospect' was the wrong side of history. Too bad for the servicemen that he misrepresented (or seemed to misrepresent) his own record.

Robert G. Kaiser: Greetings. Glad to have this opportunity to field comments and questions about one of the most interesting Americans of my time.

This first question is from Deborah Shapley, a fine writer, and it provides a wonderful way to introduce today's chat. Anyone who saw Errol Morris's brilliant The Fog of War documentary about McNamara knows how complicated a fellow he was. Deborah rightly points out that he never had one consistent line on Vietnam, which of course will be the thing, the tragedy, the disaster, for which he will be best remembered. He certainly did want to do penance for the war--I think that is why he went from the Pentagon to running the World Bank, to try to help the world's poor. He also wanted to find a way to say he was sorry, without every saying "I'm sorry." Not an easy thing to do.


Still angry Vet in Silver Spring: The legacy of McNamara should be the Vietnam War. He directed the buildup -- but he failed to go all out! Not bombing Hanoi, retreating from hills as soon as they were conquered, the disaster of Cambodia, troops completely unprepared to fight the war! We were not -- walking around with clanging equipment on our bodies until we learned the hard way. The strategies were hampering our actions and put us into a disadvantage. He himself lost the war and is responsible for many Americans who died in vain. I fought in 1967 for one year with the 173rd airborne and was lucky to get out just before the Tet offensive.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this, which opens another fascinating topic: could we have won the war? Did McNamara lose it? I was a young reporter in the Post's Saigon bureau in 1969-70. When I left I wrote a piece for the Outlook section saying I thought the war could never be won, despite the fact that it was going better at that moment--August, 1970--than it ever had before. We had pacified the Mekong River Delta, the most important part of the country, and much of the rest of South Vietnam. But the problem was, South Vietnam was not a real country. Vietnam was the country. It was run, ruthlessly and effectively, by a small elite, mostly middle class kids from the North who grew up together and decided to become communists, though their first cause was always Vietnamese nationalism. Read Neil Sheehan's brilliant "Bright Shining Lie" to learn about them.

Interestingly, McNamara himself came to realize that our view of the world and the Vietnamese view were wildly different. The North vietnamese had a much stronger claim on the nationalistic feelings of the people than did the string of puppets we put in charge in the South, beginning with Ngo Dinh Diem. Many of them had fought for the French against the Vietminh, the original name of the communist/nationalist movement in Vietnam. They were tainted. But we relied on them.

This Marine has plenty of good reasons to be still angry. He was sent on a hopeless mission. But bombs and Marines can't defeat nationalism of the kind that motivated our enemy in Vietnam.


Washington, D.C.: I had only a vague impression of McNamara growing up, as I was way too young to be political during the Vietnam war era. But seeing Fog of War gave me the impression of a thoughtful man who couldn't let go of a bad idea, like a CEO dedicated to a losing product. How was McNamara portrayed and perceived at the time? I am presuming you were around then.

Robert G. Kaiser: A safe presumption! And a very insightful comment. But at the time we perceived that he did give up on the bad idea, and quit the Pentagon to go to the World Bank. But as Deborah Shapley (see earlier question) makes clear in his book, in fact he still wasn't sure the war might not be won when he left the job of Defense Secretary.


Anonymous: Contrary to most of the other submitters, I think McNamara was a genuinely good man. Who, still, was largely responsible for one of the greatest tragedies in human history. I think it would be a major mistake not to try to understand his life, without bringing vitriol into play.

Do you think such a dispassionate analysis of McNamara is possible?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes I do, and I hope we'll see it in the days ahead. The portrait of McNamara in David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" captures some of this, as I recall--haven't read it in decades. For me, McNamara is a splendid example of one of the lessons I have learned over 66 years: almost never is a human being "good" or "evil." Stalin, Hitler, Mao may qualify for the latter category, but they are highly unusual. Most people, and especially most people who become important political leaders, combine the noble and the venal, the fine and the lousy.


Olney, Md.: Please rank Mr. McNamara in relation to the other defense secretaries we've had over the years. Was he the best or the worst?

Robert G. Kaiser: I usually dislike questions like this, but in this context it is helpful. 58,209 is (Wikipedia tells me) the total number of American deaths in Vietnam. The magnitude of the loss haunts me every time I visit the Vietnam memorial on the Mall. Millions of Vietnamese died as well. No Defense Secretary who shares primary responsibility for such numbers, as McNamara does in my view, could be ranked as a successful one. He faced one big test at DOD, and he failed.


Knoxville, Tenn.: I was a child during Robert McNamara's position as secretary of defense. And my husband and I watched nearly without blinking at the film "Fog of War." Incredible. Did you know him well? What is your thought today looking at the whole life of this man?

Robert G. Kaiser: I knew him in a Washington way--I ran into him many times, had dinner with him at Mrs. Graham's two or three times, talked to him at conferences and public events, but had no real personal relationship. As indicated already, I think he was a poignant figure, a man who misunderstood the limits of his own brilliance. Another reader has given us a good quote from David Halberstam that I will post next. He was a tragic figure with many good qualities--that might sum it up.


Anonymous: What are your thoughts on David Halberstam's judgment that, in regards to Vietnam, McNamara "did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool."

Robert G. Kaiser: Here it is, and when Halberstam delivered it in 1972 it must have stung McNamara. But Halberstam was right. McNamara tried to quantify war: "Body counts" -- the number of dead enemy -- would tell us how well we were doing; statistics on the infiltration of men and materiel from the North to the South would show us what still had to be done, etc. etc. As he later admitted to Errol Morris, "Our judgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders." (Sounds a lot like Iraq, doesn't it?) When he was escalating the war, McNamara was acting in total ignorance of the real situation in Vietnam.


Prince George's County, Md.: What made President Kennedy choose McNamara to be secretary of defense? Was there anything in his background that made him suitable? Did McNamara ever experience combat? Or was McNamara another arm-chair soldier?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. McNamara was the CEO of the Ford Motor Co., known as a brilliant executive, and the Kennedys wanted a strong administrator for the Pentagon. He was at least nominally a Republican, and they wanted a bipartisan cabinet. And he was their kind of "can-do" guy.


Herndon, Va.: Please, Mr. Kaiser! - The 173rd Airborne is composed of Marines? Let's keep our elite fighting units separate -- the 173rd was U.S. Army.

Robert G. Kaiser: Sorry, I confused questions. I do know who's who--"Airborne, Sir!" But I rode all night on an airplane from Lima Peru, so may not be at my sharpest. Thanks for the catch.


Bakersfield, Calif.: Mr. Kaiser, I'm under the age of 25 with only a casual understanding of Vietnam, and I wonder if it's at all appropriate to draw analogies between the young public's vilification of Mr. McNamara back then and our apparently similar sentiments now toward Iraq War administration officials. As someone who came of age after the publication of "In Retrospect" and who watched "The Fog of War" and "Thirteen Days" with avidity, I know that I and at least some of my friends regard Mr. McNamara with some scorn but also a great deal of sympathy for his terrible mistakes. Yet many of us would slit our own throats rather than sympathize with, e.g., a regretful Dick Cheney 30 years from now. Can you give me some perspective?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well I can try. I guess I already have, above. First let me congratulate you for paying attention and maintaining an interest in our history. I am depressed some days by the level of historical ignorance on our country, even about recent events--i.e., the ones I've lived through.

I wrote several pieces in The Post as the Iraq war took shape and began comparing that enterprise to Vietnam. I actually think it is quite eerie how similar they were. In both cases we made huge military commitments to causes we ourselves could never redeem. By that I mean, success in Vietnam, as in Iraq, always depended on Vietnamese taking responsibility for themselves and their country in ways they never could. In Iraq we will don't know how successful or disastrous our intervention may ultimately prove to have been. We still don't know very much about Iraqi society and politics, six years after we invaded the place.

Rumsfeld is eerily like McNamara too--glib, charming, smart, always looking for ways to measure success numerically when numbers are too often irrelevant. But I think he is a smaller man than McNamara; I doubt there will be an equivalent of the Fog of War about him, where he confesses to mistakes.

Cheney similarly doesn't know the words "I goofed."

So my hunch is (you'll be here in 30 years, I won't) that you won't have similar phenomena in either case.


Still angry Vet in Silver Spring: Thank you for a thoughtful reply. Yes, I am still angry at McNamara for hampering us. But we could not have won the war because we were not prepared to fight a guerrilla war. And still are not! See Iraq and Afghanistan. We are doing better, though.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. And I agree.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: When you look over this man's career and education, doesn't it appear that he always acted as an elitist believing he was right because he analyzed, justified and believed his opinions, in his own mind, were always right and just?

Robert G. Kaiser: Is that a definition of "an elitist?" Perhaps it is. But I agree with your point.


Maryland: Excuse my ignorance, but I would like to know that if Mr. McNamara had doubts about Vietnam at the time he was secretary of defense, would he have been able to end the war earlier? How much power and influence did he have? Was he more interested in protecting his job/position with the administration he worked for?

Robert G. Kaiser: This question offers a good opportunity to discuss an aspect of the story that I have thus far ignored: the politics of the Vietnam war. Of course McNamara did not have the power to end the war, only the president and/or Congress could do that. He WAS the architect of the war; he chose William Westmoreland to be the U.S. commander, a disastrous choice, and he supported Westmoreland's wrong-headed strategy. But he wasn't the official responsible for taking us to war. Kennedy took the first steps, and Johnson took the fatal, big ones. One fascinating debate is whether, had he lived, JFK would have avoided "McNamara's War." My brother David Kaiser, a distinguished historian, has written a book arguing that JFK would not have done it. But I disagree; I doubt he could have avoided it. This one will go on for a long time.

The basic problem for these two Democratic presidents was the residual power of "McCarthyism," the virulent anti-communist strain in American politics that was so important from the '40s to the '60s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy portrayed Democrats as commies or sympathizers; Richard Nixon called them "pinkos." Harry Truman was denounced for "losing China" when Mao's communists took it over, as though China had ever been "ours" to lose. As the amazing LBJ tapes make clear, he was haunted by the fear of being known as the president who "lost" Vietnam. JFK was a ferocious cold warrior who promised to "pay any price" to prevent the expansion of communism.

Absent that political backdrop, we never would have had a war in Vietnam.


Washington, D.C.: The Time of Illusion is a good book about Vietnam. At one point it was apparently necessary for America to wage a war that the public would not support. This would convince our ideological enemies that democracy and defense were possible in this world of horror and danger. Somehow, sending more troops to Vietnam while the streets of Washington were filled with protesters and tear gas impressed our friends and enemies that we could enforce American policy with or without popular support. It was not too far from the thinking in Washington during the more unpopular days of the Iraq adventure.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know the book, but thank you for posting.


Atlanta, Ga.: Well, it's a little hard to leave out the vitriol on McNamara when you grew up during the Vietnam war. Everyone always wants to whitewash the bad stuff after someone dies or others who didn't grow up then don't think he was so bad. Twenty or 30 years from now, people who were too young to remember Rumsfeld will end up thinking he was not such a bad guy. Mac deserves any of the vitriol that he gets. Rummy, too.

Robert G. Kaiser: I won't argue with you in the case of McNamara, provided you will agree that vitriol isn't ALL he deserves.


Washington, D.C.: What was he like? I interviewed Secretary McNamara 24 times for my biography. He was conscientious, often thoughtful -- though he often saw the past his own way -- no surprise! Fog of War showed how intelligent he was and I was glad the public saw this. Though his takes on Vietnam in the movie were weird and ahistorical, he had credibility warning that nuclear weapons are still horribly dangerous. President Obama in Moscow today is pushing McNamara's' dream of a nuclear-free world.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is Deborah Shapley again, being unnecessarily shy about identifying herself!

And she reminds us of an important point: Whether or not McNamara could ever say "I'm sorry," he certainly turned against the kind of militaristic foreign policy that JFK and so many other American presidents expounded. And he turned forcefully against nuclear weapons. having presided over a breath-taking buildup of the American nuclear arsenal during his years at the Pentagon.


Syracuse, N.Y.: What did Mr. McNamara think of our involvement in Iraq. Was he against the war in Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: He took the position that it was inappropriate for a former defense secretary to criticize the decisions of a successor in public. Not sure where that sense of propriety came from, but he stuck to it. When I was writing I think it was my first piece comparing Iraq to Vietnam, I called him to try to get him to say on the record that the lessons learned from Vietnam that he discusses in his interviews with Errol Morris certainly applied to Iraq. I don't have my notes at hand, but I remember him saying something like "you can draw your own conclusions about that." I did, and concluded that he thought our involvement in Iraq was folly.


Odenton, Md.: It was not only Vietnam where McNamara failed, in my opinion. You cannot run the DoD like Ford, and McNamara tried. Standardization works better with automobiles than it does with military organizations, which need to be mission-specific. One case in point: McNamara's Band thought missiles were more effective than guns on fighters, so U.S. fighters didn't have guns at the beginning of the Vietnam War. A few American pilots were downed by NVAF MiGs who didn't have guns.

He was brilliant, but a prisoner of his own mindset. He caused his country more harm than good, despite his intentions.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.


Silver Spring, Md.: What do you make of the continued denial among many Americans about the very premise of the Vietnam war? Especially veterans who were there and are understandably psychologically required (to maintain their sanity) to believe that we were justified in even being there. It seems to me that these brave and very honorable Americans cannot come to terms with the possibility that the mistake was in --being there --, not in the failure to "fight it more whole hog". To me, the penalty for our national refusal to learn this lesson was Iraq. How many more Vietnams/Iraqs will we need?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for this wise comment.


Richmond, Va.: "Robert G. Kaiser: Yes I do, and I hope we'll see it in the days ahead. The portrait of McNamara in David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" captures some of this, as I recall -- haven't read it in decades. For me, McNamara is a splendid example of one of the lessons I have learned over 66 years: almost never is a human being "good" or "evil." Stalin, Hitler, Mao may qualify for the latter category, but they are highly unusual. Most people, and especially most people who become important political leaders, combine the noble and the venal, the fine and the lousy."

What do you think of McNamara's comments that he and LeMay were guilty of war crimes for the fire bombing of Japan?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not sure what my quote and your question have in common, but I do think the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities was a dark episode in our history. LeMay was a good example of the demonizer--we've had a lot of them in American history. We want our enemies to be REALLY bad, evil, deserving of anything we could give them. In my view this is always understandable, and never correct.


Anon: I remember when I was a teenager, a male friend of mine got into a discussion with my father, a Vietnam vet who served during Tet, about the reinstatement of a draft. My father chose to serve because he couldn't stand the thought of another man being sent in his place, not because he thought our policy was worthy. My friend argued that, if a draft were reinstated, he would better serve our country by using his "brains" for policy, not fighting. My father drolly called him a "McNamara" and walked away.

THAT is what was wrong with McNamara. He thought his brains could get him out of every sticky situation, instead of looking at the cold, hard facts.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this, but it's not so simple. McNamara was an Air Force officer during World War II. He didn't leave it to others to serve for him.

And I'd argue that McNamara was too often focused on the "cold, hard facts," and oblivious to the social, historical, cultural contexts in which those facts existed.


Washington, D.C.: Does the life of Robert McNamara offer any lessons for how we should treat Bush administration officials who have been vilified for their roles in the Iraq war? Do you expect that any of them will look at his 1995 tell-all book and conclude that writing similar works is fruitless, since his work was attacked so harshly?

Robert G. Kaiser: One of McNamara's strengths, I think, was to march to his own drummer. His late-in-life books and interviews were important to him regardless of how they were received, I think. I would be thrilled if one or more of the Bush crowd developed a similar attitude, even very late in life.


Silver Spring, Md.: Bob:

We need to give major thanks to Thomas W. Lippman for his incisive and lyrical obit on Mr. McNamara and to The Post for making the space for it. Robert McNamara, Architect of Vietnam War, Dies at 93 (Post, July 6)

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. This is the perfect way to end today's chat. The Lippman piece (written years ago, Tom retired longer ago than I can remember) is lovely, I agree.

Thanks to all for contributing to a good discussion of this richly complex figure.


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