Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert McNamara Dead

Former US secretary of Defence Robert McNamara died on Monday aged 93. McNamara was a fascinating man who lived an amazing life. He was the top man at the pentagon from 1961 to 1968 during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. To put it another way he was the secretary of defence of the United States before the current President was even born. He was there for it all, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination and the escalation in Vietnam including the hugely controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident. Of sound and sharp mind until his death McNamara regularly offered his ring side view of these events to the public.

A brief synopsis of his life reads like a summary of the 20th century. Born in June 1916 he claims to remember the World War One victory celebrations in his San Francisco neighbourhood. While working on a ocean liner during his college years he witnessed first hand the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937. An exceptionally intelligent man he became the youngest ever assistant professor at Harvard in 1940. During World War Two he joined the US Air force where his talent with numbers and statistics were put to use with the AAF's Office of Statistical Control. He was deeply involved in the planning and execution of the strategic bombing of Japan. I doubt there is anybody living today who held such a high level role during the second world war. After the war he worked for Ford Motors becoming President of the company in 1960, the first man outside the Ford family to do so. After he left the Pentagon in 1968 he became President of the World bank until 1981. Since his retirement he has taken many an opportunity to discuss his unique experiences and insights into what right and wrong with the world.

Robert McNamara, centre, along side Presidents kennedy and Johnson

However what I found truly unique about the man was not simply his interesting life but the way he tried in his later years to bridge the gap between the policy makers of US foreign policy and the general public. McNamara spoke honestly and openly, without any political spin about his motives during his time at the pentagon. Most notably in the magnificent 2003 documentary Fog of War McNamara articulated in lay mans terms why and how America fight its wars. Some believe he was seeking atonement by doing this as he was after all the architect of Americas most disastrous war. I disagree. I think he was, by participating in the documentary, attempting to inform public opinion of the realities of international relations in the hope that by learning from his experiences, future wars could be avoided.

The best example of this was his 1993 meeting with the former North Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach. As McNamara explains in Fog of War it was one of the very few examples in history of two adversaries from the highest levels meeting up after a war to discuss what might have been. In the heated exchange Nguyen Co Thach insisted that the North Vietnamese were fighting to resist American enslavement. McNamara insisted Vietnam could have had Independence and reunification in the very first place if they had of been prepared to offer a solid guarantee that they would resist Chinese and Soviet influence. Nguyen Co Thach accused McNamara of understanding nothing of the proud Vietnamese nation. If he had he would know that the Vietnamese could never be pawns of Moscow or Beijing. They had in fact been fighting the Chinese for thousands of years. "We would never be pawns of anyone" he claimed. In Fog of War McNamara conceded that neither he nor Presidents Kennedy and Johnson appreciated this aspect of the Vietnamese people.

This was in sharp contrast to the Cuban Missile Crisis which had a more successful outcome. A special advisor on the USSR to Kennedy suggested that the way to get the Soviets to back down was for the President to give something to Kruschev that he could sell as a victory back home. Allow him to say, I saved Cuba, I saved Cuba from a Yankee imperialist attack. This came in the form of a US guarantee not to invade Cuba in exchange for a complete withdrawal of the missiles. It worked and nuclear war was prevented. Empathising with a potential enemy in order to avoid conflict is one of the main lessons McNamara claims should be learned from his experiences.

Robert McNamara led an extraordinary life and it is to the benefit of the world that he chose to articulate his experiences so effectively. From World War Two to Vietnam and the wider Cold War there are few whose lessons are more worth listening to. Many people detest him, apparently many Vietnam veterans are among them and I suppose they are entitled to feel that way. I for one however admire the way he spoke out in recent years and used his intelligence and experiences to help future generations not to make the same mistakes.


Anonymous said...

What a movie/documentary! Just shows us how condid political figures can and should be.

Ted Leddy said...


Deffo, very refreshing to hear such a person talk so honestly. I would love if an official from the Bush administration came out and did the same on Iraq.

Anonymous said...

so easy to do so many years down the line, it was a venture in atonement for this guy. it was an old man justifying his actions, it was saying sorry without an apology.

Zaki said...

I have always had a negative image of McNamara because of his involvment in the US Military-Induatrial Complex and all the Southeast Asia wars. Yet the latest documentory was extremely humble. McNamara looked almost as if he was very sad and humble and even sorry of how things ended up and all these are consequences of lack of understanding and listening and truly believing what your enemy was saying...

McNamara was caught up in something bigger than him....trully refreshing reckoning of his stupid actions..

Ted Leddy said...


I agree. If he could be so enlightened in later life, why not while he actually was in a position of real influence. It reminds me of former President Ford who opposed the 2003 Iraq war but did not want it to be known until after his death.


My thoughts exactly. I suppose when you reach his age is there any reason to be anything other that truly open and honest.