It’s hard to determine if the condemnation of Robert McNamara is fully deserved or merely convenient. Mind you, I’m no Bob apologist. McNamara was instrumental is selling the Gulf of Tonkin incident as Congressional justification for the war in Vietnam, even though the evidence that U.S. Naval ships had been fired on was flimsy, and was eventually concluded to be non-existent. The Left despised McNamara for his technocratic number-crunching, which treated body counts as negotiable overhead, with apparently no grasp of the moral implications. In due course, the Hawks blamed him for the design of limited police actions in lieu of full and decisive military victory. Regardless of your view of the Vietnam conflict’s ultimate failure, Robert McNamara shoulders the blame. And maybe he should.
But Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who both held hands with Bob and signed off on the bulk of his analysis and recommendations, remain comparatively spared. For Kennedy, his trust in the Defense Secretary’s measured response to the Cuban Missile Crisis helped secure his own reputation as a leader who chose wisdom over aggression. But that president was martyred before McNamara’s cool approach brought disaster in Asia. Lyndon Johnson made huge strides in domestic civil rights, the legacy of his Great Society programs seeming to outweigh his failures as Commander in Chief. But McNamara shared in none of the good cheer generated by Johnson’s social programs. All he had on his resume was Vietnam.
Truthfully, without Robert McNamara at the wheel, the turbulence of foreign affairs might well have turned out exactly the same. His was not the only voice advising Johnson to rattle Vietnam’s cage, (but without waking the Soviets). But, as tempting as it might be to consider the aged, fragile Bob we see in “Fog of War” as a repentant man, making an “only following orders” claim to have been solely concerned with preserving his president’s legacy, it’s clear his view of his own history is selective. He can’t remember what he knew about the dangers of Agent Orange. He makes no mention of deliberately drafting mentally deficient men for service in Vietnam with his notorious Project 100,000. He doesn’t know if he quit or if he was fired.
How I wish the man in that documentary film, charmingly cantankerous in his old age, had only the stylish and affordable Ford Falcon as his claim to fame. We could credit him with automobile safety features, and happily join him in his righteous indignation over the horrors of war. But McNamara left the Ford Motor Company to take a different sort of job. And his later admission that he knew the Vietnam War was doomed to eternal disaster, but neglected to make this opinion public, can only add fuel to the fires of history’s damnation. Robert McNamara was a criminal. But those who accepted his schemes in the name of blind patriotism deserve equal time.
(Man, the image files here look terrible! Please visit www.ashleyholt.com for a better view of my portraits.)