Apologies for the big gap again. Work is crazy. I’ve just read that at the age of 93 Robert McNamara has died. Given that he was the US Secretary of Defence during the Cuban Missile Crisis and was responsible for a great deal of the death and destruction wrought on the people of Vietnam, it might be expected that I would be unaffected by his death. However, I find myself feeling that his death is a loss. The reason for that is simple: in 2004 (I think) I went to see The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara and found myself both fascinated and impressed by McNamara as a man.
McNamara was a brilliant young man, and was headhunted by the US military during World War II. His job in effect was to provide statistical analysis of the effectiveness of bombing, and to apply his mathmatical skills to improve their efficiency. He talked interestingly in the film about the moral questions involved in improving the efficiency of bombing civilians in large cities. After the war, he worked for Ford, helping make it more successful and rising to become its President (the first non-Ford to hold the job) before joining Kennedy’s Cabinet as Defence Secretary. As with another President in whom a lot of progressive people place great hopes, Kennedy was keen on the use of US military power where he thought it could win, and McNamara was brought in to reshape the military. The result was a massive expansion of the US nuclear arsenal, and a Soviet response – in other words, McNamara and Kennedy were fundamental to the emergence of the arms race. Both also bear a great deal of responsibility for nearly bringing about nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis. And as already noted, the extrance of the US into Vietnam was their idea too.
McNamara’s technocratic approach which had served him well during World War II proved to be his achilles heel when it came to Vietnam. While McNamara wheeled out statistics showing that the US was winning the war on every available numerical measure, he completely missed the point that the will of the Vietnamese people could not be broken, unlike the will of the teenage conscripts sent to Vietnam and that of a sceptical public opinion at home. As Defence Secretary until 1968, he had a huge amount of blood on his hands, despite his later claims that he saw early that the war was not being won, and that he opposed some of the more callous and brutal strategies desired by the military. McNamara afterwards served as President of the World Bank, when it was associated in many minds – including those of rabid anti-communists – with more progressive ideals than it is today, and he is associated with efforts to combat river blindness. In his retirement, he worked for various causes he was interested in.
The Fog of War – like McNamara’s 1995 memoir In Retropsect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (which I haven’t read) – is of course an attempt by McNamara to justify himself, and to rewrite history. The most obvious example of this in the film is an event where he meets (if I remember correctly and I might not) a minister from Vietnam at the same time he was Defence Minister. The Vietnamese tells him that all they wanted was their independence but that the Americans wouldn’t let them have it. McNamara goes on a bit about China and Communism, then eventually says we would have let you had your independence. This is clearly untrue. There was no chance of the US happily letting the South Vietnamese state be overthrown by its people and an independent socialist Vietnam emerging. Anti-communism was too strong, not least within Kennedy’s government and its successor. They hoped to replicate the war in Korea, or perhaps be more successful.
Nevertheless, despite all the problems with the film, it clearly showed McNamara as someone with a good deal of humanity, especially in his later years. Despite it all, he did not strike me as being the same as his counterparts in the recent Bush regime. A complicated man, who worked to undo some of the damage he wrought and achieve progress in other areas, he was worthy of respect, if not perhaps admiration.
ADDS: BBC Obituary