Monday, July 6, 2009

Robert S. McNamara

(June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009) R.I.P.

What are the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq? These are the two catastrophic wars in the history of American foreign policy, so it is critically important to ask that question. Even if we can't remember the answer longer than 1½ generations.

What I have learned is that it is not the generals and their uniformed subordinates who are responsible for the massive killing, maiming and burning in unnecessary wars. Not the uniforms. It is the suits and ties in the Pentagon, the White House, and within the august corridors of Congress. From each generation, they are self-recruited as among the 'Best and the Brightest'.

As far as Vietnam is concerned, McNamara was present at its conception. (Pretty much so, anyway.) Present at JFK's elbow in 1961, he's rightfully pegged by history as The Architect. He was a second-tier technocrat. He had been president of Ford only a month when Kennedy offered him the post as secretary of defense.

Names are indelibly burned into my mind. Not only McNamara, but there was McGeorge Bundy (NSC). And there was ubiquitous Dean Rusk, Secretary of State: a bloodless, tireless man who would endlessly repeat his answer to the last question he was asked.

All of them - the architects - are gone now, except Henry Kissinger.

I can't improve on a comment made by a listener of Talk Radio News Service named Bennett who recalls that, in part,
.... Unlike Mr. Rumsfeld, McNamara admitted he was wrong. He told President Johnson numerous times that we did not know enough to escalate. It was Johnson’s own desire to look as tough on Communism as Goldwater to politically neutralize the Republicans. The Vietnamese foreign minister was almost right in his accusing McNamara of not knowing history and the final mistake was not learned by McNamara or do our leaders today seem to understand it. Our country was founded in a guerrilla war. We won two major battles, Saratoga and Yorktown. Lost all the others. No standing army in history has ever defeated a guerrilla force. The only exceptions to this is when the military power fought a war of annihilation. That is our choice when fighting unconventional foes. We must make a conscious decision to become genocidal war criminals or get out. There are no other political or military options. I do not know if we would have been better off if Mr. McNamara had decided to get rich and stay at Ford. He saved thousands of lives with safety improvements in a few months .... Sent 58,000 Americans to their deaths and ruined a million more American lives. Cost millions of lives of our enemies. The man worked by numbers and those are his numbers....
Robert McNamara does not sit in the first tier of seats of our America's great unindicted war criminals. His incomplete mea culpa, along with LBJ's, places him in a row behind Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Doug Feith.

But he's in the room with them. He's there. Forever.


  1. Other than the Watergate fiasco I am not certain what Nixon did with regard to Vietnam and am too damn lazy to do the research. He finally got us the hell of there in 1972 if memory serves me correctly. Unfortunately it was a rout which proved embarrassing to the United States.

  2. Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on the theme that he had a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. Can you search your memory for that, MadMike?

    Prior to his election, Nixon conspired with his future National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to prolong the Vietnam War by sabotaging the Johnson administration's peace agreement with North Vietnam, all in an effort to win the presidency. Essentially the same peace agreement was signed by the Nixon administration and North Vietnam 4 years later after the deaths of another 250,000 Vietnamese combatants and civilians and another 25,000 Americans in uniform.

    Nixon also expanded the Vietnam War through a rightist miliary coup d'etat in Phnom Penh and the U.S.-South Vietnamese invasion of eastern Cambodia and massive aerial bombardment of all of Cambodia. The rightist miltiary government of Cambodian strongman Lon Nol installed by the U.S. initiated the genocide in the country with mass executions of ethnic Vietnamese.

  3. Great post, Vigilante.

    Soros, you said what I was going to say about Nixon. I just wanted to say that McNamara knew better. After all, he knew of John Kenney's beginning efforts to withdraw troops from Vietnam. In fact, he had withdrawn 5,000 troops before he was assassinated. This is why some conspiracy theorists say that's the reason he was murdered: he was ending the war in Vietnam, which would cause communism to expand and decrease funding that the military-industrial-complex was making. But McNamara knew the war was a mistake. He had already been told that guerilla wars are basically unwinnable, because the guerillas knew the terrain and had the people on their side. He knew all this, but he let the war go on. To me, this makes him the number one war criminal.

  4. I was impressed by The Fog of War. McNamara redeemed himself to some degree by his participation in that film. It doesn't let him off the hook, but it makes him better than Kissinger. So, MacDaddy, I'd have to put Henry K ahead of Robby Mac on any list of U.S. war criminals.

  5. Not letting McNamara off the hook by any means but if it wasn't him, it would have just been some other technocrat wearing a suit. Maybe if Kennedy had escaped assassination things might have been different with JFK aborting the war like MacDaddy wrote..

  6. Beach, that's a great observation. I have always maintained that JFK was murdered at the worst of all possible moments. There are a number of those within his administration who have speculated he was reassessing Vietnam and was considering getting the hell out. I am certain his brother would have gotten us out long before Nixon did.

    It still amazes me that we repeated virtually the same mistake in Iraq that we did in Vietnam. I thought for sure in 1975 (1973) we had learned our lesson and would never again become involved in an imperialistic war which was basically a civil war, but lo and behold, Bush's neocons got us back into one. It is now apparent that the military industrial complex wants long protracted wars in every age so they can maintain their constant sources of profit. That is why we must never again elect a conservative Congress and President at the same time, or ever!

  7. Hopefully, President Obama's surge into Afghanistan will in no way resemble the mission-creep that happened in those early 60s.

  8. That's right, Will "take no prisoners" Hart, keep that hope alive. I don't share it. Neither does Andrew J. Bacevich who published yesterday (in the LAT) five lessons we have failed to internalize bwtween the days of McNamara and Rumsfeld and going forward:

    First, the Long War may be long, but it should not get any bigger. The regime-change approach -- invade and occupy to transform -- hasn't worked; simply trying harder in some other venue (Somalia? Sudan?) won't produce different results. In short, no more Iraqs.

    Second, forget the Bush Doctrine of preventive war: no more wars of choice; henceforth only wars of necessity. The United States will use force only as a last resort and even then only when genuinely vital interests are at stake.

    Third, no more crusades unless the American people buy in; expecting a relative handful of soldiers to carry the load while the rest of the country binges on consumption is unconscionable. At a minimum, the generation that opts for war should pay for it through higher taxes rather than foisting a burden of debt onto their grandchildren.

    Fourth, the key to keeping America safe is to defend it, not to project American muscle to obscure places around the world. It may or may not be true that a "mighty fortress is our God"; had the United States been a mighty fortress on 9/11, however, the 19 hijackers would have gotten nowhere.

    Fifth, by all means let the United States promote the spread of freedom and democracy. Yet we're more likely to enjoy success by modeling freedom rather than trying to impose it. To provide a suitable model, we've considerable work to do here at home. Meanwhile, let's not deny others the prerogative of defining for themselves exactly what it means to be free.

    Obama is allowing himself and the Progressive cause, to be dragged into another quagmire in Afghanistan.

  9. What say you all about Daniel Ellsberg, who worked for McNamara in the Pentagon? And Bill Moyers who worked press for LBJ?

  10. I say both of them learned their lessons and did a somewhat redeeming about-face, as did McNamara. But it's too bad so much damage was wrought prior to their coming to see the light!

  11. Jack:

    Ellsberg and Moyers set the gold standard on intellectual honesty and moral courage. McNamara may have felt tortured, but he was severely compromised on both scales.

    Nine months before McNamara was honored with the Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson he had written a private memo offering LBJ this assessment of their Vietnam carnage:

    “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”

    When Robert Scheer interviewed Mcnamara for the LAT in 1995, he admitted:

    “Look, we dropped three to four times the tonnage on that tiny little area as were dropped by the Allies in all of the theaters in World War II over a period of five years. It was unbelievable. We killed—there were killed—3,200,000 Vietnamese, excluding the South Vietnamese military. My God! The killing, the tonnage—it was fantastic. The problem was that we were trying to do something that was militarily impossible—we were trying to break the will; I don’t think we can break the will by bombing short of genocide.”

    McNamara commissioned Pentagon Papers study, but they were made public only through the bravery of Daniel Ellsberg. Yet, when Ellsberg, was in the docket facing the full wrath of Nixon’s Justice Department, McNamara would only not lift a finger in the defense of his former subordinate, he threatened to testify against Ellsberg.

    McNamara never apologized. All he's sorry for is that changing a civil war into a international war and that carpet bombing didn't work to win it. But he never explained why he ever thought doing the same would ever work to further American national interests.

    I am glad I out-lived this S.O.B.

  12. Vig...You are entitled to your opinion, but your comments, while well taken, do not offer any solutions or recommendations to improve the US' foreign policy on why and how US decide to go to war. I wonder aloud if you ever served in the military? A good friend of mine dealt with the emotional aftermath of the Vietnam War. The men and women who came into their veterans center longed for a resolution to their nightly dreams and memories of days long gone somewhere in a Southeast Asia rice paddy. Their tales of horror I can only imagine were not easy to listen to or talk about these very personal things. It is always so easy to point the finger of blame at those in the distance. You castigate these people in absentia and voice your outrage to nearby empty walls. If you are so hell-bent on doing something, I suggest volunteer in a VA hospital. Then...and only then, will your message of outrage have true meaning. War is a horrible thing and a measure relegated to an action of last resort. For those who have not tasted this bitter-sweet reality called "war", talk to someone who has experienced this as a 19-year old, whose only claim to fame is that he was told to carry a rifle, follow orders and somehow, make it out alive. Talk to these kids who are now in their 40's, 50's and older. Listen to these gallant men and women and remember that the next time you drive to a voting /polling place, that you are able to do this because someone risked his/her life to make this oft'-forgotten right to vote... a reality. McNamara was an accountant and everything he did was clouded with the mathematics of pluses and minuses. I won't blame him, but pray that future Presidents/Prime Ministers et all, will weigh carefully the facts at hand before committing troops to a bloody war.

  13. Good! Let him have it, Marie! Give him the broadside he's been asking for - for so long! He's had it coming!

  14. Don't get your knickers all twisted up into a knot, Petro. You should read my 2nd paragraph (probably for the first time). I take care to exclude uniformed officers and enlisted men from my blame game. In these pages I have never accused service personnel for the results of reckless militarism practiced by their civilian superiors in the Pentagon and the White House. (That includes the issue of torture.) Despite their professionalism and idealism, they are ultimately victims of lawless and wanton war-making. (Obama: "I am not opposed to all wars. Just stupid wars".)

    To a very large extent, I agree with Marie: one has to have walked in the shoes of the 'grunts' on the ground - or right beside their boots - before one has won street cred to judge their behavior under the circumstances they have to face.

  15. Marie, the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident turns out to having been a fraud, staged as a pretext for Americans to escalate their intervention in a North/South Vietnamese civil war. We're talking settled history, here.

  16. Marie:

    A deeply felt & well written comment! I’m glad you feel as you do:

    War is the last resort...not the first

    I feel as you do. I am not a pacifist. I saw a bumper sticker the other

    I am already against the next war.

    I would not put that on my car, but I understand the frustration the owner feels.

    The nation-state has always needed disciplined, professional and dedicated soldiers to kill in its behalf. Of late, the USA and the UK have had civilian leaders who abuse the patriotism and sacrifice of uniformed citizens and send them off to unnecessary foreign wars and poorly-advised occupations. Just as Soros’ P. points out above, pertaining to Vietnam.

    There are huge personal and social costs in any war. And as you are obviously well aware of, many significant costs are delayed and hidden and surface only later in the form of rehabilitation from life-changing, physical and psychological injuries.

    You ask,

    Who am I to argue the merits of flawed policy decisions?

    I ask, who am I if I sit on my hands, watching the telly, and don’t say anything or write anyone when even the hound sitting beside me can see that the talking head on the teevee is lying through his freaking teeth?

    Because that is exactly what George Bush and Tony Blair - and Robert McNamara before them - did.

    No, Marie. I don’t think we can afford to move on yet.