McNamara's Ghost

In the summer of 2001, when I was editor of The Hill, the congressional newspaper I helped start in 1994 and headed until 2005, I was talking about the Vietnam War with some of our young reporters, who were all in their 20's and had little recollection of it.

One of them, Alison Stevens, our political editor at the time, told me about the emotional reaction of her father, a former Naval officer in Vietnam, to the 1995 memoir of Robert McNamara, in which he admitted the Vietnam policies he advocated as Secretary of Defense from 1961-68 were based on lies and half-truths.

I asked her to write about it, and I was so impressed by her account that I used it in lieu of my weekly "On the Record" column. It ran in The Hill on Aug. 15, 2001 under the headline "McNamara's Ghost," and remains one of the best of the more than 500 columns that appeared in that space.

McNamara's recent death at the age of 93 reminded me of Ms. Stevens' column, which is also relevant to the current dispute over reports that the CIA withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress on direct orders from former Vice President Cheney.

I called Ms. Alison, who is raising a family and no longer works for The Hill, to ask if she had any objection to reprinting her column in The Huffington Post, and she didn't. Her father is William M. Stevens, a Chicago lawyer who still lives in her hometown of Winnetka, Ill.

On July 20, shortly after we spoke, George Vecsey, a sports columnist for the New York Times, wrote about one of the great upsets in college football, Army's 11-8 victory over Roger Staubach's Navy team in November, 1964. One of the Navy players was Bill Zadel, who three years later was fighting in Vietnam as a Marine officer.

Like Ms. Stevens' father, he also changed his mind about the war that McNamara and President Johnson assured Americans was being fought to advance democracy in Asia, even though they knew it was being fought in vain. "I read the excerpts from McNamara's book," Zadel told Vecsey. "I was incensed."

So was I, and it causes me to wonder if this tragic chapter of our history is being repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's her column:

McNamara's Ghost

(Editor's note: Because many young people have little or no understanding of the lingering effects of the Vietnam War, I asked Political Editor Alison Stevens, 27, to write this week's column.)

Early in the morning on every Memorial Day, my father, who was a naval officer in Vietnam, locates the sheet of paper that lists the 100 or so soldiers from our Chicago suburb who have died in America's wars, and carefully reads them aloud as he sits in his bathrobe, having his morning coffee.

The list, laminated years ago after a rainy day nearly destroyed his annual presentation, is marked with an obscure assortment of semicircles, dashes and accent marks -- symbols that have served as a pronunciation guide over the years for names like Vincenzio DiGeorgio, Leon Fried and William Francis Binoist III.

Sometimes, my dad seeks coaching from my mom, who critiques his inflection, pace and pronunciation. And sometimes he reads to me and my twin sister and brother, asking us to concentrate on each name as it falls ever so carefully from his lips.

Then he squeezes his 57-year-old body into his carefully preserved uniform, dons his officer's hat and heads for my junior high school to lead the Memorial Day parade. By 10 a.m., he and the Boy Scout troops have arrived at the village green, and my dad waits under the Cenotaph until he recites their names with a studied patience before an audience of friends and neighbors.

I know of no other ritual my father holds so dear.

But every since Memorial Day 1995, shortly after former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted in his memoir that the policies he advocated in Vietnam were built upon lies and half-truths, the ceremony has taken on an added significance for our family.

At the time, I was an English major who had no idea that McNamara had been a central figure in the escalation of the Vietnam War under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and that his lies had duped people like my father into volunteering for a war that should never have happened.

I remember when the book was published. My father, now a lawyer, realized he had volunteered for a war that was justified to the American people by lies and deceit. The irony awoke in him the confusion he had felt upon returning from a war he had come to believe was a mistake and intensified the rage he felt upon learning about every new deception.

The revelation had another direct personal effect on our family, because we used to boast that my grandfather had roomed with McNamara at Harvard Business School. Since the day the story broke, the name McNamara, once the best and brightest of his generation and a source of pride in our family, has been said with a sense of disgust.

That's why I took special interest when McNamara, now in his 80's, had breakfast with reporters last week while promoting his new book, Wilson's Ghost. Billed as a guide to reducing conflict, killing and catastrophe in the next century, McNamara and co-author James Blight argue that U.S. foreign policy must prioritize moral considerations and must take a multilateral approach.

Asked by Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent who had often grilled Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon about Vietnam, if he had written his book to redeem himself and clear his name, McNamara brushed her off, as he had so many members of Congress who had raised questions about "McNamara's War."

"Oh God no," he replied as if it were a silly question, adding for emphasis, "No, no no."

Good answer, I thought as I sat two seats away from the man who put my father's life -- and my own, for that matter -- in danger.

For no matter how valiant an effort, no matter how many wars are averted, and no matter how many lives are saved, the name of Robert McNamara will never be read with honor in our house.