The McNamara I Knew

I first met Robert S. McNamara, the brilliant, driven and deeply divisive former secretary of defense, in the autumn of 1996. McNamara, who died this week at the age of ninety-three and will forever be remembered as one of the principal architects of the Vietnam War, sought me out because of an important relationship we shared.

"I know who you are," he intoned gravely, jabbing an index finger at me as we spoke on the fringes of a C-Span foreign policy conference. "And I know about the book you were working on." He paused, evaluating me carefully. "The project you were involved in is still vitally important," he said, before rattling off a series of bullet points to support his thesis. It was pure and quintessential McNamara: intense, direct, impassioned, and intimidating. It was the way he engaged the world. And it was the way he fought his demons -- most significantly his unresolved regret and self-recrimination for the disaster of Vietnam.

When we first met, McNamara knew that I had been collaborating on a study of the Vietnam war with his dear friend and colleague, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Bundy had been struggling with a Vietnam memoir and retrospective analysis of presidential decision-making, an agonizing effort cut short by a sudden, fatal heart attack in September of that year. The book was Bundy's final testament to what the historian Michael Beschloss later called "his cardinal moment in history." And it was an enterprise inspired by McNamara himself, who published his own memoir, In Retrospect, just the year before.

In his book, McNamara repudiated the decision to Americanize the war in Vietnam, which he retrospectively concluded was "wrong, terribly wrong." Despite the incendiary reaction -- The New York Times excoriated McNamara for allowing U.S. troops "to die at the rate of hundreds per week in a war he knew to be futile" -- Bundy nonetheless was determined to emulate his friend's act of public self-criticism. In fact, Bundy credited his choice to write about Vietnam largely to McNamara's example. "His book, In Retrospect, is a remarkably straightforward account," Bundy wrote, "and I think its value for the long run will far outweigh its obvious cost in short-term anger from readers with their own strong feelings about Vietnam."

What the former national security adviser did not acknowledge but must have known, as I later wrote, was that like his friend McNamara, "Bundy would pay a price in public opprobrium for finally recanting his belief in a ruinous war he had in large part designed and had passionately promoted, but had not renounced for three decades." Yet the power of McNamara's example was so great that Bundy forged ahead, despite the anger he knew it would trigger and the deep reservations of some in his family, particularly his wife, Mary, who "thinks a book about Vietnam is a very bad idea," Bundy told me.

In the years that followed this first encounter I had the opportunity to discuss with McNamara the various strategic and political questions posed by the debacle of Vietnam. In 1997 I was invited to travel with a delegation led by McNamara that went to Hanoi for a remarkable week of unprecedented meetings between the surviving members of the Vietnamese politburo and leading generals and their contemporaries from the United States. That conference, conceived and managed by the fabulous Brown University scholars Jim Blight and Janet Lang, put McNamara at the side of Hanoi's top leadership, the very adversaries he had tried to destroy three decades earlier.

While critical historical issues were discussed and delineated in the course of the week, my sense was that for McNamara the greatest revelation was psychological in nature. For the very first time he saw the war through the eyes of his Vietnamese opponents, realizing far too late that the core American strategy of reprisal bombing, attrition, and coercive force designed to "break the will of the enemy" was utterly doomed to failure. The nationalistic fervor of the Hanoi leadership was still, three decades later, palpable and dramatic. Their resilience and unshakable resolve dictated that capitulation at the negotiating table -- the stated objective of U.S. strategy -- was illusory and likely impossible. Here, finally, in the comfortably air-conditioned but sealed conference rooms of the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Robert McNamara finally met the enemy and understood the depth of their tenacity, which would never relent to American bombs and combat brigades, no matter how heavy their losses proved to be.

It was around another conference table a year later that I found myself challenging McNamara on the war and how it had been conducted -- not on the battlefield but in Washington. We were participants at another gathering of scholars and former officials assembled by Blight, Lang, and their colleagues to explore the lessons of Vietnam. McNamara, of course, projected a formidable shadow over that dialogue. At one point he lamented the failure of senior administration officials to anticipate the implausibility of an American victory against Hanoi and the Vietcong or to stimulate a vigorous internal debate on these questions -- an assertion that several of us knew to be inaccurate. We all knew that George Ball, the undersecretary of state, had written an eerily prescient sixty-four-page memo in the autumn of 1964, sketching just such a disastrous outcome, a memo that Ball debated with McNamara, Bundy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk on November 7 of that year, just days after Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide presidential election. But who among us would challenge McNamara on the facts?

To my left was one of the premier journalists to ever write about Vietnam. To my right a British historian and strategist of enormous stature. Neither was inclined to speak up. Far younger, less wise, and fortified with more temerity than my senior colleagues, I raised my hand. McNamara called on me. "What about George Ball and his autumn '64 memo?" I asked. Ball's memo was precisely the kind of contrary thesis and analysis that McNamara said had not existed -- and we knew the precise day that McNamara had dismissed it out of hand, infuriating Ball, who described the encounter in detail in his memoirs. I do not recall the exact response that followed from the former secretary of defense. But I will never forget McNamara's ferocity. He began to pound the table again and again, his frustration rising as he disputed my argument with his customary bullet-point presentation: One! Two! Three! Four! I was not persuaded by McNamara. But I was certainly cowed. During the coffee break McNamara sought me out on the terrace overlooking the grounds. I was literally cornered. And he started all over. "George Ball!" he exclaimed. And then again with the bullet points: One! Two! Three! Four!

In his final years, despite a visceral resistance to the notion of collaborating on a documentary about his life, McNamara nonetheless accepted the counsel of his colleagues Blight and Lang and took a leap of faith to work with the filmmaker Errol Morris on the groundbreaking documentary The Fog of War. It's hard to imagine any member of the Bush administration agreeing to sit for a similar set of probing questions about the Iraq war and answering them so forthrightly.

As the nation and the world reflects on McNamara's passing and his legacy, there will be legitimate fury about his conduct of the war. But I hope there will also be a recognition of his unique example. Never before has an American political figure so passionately evaluated his own failings or so determinedly sought to understand the lessons of a tragic war -- lessons that continues to illuminate not just the past but the future as well.

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