The Passing of Robert McNamara

Two months ago I posted about my exam question asking for a hypothetical obit for Robert McNamara. With his actual passing two days ago, it’s fascinating to read reactions. He remains enormously controversial.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who himself served during the war in Vietnam, expressed “utter contempt” for McNamara’s retrospective admission that the war in Vietnam was wrong. According to Herbert, McNamara — who knew early on that the war was a lost cause – should have spoken up at the time.

My Harvard undergraduate class (1971) runs a list-serv, and the comments were equally divided between those who, like Herbert, condemned McNamara for keeping silent in the past, and those who admire him for later in life admitting his errors and attempting to learn from history.

In the exam question, I asked for a Canadian perspective on McNamara. Globe and Mail obituary-writer Sandra Martin interviewed former diplomat Alan Gotlieb, who opined that McNamara was a person of honesty and integrity who, like many of the American elite, carried through his long life the belief that the US should be the world’s policeman and its conscience.

What an insider perspective, with the subordinate clause only hinting at a critique. Had she interviewed one of the many former objectors to the Vietnam War who have made their lives in Canada, I’m sure she would have gotten a different, less subtle or generous, perspective.

Documentarist Errol Morris, on his eponymous website, posted a radio interview he did attempting to sum up his nuanced thoughts about this complex man. Morris called him a technocrat with a moral dimension, a man who was torn between his loyalty, as a public servant, to the commander-in-chief and his own sense of right and wrong. Morris observed that McNamara was clearly opposed to the war in Iraq, but never forthrightly condemned it. Morris hypothesized that, in his own mind, McNamara was secretary of defense for the rest of his life. He was always the loyal servant.

I think this interpretation is exactly right: McNamara was quintessentially an insider, and while he was willing to criticize the mistakes of the past, he could never go that one step farther. He could never criticize what he disagreed with while it was happening because that would put in jeopardy his cherished insider status.

I close with a related personal vignette. While an undergrad at Harvard in the early 1970s, I sat on the student advisory committee to the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. We had occasional meetings (and receptions) with the “visiting committee,” which included Kennedy administration luminaries like Mrs. Onassis and Robert McNamara.

The night before one such meeting I received a call from someone in SDS, to ask about the details of the meeting and reception, so that they could confront McNamara. I told the SDS’er nothing, reasoning that, at a time when Nixon had ordered the bombing of Cambodia, embarrassing the former secretary of defense would do little to advance the cause of peace.

McNamara ultimately did not show up, which was not surprising, given that on a visit to Harvard in 1966 he was treated roughly by protesters. But, when thinking back about it, I still wonder if I didn’t facilitate a potential protest because I thought it was counter-productive, or whether I just didn’t want SDS’ers to crash the party to which I was one of the fortunate few who had been invited.

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