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How Robert McNamara Came to Regret the War He Escalated

The 'architect of the Vietnam war' never formally apologized, but struggled with its consequences for the rest of his life

Robert McNamara meeting with Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House. (LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto)
smithsonian.com

Vietnam was a war the Americans couldn’t win and Robert McNamara couldn’t make peace with.

In April 1964, a U.S. Senator described Vietnam as “McNamara’s War.” Robert McNamara himself, in the middle of his tenure as defense secretary, embraced the moniker, wrote Tim Weiner for the New York Times on the occasion of McNamara’s death in 2009. “I am pleased to be identified with it,” he said, “and do whatever I can to win it.”

Less than four years later, he sat in front of the yellow backdrop of a newscast and announced his resignation, on this day in 1967. “No one of my predecessors has served so long. I myself did not plan to. I have done so because of my feeling of obligation to the President and to the nation,” he says. A beat passes.  “Although I have felt for some time that there would be benefits from the appointment of a fresh person.”

8,500 miles away, the war would ultimately cost 58,000 American lives and more than three million Vietnamese ones, to say nothing of its long-term impacts on the country where it was fought. The Vietnamese people and American veterans continue to endure the effects of Agent Orange exposure today.

McNamara wrote in a 1995 memoir that his own behavior in shaping the war was “wrong, terribly wrong,” but, to many—including then-editor of the Times Howell Raines—that confession was too little, too late.

“His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers,” Raines wrote in an editorial.  “The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around Mr. McNamara.”

Even if insufficient, Weiner writes that his contrition appeared sincere. McNamara was frank about his career in The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara, and in his autobiography.

“I think the human race needs to think more about killing,” he says in the award-winning documentary’s trailer. “How much evil must we do in order to do good?”

The “lessons” McNamara discusses in the film encompass many of the military events he participated in or witnessed during his career: American firebombing of Japanese cities during the Second World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and of course Vietnam.

“What I’m doing is thinking through this in hindsight,” he says in the documentary. “... I’m very proud of my accomplishments, and I’m very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I’ve made errors.”

McNamara expressed regret, but never made a formal apology for his central role in stoking the conflict in Vietnam. Nor did he speak out after stepping down, although by 1967, as Raines wrote, he realized the war had to be stopped to avoid “a major national disaster.” His public contrition came at almost a thirty-year remove from when it might have affected the war.

“Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose,” the Times editor wrote “What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”

Eight years after that editorial was written, Fog of War premiered. McNamara lived another six after that, dying in his sleep on July 6, 2009, at the age of 93.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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