The man who bravely looked back

Associate EditorJuly 12, 2009 

Here are some reasons why I shouldn't be writing a column about Robert McNamara: 1) Never spoke with him; never saw him in the flesh. 2) Haven't read his pivotal 1995 book, "In Retrospect." 3) Joined the Army after McNamara had left the Pentagon.

But consider also: 1) Father worked for the Office of the Secretary of Defense throughout McNamara's tenure. 2) Father-in-law, stationed at the Pentagon, retired from the Army while McNamara was secretary. 3) Was sent to Vietnam, where fellow photographers got waxed in a war that McNamara had decided was unwinnable. 4) Once spent the night in McNamara's house.

"Vietnam War architect" was the gist of many a headline attempting to summarize McNamara's place in the grand scheme of things upon his recent death. But what elevated his story to the level of tragedy was his almost desperate effort to confront what had gone wrong in the U.S. decision to wage that war and to publicly account for his own failings.

How agonizing this exercise must have been -- because he felt compelled not only to confess terrible misjudgments but to acknowledge he had harbored his doubts at a time when, if he had spoken out publicly, perhaps the course of history might have been changed. Here is something McNamara had to live with: Of the approximately 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in the Vietnam conflict, 42,000 died after he left his post as secretary of defense in 1967.

He departed at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson, to whom McNamara had sent a lengthy memo saying that it was time to negotiate a peace, that the war had become too much for the country to bear, that Americans wanted it stopped. Soon, he was out -- dispatched to run the World Bank. Not until McNamara published "In Retrospect" did the public come to understand where he had stood as the war gathered such dreadful momentum.

My father, an electrical engineer by training and six years McNamara's senior, had been at DoD since its inception and had seen many secretaries arrive fully convinced that they at last could run the place like it needed to be run. The McNamara "whiz kids" and their vaunted systems analysis occasioned plenty of eye-rolling among my father and his colleagues.

Still, my father's responsibility -- working to get all the armed services to use the same kinds of electronic components, toward the goal of cost-efficiency -- was in keeping with McNamara's cold-eyed management approach. And on the war, not that my father was involved in any of those deliberations, he was as skeptical as the boss turned out to have been.

So was my father-in-law, who had retired from a staff post with the Joint Chiefs of Staff not long after McNamara took office at the outset of the Kennedy administration. The preoccupation then was the perilous nuclear face-off with the Soviets, and McNamara shares credit for helping lead this country through a time when cataclysmic nuclear war was a constant risk. But then the Cold War flared into bloodshed in the paddies and jungles of Vietnam, a venture my father-in-law came to regard as misguided and futile.

McNamara ascribed the debacle to an American failure to understand our opponents, the communist North Vietnamese, and to our overestimation of the threat they posed to U.S. security if they succeeded in conquering our allies in the South.

Such an estimate of course had to take into account Soviet and Chinese aspirations in Southeast Asia, so far as they could be gauged. But as history has shown, a unified communist Vietnam has proved to be something the United States can live with, even if much suffering ensued, and no further dominoes have fallen. Not to say that our defense of democracy in South Vietnam didn't have a noble ring to it and might not have been a useful demonstration of U.S. resolve.

Perhaps I'd have been able to discuss some of these matters with McNamara himself if he had been at home the night of Aug. 8, 1974.

It was the night Richard Nixon told the nation he was resigning from the presidency. I was working as a reporter for the Trenton (N.J.) Times, recently acquired by The Washington Post and thus extra-attuned to the Watergate drama. I and a colleague, novelist-to-be John Katzenbach, sold our editors on the idea of going down to the capital to see what we could add to the coverage mix.

Katzenbach's family knew the McNamaras -- his father, Nicholas Katzenbach, had been attorney general. So John arranged for us to mooch a night's lodging at the McNamara place. I arrived by cab after Nixon gave his resignation speech. I had watched the speech on TV at the Watergate Hotel and gathered some string for a story.

The McNamara home, not far from Dupont Circle, was suitably elegant, with décor that as I recall tended toward the Asian. We found a couple of typewriters and wrote our stories at the kitchen table, then phoned them in. Except for the housekeeper, we were alone. If Robert S. McNamara had been on hand that night, maybe I would have wound up with a real scoop!

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at

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