Robert McNamara – the man and his legacy – the Vietnam War

When Robert Strange McNamara died in his home on July 6 very few people noticed. He was 93. He joined a diverse band of celebrities who died within two weeks of his death. It included Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays, Steve McNair, and most notably Michael Jackson –” the emperor of pop music.[1]

Ed was famous for his work on television for the NBC late night show – The Tonight Show. From 1962-1992, he was Johnny Carson’s announcer and sidekick.

Farrah was the Hollywood actress famous, not so much for her acting as for her sexy appeal, as private investigator Jill Munroe in the Charlie’s Angels. With a record of more than 12 million copies of her iconic 1976 pin-up poster sold, first published in Life magazine in 1976, she was an international sex symbol in the 1970s and 1980s.

Billy Mays was a bearded advertisement sales guy who could hardly be missed by anyone watching American television for his loud, high-pitch voices. He promoted sales of cleaning, home-based, and maintenance products.

Steve was a very talented American football quarterback who spent the majority of his NFL career with the Tennessee Titans. He later played for the Baltimore Ravens before retiring in 2008. He was shot dead by her girl friend who committed suicide after killing him.

McNamara was the primary architect of the Vietnam War. In his capacity as secretary of defense during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, McNamara directed a U.S. military buildup in Southeast Asia during the critical early years of a Vietnamese conflict that escalated into one of the most divisive and bitter wars in U.S. history. He was also a key figure in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile confrontation with the Soviet Union. He changed the balance of nuclear forces in the world with the development of the multiple-warhead missile.

The Vietnam War was a devastating and terrible war not only for the victims in Indo-China but also for America in which she dropped two or three times as much bombs in North and South Vietnam as were dropped by all Allied Forces throughout World War II against all enemies. When the war finally ended, there was over 58,000 Americans dead and some five million Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodians dead. More than 21 million US gallons of Agent Orange (manufactured by Dow Chemical) were sprayed across South Vietnam. 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children born with birth defects.

During those troubling years, America’s national social fabric had been torn asunder. With rising casualties amongst Americans and forced conscription, the war became very unpopular within the student community. Thanks to the investigative report from the journalist Seymour Hersh in Nov. 12, 1969, the anti-war movement got its necessary boost from the revelation about the My-Lai massacre (1968) in which some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed, majority of whom were women, children, and elderly people. Many of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and some of the bodies were found mutilated.

The initial news reports suggested that "128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians" were killed in the village during a "fierce fire fight". Even General William C. Westmoreland, commander for the operation in Vietnam, congratulated the unit on the "outstanding job".

While 26 US soldiers were initially charged with criminal offenses for their war crimes at My Lai, only Lt. William Calley was convicted. He served only three years of an original life sentence, while on house arrest. None of these should come as a surprise to all those who have been watching America’s War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan (and add now Pakistan). Like the whistle-blowers of the Abu Ghraib, three U.S. servicemen made an effort to halt the My Lai massacre and protect the wounded. Sadly, those brave soldiers received hate mail and death threats from pro-war citizens, and were even denounced by war-mongering U.S. Congressmen.

Sick of the war and desirous of a change, the American population sent the Republican candidate Richard Nixon to the White House in 1968. Nixon promised gradual withdrawal of troops. In 1971 Australia and New Zealand withdrew their soldiers. Finally, on 15 January 1973, soon after getting reelected, President Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action against North Vietnam. On 27 January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords on "Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam" were signed, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

As hinted earlier, McNamara was the primary culprit in America’s ill-fated military engagement in the Vietnam War. He was a brilliant guy, with a BA in Economics from UC, Berkeley (1937) and an MBA from Harvard (1939), who became the President of the Ford Motor Company in 1960. But what America needed during the Vietnam War era was not a whiz kid, but a leader of vision, moral courage and scrupulous honesty. And that is where McNamara failed miserably. Historians like Deborah Shapley (author of the book Promise and Power) point out that as early as November 3, 1965, the secretary of defense knew that the Vietnam War was "unwinnable militarily" and yet, according to Shapley, McNamara chose to deceive the American people by hiding the bad news while raising troop levels to 400,000, then 500,000, when he could have resigned, told the- ‘truth’ and stopped the American involvement.

McNamara said that the Domino Theory, espoused by Eisenhower in 1954, was the main reason for entering the Vietnam War. If the West loses control of Vietnam, the security of the West will be in danger; i.e., "the dominoes will fall," in Eisenhower’s words. In an interview in June, 1996, McNamara explained, "The loss of Vietnam would trigger the loss of Southeast Asia, and conceivably even the loss of India, and would strengthen the Chinese and the Soviet position across the world, weakening the security of Western Europe and weakening the security of North America." [2] In that interview he also stated, "Kennedy hadn’t said before he died whether, faced with the loss of Vietnam, he would [completely] withdraw; but I believe today that had he faced that choice, he would have withdrawn."

As Douglas Brinkley has said in a 1993 article in the Foreign Affairs, "The McNamara story is one of tragedy, for a dedicated public servant and for America, fueled by our frustration that a man of such promise chose, out of a misguided sense of mission, not to tell the American people what he knew about the dim prospects for victory in the Vietnam War when it might have made a difference." [3]

McNamara left office on February 29, 1968. The President awarded him both the Medal of Freedom and the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. McNamara then went on to become president of the World Bank, a position he held for the next 13 years.

Shortly after McNamara departed the Pentagon, he published "The Essence of Security" in which he discussed various aspects of his tenure and position on basic national security issues. He did not speak out again on defense issues or Vietnam until after he left the World Bank. He did not even try to defend himself against critics of his role in Vietnam or to justify the escalation there. He became aloof and silent when he needed to speak out against war. Like most highly talented guys, McNamara was a very complex man.

In his bestseller, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Robert McNamara wrote in 1995, "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why. I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions, but of judgment and capabilities."

McNamara wrote that he and others had not asked the five most basic questions: Was it true that the fall of South Vietnam would trigger the fall of all Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a grave threat to the West’s security? What kind of war –” conventional or guerrilla –” might develop? Could we win it with U.S. troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should we not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops? [4] He is famously quoted to have said, "And the conventional wisdom is – don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes. And we all do. May be we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five."  

In the 1996 interview, McNamara said, "But there are certain things bombing can’t accomplish. They can’t break the will of people under certain circumstances. They didn’t break the will of the North Vietnamese." [5] He also said, "We have much to learn from them that can be applied to the world of today and tomorrow. How to avoid these conflicts is something the human race has to learn. This century will go down as the bloodiest century in all of human history. We’ll have lost 160 million people, killed by conflict. Is that what we want in the 21st century? I don’t think so. If we want to avoid it, we have to learn from our mistakes in this century. Vietnam was one of those." [6]

In a 2004 interview with Toronto’s Globe & Mail, McNamara was asked to comment on America’s occupation of Iraq. He replied, "We’re misusing our influence. It’s just wrong what we’re doing. It’s morally wrong, it’s politically wrong, it’s economically wrong." He also offered his advice on how to prevent future Vietnam-like wars, arguing that the US should submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to govern wartime behavior and prevent atrocities, and that the details of US nuclear strategy should be publicly discussed and debated. [7]

In his last major article, titled "Apocalypse Soon" and published in Foreign Policy magazine in 2005, McNamara expressed his concerns about the immorality and danger of placing reliance on nuclear weapons as foreign policy tools. He particularly focused on the United States and Russia having the weapons on alert. Those arms "are potent signs that the United States is not seriously working toward the elimination of its arsenal and raises troubling questions as to why any other state should restrain its nuclear ambitions," he wrote. [8]

A little over three months ago, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post met McNamara at one of his last public outings at the Cosmos Club. There, he sounded hopeful about initial steps taken by President Obama on nuclear weapons, but fearful about the US’s growing involvement in Afghanistan — a situation so much like Vietnam. [9]

If these be the after-war reflections of Robert McNamara, who sounded like the cold-blooded, calculating Dr. Strangelove, when he was the Secretary of Defense, it is obvious that America has learned nothing from Vietnam and from its architect. [10] After all, McNamara taught us all we needed to know about the folly of war, about aftermath and about regret. As columnist William Rivers Pitt, has rightly observed, "Nobody listened, nobody learned, except for the dead." [11] The soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan would recognize McNamara through his latter-day replacements –” Rumsfeld and Gates, and the other Bush administration officials like Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz, Rice, Feith, Rove and Libby.

According to journalist Will Bunch, "The life of Robert McNamara was a personal tragedy, but it was also an American tragedy, our tragedy — because even after McNamara spelled out everything that went so horribly wrong in Vietnam, he lived long enough to see a new generation of the self-appointed "best and brightest" in Washington pay absolutely no mind to the lessons of our recent past. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, there was no plan for the proper military follow-up to a period of "shock and awe" bombing. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we totally misjudged the "nationalism" of the people who lived there and how they would react to a long American occupation. And perhaps most importantly, in Iraq, as in Vietnam, there was no real "public debate" as we marched headlong and foolishly into the 2003 — with way too many "unexamined assumptions," "unasked questions," and "readily dismissed alternatives." [12]

It took nearly 30 years for Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnamese catastrophe in which over five million South East Asian peasants were murdered, to confess that he was wrong. One wonders how long it would take Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to confess that they were wrong with Iraqi War! Would the world conscience demand trial of these war criminals of our new century? Or, should we let the likes of Hulagu Khan write the books of history justifying their wanton massacre and cruelty? [13]


[1]. See this author’s article on Michael Jackson:









[10]. The connection to Dr. Strangelove –” the computer of death –” was made by Douglas Brinkley in his 1993 article:



[13]. See this author’s article –” Fooled me once, shame on Bush: