My Turn: Robert McNamara's War

Posted: Thursday, July 09, 2009

This past week saw the passing of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. This decent, talented and intelligent man was a study of contradictions symbolic of the Vietnam War era and reflects in many ways our country today.

After World War II, where he'd served in the U.S. Army as a statistician, he went to work at the Ford Motor Co. Rising meteorically, he became president of Ford inside of 15 years. Then, after just a few weeks, he quit to become John F. Kennedy's Secretary of Defense.

It may be hard to relate to today, but the Cold War commanded the Kennedy administration's attention early on. Armed conflict with the Soviet Union was a real possibility over Berlin and Cuba, and the new administration faced a deteriorating situation opposing communism in Southeast Asia.

Not wanting to increase U.S. involvement there but loathing to accept apparent defeat, "the best and the brightest," - McNamara among them - took reluctant but critical steps in committing this country to the survival of the South Vietnamese ally we'd helped invent in 1954. It's a matter of historical record that during the 34 months of the Kennedy Administration the number of military advisors in South Vietnam went from 700 to more than 16,000 and the investment of political prestige deepened dramatically.

After President Kennedy's assassination his entire cabinet transferred directly to the new Johnson administration and the basic policy continued. The involvement deepened, however hesitantly, until the Tonkin Gulf incidents and Southeast Asia Resolution removed what restraint to combat commitment remained.

Being the perfect bean-counter, McNamara insisted on assigning numbers to everything. "Maximum commonality" in the Pentagon became mind-numbing pronouncements of "villages pacified," "strategic hamlets" established and the ghoulish enemy "body count" in Vietnam. Confident, even cocky in public, though beginning to have doubts privately, he advocated the arbitrary restrictions that repeatedly failed to open diplomatic options and which hobbled the whole purpose of choosing to fight in Southeast Asia in the first place. As much as any key person he, not having the stomach for protracted implementation of a real world policy Kennedy's "pay any price, bear any burden" rhetoric called for, had lost faith by 1968 and was replaced shortly before Johnson himself abdicated. This was not an option available to the 550,000 military personnel still there, and the policy was left a shambles for succeeding administrations to deal with.

After a long tenure at the World Bank, McNamara wrote several books adding to the mythology of the war. Among them was a muddled treatise titled "Argument Without End" in which he attempted the dual purpose of rehabilitating himself and absolving JFK by pushing dubious notions like the "missed opportunity" of setting up a "coalition government," as if the Stalinists in Hanoi were ever willing to share power or negotiate in good faith to that end. He declined to accept and share the blame (along with Westmoreland) for the flawed strategy of attrition and the infamous body count even though it stemmed directly from his obsession with "quantification," what he is best remembered for. Driven by unprecedented real-time TV coverage, sheer numbers of casualties, especially friendly and collateral, the war became, for some Americans, the sole yardstick of any military involvement and remains a press fixation to this day.

It can be said that once the personification of achievement and ambition, McNamara proved less-than-equal to and oddly ashamed of the power he wielded. The social, political, and ethical consequences of that time are still with us.

• Rick Kaufman is a Juneau resident.



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