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Robert McNamara dies: Will books shape his legacy?

July 6, 2009 |  7:58 am

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Robert McNamara, chief architect of the Vietnam War, has died at age 93. As U.S. secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, he was considered both a whiz kid and a lightning rod for antiwar activists. In later years, he turned his attention toward nuclear-arms issues and helping the world's poorest nations.

With his critical role in Vietnam, McNamara garnered the attention of historians and biographers. The 1992 biography "Promise and the Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara" by Deborah Shapely set the tone. In a review in Foreign Affairs magazine, Douglas Brinkley wrote:

McNamara's flaws overwhelm a lifetime of achievements, for the portrait that emerges from Shapley's book is of a man who was the primary culprit in America's ill-fated military engagement, a historical assessment that is likely to stick no matter how many nuclear arms reduction speeches and articles he churns out. 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.

In its obituary, the Washington Post turns to David Halberstam's assessment of McNamara in his bestselling history, "The Best and the Brightest."

David Halberstam, describing McNamara's trips to Saigon, wrote in "The Best and the Brightest" that McNamara, the ultimate technocrat, was "a prisoner of his own background . . . unable, as indeed was the country which sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities. Since any real indices and truly factual estimates of the war would immediately have shown its bankruptcy, the McNamara trips became part of a vast unwitting and elaborate charade, the institutionalizing and legitimizing of a hopeless lie."

In Halberstam's judgment, McNamara "did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool."

McNamara himself decided to weigh in with the 1995 memoir, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam." McNamara wrote, "We sought to do the right thing ... but in my judgment hindsight proved us wrong." Today, the N.Y. Times writes, "He published his denunciation of the Vietnam War and his role in it ... for which he was in turn denounced."

In fact, one of those denunciations was written by David Halberstam, who reviewed "In Retrospect" for the L.A. Times.

This is a shallow, mechanistic, immensely disappointing book. Had it been published 25 years ago while the battle itself and the debate over it was still raging -- had McNamara come forth then and said, as he does here, that what had come to be known as "McNamara's War" was "wrong, terribly wrong," it would have been an extremely valuable part of the ongoing debate; indeed, it might have ended the debate then and there....

In this book, much heralded by his publisher as a mea culpa, the agenda is McNamara's, not the reader's.... [H]e not only gets to give the answers he wants but he also gets to choose the questions he asks himself....

This should have been an important book. But it is not. It permits us some insight into McNamara's inability to come to terms with his role and its consequences, and it involuntarily offers a rare insight into the difference between the mind of a truly public man and the mind of a bureaucrat. But that is little recompense. McNamara comes to us now as a sad and greatly diminished figure from a tainted past. The debate has long since passed him by.

With the Vietnam-era decision-makers passing on, only these competing accounts remain. Will Halberstam's be definitive? Or will McNamara have a voice in his own place in history?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: From left, John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1961. Credit: Henry Burroughs / Associated Press

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