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Robert S. McNamara -- 1916 - 2009

July 6, 2009 |  6:45 am
Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara meets with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese communist army commander during the war.

Note: Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara has died at the age of 93. The Daily Mirror presents David Halberstam's review of his 1995 book, "In Retrospect" and opinion pieces from 2001 and 2003.

Dead Wrong

Robert McNamara says he miscalculated our chances in Vietnam, but what's not in his book is as telling as what is.

April 16, 1995

IN RETROSPECT: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, By Robert McNamara (Times Books/Random House: $25; 356 pp.)

By David Halberstam

David Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War for the New York Times. He is now at work on his 15th book, about what became of the young people he covered during the Civil Rights sit-ins in Nashville in 1960.

About 25 years ago, when I was working on the book that became "The Best and the Brightest," I spent part of a surreal afternoon with Robert McNamara, then head of the World Bank. My book was designed to explain how and why we went to war in Vietnam, or more specifically how men who were once viewed (at the very least by themselves and their journalistic and academic acolytes) as the ablest men to serve in government in this century could be the architects of what was arguably the century's most tragic miscalculation. Suffice it to say that McNamara himself was not very much help in my quest. He said he would see me but would not talk about any of his experiences on Vietnam, "out of loyalty to Presidents Johnson and Kennedy."

That day he absolutely stonewalled me on any questions on the origins of the Vietnam commitment. But to my surprise, he grew warmer and friendlier as he began to talk about his efforts to bring a halt to the bombing. Suddenly he became willing, almost eager to talk about Vietnam--indeed, he was voluble about the latter part of the war when he, aware that our military presence in Vietnam could not succeed, had initiated a doomed attempt to start fruitful negotiations with Hanoi. These would be preceded by a bombing halt, which he was working for.

The bombing halt and the attempt to bring negotiations turned out, of course, to be futile; Hanoi knew very well, far better than he did, that it was dealing from a position of strength, that it had blunted our military commitment and that it need now only wait for our inevitable departure--albeit at very high cost to its own young men. Yet in my session with him McNamara was willing to talk about precisely that part of his service when in fact Lyndon Johnson did begin to think he was disloyal, but where history and historians might feel more generously inclined toward him than the earlier period of his service when he was one of the fiercest proponents of escalation. For that reason he had suddenly become cooperative.

I tell this story at some length here because reading "In Retrospect" is very much like being with McNamara and watching his puzzling, contorted performance on that strange difficult afternoon 25 years ago.

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. A secretary of defense of his seeming certitude who came forward and said that he had been mistaken in his earlier estimates and that the war could not be won would have been the most powerful of witnesses and would be now a revered American instead of one of our most divided and haunted of men. Sadly, the inner strength to do that, to put loyalty to country and to a larger truth above a narrow bureaucratic loyalty to a President and failed policy, was not within his powers.

In this book, much heralded by his publisher as a mea culpa, the agenda is McNamara's, not the reader's. That is not surprising: He has always been a control freak, and one of his singular skills, going back to his years at Ford, was his ability to take command of a given bureaucratic agenda and to set the terms in which an issue was debated according to his strengths rather than those of potential opponents. In this book he not only gets to give the answers he wants but he also gets to choose the questions he asks himself. As he did with me that day, he still controls the ground rules.

In these surprisingly bloodless, carefully sanitized pages, McNamara is like a player at the poker table who, when the game is over still refuses to show his cards. The book is almost devoid of mood, insight and spiritual texture. He does not reveal his own feelings at that terrible moment in 1967 when he realized that his military calculations were wrong, that thousands and thousands of Americans and Vietnamese were dying each week and that, of all the things that he had done in a seemingly admirable career, he would be remembered more than anything else for Vietnam. This is not his way; there are no feelings here. We will never even know if he has ever visited the Vietnam Memorial.

Nor is this an intellectual's book, for McNamara, despite the attempts of so many people in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to sell him as an intellectual, was never very much of an intellectual; his mind was at best technocratic. Nor is it a historian's book, lacking the richness of texture that Henry Kissinger at his best supplied to his own memoir, for Kissinger, with his immigrant vulnerability to other men of power, was fascinated by all those around him and sensed the nuance of every person he dealt with.

By comparison, McNamara never seems to have had any interest in anyone else, save perhaps his immediate superiors. His insights into the other key players as they face the denouement of 20 years of deeply flawed policies are almost nonexistent, worthy of an eighth grader: Gen. Paul Harkins, the American general in Saigon in 1962 and 1963, a man best remembered for deceiving Washington on the war's progress (as Washington wanted to be deceived) appears as "tall, handsome and articulate; he looked and spoke exactly as a general should." (In fact on another occasion, McNamara said of Harkins, "He wasn't worth a damn, so we got rid of him.") Or of Lyndon Johnson, about the best we get is this: "one of the most complex, intelligent and hard working individuals I have ever known. He possessed a kaleidoscopic personality . . . a towering paradoxical figure."

One can almost imagine the disappointment of his editors when the manuscript finally came in: Is this all we get? they must have asked. Can't we get him to tell more about how it felt in those meetings when they were deciding to cross the Rubicon?

This most bureaucratic of histories nevertheless reveals a struggle between two McNamaras: the McNamara who was the fierce advocate of intervention, and the McNamara who came two years later to understand that the war was a tragic miscalculation, that neither side could win.

The Bad McNamara worked the Pentagon and the Good McNamara worked Georgetown and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, where miraculously enough, for a time he was president. The Good McNamara tried to stop the bombing and whispered privately to his select journalistic friends that he was a dove while the Bad McNamara tried to signal to the military that he was still on board, that he still believed their estimates and thought the war winnable. The Bad McNamara was willing to go on network television endlessly in the war's early days to help project a sense of confidence about the progress of the war. The Good McNamara, as he is quick to tell us in these pages, went to the President in 1965 and asked for a tax increase to cover the otherwise inevitable budget deficit of the expanding war; when the President refused him and told him he was politically naive, the Bad McNamara thereupon loyally lied to the Council of Economic Advisers on the President's behalf, advising them to forecast a small war in a moment of dissembling he fails to mention in this book.

For a long time the only thing the two McNamaras had in common was an agreement that they would not talk publicly about Vietnam. Then the Bad McNamara finally gave the Good McNamara permission to write the book, but the Good McNamara is still so locked up and emotionally blocked--so incapacitated by the deeds of the Bad McNamara--that he found no freedom when he set down to write.

McNamara was always a superb bureaucrat, a fierce apparatchik, who sensing what his superiors wanted, took no prisoners in his struggle with peers and subordinates alike. His rise in the post-World War II years, first at Ford, and then at the Pentagon, symbolized the coming of the super-accountant as the driving force of the ever larger, virtually uncontrollable super-corporation, the man who in the computer-driven age could use numbers not merely as small bits of information to keep a company out of the red but, far more important, as a weapon of power, overwhelming opponents and critics with facts or pseudo-facts.

To McNamara, numbers still have an almost poetic quality, and one of the few moments in this book when he comes alive and seems almost lyrical is when he talks about them: "My mathematics professors taught me to see math as a process of thought--a language in which to express much, but certainly not all, human activity. It was a revelation. To this day I see quantification as a language to add precision to reasoning about the world. Of course it cannot deal with issues of morality, beauty and love, but it is a powerful tool too often neglected when we seek to overcome poverty, fiscal deficits or the failure of our national health programs. . . ."

Sadly for him, for the nation and for the Vietnamese, Vietnam of all wars most resolutely withstood quantitative analysis. The numbers never revealed the burden of the immediate past; they failed to show, for instance, that the other side's commanders were the architects of a great revolution that had already defeated first the French and then the Army of South Vietnam, aided and advised by Americans. The science of quantitative analysis, which McNamara had cherished because it seemed to have such purity, was like a god that failed him. Bring systems analysis to a badly aberrated policy and it is no help; humans will simply jiggle the numbers as necessary. The computer becomes useless. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

McNamara, nevertheless, was not merely a great square of the Midwest, an apolitical man with a taste for numbers. He was in fact a great political operator, a killer inside the bureaucracy with a superb sense of how to put opponents on the defensive and to exploit their weaknesses while concealing any of his own. He understood every nuance of power and how to hold it.

While at Ford, he was so tense and driven that he ground his teeth at night. In time this caused serious dental problems. For treatment he selected a dentist in New York, lest news of his neurosis get out in the gossipy, incestuous world of Detroit; lest it subtract from the myth of his omniscience, from his image of a man completely in control, cool and calm. Grinding his teeth might have cost him more than dental pain; it might have cost him power. He and those in the financial cadre he helped create and who followed him at Ford knew little about cars and were often almost scornful of those who did, but they knew how to bring organization to a sprawling, poorly run company, and they learned how to destroy opponents who were skilled in engineering or manufacturing but innocent of politics.

What worked for McNamara in Detroit worked for him even better in Washington for a time. He had more and better numbers than anyone else around the Pentagon, and given the growing complexity of weapons systems and their cost, he was a valuable ally for the Kennedys in the early going.

One must sympathize with his early role as the Administration's point man for Vietnam. He moved quickly into a vacuum on a deeply flawed, essentially dishonest policy, though he did it with no small amount of hubris and arrogance. Dean Rusk was a weak secretary of state who accepted (all too readily) all the norms and givens of the era. As for our real Asia experts, the Asian equivalents of Kennan, Bohlen and Thompson, they had all been driven out of the Foreign Service by the McCarthy era, their sin being that they accurately predicted the collapse of China's nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.

True McCarthyism, it should be pointed out, was not just the demented ravings and accusations of the alcoholic junior senator from Wisconsin against a few flawed political leftists; the truest manifestation and the lasting legacy of McCarthyism was the willingness of one political party to use the issue of subversion against the other party (even against an Administration as hard-line in stopping European communism as the Truman-Acheson one had been).

What was worst about those accusations was how deeply they seeped into the political bloodstream. The Democrats were accused of losing China to the Communists (though of course there had been no Republican congressional voices in favor of sending American troops to fight for Chiang on mainland China). In time the Democrats were driven from office, but the McCarthy charge seemed to stick in their collective political psyche; in the future they did not dare lose a country to communism.

Let us then set the Kennedy years in truer context: A team of brilliant rationalists had taken office but for political reasons they were dealing with irrational assumptions on American policy in Asia, which they were afraid of challenging because they did not want to take the political heat required to change the existing policies.

Thus we were unable to see China for what it was: nationalist revolution rather than Soviet Communist expansionism. Nor were we able to recognize, more than a decade after Mao had come to power, that there were important new opportunities for American policy in the emerging, historic split between China and Russia, based again on nationalism.

The reason the Kennedys did not see them was not lack of intelligence but an awareness of the political cost of even thinking about dealing with China. Even to discuss the possibility in the most private of meetings was to open the door to severe assault from the right. (Thus the opening to China would be left for Richard Nixon a decade later, secure in the knowledge that when he went to China to start diplomatic relations, he would not be red baited by Richard Nixon.)

McNamara, nevertheless, wasn't merely the loyal domestic policy servant he portrays himself to be in these pages. Both publicly and privately, he was a fierce advocate of escalation, and for a time he became the driving force of the war, the man who loved the truth of numbers, but who would be remembered sadly, for one set of numbers above all others: the body count.

McNamara also denies playing an active role in the rigging of the information that came out of Saigon. On Page 43, I encountered this truly remarkable sentence: "None of us--not me, not the President, not Mac (Bundy), nor Dean, nor Max--was ever satisfied with the information we received from Vietnam." For Robert S. McNamara to write so singularly dishonest a sentence 30 years after the escalation of the war, in a book heralded as a mea culpa is, it seems to me, perilously close to a felony, and a sign that he is a man so contorted and so deep in his own unique self-delusion and self-division, that he still doesn't know who he is and what he did at that time.

(One of the ironies of this book is that there is a rare moment when McNamara's normally muted voice becomes both real and passionate and it is his attempt to settle an old score with Barry Goldwater. The Arizona senator had blamed McNamara for the Edsel, which was not a McNamara car, and the secretary of defense remains outraged by this and by Goldwater's subsequent refusal in 1964 to drop the charge, even after other Ford men wrote saying it was not a McNamara car. That McNamara, by rigging the information on Vietnam through 1963 and 1964 in order to serve a Democratic President in the most blatant political way imaginable, sinned more against Goldwater than Goldwater ever sinned against him does not seem to occur to him.)

By 1967, McNamara knew that the American commitment was going to be blunted, that we had underestimated the resilience of the other side and its essential invulnerability to our technology. Privately anguished, he was desperate for some way out. He seized on all kinds of ideas--one was building an electronic fence around South Vietnam, an idea privately ridiculed by almost all uniformed officers, and another was some kind of bombing halt that might in time lead to negotiations. But any bombing halt was doomed, because he refused to go public and say what he knew: that the policy had essentially failed.

Here we see McNamara for the first time as a completely divided man. The government position was that we were winning, the secretary of efense knew we were not, and his more hawkish colleagues had come to regard him as figure of ridicule. He was effectively paralyzed. The emotional erosion this division inflicted on McNamara was, his friends thought, considerable. He was the hawk who had been the principal architect of escalation and who now knew that it did not work, a man at war with himself. Finally, Lyndon Johnson, fearing both for McNamara's sanity and health, and loyalty (ever the political realist, Johnson feared that Bobby Kennedy would run against him in 1968, which he did, and that McNamara might leave the Administration and go with Bobby and go public with his doubts), dumped him and dispatched him to the World Bank.

In the ensuing nearly 30 years he has remained silent as a public man: distant from the public debate, a not-so-innocent bystander, and yet still the gifted bureaucrat, a man still immensely skilled in his private politicking with select journalists (primarily liberal columnists and bureau chiefs) in the Washington area in order to protect his own personal reputation and to float his own doubts in proper, private genteel channels and keeping his reputation for being on the right side of issues intact.

He is a man who seems to live in a time warp. Vietnam happened but it didn't happen. No rain has ever fallen and dampened those great reputations of 34 years ago. To him, the Kennedy team is still as dazzling as ever, its players are all still the best and the brightest. Mac Bundy, essentially silent all these years over the tragedy of Vietnam, is in his words "by far the ablest National Security adviser I've observed over the last 40 years." Max Taylor, a man whose uniformed subordinates thought that more than anything else he was committed to keeping American ground troops off the mainland of Asia, and whose fingerprints are all over the fateful decisions to intervene, and whose own memoir seems to blame the failure primarily on the press, remains "the wisest uniformed geopolitican and security adviser I ever met." But McNamara is not really talking about Mac Bundy and Max Taylor and his own hope that their reputations have remained untarnished by Vietnam; he is really talking about himself. By implication and extension, McNamara still thinks of himself as the ablest secretary of defense of modern times, the man who tamed the Pentagon.

I do not believe in war crimes on Vietnam, for there was enough responsibility to go around for everyone involved. But McNamara, given his role in the early days and his belief so early on that the military involvement was a failure, is guilty of something else: the crime of silence.

He tells us that while writing this book, he asked himself, Why speak now? Why break my silence? Though there are many reasons, he says, "the main one is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders." Indeed? What a charlatan. Has there ever been a more insulting sentence written by a high public official? Does he know so little about why the mood of this country has shifted? This from the man who remained silent when a decision to tell the truth publicly might have not only diminished cynicism but strengthened the democratic fabric.

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.

When we last saw him some 28 years ago, ever so confidently lecturing to us about Vietnam, he was deceiving millions and millions of his fellow Americans. Now with this book, he is merely deceiving himself.



The Nature of the Danger We Face

Sunday October 28, 2001


Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense, and James G. Blight are co-authors of "Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing and Catastrophe in the 21st Century."

NEW YORK -- For the first time in a long time, Americans are fearful of attacks on the U.S. itself, a fact dramatized by President Bush's decision to establish a new Cabinet-level secretary for homeland defense. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the emerging threat of bioterrorism and the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, with its risk of provoking new terrorist strikes against America, have produced in a new generation of Americans an overwhelming feeling that the U.S. is vulnerable in much the same way that the rest of the world is.

The events of Sept. 11 have been likened to the British burning of Washington in 1814, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march from Atlanta to the sea in the Civil War and Pearl Harbor. But there is a more recent event during which Americans felt supremely vulnerable, completely surprised and shocked, and fearful about where the escalation would end: the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

Not only is there a psychological similarity between October 1962 and September 2001. There is also an unsettling likeness in the extremely dangerous situations posed by Fidel Castro and the Cuban people in 1962 and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban now. Grasping their correlation may enable us to better respond to the terrorist threat with less risk of catastrophic escalation.

Just how close we came to nuclear war on the climatic weekend of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Oct. 26-28, was not generally known until years later. A remarkable series of meetings, beginning in March 1987 and ending in January 1992, involving the former chief adversaries--Americans, Russians and Cubans--of the crisis produced these principal revelations:

First, any U.S. attack on Cuba would have also been an attack on more than 40,000 Soviet citizens--not the 10,000 the CIA had estimated--who were deployed chiefly around the missile sites, which would have been primary targets. A devastating Soviet response was thus likely, perhaps a nuclear one.

Second, by that weekend, Castro had concluded that an American air strike and invasion of his island was virtually inevitable. In a cable to Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Cuban leader urged the Soviet premier to launch an all-out nuclear strike against the U.S. if the invasion occurred. "That would be the moment," Castro wrote, "to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear, legitimate self-defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there would be no other." Or as the translator of the cable, Soviet Ambassador Aleksander Alekseev, put it in his own cable to Khrushchev, Castro said: "If they attack Cuba, we should wipe them off the face of the earth." Separately, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Castro's colleague, declared his willingness "to walk by the path of liberation even when it may cost millions of atomic victims."

Third, by Oct. 27, when the majority of President John F. Kennedy's military and civilian advisors favored an attack on Cuba, the Soviets had already delivered 162 nuclear warheads to the island and had stored them at a depot at Bejucal, southwest of Havana. The CIA had believed that there were zero warheads on Cuba. Since the U.S. invasion seemed imminent that weekend, the Soviet field commander in Cuba, Gen. Issa Pliyev, ordered the warheads for tactical weapons out of storage and moved closer to their launchers.

All the pieces were thus in place for Armageddon. A quarter of a million Cuban troops and more than 40,000 Soviet troops, armed with dozens of tactical nuclear weapons, would have met a U.S. invasion force, initiating nuclear war, in the (mistaken) assumption that the U.S. forces would have attacked with nuclear weapons. The Soviet troops, the Cuban leaders and the Cuban people would have paid the ultimate price for this misperception. Yet, so would the Soviet people, the American people--indeed, the entire world. For the initiation of nuclear war would certainly have provoked a U.S. nuclear response.

Fortunately, Khrushchev ordered the missile-carrying Soviet ships bound for Cuba to alter course, thus signaling the end of the crisis.

Are there insights to be applied to our current crisis?

Rather than being 13 days of gamesmanship followed by an American victory, as is popularly imagined, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the culmination of a long history of bitter enmity between the U.S. and Cuba. In Cuba, the crisis stirred notions of sacred mission, manhood, duty to a higher cause and other cultural characteristics poorly understood in North American (and Northern European) cultures. It aroused intense feelings of both desperation and resignation. When viewed in this light, the willingness of Cuban leaders to take measures that entailed huge risks appear quite predictable.

Are Cubans the only people of limited means who feel a need to confront the U.S. directly, "inviting" a U.S. attack? Is Castro's communism the only belief system capable of driving people to contemplate suicide, even national suicide, in the service of their cause? Do we now understand non-Northern European systems of ideas any better than we understood the potent blend of nationalism and communism that moved Cubans to take on the most powerful and influential nation on Earth? Are there currently charismatic leaders like Castro capable of motivating their followers to carry out what may seem to Americans to be unbelievable acts of violence against the U.S.? If there are, can we depend on military means alone to change their fanaticism? At what point, and after how much escalation, will it all end?


We Need Rules for War

 History shows why U.S. should back the international court

August 03, 2003

By Robert S. McNamara,

On the night of March 9, 1945, when the lead crews of the 21st Bomber Command returned from the first firebombing mission over Tokyo, Gen. Curtis LeMay was waiting for them in his headquarters on Guam. I was in Guam on temporary duty from Air Force headquarters in Washington, and LeMay had asked me to join him for the after-mission reports that evening.

LeMay was just as tough as his reputation. In many ways, he appeared to be brutal, but he was also the ablest commander of any I met during my three years of service with the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II.

That night, he'd sent out 334 B-29 bombers, seeking to inflict, as he put it, the maximum target destruction for the minimum loss of American lives. World War II was entering its final months, and the United States was beginning the last, devastating push for an unconditional Japanese surrender.

On that one night alone, LeMay's bombers burned to death 83,793 Japanese civilians and injured 40,918 more. The planes dropped firebombs and flew lower than they had in the past and therefore were both more accurate and more destructive.

They leveled a large part of Tokyo, which I had seen during a visit in 1937. It was a wooden city and burned like a match when it was firebombed.

That night's raid was only the first of 67. Night after night -- 66 more times -- crews were sent out over the skies of Japan.

Of course we didn't burn to death 83,000 people every night, but over a period of months American bombs inflicted extraordinary damage on a host of Japanese cities -- 900,000 killed, 1.3 million injured, more than half the population displaced.

The country was devastated. The degree of killing was extraordinary. Radio Tokyo compared the raids to the burning of Rome in the year 64.

LeMay was convinced that it was the right thing to do, and he told his superiors (from whom he had not asked for authority to conduct the March 9 raid), "If you want me to burn the rest of Japan, I can do that."

LeMay's position on war was clear: If you're going to fight, you should fight to win.

In the years afterward, he was quoted as saying, "If you're going to use military force, then you ought to use overwhelming military force." He also said: "All war is immoral, and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier."

Today, looking back almost 60 years later -- and after serving as secretary of Defense for seven years during one of the hottest periods of the Cold War, including the Cuban missile crisis -- I have to say that I disagree.

War may or may not be immoral, but it should be fought within a clearly defined set of rules.

One other thing LeMay said, and I heard him say it myself: "If we lose the war, we'll be tried as war criminals."

On that last point, I think he was right. We would have been. But what makes one's conduct immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

The "just war" theory, first expounded by the great Catholic thinkers (I am a Protestant), argues that the application of military power should be proportional to the cause to which you're applying it. A prosecutor would have argued that burning to death 83,000 civilians in a single night and following up with 66 additional raids was not proportional to our war aims.

War will not be eliminated in the foreseeable future, if ever. But we can -- and we must -- eliminate some of the violence and cruelty and excess that go along with it.

That's why the U.S. so badly needs to participate in the International Court for Crimes Against Humanity, which was recently established in The Hague.

President Clinton signed that treaty on New Year's Eve 2000, just before leaving office, but in May 2002 President Bush announced that the U.S. did not intend to become a party to the treaty.

The Bush administration believes, and many agree with it, that the court could become a vehicle for frivolous or unfair prosecutions of American military personnel. Although that is a cause for concern, I believe we should join the court immediately while we continue to negotiate further protection against such cases.

If LeMay were alive, he would tell me I was out of my mind. He'd say the proportionality rule is ridiculous. He'd say that if you don't kill enough of the enemy, it just means more of your own troops will die.

But I believe that the human race desperately needs an agreed-upon system of jurisprudence that tells us what conduct by political and military leaders is right and what is wrong, both in conflict within nations and in conflict across national borders.

We need a clear code, internationally accepted, so that not only our Congress and president know, but so that all our military and civilian personnel know as well what is legal in conflict and what is illegal. And we need a court that can bring wrongdoers to trial for their crimes.

Is it legal to incinerate 83,000 people in a single night to achieve your war aims? Was Hiroshima legal? Was the use of Agent Orange -- which occurred while I was secretary of Defense -- a violation of international law?

These questions are critical.

Our country needs to be involved, along with the International Court for Crimes Against Humanity, in the search for answers.

Robert S. McNamara was secretary of Defense under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.