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Robert McNamara, architect of Vietnam War whose regrets made him opponent of Iraq War, dies at 93

President Kennedy meets at the White House with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Vice President Lyndon Johnson

Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War and President Kennedy's secretary of Defense, died this morning at his home in Washington at the age of 93. He had been the president of Ford Motor Co., and Kennedy plucked him as part of a new generation of managers who could bring business skills and brain power to government, part of an elite circle that author David Halberstam would dub, "The Best and the Brightest."

As The Times noted in its obituary, McNamara, who stayed on as Pentagon chief into the Johnson administration, oversaw the massive buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam between 1964 and 1968, earning him the sobriquet as the war's architect.

But perhaps the greatest legacy of McNamara's tenure -- one that could echo in the post-mortems over President George W. Bush's war in Iraq -- is that in later years he disavowed his decisions, particularly his conviction that if Vietnam fell to communism other Southeast Asia nations would also be vulnerable. "We were wrong, terribly wrong," he said. "We owe it to future generations to explain why."

It isn't often you hear a major public official acknowledge mistakes of his own making, but two decades after the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with loyalists rushing to get aboard and  communism, McNamara began to speak out.

He gave a series of interviews at UC Berkeley in which he confessed he no longer believed in the domino theory. "It was certainly the conventional wisdom among the foreign policy establishment," he said. "I think we were wrong, and certainly misjudged it."

He wrote a memoir, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," again questioning the "domino theory," an underpinning of U.S. policy that held that if South Vietnam fell to Communist control, other countries in Southeast Asia would too. "My aim is neither to justify errors nor to assign blame," he wrote in the book, "but to identify the mistakes we made."

Later, interviewed by filmmaker Errol Morris for a documentary called "Fog of War," McNamara said:

We all make mistakes. I don't know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There's a wonderful phrase: "The fog of war." What "the fog of war" means is: War is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate.

The experience of being wrong on a epic scale -- more than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, along with hundreds of thousands in Vietnam and Cambodia -- made McNamara an opponent of the Iraq War. Concerned that the Bush administration officials had failed to heed the lessons of Vietnam when they went into Iraq. he told a reporter for Canada's Globe and Mail in 2004, "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."

Rest in peace.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo:  President John F. Kennedy sits in his favorite rocking chair in the Oval Office during a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, center, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson
on March 16, 1961. Credit: Associated Press

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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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