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McNamara’s Life Marked by Complex Vietnam Legacy

July 6, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Robert McNamara, one of the primary architects of the Vietnam War, died Monday at age 93. Jim Lehrer talks to Deborah Shapely, the author of a McNamara biography, and Errol Morris, the documentarian who made "Fog of War" about the former defense chief's legacy.

JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, the legacy of Robert McNamara. He died at his home in Washington today at the age of 93.

McNamara was the influential defense secretary for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to ’68. He later became president of the World Bank. He was best known, of course, first and foremost, as the architect of the Vietnam War.

McNamara himself was skeptical, even pessimistic about America’s chances, even while he was executing the war, but he did not reveal that publicly until years later, in his own memoir and eventually in a 2003 documentary called “The Fog of War.”

Here’s a clip from that film, showing what McNamara and President Johnson discussed privately about Vietnam before the 1964 election.

ROBERT MCNAMARA, former secretary of Defense: If you went to the CIA and said, “How’s the situation today in South Vietnam?” I think they’d say it’s worse. You see it in the desertion rate; you see it in the morale; you see it in the difficulty to recruit people; you see it in the gradual loss of population control.

Many of us in private would say that things are not good, they’ve gotten worse. Now, while we say this in private and not public, there are facts available that find their way in the press. If we’re going to stay in there, if we’re going to go up the escalating chain, we’re going to have to educate the people, Mr. President. We haven’t done so yet. I’m not sure now is exactly the right time.

FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: No, and I think if you start doing it, they’re going to be hollering, “You’re a warmonger.”

ROBERT MCNAMARA: I completely agree with you.

JIM LEHRER: In 1995, when his memoir was published, McNamara appeared on this program, and Robert MacNeil asked him why he’d waited so long to disclose misgivings about a war that claimed millions of lives, including those of 58,000 Americans.

Contemplating past mistakes

ROBERT MACNEIL, former PBS anchor: Many people are saying -- reviewers, television interviewers, others -- that you should have aired your doubts 27 years ago when it might have stopped the war sooner, they believe, and saved many lives. And I wonder whether almost universal reaction these last 10 days has made you reconsider the morality of your silence all those years.

ROBERT MCNAMARA: No, this is going to take a few seconds to...


ROBERT MCNAMARA: There are two different problems. I had two fears during my years -- '65, '6, '7, '8 -- as secretary of defense. One fear -- and I expressed it to President Johnson December 1965 -- was that we couldn't win the war militarily.

I said to him at that time, and I quote it in the book, "There's only a 1-in-3 chance or at best a 1-in-2 chance to win militarily." He said, Are you saying we can't win militarily? I said, "Yes."

However, the second fear was that, if we pulled out of Vietnam, if Vietnam were controlled by the communists, Chinese and Soviets, it would lead to what Eisenhower predicted in 1954, the fall of the dominoes. In other words, the fear that, if we didn't stand firm, the communists would take control of Southeast Asia, all of Asia, and strengthen their position against the West, in Europe and the U.S.

And I couldn't reconcile those two positions, excepting only by pushing for action that would hopefully bring negotiations which would permit military disengagement without losing Vietnam. That was the course we were on. It's a very complicated approach, and it was, in the end, unsuccessful.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But I just wonder, in the last few days, with so many people saying, "Hey, he should have spoken out a long time ago when it might have done some good," have you had any second thoughts about that, hearing all that reaction?

ROBERT MCNAMARA: No, what should I have said? What should I have said that would not have brought aid and comfort to the enemy? I was secretary of defense until December 29, '68. After that, I was an ex-secretary of defense. What could I have said that would not have brought aid and comfort?

I have no regrets about not speaking out then. I have deep regrets that we ever got involved or that I supported our involvement. And, most of all, I want to try to look back on what I think were our mistakes -- not all of my associates agree they were mistakes, but what I think were our mistakes and try to draw to draw lessons so we won't make the same mistake again.

ROBERT MACNEIL: You say you were prompted to write this book because you were heartsick at the cynicism, even the contempt with which people view their political institutions today. How did you think this book might dispel that cynicism?

ROBERT MCNAMARA: I hope it will explore why the leaders did what they did. My associates were properly described by that pejorative term, "the best and the brightest." They were young, intelligent, well-educated, hardworking, dedicated servants, they're people in their government, and they were wrong.

Now, I think, if our people understand that, then we can talk about, why were they wrong? How can we avoid similar errors in the future?

ROBERT MACNEIL: But as you document, if the best and the brightest that Kennedy and Johnson could muster year after year made the mistakes you admit and they refused to listen to their critics, to use your phrase, "were blind prisoners of their assumptions," and in the process sent nearly 60,000 Americans to their deaths, would that not confirm or deepen people's cynicism about government today?

ROBERT MCNAMARA: Well, no, I think -- I hope what it will do is cause us to examine what happened then and try to prevent it in the future.

Reactions to 'Fog of War'

JIM LEHRER: Some perspective now on Robert McNamara from Errol Morris, the documentarian who made "The Fog of War," and Deborah Shapley, author of the biography "Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara."

Mr. Morris -- to you first -- how responsible do you believe Robert McNamara was for what went wrong in Vietnam?

ERROL MORRIS, film director: Well, he was certainly at the apex of that pyramid of power, along with Lyndon Johnson, the two most powerful people in the American government.

JIM LEHRER: Was McNamara leading the wrong course? Or was he setting the wrong course?

ERROL MORRIS: My belief -- and it is informed by many of these taped phone conversations, conversations between McNamara and Johnson -- the characterization of McNamara as being the chief architect is wrong. To me, the impetus for escalation clearly came from the president.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Ms. Shapley, that calling him the architect -- which I did just a moment ago, in fact, in reporting the story -- is incorrect?

DEBORAH SHAPLEY, author, "Promise and Power": I think it's safe to say that they were all in it together, as they say, and that the presidents in both cases definitely set the tone, President Kennedy and President Johnson, and as, in a sense, McNamara was right. They were prisoners of a mindset.

There's also no question that McNamara set most of the military policy often over the objections of the uniformed military, so he's an architect in a sense of the strategy at a different level than the whole overall question of whether we stay or left.

JIM LEHRER: In the interview he did with Robert MacNeil and other interviews and in his memoir, and in also in "The Fog of War," Mr. Morris' movie, "The Fog of War," a lot of people have said he was contrite, that he was actually apologizing. That's not exactly what he was doing, was it?

DEBORAH SHAPLEY: No. He gave the impression in 1995 that he actually felt they were wrong all along, that he would -- he didn't believe it at the time, and that was a rather unfortunate impression, because it angered a lot of veterans, made them believe that he had been lying to them all the time, he knew that the war was wrong, et cetera.

But, in fact, in his actual memos to the president at the time and his record at the time, he kept saying, This is going to take longer. We're going to have to escalate. It's going to go on for years, so we're just going to have to slog on.

He did not actually recommend a withdrawal, and he himself did not leave government, as you know. So...

JIM LEHRER: He held that job for seven years, longer than anybody who's ever held that job.

DEBORAH SHAPLEY: He held the job for seven years. He held on in the belief that he would somehow be able to control it from getting worse.

Admitting misgivings after the war

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Morris, what's your view of that? When he said -- and it's a direct quote -- he said, "We were wrong," he -- those were "we." He didn't say, "I was wrong. He said, "We were wrong." That was the phrase that was used many times. How do you interpret what he meant by "wrong"?

DEBORAH SHAPLEY: That the policies were misguided, that the whole idea of a necessary war in order to prevent communist aggression failed to take into consideration the fact that there was not international communism at work, but a country looking to establish its independence.

I think one thing that is forgotten in this whole McNamara story that returns again and again to Vietnam is that McNamara was a person who kept the lid on, that he perceived -- and I think rightly so -- that there was an enormous danger of nuclear war, and that his principal job was to prevent that at all costs from happening.

I'm asked quite often about the relationship between Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara.

JIM LEHRER: I haven't asked you that.

ERROL MORRIS: You haven't asked me, but it's often expressed as these two technocrats, two sides of the same coin. And I like to remind people that, when McNamara took office in 1960, he was facing a bellicose Joint Chiefs. There was the fear of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. And part of his story is the story of an attempt to control nuclear weapons and to prevent the possibility of nuclear war.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Shapley, does your reporting and research that you did for your biography of McNamara support what Mr. Morris is saying?

DEBORAH SHAPLEY: Well, a great deal of it. But to come back to why he didn't speak out sooner, he had two arguments, and these were discussions that I had with him and also with Mac Bundy and other advisers as to why he didn't...

JIM LEHRER: Mac Bundy was the national security adviser during that time.

DEBORAH SHAPLEY: There were two fears. One was, if he went public and said, "This thing isn't working out," it would give aid and comfort to the enemy. You just heard him say that.


DEBORAH SHAPLEY: And Ho Chi Min would have been dancing in the streets. He would have redoubled his efforts, and there would have been more U.S. guys dead, so it didn't compute from the standpoint of someone in the chain of command who had sent these fellows out there to go public and say, "Hey, boys, I was wrong." The secretary of defense is not the same thing in a position as a journalist or a commentator or somebody standing on the sidelines. He has certain obligations to those people, which he maintains throughout his life.

So he wasn't going to go out and tell all those veterans that he made a big mistake. Then he seemed to do it later.

His other consideration was, as Errol Morris has just said, that the pressures to widen the war in Vietnam are often forgotten. And as late as 1967, when McNamara went in August before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the pressures from rebellious generals, Joint Chiefs of Staff, even met to make very drastic plans, was to widen the bombing of North Vietnam.

And it was widely believed in the establishment in and out of government that widening the war, the air war, which the generals said would solve it, would actually draw in the Chinese and the Russians, and this would be a much far greater danger to everyone's interests than slogging on with the ground war.

McNamara's personal side

JIM LEHRER: Back to -- moving beyond to the more personal side, the personal side of Robert McNamara, Mr. Morris, do you believe that there was some personal characteristic, some character flaw or some whatever that caused him to do what at least what he did was that turned out to be wrong in the conduct of this war?

ERROL MORRIS: Well, we all have character flaws. And depending on the context, often a character flaw can be a character strength.

One of the characteristics of the man, at least during the time that I knew him, incredibly fierce loyalty. I think it does inform that question, why didn't he speak out? His loyalty -- he said this to me many, many times -- that he was not elected. He served at the pleasure of the president of the United States.

He saw himself very clearly as a public servant and never forgot that role. I think you're already correct to talk about these intervening years. The war continued; he didn't speak out. Some 30 years passed before the publication of "In Retrospect."

I think he always saw himself as secretary of defense. That loyalty was with him from the beginning and stayed with him until the very, very end.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that? Do you feel the same thing -- that you felt that about him?

DEBORAH SHAPLEY: Sure, he would not criticize later secretaries of defense. He wouldn't criticize Rumsfeld over Iraq. He was very deferential and stayed in the role, as Errol says.

But to answer your question, what flaws caused him to make the mistakes, you know, the image that one could now get even of McNamara in government -- anguished over the possible flaws in the strategy -- is really very misleading. He was ferocious against people who disagreed with the strategy.

There are many, many accounts, for example, of his treatment of Roger Hilsman would be just simply one example. People who dared to actually question the strategy openly were treated with contempt, just told to go jump in a lake.

So he was securing the line of continuing the war, escalating, engaging in some bombing, and that this was absolutely essential for the sake of the United States' interests and that was very much the overwhelming presence of Robert McNamara in government for those eight years.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Ms. Shapley, Mr. Errol Morris, thank you both very much.


ERROL MORRIS: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: And on our Web site, you can watch all of that interview that Robert MacNeil had with Robert McNamara, and you can also see the reaction to his memoir from Senator McCain and former Senator McGovern.