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McNamara’s Life Marked by Complex Vietnam Legacy

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.

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  • 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.

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