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Posted by on Feb 1, 2007 in At TMV | 81 comments

Literary Quote of the Day: Robert S. McNamara

mcnamara.png

There may be no more tragic figure in modern American political history than Robert S. McNamara.

As secretary of defense for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he was vilified for the Vietnam War much as Donald Rumsfeld was vilified for the war in Iraq a generation later.

But unlike Rumsfeld, McNamara (b. 1916) is a deeply thoughtful man. And also unlike Rumsfeld (at least so far), he came to understand the key role he played in the Vietnam disaster and became deeply and publicly apologetic about it.

McNamara’s mea culpa is summed up in one of the essential books on the war, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam� (1995).

Herwith a quote from the book that is all the more compelling because of the situation another president finds himself in today:

“Why did President Johnson not force a full and open debate on issues that so sharply and clearly divided his most senior advisers? Perhaps his failure was rooted in his realization that the problem of Vietnam was intractable, that there was no satisfactory solution – no way to bring his advisers to consensus. Perhaps he saw clearly that the decision about changing the war’s direction rested with him – and it was a decision he could not bring himself to make.�

(That’s McNamara at right in the photo along with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and LBJ.)

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • Well, as an adition, I will bring a quote from someone who didn’t really listen to his own words of wisdom:

    “The guns and the bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure.”
    Lyndon B. Johnson

  • Michael, pls check the spam thread. A comment for the oil thread just vanished and it took me long time to find all the links in it. Thx.

  • Jason Shapiro

    McNamara may or may not be a thoughtful man but anyone who has seen “The Fog of War” has to be chilled by McNamara’s performance. All of his so-called apologies are too little and too late. If he had real doubts about Vietnam and had real character he would have resigned and gone public instead of sliding into the cushy World Bank presidency with nary a word. Waiting until Johnson was dead in order to speculate about Johnson’s own actions and motives while making himself look a bit “cleaner” is not the act of an honorable man.

  • Jason:

    When I was asked to review McNamara’s book when it came out in 1995, I was still so angry about his role in the Vietnam War that I could barely contain myself. And while I wrote favorably about the book itself, my indignation seeped out between my words.

    It is a decade later. I don’t know if I’ve mellowed or the Iraq-Bush-Rumsfeld experience has given me some unexpected (and unwelcome) perspective.

    Please note that I did not call McNamara honorable. I am not able to go there. But I do give him more credit today for his mea culpa — which included a brutal national book and speaking tour where he was repeatedly castigated — than I once was able to.

    Understand that this is all deeply personal for me. I passed through Vietnam as a correspondent, although I never was in harm’s way. But I lost too many friends to the war — both in the war and later as a result of it — than I care to recall.

  • kritter

    Shaun- I was a kid during Vietnam, but out of curiosity went to a website for Mcnamara’s Fog of War. His eleven lessons from Vietnam have obviously been forgotten by Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush in the conflict with Iraq. Among them:

    1. The realization that we do not have the God-given right to shape another nation in our own image.

    2.Acknowledging the limits of military technology in winning over a people.

    3. Limiting US military action to ventures which are accompanied by a multinational force, as part of an international action.

    4. Acknowledging that many mistakes were made due to ignorance of the culture, history and politics of both friend and foe in the region.

    5. Failing to properly weigh the power of nationalism of a people as a force (this applies to Iran).

    6. Failing to adequately debate large-scale military involvement.

  • New nome de guerre, Kim? Very fitting for a kritical commenter 😀
    But pls keep us from unnecessary googleing by linking websites, ok?

  • mikkel

    kritter, if I may add his last point:
    We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.

  • Jason Shapiro

    Shaun said…

    Thanks for your comments. I played by the “rules,” received a high lottery number and never went to Vietnam. I knew a few people who were KIA or wounded but clearly the war was not as personalized for me as it was for you. History may or may not repeat itself but hubris certainly does and it’s too bad that Barbara Tuchman is no longer around to add a chapter on Iraq to her “March of Folly.”

  • “it’s too bad that Barbara Tuchman is no longer around to add a chapter on Iraq to her “March of Folly.â€?”

    As a German, I don’t hold Tuchman in this high regard. “The Zimmermann Telegram” is full of anti-german slurs that are unbecoming for a historian who should review events in a professional, neutral manner. 😐

  • Jason Shapiro

    The idea of historical “neutrality” is a worthy goal, but it is virtually impossible to escape one’s own cultural context and biases. I won’t defend “The Zimmerman Telegram” as it is one of Tuchman’s weaker efforts. That said, I still find “March of Folly” along with “The Guns of August” as very worthwhile efforts by a professional historian who could write books that were both “scholarly and accessible.”

  • “The idea of historical “neutralityâ€? is a worthy goal, but it is virtually impossible to escape one’s own cultural context and biases.”
    Sure. I already said in another thread that it’s always in the eye of the beholder.
    “I won’t defend “The Zimmerman Telegramâ€? as it is one of Tuchman’s weaker efforts.”
    Well, I stumbled upon it in a second hand store and it was the first, and of course only one, I read from her. Maybe I should give one of those other books you mentioned a chance.

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