It has been fifty years since President Lyndon Johnson figured out a safe way to fire Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara.
According to Fredrik Logevall’s recent article in the New York Times, McNamara woke up on November 29, 1967 to learn LBJ had appointed him to head the World Bank.
In “Re-Thinking McNamara’s War,” Logevall notes that Johnson had concluded McNamara had “gone soft” on the Vietnam War. The President feared the secretary was about to abandon the administration to join the anti-war camp of Robert F. Kennedy.
McNamara’s responsibilities at the World Bank effectively muzzled him, but it’s clear that by early 1967, he had concluded that the Vietnam War had been a terrible mistake.
It blows my mind (to borrow a phrase from the era) that Secretary of Defense McNamara realized it before I did. In May 1967, when McNamara wrote a secret memo urging President Johnson to end the war, I was still fighting the Cold War at Bentwaters and Woodbridge Air Bases in bucolic Suffolk, England. F4C Pilots from the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing were routinely assigned temporary duty in Thailand to drop bombs on Hanoi before resuming their duties in the U.K. I’d see the returning pilots in Sunday worship at the chapel where I worked, silently flexing their jaw muscles while grasping their wives’ hands. I’d ask them how it went, and they’d shrug. “Had to be done,” they’d say, avoiding eye contact.
I don’t think any of us understood why it had to be done. I was a 21-year-old chaplain’s assistant who could have been the model for M*A*S*H’s Radar O’Reilly and I got most of my war news from the Stars & Stripes newspaper. All of us, officers and enlisted alike, worked in duty sections that had black-and-white pictures of LBJ and Robert McNamara staring suspiciously at us, hanging below the metallically glistening Air Force motto: “Peace is Our Profession.”
Oddly enough it all made sense: as a product of our profession of peace we dropped bombs on people in North Vietnam because it had to be done. Even if we were inclined to analyze it, we’d be distracted by inspiring speeches at Commander’s Call by officers like Colonel Robin Olds, the Vietnam War’s first flying “ace”, and the awesome Colonel Daniel N. “Chappie” James, later the Air Force’s first African American four-star general. Neither commander encouraged a good debate among their subordinates, so we’d nod and salute.
Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to us, Robert McNamara had digested a CIA report that the so-called enemy was intractably committed to reuniting the country and there was nothing the U.S. could do to prevent it.
McNamara, who was skilled at pursuing facts to their inevitable conclusion, realized his original judgment about the winnabilty of the Vietnam War had been wrong. His memo to President Johnson is quoted in his obituary in the New York Times:
“The war is becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates – causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on noncombatants in Vietnam, South and North.”
Americans, McNamara told LBJ, “want the war ended and expect their president to end it. Successfully. Or else.”
When McNamara wrote that memorandum on May 19, 1967, I still had 17 months to go on my Air Force enlistment. The Vietnam War itself would continue for another eight bloody years. Nearly 38,000 Americans died in Vietnam in the years after McNamara concluded the war had been a mistake. I didn’t reach that conclusion until September 1968, my first year in college.
Within weeks after his memo to LBJ, McNamara found himself ushered out of the Pentagon and installed as head of the World Bank. Although it’s clear now that Johnson fired him, at the time it looked like he was promoted for faithful service. McNamara gave no indication that he was having second thoughts about the war.
And that’s what I can’t forgive. When his voice could have thundered around the world, he chose to be silent.
There are thousands of gruesome monuments to the price of his silence. Years later, after McNamara finally revealed his regrets, my wife and I visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where her immigrant father once worked as a dish washer after he left Cuba. The cemetery at West Point tends to be organized by the war in which the soldiers fell, and as we passed by the graves of Vietnam veterans I became bitterly mindful of McNamara’s change of heart. A lot of those graves were of men and women who died after 1967 – after their Secretary of Defense had concluded the war was unnecessary and unwinnable.
Why didn’t McNamara speak up? Did he feel honor-bound to be loyal to an intransigent president? What were his thoughts when the casualty figures continued to mount: 16,592 in 1968? 11,616 in 1969? 6,081 in 1970? All died for a cause he knew to be lost from the beginning.
In his later years, Robert McNamara was eloquent in his contrition. In a 1995 memoir he declared the war had been “wrong – terribly wrong.” He spent the rest of his life trying – futilely, it turned out – to prevent similar American disasters.
But the terrible question hanging over McNamara’s life can’t be avoided: what if he had spoken up sooner? Would the timely confession by the architect of the war that he had been wrong all along have forced LBJ to halt it? Would it have given subsequent warriors, Nixon and Kissinger, sufficient pause to sue for peace? Would it have saved thousands of lives?
We’ll never know. Personally, I think a public admission by Robert McNamara in May 1967 would have been loud enough to suck the air out of public opinion and silence the bombs over Hanoi.
When Robert McNamara died July 6, 2009, his aged and sallow face appeared once more on our television screens and it was moving to hear the agony in his voice as he admitted his terrible mistakes. Quite evidently he lived in a hell of contrition since 1967.
Other decision makers have been less contrite about the lessons McNamara learned. Logevall writes: “In Austin, Tex., last year, when asked if he had regrets about the war, Henry Kissinger demurred, admitting only ‘tactical mistakes.’”
At least McNamara was contrite. It’s too bad President George W. Bush didn’t have a chance to consult the former secretary before he plunged the nation into other disastrous and unwinnable wars.
Bush, like Kissinger, has yet to express regret about the decisions that were made. But Robert McNamara’s confession has been starkly convincing. No doubt it saved his soul.
I only wish it had come sooner.