By Calvin Palmer
Robert S. McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War, died at his northwest Washington home this morning at the age of 93.
His wife Diana told reporters he had been in failing health for some time.
McNamara as Defense Secretary presided over the ill-fated American adventure in Vietnam, a war fought to prevent the so-called domino effect of a Communist takeover in one country leading to a Communist takeover in neighboring countries; a war fought to prop up an unpopular and corrupt regime in South Vietnam.
And did it succeed? Perhaps the best people to ask are the 58,000 American servicemen who gave their lives.
It is ironic that the Americans learned nothing from their own history when confronting the issue of Communist insurgence into South Vietnam.
The United States was born out of an effective guerilla force, believing strongly in the ideals for which it was fighting against the world’s then superpower, Great Britain.
On paper, the American rebels, I am British so the war is referred to as the War of the American Revolution and not the American War of Independence, were no match for the combined might of the British Army and Royal Navy.
But the Americans were fighting for an idea that does not perish by the sword or bullet, indeed each death only serves to make the idea stronger. They were also fighting on home territory. Knowing the lie of the land, they could seemingly disappear without trace, just as the Vietcong did almost two centuries later in their country.
But the United States did not even have to go back 200 years to see the futility of their action. In the 1950s, the French retreated bloodied and broken from Vietnam. Perhaps if it had been the British who had suffered such an ignominious defeat, the Americans might have taken more notice.
McNamara himself also presided over another salutary lesson, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, but learned absolutely nothing from it. Anti-communist fervor backed by the most powerful military-industrial complex in the world clouded the collective judgment of the men who wielded power on Capitol Hill. America and freedom would prevail.
Alas, history shows us it was not to be the case. It was never going to be and 58,000 American lives were lost in the vain pursuit of an unattainable victory.
The folly of the Vietnam War became increasingly apparent to the nation, except to its leaders and those who chose to cloud their view with the red, white and blue, seeing stars and stripes in their eyes and little else.
But the bulk of America’s youth, as proud to be an American as anyone, could see the absurdity and the futility of the sacrifices being made.
The words of the Country Joe and The Fish song would make a suitable epitaph on McNamara’s grave.
One, two, three, four
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn.
Next stop is Vietnam.
Five, six, seven, eight
Open up the pearly gates.
Ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopie! We’re all going to die.
To McNamara’s credit, he eventually did see the error of his ways but it was too late for some.
In his memoirs, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, published in 1995, McNamara did what many politicians find it so hard to do – he admitted, albeit belatedly, that he had got it wrong.
His book disclosed that by 1967 he had deep misgivings about Vietnam — by then he had lost faith in America’s capacity to prevail over a guerrilla insurgency.
But despite those doubts, he had continued to express public confidence that the application of enough American firepower would cause the Communists to make peace.
He wrote: “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong.”
And 58,000 souls can only rue the fact that those sentiments, along with his doubts, were not voiced at the time.
A New York Times editorial referred to McNamara as offering the war’s dead only a “prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late”.
After leaving the Pentagon on the verge of a nervous breakdown, McNamara served as the World Bank president for 12 years. He tripled its loans to developing countries and changed its emphasis from grandiose industrial projects to rural development.
He retired in 1981 and championed the causes of nuclear disarmament and aid by the richest nation to the world’s poorest nations.
Whether his later deeds will atone for the blood on his hands from his earlier ones, he is about to find out.
Robert Strange McNamara, June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009.
[Based on a report by the Associated Press.]