Robert S. McNamara, perhaps the most influential defense secretary of the 20th century, who helped lead the nation into the maelstrom of Vietnam and spent the rest of his life wrestling with the war’s moral consequences, died early Monday at his home in Washington, the Associated Press reported, citing his wife, Diana. He was 93, and according to the news agency, had been in failing health for some time.
Serving Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to 1968, Mr. McNamara oversaw hundreds of military missions, thousands of nuclear weapons and billions of dollars in military spending and foreign arms sales. He also enlarged the defense secretary’s role, handling foreign diplomacy and the dispatch of troops to enforce civil rights in the South.
“He’s like a jackhammer,” President Johnson said. “No human being can take what he takes. He drives too hard. He is too perfect.”
As early as April 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, called Vietnam “McNamara’s War.” Mr. McNamara did not object. “I am pleased to be identified with it,” he said, “and do whatever I can to win it.”
Half a million American soldiers went to war on his watch. More than 16,000 died; 42,000 more would fall in the seven years to come.
The war became his personal nightmare. Nothing he did, none of the tools at his command — the power of American weapons, the forces of technology and logic or the strength of American soldiers — could stop the armies of North Vietnam. He concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life.
In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was “wrong, terribly wrong.” In return, he faced a firestorm of scorn.
“Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen,” The New York Times said in an unsigned, widely discussed editorial, written by the page’s editor at the time, Howell Raines. “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”
By then he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.
He had spent decades thinking through the lessons of the war. The greatest of these was to know one’s enemy — and to “empathize with him,” as Mr. McNamara explained in Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.”
“We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes,” he said. The American failure in Vietnam, he said, was seeing the enemy through the prism of the cold war, as a domino that would topple the nations of Asia if it fell.
In the film, Mr. McNamara described the American firebombing of Japan’s cities in World War II. He had played a supporting role in those attacks, running statistical analysis for Gen. Curtis E. LeMay of the Army’s Air Forces.
“We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women and children,” Mr. McNamara recalled; some 900,000 Japanese civilians died in all. “LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals.”
“What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” he asked. He found the question impossible to answer.
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If you haven't seen The Fog Of War, DO IT! it was really influential to me when it first came out, and it's still a powerful documentary. Also it has a sweet Philip Glass soundtrack.