Robert S. McNamara died at his home today, July 6 at 5:30 am. For those of you who may not know, he was the the former Secretary of Defense under the administration of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon S. Johnson. President Kennedy recruited him for the post in 1961, when McNamara was president of Ford Motor Company and served for seven years, longer than anyone else had ever done.
He was 93 years old and had been in failing health for some time, according to his wife, Diana.
Publicly, McNamara was a staunch defender of US involvement in Vietnam, despite intense opposition. Even his own son participated in public demonstrations against the war. Yet, McNamara insisted more troops and more arms would conquer North Vietnam's government and influence in Southeast Asia. As we know, it did not. The US ended up having to withdraw, beaten by the North Vietnamese as the French had. Before the war was over, 100,000+ American military personnel were killed and many more returned home physically, mentally and emotionally broken.
In his memoir published in 1995, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam", McNamara reported he had serious doubts about the ability of the United States to prevail over "...a guerrilla insurgency that had driven the French from the same jungled countryside..." as early as 1967.
In an Associated Press interview given just before the book's release, McNamara admitted, "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." [Emphasis added]
In the same memoir, McNamara reported he and others in the administration failed to ask themselves five critical questions concerning US involvement in the war:
"Was it true that the fall of South Vietnam would trigger the fall of all Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a grave threat to the West's security? What kind of war — conventional or guerrilla — might develop? Could we win it with U.S. troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should we not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops?" [Emphasis added]
After leaving the Johnson administration, McNamara became president of the World Bank, a post he held for 12 years. Upon retirement, he championed the causes of nuclear disarmament and aid to the poorest nations by the wealthiest. Unfortunately, he will always be remembered as the champion of US involvement in the Vietnam War -- a war he came to deeply regret.
His greatest legacy, however, is one that has been overlooked by Washington DC since then. It appears the hard lessons were not learned, nor the five critical questions asked by administrations and Congress that came after. Supposedly promoting the "principles and traditions of our country", we have become embroiled in Iran, Iraq -- and now with increasing intensity, Afghanistan. What is our goal?
Did anyone ask the five critical questions before committing our troops?
Mr. McNamara, you learned those lessons the hard way and tried to pass them on, but it looks like we still have miles to go before we sleep.