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Analysis

McNamara's Legacy Mired In Vietnam Debacle

Robert McNamara spent the last chapter of his life striving mightily to atone for the sins — his sins — of Vietnam.

In a 1995 memoir, he called the Vietnam War and crucial decisions he made as President Lyndon B. Johnson's secretary of defense "wrong, terribly wrong."

He cooperated in a 2004 documentary, Fog of War, which laid out his pivotal role in pursuing war in Vietnam and put his old man's anguish on big-screen display.

And he vigorously pursued what had become his passions: battling famine and hunger in the Third World, and working to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

McNamara's road to rehabilitation ended Monday with his death at 93.

But a longer road and more good works likely could never have erased or even much eased what is destined to be history's harsh assessment of the man known as the architect of the debacle that was Vietnam.

"Along with LBJ, he was the fulcrum on which a generation pivoted, and the price in blood was breathtaking," says author Robert Timberg, a Vietnam veteran who bears the scars from a near-fatal fuel-tank explosion he survived during the war.

"He did lots of things to redeem his reputation, but ultimately, we are what we do," says Timberg, a Naval Academy graduate who wrote The Nightingale's Song, an examination of how the lives and careers of five academy graduates — including Sen. John McCain — intersected in the Vietnam era and after. "You can't hit the delete button on 58,000 dead."

'All-Purpose Whipping Boy'

Vietnam — and McNamara — defined a divided nation, and the profound effects on the baby boomer generation resonate to this day.

As secretary of defense first to President John F. Kennedy and then to Johnson, McNamara became "the all-purpose whipping boy" for everybody involved in Vietnam, says historian Douglas Brinkley.

"The anti-war movement saw him as a liar with blood on his hands who fudged facts, misinformed the president," Brinkley says. "Military leaders and hawks saw him as someone who wasn't gutsy, who crumbled when the pressure was on and sent servicemen into a war with no hope."

McNamara, who came to harbor strong private doubts about the nation's foray into Southeast Asia, became what Brinkley describes as a "metaphor for what happens to a Cabinet officer who withholds the truth from a president."

No Forgiveness

Despite his later-in-life regrets, McNamara was initially a proponent of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and in 1964, he pronounced himself pleased to have the Vietnam War tagged as "McNamara's War."

For that — and for his failure to publicly express his misgivings about the war — McNamara deserves little sympathy, says journalist Stanley Karnow, whose 1983 book, Vietnam: A History, is considered a definitive look at the war.

"He came out with his memoir, this mea culpa," says Karnow, referring to McNamara's In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, published in 1995. "But if I was the father of a son who was killed in Vietnam, I'd give rather short shrift to McNamara because he was the architect."

Karnow recalls that when the war was degenerating, McNamara during a trip called reporters into his hotel room and expressed doubts about the effectiveness of U.S. bombing missions.

"He didn't come out publicly, but of course word eventually went out that he had these doubts," Karnow says. "And Johnson, who once thought McNamara the best civil servant ever, believed he was unraveling and moved him to the World Bank."

A 'Terrible Error'

Daniel Ellsberg is a former military analyst famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers — the government's top secret history of the Vietnam War — to The New York Times in 1971. He says McNamara recognized early on that he made a "terrible error" in urging Johnson in 1964 and 1965 to continue bombing in Vietnam.

By staying on as defense secretary, McNamara may have played a key role in preventing the war from expanding further, Ellsberg says. But he says McNamara blundered historically by staying loyal to the president and not to the public.

"Although he worked as an insider to keep a lid on the war, he did not do what he could and should have done in 1967: reveal to the public and Congress what he was telling the president," Ellsberg says, "and that was to end the bombing and negotiate a power share" with Hanoi and the Viet Cong.

More than 16,590 American servicemen were killed in Vietnam in 1968, and another 11, 616 in 1969, the deadliest years in a war that didn't end until 1975.

Haunted By The War

Karnow, a World War II veteran who covered the entire Vietnam War for magazines and newspapers, said it was clear to him that McNamara was haunted by Vietnam and his role in it.

At a conference both men happened to be attending in Japan some years before McNamara wrote his memoir, the former secretary of defense mentioned briefly during his turn on stage that he thought Vietnam was a mistake.

Approached later by Karnow, who asked for an interview, McNamara said he wasn't ready to talk. But Karnow's phone rang at 7 the following morning. On the other end was McNamara.

"He started babbling — expressing all his doubts about the war. But it wasn't anything I could use," Karnow says. "It was a bit incoherent."

'Credit For Seeing The Folly'

Sen. George McGovern won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 on his anti-Vietnam War stand.

Now 86, McGovern, who lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, says he appreciated that McNamara acknowledged the mistake of Vietnam.

"I think that Robert McNamara did a very brave act when he came out against the Vietnam War many years later," McGovern said Monday from his home in his native South Dakota.

"He deserves great credit for seeing the folly of our involvement there, though I wish he had come to that conclusion earlier," McGovern says. "It's very hard for people in public life to say, 'I made a mistake.' "

McGovern said he approached McNamara after the two had participated in a panel discussion in New York and personally congratulated him for "recognizing the folly."

"And from that time on, he and I had a congenial relationship," McGovern said.

'He'll Never Get Redemption'

Before his White House years, McNamara was a top executive at Ford Motor Co.

He pioneered safety features on cars, Brinkley says, and was "a young, new hotshot" at a company experimenting in new car designs, including that of the popular Thunderbird.

It's Brinkley's assessment that McNamara was a successful defense secretary under Kennedy, but will go down in history as one of the worst to fill that role for his performance under Johnson.

"He knew in 1965 that Vietnam was not winnable, and he didn't tell the president," Brinkley says. "He was one of the worst secretaries of defense in American history, and only Donald Rumsfeld has moved him up a notch from the bottom."

"He'll never get redemption, never escape the brand of failure on his chest that came from mismanaging the war," he says.

A Tragic Life?

Those who have watched, wrote about and knew McNamara — and knew of his brilliance and wit, his successes as a business executive and as a later-in-life humanitarian — still assess his life as a tragedy.

"Vietnam was his defining time," McGovern says, "and it imbued his life with tragedy."

Says Karnow: "I began to feel, in the end, that McNamara was himself a casualty of the war. He was, in fact, tormented by it — more tormented than a lot of people."

But he should have gone public with his doubts at the time of the war and resigned, says Karnow.

"Considering that 60,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, not to mention a couple million Vietnamese, he had a duty to stand up and protest," he says.

Now, he has become part of history.

And history, Brinkley says, won't provide him an easy billet.