Robert Strange McNamara died this week at the age of 93.
To some, especially many Viet Nam veterans, the response to that headline may have been “so what?” After all, McNamara was widely seen as the architect of that lost war, the one who kept advising presidents to throw more lives and treasure into the doomed conflict. Including theirs.
That’s true to a large extent. As Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, McNamara justifiably wielded a lot of power. He got that power because he earned it. He surrendered that power in 1967, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, when he resigned, telling Lyndon Johnson the Viet Nam war was a civil war which could not be won from the outside.
But there was more to the former Ford Motors chairman. I had several opportunities to watch him up close when he visited the Strategic Air Command underground command post near Omaha.
Some of his visits for updates on the force were with Pres. Kennedy; some were not. When he came, Kennedy was taken to the balcony above the command post where he was given what we used to call “the eyewash” televised briefing. Lots of colorful charts and graphs were accompanied by sonorous, anonymous voices of senior staff who were always very nervous. The briefings were mostly general military information.
Meantime, McNamara would be taken to a small office under the balcony where, behind draped windows, surrounded by top staff and brass, he would receive a more detailed briefing on warhead targeting. There, he sat in a straight-backed chair, absorbing hundreds and hundreds of statistics without taking notes.
Every so often, he would stop the briefer who was reading from large, thick flip charts, each page containing dozens of target codes.
McNamara would say something like “That last target is a duplicate of one on line three, four pages back.”
A very flustered bird colonel would flip back and always … always… found the Secretary was right. The man had a memory and concentration like no other I’ve ever met.
In 1962, there was the Cuban missile crisis; the closest this nation has come to disappearing from the earth. That is no exaggeration. I was in that command post. The call would have been made six feet from where I was at that time.
Gen. Curtis Lemay, former SAC commander and then USAF chief of staff, was pushing Kennedy to bomb Cuba and, if necessary, Russia. He wasn’t alone but his was the loudest and most persistent voice.
During that time, including his day-to-day personal direction of the naval blockade we put around Cuba, McNamara prevailed. More than once, he told a general or an admiral his was the final decision on the matter at hand and pointed to the door out of the war room if they couldn’t take orders. His was the last word. Always.
Whatever else McNamara did during his seven years at the Pentagon, I firmly believe he was the most responsible for keeping us from nuclear war. And in that kind of war, there would be no winner.
As Viet Nam dragged on, McNamara, deservedly or not, became the lightening rod more than the presidents he served. His became the name on most of the anti-war signs, cursed by marchers, condemned by students he tried to speak to. He once had to sneak off the Harvard campus by being led through underground utility tunnels. A pacifist protester set himself on fire outside McNamara’s window at the Pentagon.
Shortly after, McNamara resigned.
While not becoming a pacifist himself, McNamara took to his duties at the World Bank with the same drive and concentration as before. He focused on developing countries, spending billions to bring technology and improved communications to otherwise dark corners. He came to believe only through everyone sharing in prosperity would we ever see world peace.
It’s not my intent to let Robert McNamara off the hook for his part in the Viet Nam war. His participation, his advice and leadership, his personal and professional responsibilities are well-documented and will largely define his place in world history.
But, as in most things, there is a bit more to the story than what we normally read or hear. There is the all-too-often missing human element that most of us never know. I will always be grateful for the years spent having an unusual opportunity to see that side of many situations and people.
In this case, those situations were the 60′s in a tormented America. The people included Robert Strange McNamara.