The old rule, “Speak nothing but good of the dead,” is being widely violated — you night say “with a vengeance” — in obituaries about Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense who managed the Vietnam war and long after its failure called it “wrong, terribly wrong.”
He brought it on himself, by waiting so long to express any doubts. He might have avoided the humiliating U.S. defeat and withdrawal in 1975 and limited the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans as well as two million to three million Vietnamese killed.
His memoir “In Retrospect” appeared in 1995. Even then, it was hardly the “mea culpa” or “my guilt,” which many called it. He used “we” far more than “I” in casting blame for one of America’s worst and longest unnecessary wars. And questions continue to be raised about his 1995 assertion that he began telling top officials and selected reporters in 1966 that the war was unwinnable and ought to be halted.
But as his private doubts were rising, he still managed the escalating war machine as if victory were possible. The split between the private and public McNamara caused Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who was a straight-arrow if wrong in his steady support for the war, to tell a reporter that Secre-tary McNamara “says different things in different rooms.” The suspicion grew in Washington that Mr. McNamara was trying to have it both ways, as a loyal backer of the war policy but as sympathizing with the mounting public opposition.
His much-publicized reputation as the former Ford Motor Co. “whiz kid,” who kept masses of factual information in his head, also came into question by some. A Senate staffer once showed a reporter a transcript of a committee hearing that had been sent to Mr. McNamara for any corrections. The original contained many precise figures, down to the last digit, about such things as body counts and bomb tonnages. In each case, the corrected version had substituted different figures. Mr. McNamara had evidently burnished his reputation for detail by reciting fictional numbers that he knew he could later correct.
He was basically right in the 2003 documentary, “The Fog of War,” when he said that the American failure in Vietnam was seeing the enemy through the prism of the Cold War, as a domino that would topple the nations of Asia if it fell. North Vietnam’s leader Ho Chi Minh was seen as an agent of a Soviet-Chinese monolith bent on taking over the world. Actually, China and the USSR were already enemies, Ho Chi Minh was more his country’s George Washington than a communist agent and the war was more a struggle for nationalistic independence than communist aggression.
Mr. McNamara’s belated straight talk about the Vietnam war, if limited, should amount to a call for former President George W. Bush to apologize for his role in another needless war, the one in Iraq.