The Abuse of McNamara

The vitriolic and protracted campaign in The New York Times against former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his new book, In Retrospect, is largely based on a false premise, one that can be best demonstrated by The New York Times of over twenty years ago.

On April 12, the lead editorial stated: “Mr. McNamara wants us to know that he, too, realized by 1967 that the dissidents were right, that the war had to be stopped to avoid ‘a major national disaster.’ ” Then it goes on: “Even so, he wants us to grant that his delicate sense of protocol excused him from any obligation to join the national debate over whether American troops should continue to die at the rate of hundreds per week in a war he knew to be futile.”

On April 16, the lead review in The New York Times Book Review by Max Frankel begins: “In his 79th year, Robert S. McNamara at long last offers the public a glimpse of his aching conscience. The most willful Vietnam warrior in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, he was also the first at the top to admit defeat, in private.” The words “in private” should be emphasized. Later, Frankel convicts McNamara of refusing “once out of office, to share his policy disagreements with the country.”

Also on April 16, Frank Rich joined in the attack on McNamara who, Rich wrote, “took his charts to Washington, where he used them to prolong a war whose body count totaled 58,000 American and some 3 million Vietnamese lives,” as if McNamara alone had prolonged the entire war.

On April 17, the why-didn’t-he-speak-up-sooner line of attack on McNamara was made even more explicitly by Anthony Lewis. For him, McNamara’s “greater wrong” was in “failing to speak the truth then, when it mattered.” After summarizing McNamara’s thoughts on the war in 1965, 1966, and 1967, Lewis claims: “But Mr. McNamara said none of that in public at the time.” Finally, Lewis charges: “Many have noted that 58,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese died in that war while Robert McNamara and many others swallowed their doubts.”

Again on April 17, the theme was picked up by Robert MacNeil on The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour during an interview with McNamara: “Many people are saying, reviewers, television interviewers, others, that you should have aired your doubts twenty-seven years ago.” McNamara answered: “What should I have said that would not have brought aid and comfort to the enemy?” He might also have answered that his doubts had been aired twenty-four years ago.

In short, the case against McNamara largely hinges on the premise that he did not express his doubts about the Vietnam War while it was going on and that he waited until 1995 to make known his views on “whether American troops should continue to die.”

As I tried to show in my review of McNamara’s book in the last issue of The New York Review, it is open to criticism…

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