McNamara remembered as brilliant, troubled patriot

McNamara remembered as brilliant, troubled patriot

Brisbane Times (Brisbane, Australia)
July 7, 2009

By Michael Mathes

A 1960s White House colleague, US diplomats and the maker of an
Oscar-winning documentary about Robert McNamara remembered the US
defense secretary as a patriot who agonized and eventually repented
over his role as architect of the most divisive US war in history.

McNamara, who died early Monday aged 93, enjoyed a multi-layered and
highly successful career as a visionary auto-industry executive and a
revolutionary in global financial aid.

But it was his deeply controversial role in the administrations of
presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — and his mid-1960s
recommendation to boost US troop levels in a little-known nation
called South Vietnam before struggling to find a way to extract the US
military from the quagmire — for which he will be remembered.

"I think of Bob McNamara as the most brilliant and patriotic public
servant I ever met," Kennedy special counsel and advisor Ted Sorensen,
now 81, told AFP in a telephone interview.

"But I didn’t agree with him on Vietnam."

With McNamara’s passing, Sorensen, who said he is convinced Kennedy
would have found a way to avoid a military escalation in Vietnam had
he not been assassinated in 1963, is now among the very last of the
small but powerful coterie that shaped US foreign and military policy
in Southeast Asia.

>From 1961 to 1968, McNamara oversaw the escalation of US combat
efforts in Vietnam that became one of the biggest military blunders in
US history — and a war McNamara himself came to describe as "terribly

But in the early years, McNamara showed himself to be "upbeat" about
how the war was going, said Barry Zorthian, who served as director in
Vietnam of the US Information Service, the government’s public
diplomacy arm, from 1964 to 1968.

"If it was anyone’s war in those early periods, it wasn’t LBJ’s war,
it wasn’t (top US general) Maxwell Taylor’s war. It was McNamara’s
war," said Zorthian, 88.

"He was very controversial," added Zorthian, who said he traveled in
1964 with McNamara from Saigon to Hue and witnessed the defense
secretary’s "can-do attitude" toward the war.

Zorthian said the public would likely formulate its verdict on the
McNamara legacy "on a realistic" evaluation of the man who conducted a
failed war, but "that’s too harsh a judgment."

"He did provide at considerable cost and lives — lives we treasure —
the opportunity for South Vietnamese to build their own country."

McNamara’s expressions of remorse — in his controversial 1995 memoirs
"In Retrospect: The Tragedies and Lessons of Vietnam" and in the
Oscar-winning documentary "The Fog of War" — have not sat well with
critics of the war, who accuse him of sitting back while millions died
in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

But Sorensen said that while he sees "the merit in those who say ‘Why
didn’t he say that at the time, instead of waiting so many years and
so many deaths later’," McNamara’s contrition and the years he spent
examining how he could have changed history are notable.

"At least McNamara admitted that it was wrong," said Sorensen, adding
he remained friendly for years with McNamara.

"Most military chieftains never admit error at all."

Errol Morris, writer and director of the 2004 documentary "The Fog of
War" — the result of 20 hours of sit-down interviews with McNamara —
said his death marked "very much the end of an era."

"He was a seminal, historic figure," he told AFP, adding that McNamara
"set a very high mark for public figures because he was willing to
entertain the possibility that what he had done was wrong."

Morris said McNamara should be remembered for "how he revisited the
past" later in life.

McNamara "is a reminder of the importance of revisiting history, to
try and understand the past and to try and confront the past. It is an
essential part of who we are," Morris said.

Now 61, Morris said he recalls clearly how, like many people his age
demonstrating against US involvement in Vietnam, he had "strong
feelings" about the man and against the war itself.

"I never changed my feelings about the war," said Morris, "but I
changed my feelings about Robert McNamara."

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