A failed Vietnam War — McNamara's legacy

Published on Wednesday, July 8, 2009


A failed Vietnam War — McNamara's legacy


A.H. Jaffor Ullah


For people like me who grew up and attended college in the 1960s, a mere mention of Secretary McNamara's name would bring back memory from those turbulent Vietnam days.  In the post Kennedy days under the baton of President Lyndon B. Johnson America 's mighty war machine was bogged down in the lush paddy field of Vietnam where the GIS were fighting the Vietcong guerrillas all in the name of blocking communism, globally. 


The U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert S. McNamara, with his characteristic rimless spectacles and back brush hairdo did dominate the headlines allover the world.  He was the chief architect of the expansion of war in Vietnam .  Powered by such false notion as "Domino Theory," America was more than determined to stop the cancerous growth of communism from Southeast Asia in the aftermath of Korean War in the early 1950s.


On July 6, 2009 Robert S. McNamara who was affectionately called "Bob McNamara" by his friends in Washington died at the age of 93. McNamara remained reticent for about three decades after he resigned (or was fired) from the post of the Secretary of Defense when he served other duties but mainly as president of the World Bank for over a decade in the 1970s.  He however revealed his misgivings in an interview with an AP reporter in 1995 when he was promoting his best-selling memoir.  Privately, he doubted whether the war was winnable or worth fighting for.  McNamara told the AP interviewer, "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong."


In late 1960s when the Vietnam War had escalated beyond anyone's imagination, many of his critics started to call it "McNamara's war."  Even his son opposed the war!  Undoubtedly, Secretary McNamara was the force behind the ill-fated Vietnam War who was an public optimist predicting that American military intervention in South Vietnam would give the leaders of that beleaguered nation to get their act together "by the end of 1965."


Unfortunately, that prediction made by McNamara and other high-ranking U.S. officials from the State Department never came true.  The War dragged on up until 1975, with more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers being dead and 42,000 missing and severely injured.  When the GIs finally returned home in 1975, there was no welcoming celebration anywhere in America .  Some GIs begrudgingly had claimed that some irate citizens had spit on them. Indeed, America was a divided nation then. 


Mr. McNamara wore different hats all throughout his public life.  He attended college both in California (UC Berkeley) and Massachusetts (Harvard) specializing in statistical analysis and business management.  Before being recruited by President Kennedy he served as the president of the Ford Motor Company in the mid fifties where he made unpopular decision to phase out Ford's Edsel line of cars and instead promoted smaller cars under the brand "Falcon."  This shrewd move made Ford Motor Company profitable again.  McNamara and his close associates at Ford were dubbed "the whiz kids."


The newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, recruited McNamara in 1961 from the Ford Motor Company to run the Pentagon even though he (McNamara) had no experience managing the military and was not considered an authority on military matters.  As the Defense Secretary he managed the Pentagon for seven long years, longer than anyone else since the job's creation in 1947. He left the position in 1968 on the verge of a nervous breakdown and became president of the World Bank.  McNamara once quipped to an AP reporter in late 1990s, nearly three decades after leaving the Johnson Administration, that he is not so sure whether he voluntarily resigned from the position or was he goaded to leave by President Lyndon Johnson.


Stung by the failure to win the war in Vietnam , McNamara finally had the epiphany that improving lives was a more promising path to peace than building up arms and armies.  Thus, he poured all the energies he had to the World Bank where he made poverty alleviation the central theme of that prestigious organization.  He served the Bank from 1968 through 1981 and then he retired at the age of 65.  In his thirteen years at the helm in the Bank, he introduced key changes, mostly focusing on targeted poverty reduction. He formulated policies to initiate a spectacular growth in funds to channel credits for development, in the form of health, food, and education projects.  To honor him, the World Bank currently has a scholarship program under his name.


McNamara transformed himself to be an activist especially in the field of nuclear weapon when he vociferously opposed the proliferation of N-arms during the Reagan years.  He and several other former national security officials urged that the United States pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in Europe in the event of hostilities; subsequently he went further to propose the elimination of nuclear weapons as an element of NATO's defense posture. In his brilliant memoir, In Retrospect, published in 1995, he presented an account and analysis of the Vietnam War from his perspective. Reviews were however very mixed. This defense of his actions under Johnson Administration was viewed as McNamara's last attempt to apologize for his role in the war, but few critics have characterized it as merely shifting blame to other people and as an attempt to transform his image from an architect of the war into a virtual opponent.


As an activist, McNamara took part in politics during recent years, delivering statements critical of the Bush administration's March 2003 invasion of Iraq .  On January 5, 2006, McNamara and most living former Secretaries of Defense and Secretaries of State met briefly at the White House with President Bush to discuss the war.  That short dialogue bore no fruit whatsoever.  President Bush went along with his military agenda to "democratize" Iraq with Shiite politicians at the helm.


Robert McNamara, as a public official, made an enormous impact on the negative outcome of Vietnam War.  In his terminal years he said America had failed to see what would be the impact if the war was lost in Vietnam .  The entire Kennedy and Johnson Administration along with leading experts on East-West relationship had opined at the time that communism as an ideology should be stopped at all cost.  This was the essence of the "Domino Theory," which let the U.S. bogged down in the soggy ground of Vietnam while Mao's China trained and armed the Vietcong guerrillas to take on mighty America .  How thinks have changed dramatically in the span of a quarter century!  Now, America in the name of globalization is fueling the growth of capitalism in China .  Indeed, McNamara had lived long enough to see all these changes in his lifetime.  


Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans , USA

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