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Robert McNamara and the 3.5 Miles not Taken

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Following the Bay of Pigs crisis, President Kennedy stated: "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan."

JFK might have also said that failure has a longer institutional memory among one's detractors than success has among one's supporters.

That latter observation might fit former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who died this week.

For his unforgiving critics, the name Robert McNamara has a Nixonian-like aftertaste that continues to linger decades after his contribution to the public conversation ceased to be an above-the-fold news item.

As the first person to be named president of Ford Motor Company outside the family, a former defense secretary who later served as President of the World Bank, this UC Berkeley and Harvard alum has an impressive resume.

As defense secretary, McNamara's legacy would otherwise be a mixed bag of high and low moments. In addition to the Bay of Pigs debacle, McNamara was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara also commissioned the preparation of the Pentagon Papers, which chronicled the secret history of the Vietnam conflict that were leaked to several news outlets by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971.

However, between November 9, 1960, when McNamara was named president of Ford Motor Company, and his stepping down as head of the Pentagon on February 29, 1968 was the matter of the Vietnam conflict.

Multiple media outlets worldwide described McNamara in their obituaries as the "architect of Vietnam." Since leaving office, McNamara made no secret that during his time at the Pentagon he was driven almost blindly by Cold War ideology; but was he Vietnam's architect?

Classifying McNamara as the architect of Vietnam omits the constitutional fact that the president is the commander and chief of the armed forces. In theory, the secretary of defense is the chief military advisor who carries out the policies approved by the president.

When McNamara left the Pentagon in 1968, roughly 16,000 American soldiers had died in Vietnam. When the last American troops left in 1975, more than 58,000 soldiers had given their life to this failed effort, along with an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.

It is an oversimplification to suggest McNamara was the primary artisan of Vietnam because the conflict spanned across the administrations of five US presidents. This consistent mischaracterization of McNamara makes it easier to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam than to learn from them.

But McNamara not being the architect of Vietnam does not, however, diminish his tragic contribution.

In his 1995 memoir "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," McNamara admitted he as well as other senior officials were "wrong, terribly wrong" about the conflict. McNamara boldly acknowledged not understanding Vietnam, specifically, the difference between the communism that was driving his fear and the nationalism that the Vietnamese were prepared to die for.

I've long appreciated McNamara's willingness to be forthright about his experiences in Vietnam; I've questioned the timing.

McNamara, by his own admission, was aware Vietnam was not winnable by 1965, but he failed to provide President Johnson this vital information. It was McNamara's silence and lack of moral courage at a critical hour in American history makes him complicit not just in the carnage but also in the debauchery that helped prolong the failed policy. That may be the ultimate legacy he leaves posterity to consider.

The Iraq invasion and occupation proves we've yet to learn any of the lessons from McNamara's experience. His mea culpa may have been 30 years too late for Vietnam, but there was more than enough time to learn from those mistakes prior to invading Iraq in 2003.

If we are as Lincoln stated, government of the people, by the people, and for the people, that means sometimes it is the people who are right and not its government. One of Vietnam's tragic lessons, it took the government too long hear the legitimacy of the dissenters, preferring to hide behind its insecurities and bravado rather than make the courageous decision to change course.

McNamara knew the protesters were right about Vietnam in 1965, but could not bring himself to take the 3.5 mile drive from Arlington VA, where the Pentagon is located, to the Oval Office to delivery the painful message to Johnson.

That indeed is a tragedy for the ages.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his website: byronspeaks.com