When I was a young assistant professor at Harvard during the Vietnam War, the name Robert McNamara had purely negative connotations. Influenced by David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, and by the disaster of the war, I could not imagine that I would like him some day. But I came to know Bob in 1987 when we spent some time together on an oral history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and saw him on various occasions after that. I realized that he cared deeply about moral issues.
Now I assign the Errol Morris film The Fog of War to my students in a course about leadership and ethics in foreign policy. What the film shows is a man who belatedly realized his frailties and decided to warn a younger generation not to repeat his mistakes. Many former policy makers spend their time after office trying to cast their actions in the best possible light for history. Bob was a rare exception in exposing his mistakes. Of course, he never dropped all the veils.
Some things related to family and Vietnam were too sensitive to expose. And he never really came to terms with the question of whether he could have saved lives if he had gone public with his dissent after he lost faith in the war. Like all of us, he was a flawed man, and some part of me will never forgive him for the consequences of his mistakes in Vietnam. But another part respects him for his efforts to come to terms with his actions and to help a younger generation to learn.
When I heard of his death today, I was both saddemed and reminded that redemption is a difficult process, and that the lives of leaders are more complicated than I thought when I was an assistant professor.
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