THE BLOG
08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When an Artist, In Vietnam Era, Tried to Drown Robert McNamara -- and Nearly Did It

It didn't make The New York Times or Washington Post obituaries today, but one of the most dramatic, and in some ways revealing, incidents in the long life of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara occurred in 1972 -- when a young man, reputedly angry about Vietnam, attempted to heave him off the Martha's Vineyard ferry, during its 7-mile voyage, and nearly succeeded.

Only McNamara's tenacious hold on a railing kept him from likely death.

The episode took place on Sept. 29, 1972. The U.S. still had half a million troops in McNamara's war, although a draw down was now in the works. A peace candidate, Sen. George McGovern, was getting batted around by Richard Nixon who was en route to a landslide victory a few weeks down the road (two guys named Woodward and Bernstein were deeply into probing the Watergate break-in).

And Robert McNamara was in the dining area of the Islander ferry en route to the Vineyard and his summer home there. The press had reported, just three weeks earlier, that with three other men he had purchased 41 acres on the island -- including its most famous nude beach.

For years, the details on the ferry boat assault reported in the press were sketchy. The attacker, name unknown, hoisted up McNamara by his belt and collar, and nearly got him overboard, in an area of the passage where he would have probably drowned and/or got stuck in the ship's propellers. McNamara luckily was able to clutch some grill work on the railing, battled for a least half a minute, and finally others intervened.

Amazingly, after the ship got to shore, McNamara did not press charges -- the man had somehow drifted away.

End of story? Not quite.

Several years later, Paul Hendrickson, a longtime reporter and feature writer for The Washington Post, started doing some digging and in 1985, managed to identify the perpetrator, an artist still living on the Vineyard. Of course, the man was surprised to be discovered but agreed to explain what happened, if his name was kept secret.

Hendrickson would write an article about it for the Post, and then give it feature attention in his 1995 book The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War. (He's written several other books since.) Until then it was barely mentioned in books.

The man said that on the night of the incident he'd been drinking on board the Islander when he spotted McNamara in the dining area. The artist, 27 years old at the time, believed he'd been harassed by his draft board, and felt under pressure because his two brothers (and some other family members) had served in Vietnam.

In a 1996 "Book Notes" interview with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, Hendrickson said that the artist "saw the icon of the Vietnam War standing just a few feet away from him, the embodiment of all of these terrible tensions about Vietnam.... This 27-year-old artist, who had avoided the war, whose two older brothers had served, who was regarded in some ways in his own family as 'the shirker,' stood there on the other side of the lunchroom and watched Mr. McNamara enjoying himself.

It was a Friday evening, and Mr. McNamara had a companion and they were standing against the canteen bar of the lunchroom and they were having a high old time.... A murderous rage began climbing up inside this man's throat. And almost unable to stop himself, he said he was going to do something... He walked over to Mr. McNamara and he said, 'Sir, you have a phone call. Please follow me.' He was posing, in a sense, as a member of the crew... He instantly put down his drink and followed the guy right out.

So they walk out into the inky dark of the boat. They're out there alone in this narrow passageway, and... he just turned and got him by the shirt collar and the belt and he tried to hoist him over the side... And there were about 35 or 40 seconds of titanic struggle at the rail. And the way McNamara saved himself was by inserting his hands and holding on for dear life into the metal grill work.

Hendrickson continued:

And, Brian, I feel that that kind of see saw battle, which is 45 seconds out of an artist's life and 45 seconds out of McNamara's life, is the Vietnam War. It's that '60s struggle between what? -- between immense authority on the one hand and disenfranchised, '60s, quote, 'shirker.' Rebellion and authority -- that's what a lot of Vietnam and the '60s and all of this things we're dealing with now in residue are about."

Lamb then asked, "What's he think of what he did today?"

Hendrickson:

He has very mixed feelings. I think again that's part of the legacy of the terrible turmoil that Vietnam caused in all of us. On the one hand, he would understand that what he did was contextual with the rage of the times. And on the other hand, I think he would, of course, regret what he did to a degree that it could have resulted in somebody's death and he could have been a murderer. So he has those kinds of mixed feelings.

That portion of the TV interview concluded with this exchange.

LAMB: "You say that this man has seen Robert McNamara on the island since?"

HENDRICKSON: "That's what he tells me. They were once seated across from each other in a restaurant in Edgartown. They were very close to one another. And their eye contact lasted a second just like yours and mine just now. And then they both looked away and they both went on with their dinners."

I should note that some people on the island believe that the real reason for the artist's attack was McNamara threatening to cuff off access to the nude beach.

Here is a link to the full interview.

Greg Mitchell's latest book is "Why Obama Won." He is editor of Editor & Publisher.