It has taken me nearly a week to reflect on how figures like Robert McNamara contributed to the erosion of the American people's trust in so many of their institutions. It was his arrogance and self-confidence that so diminished whatever he had to say about Vietnam from the time the war began. McNamara was so infuriating in the early days of the conflict that I would attend his news conferences in Saigon by driving to the airport in an Edsel, one of the cars belonging to the CBS News bureau.
During his presidency of the Ford Motor Company and until he left it to become John F. Kennedy's Defense Secretary in 1961, the Edsel was the biggest and most controversial lemon ever designed and rolled off the Ford assembly line. I would park it immediately across from the exit of Ton Son Nhut airport so that McNamara could not miss it when he departed from one of his interminable news conferences in Vietnam. After tolerating his endless barrage of statistics and analyses he used to justify progress in the war, my message was quite clear.
It was McNamara's stubborn conviction that enemy body count and bomb tonnage dropped on North Vietnam were barometers of American success in a conflict that gradually would divide the country and diminish his reputation until the day he died.
Vietnam was Kennedy's war until he was assassinated in 1963, but a year later it became Johnson's legacy. McNamara stayed on as the war's architect and in preparing for the 1964 presidential election, LBJ invited him to become his vice presidential running mate. It was an offer he refused; one that Hubert Humphrey accepted.
By 1967, he began to realize that no matter how much money and manpower the United States committed to the war, the resolute North Vietnamese army and their Communist guerillas were not going to end the conflict until they won it. It was a bitter realization for a Cold War warrior like McNamara to swallow. He was a stalwart believer in the faulty "domino theory" propelled by columnist Joseph Alsop, who years before had predicted that an American defeat in Vietnam would expose the remainder of Southeast Asia to Communist domination. Like Secretary of State Dean Rusk, McNamara mistakenly saw the need to curtail China as the justification for the war in Vietnam.
No one knows precisely what turned McNamara because he was disingenuous in justifying his own reasons. Neither in his 2005 memoir, In Retrospect or his later documentary interviews with Errol Morris in The Fog of War does he do so.
But the turmoil of the war disrupted the lives of many Americans in public life. His son had joined the ranks of thousands of American college students who were part of the anti-war movement. At one point, Robert Craig McNamara appalled his parents by suspending a Viet Cong flag in his bedroom. After young McNamara went off to college and despite their mutual affection for one another, the father and son did not talk to each other for several years.
After McNamara left the Johnson Administration and became president of the World Bank, he performed noble service in his advocacy of assisting Third World countries to rise from the ranks of undeveloped nations of the globe. Nonetheless, it affected too many of us whose memories of Vietnam are too deeply embedded to forget that had McNamara spoken out early enough, he would have spared the lives of many Americans. More than 16,000 Americans died while he served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. But while journalists and historians have blamed McNamara for orchestrating Vietnam, there was enough guilt to be shared later. Another 42,000 were killed before the shooting stopped, during what more accurately could have been called Nixon's war. That should have troubled the parents, siblings and wives as much as those whose grief began the day the conflict started.
Many so-called experts were to blame for the tragedy of Vietnam. But as Ward Just, my old friend and colleague, once told a fellow reporter, McNamara "was not a bad man, just a flawed one."