During the run-up to the Iraq War, Robert McNamara never joined an anti-war protest, never went on CNN to voice his displeasure at George W. Bush. That wasn’t McNamara’s style. But he did announce his views on conflict in general, in the 2003/2004 documentary “The Fog of War.” And in interviews with reporters – including me – McNamara all-but-said the Iraq War was a big mistake that would lead to scores of American and Iraqi deaths, and the diplomatic isolation of the United States. As the Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy, and a still-admired figure in matters of warfare and diplomacy, McNamara had gravitas. He knew this. In his own old-school way, McNamara became an anti-war activist.
“If (the United States) cannot persuade countries with similar values and interests the merit of our course, we ought to reconsider and probably turn away from it,” McNamara told me in January of 2004, nine months after the U.S.-led deposing of Saddam Hussein. Making an analogy to the Vietnam War, McNamara told me, “We had not one single major ally in Vietnam. Not Britain, France, Germany or Japan.”
As my True/Slant colleague Michael Roston points out, McNamara – who died today at age 93 – was active in the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. As someone who oversaw and orchestrated the deaths of many people, McNamara saw firsthand how – in the long-run – those deaths were in vain. What did Vietnam accomplish for the United States? Nothing. Washington set out to blunt the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, and it failed. McNamara went to his death feeling guilty about his role in the quagmire of Vietnam, even if he never came right out and admitted it. Again, that wasn’t McNamara’s style. This was: “I don’t give a damn whether people know me or don’t know me.” That’s what he told me in my interview with him. Stubborn, proud, and extremely smart. These are the traits that made Robert S. McNamara, brought him to the attention of Kennedy and other presidents who wanted him in their inner circle.
McNamara participated in “The Fog of War” to set the record straight. He didn’t want his legacy to be swallowed up by memories of Vietnam. Unlike Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (whose presidency he also served), McNamara lived into the 21st century. With the benefit of time, he could see just how wrong he was in the 1960s, when the U.S. military was trumpeted as the solution to all of America’s foreign-policy problems.