David Ignatius: McNamara's Complicated Legacy
I grew up in the shadow of Robert McNamara, almost literally. My father, Paul Ignatius, joined his team at the Pentagon in 1961 and remained with him through the Vietnam years as a close aide and, afterward, as a friend. So for me, McNamara's death evokes a whole world of relationships and dreams and reversals that characterized the Washington of the 1960s.
I have an old photograph that captures what 1961 felt like, if you were an 11-year-old watching the McNamara era dawn at the Pentagon. It shows my dad's swearing-in for his first job at the Pentagon as assistant secretary of the Army, and my mother and me looking up at him with measureless pride and confidence. The McNamara family must have many similar photographs of those early days of "the best and the brightest," before the phrase had developed a knife-edge.
What a sense of possibility McNamara conveyed in those first years -- the audacity, not of hope but of reason. He came to Washington as the ultimate rationalist, believing that he could transform the bureaucratic morass of the Defense Department into something modern and efficient. He gathered his "whiz kids," bright young aides like my father, and encouraged them to challenge outmoded practices, politics be damned. And he backed them all the way.
My father recommended to McNamara, for example, that he should close the Watertown Arsenal, a venerable but outmoded facility in Massachusetts. The Bay State might have expected a little patronage, with John F. Kennedy having been elected president and John McCormack serving as speaker of the House. But McNamara never thought to question the base closure. He didn't need a BRAC commission or some other camouflage. He just told my dad and his other deputies to do what was right.
The military never really forgave McNamara for that determination to apply modern management techniques to the nation's defense. The generals and admirals didn't want to be rationalized; they had built a mighty machine to battle the Soviet Union, and they resented McNamara's attempt to impose change.
Then came Vietnam, the war that will forever be attached to McNamara's name. Vietnam shattered the rationalist's faith: Here was a peasant enemy, fighting in what looked to us like pajamas and living off handfuls of rice, that somehow persisted against all of America's military might -- and all of McNamara's slide-rule calculations. The military kept insisting that with another 100,000 troops and an expanded list of bombing targets, this improbable enemy would be finished. But it wasn't that kind of war, and it slowly ground McNamara down.
For all his seeming certainty, McNamara was a reluctant warrior, half in and half out, increasingly convinced that our firepower wouldn't work in this asymmetrical war. For the military, that was his greatest sin -- that he sacrificed young American lives without fully believing in the possibility of victory...
comments powered by Disqus
David B Burner - 7/10/2009
A nice piece set against all the loathing from the Times and everyone else. Certainly the military had its part in the foolishness of Vietnam, and why does McNamara deserve blame for his abject apologies. Rostow and LBJ still seem the chief villains.
- Did a historian who said he’s a victim of McCarthyism get the story wrong?
- Stephanie Coontz’s work on the history of marriage cited by the Supreme Court.
- NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?
- David Hackett Fischer wins $100,000 prize for lifetime achievement in military writing