Robert Strange McNamara, 1916-2009


Not until publication of his memoirs in 1995, two decades after the war ended, did McNamara publicly admit that it had always been a mistake. In The Fog of War, Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary about the former defense secretary, McNamara recited some of the lessons he learned in office, one of which was, as he put it, “Rationality will not save us”—a notion that the McNamara of 40 years earlier would have dismissed as absurd. Another lesson was that military power should never be used unilaterally. Until the end, he misremembered—some would say he lied about—certain aspects of his history. He claimed that he helped JFK work toward a peaceful solution to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy’s secret White House tapes reveal that after the first few days he advocated attacking the Soviet missile sites, even at the risk of a broader war. He said that LBJ pushed him to escalate in Vietnam, when Johnson’s secret tapes reveal that the pushing went both ways. He once told me, when I interviewed him for a book about nuclear strategy (The Wizards of Armageddon, 1983), that he would never have approved the multiple-warhead missiles known as MIRVs—although declassified documents show that he signed off on the program from its inception. Someday someone will write a great biography of McNamara. It will be the story not only of his life but of the vast tangle of contradictions and cataclysms that marked America in the 20th century and beyond.

more from Fred Kaplan at Slate here.