The Tragedy of Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara's life was an American tragedy. He was a man of great ability, enormous intellect, and lived in interesting times. But in the end, even he considered his life a failure.

McNamara did many wonderful things in his long life. He was the original 'whiz kid.' As president of Ford Motor Company in the 1950s he resurrected a once great American company from the ashes of the Depression and World War II. As President Kennedy's Secretary of Defense in the early 1960s he reasserted civilian control over the Pentagon. He was at JFK's side during those fateful days in October 1962 when the US narrowly averted nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Later, as president of the World Bank in the 1970s, he succeeded in getting the world's wealthiest countries to aid in development of the world's poorest.

But McNamara will forever be remembered for his role as chief architect of the Vietnam War -- a war for which he publicly lobbied, expanded, and promised victory -- yet privately predicted we could not win.

With time, McNamara became openly skeptical of the Vietnam War. He broke with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Johnson and resigned as Secretary of Defense. But he was ever after haunted by Vietnam, and publicly admitted he was "terribly wrong."

Vietnam became known as "McNamara's War," one of America's most disastrous foreign ventures, and ended in American withdrawal and defeat. In the end we just walked away from Vietnam, but only after 50,000 Americans died and five times as many were wounded.

I met McNamara a number of times after he left the Pentagon, and there was always a sense of tragedy about him. We debated each other in the 1980s over President Reagan's defense buildup and nuclear weapons modernization. He argued against the Reagan program, but seemed like a tired old warrior strapping on the armor for one last fight he no longer had the heart for, and knew he would lose.

May he finally find the peace that so eluded him in this life.