Skip to content

McNamara’s Ghosts

Article by Mark Leonard and Rob Blackhurst

September 15, 2006

It is not uncommon for people to spend the long days of retirement trying to reverse the achievements of their working lives. Think of Alfred Nobel, Robert Oppenheimer, even the ever-certain Margaret Thatcher. But for Robert McNamara – the Defense Secretary in charge of the Vietnam war in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – to call for an international criminal court and say that his own record should come under scrutiny gives a whole new meaning to the wisdom of age. While Henry Kissinger runs every time he hears a mention of a Spanish or French judge, McNamara, is concerned with ensuring that the terrible mistakes of his lifetime are not repeated. His moral conundrums are an embodiment of those of the liberal left in America. His CV reads like a potted history of the US in the twentieth century: President of the Ford Motor Company in the fifties via the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam to a political afterlife running the World Bank. Throughout he remained close to the Kennedys: he was the first person Ted turned to for advice after his mysterious
car crash at Chappaquiddick.

But it is the political journey from the gilded days of Camelot to the protracted nightmare of Vietnam that still haunts him. The confident defender of the war, bristling with statistics that proved US success, gradually lost faith in the whole enterprise. By 1967 his call for peace-talks made it impossible to serve a President still wedded to military victory and he left, though claims still not to know whether he resigned or was fired. Nevertheless, McNamara refused to discuss his role in Vietnam for 27 years after leaving his post as secretary of Defense. Then seven years ago he shocked America with a very public mea culpa, admitting that Vietnam had been a terrible, terrible mistake. Now 85, and preoccupied with leaving his legacy intact, he is in London to promote his latest volume: Wilson’s Ghost (written with James Blight, Public Affairs at £17.99). This grandly titled manifesto for peace completes the circle by drawing on his experiences to warn that the twenty-first century will be even more bloody than the last unless the US adopts a multilateralist liberal agenda. Though his hands are mottled and shaky, he drums his pen on the table with ferocity, interjecting before the end of questions, giving time-checks with military precision. It’s not hard to imagine the boss who terrified underlings in the Pentagon with demands for written rather than oral briefings – he claimed to be able to read faster than they could speak.

We meet on the day of President Bush’s decision to rip up the treaty calling for an international criminal court. He refuses to attack Bush’s leadership but is angry about the arrogant unilateralism of the US administration. McNamara has become convinced that political and military leaders are more likely to be persuaded to behave humanely by the threat of prosecution than they are by ineffectual economic sanctions or military action. He claims that opposition is not based on facts: “It is not understood in the US. They say we are not going to subject our officials or our soldiers to the whims of Gaddaffi and give Gaddaffi the right to imprison our soldiers when they are carrying out the orders of their government or pursuing the interests of the US and its allies. He points out that US officials or soldiers would only be tried in the international criminal court if a US court refused to try them. It’s not nearly as risky a world for US political and military leaders and personnel as they describe it.”

Listening to him speak is gripping, as each carefully chosen word has implications for his own record: “Henry Kissinger was travelling in Europe the other day and there were suggestions that he should be brought before the Criminal Court. Now I am not certain what the allegations were or what rule of international behaviour he had violated that would justify bringing him before the court. But I can think of rules that would in my case. For example, we used Agent Orange – which allegedly killed people. Or we used Napalm to burn individuals. Were those in accordance with the accepted rules of war or not? Well that subject needs a lot more discussion.”

So would an international criminal court have changed his behaviour or that of other leaders in conflict situations? He is convinced it would: “How are you going to reduce the risk of conflict leading to killing of that order? Well one of the ways is to determine that certain kinds of conflict will be prohibited by law. I think that is highly desirable. But I don’t believe we have gone far enough to make very clear what the rules are. And that needs to be done. What would worry me is when it isn’t clear what the rules of war are. Just take Agent Orange as an illustration. I don’t think anyone had even thought about whether it was contrary to the rules of war. I doubt very much that its toxicity was very much known.”

This explanation will do little to satisfy the human rights groups who accuse him of being the first person to sanction the first use of chemical weapons since the First World War. It certainly seems extraordinary in today’s climate to discover that no one tested the toxicity of a substance which scientists estimate to responsible for up to 500,000 children being born with defects. The 19 million gallons of Agent Orange dropped on the forests which provided cover for the Viet Cong were the equivalent to six pounds of chemical for every man, woman and child in South Vietnam. His explanation today conceals the obvious unease he felt at the time. In a letter to Johnson in 1967, he appears to concede that the U.S. was flirting with war crimes: “There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”

McNamara’s other ghost is the threat of nuclear weapons. He is horrified at the complacency of Bush’s decision to tear up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty – his labour of love from the Kennedy regime. “The US nuclear policy review published just a few weeks ago states that the US is going to retain substantial numbers of large scale nuclear weapons in perpetuity. Yet no other country can ever have one. And we are going to retain thousands. It’s absurd. It ain’t going to work.”

It is clear that the Cuban Missile Crisis is never far from his mind. “We came very, very close”, McNamara confides slowly, “closer than we knew at the time.” He treats it as a Near Death Experience, constantly replaying the options and going over what might have happened. As the sole surviving member of the team at Kennedy’s side during the crisis, it is knowledge that he felt duty bound to pass on. Living up to his reputation as the Human IBM machine earned at the Defence Department, he has dissected the experience in minute detail – taking part in a five year research project with his friend James Blight that interviewed protagonists on either side. He has an unnerving recollection of conversations that happened over forty years ago – complaining that Hollywood’s recent version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days, put many of his comments, gleaned from contemporary tapes, into Kennedy’s mouth.

The film presents McNamara stopping the Pentagon bullet-heads from firing shots at Russian submarines on the edge of the blockade area. Was there any truth in the portrayal? “They made the chiefs appear much more belligerent than they were. I think that is unfortunate. But we ultimately removed the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Anderson. He was the only chief of staff in the history of the country who has ever been removed in service by presidential action and the movie shows some of the reasons why.’’ He describes the crucial exchange in a room with 30 admirals: “At one point Anderson and I were having an argument and he said: ‘Mr Secretary, the navy’s been handling blockades successfully since John Paul Jones. If you let us handle this one, then we’ll handle this successfully.’ I replied: ‘Have you heard what I said, there won’t be shot fired without my permission, is that understood?’ Then I walked out of the room.”

McNamara did not realise how crucial that exchange had been until forty years later when, a few months ago, he travelled to Moscow for a showing of the film. After the showing, a man with a straggly beard who looked like Bin Laden got up to ask a question. It turned out to be one of the Russian submarine commanders, who revealed that the subs approaching the blockade were carrying nuclear tipped torpedoes. He claimed that they had orders to shoot when they thought it was desirable if they were out of radio contact. Several did lose contact with Moscow, and continued preparing to launch for days after Kruschev had ended the crisis. McNamara has since discovered that when these submarine crews returned to the USSR they were severely criticised and disciplined because they had not launched nuclear weapons. He is still visibly shaken by the recent discovery: “We had never heard of that until that time. And I was so shocked I lost my cool.”

So how will history judge Robert McNamara? In many ways, he embodies the contradictions of the Kennedy generation in the 1960s: the combination of idealism and soaring rhetoric with ruthlessness about means to ends. His language is soaked in the spirit of the New Frontier, from lofty invocations of “we, the human race”, to his abiding faith in the advancement of humanity. But even now his obviously genuine- liberal zeal will sit side-by-side with moral blind spots. This comes out, for example, in his warm praise for the late Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping: “No country has ever advanced the welfare of its people as much – nutrition, literacy, health, housing – as China in that twenty years.” There is scant criticism for the man who ordered the shooting of student demonstrators in Tiananman Square. McNamara’s latest manifesto undoubtedly challenges war correspondent Robert Speer’s unforgiving characterisation of him as a steely corporate bean-counter who took over the Pentagon and defined victory in Vietnam by the number of Vietnamese dead, even if they were the children and mothers slaughtered. But the ghost of his moral ambivalence will continue to haunt all perfectionist leaders who talk about spreading freedom and invoke a global morality, including the present incumbent in Downing Street.

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre