Tuesday, July 7, 2009

July 7: McNamara's Piece

By Sylvia Gurinsky

In retrospect, which was the title of Robert McNamara's autobiography, President John F. Kennedy's decision to appoint McNamara as secretary of defense may be one of the most absurd Cabinet choices of the 20th century.

McNamara, the president of Ford Motor Company at the time, was probably more suited to the job President Lyndon Johnson would give him eight years later - president of the World Bank. But Kennedy was floored by McNamara's intelligence and figured he would be successful in changing military tactics.

It sometimes worked - most successfully during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when McNamara's suggestion of a blockade was accepted and executed. But others in the Kennedy Administration, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, eventually won the day with their diplomacy. (An interesting footnote: A documentary on the DVD of the film "Thirteen Days," which is about the crisis, indicates that during the second week, McNamara, short on sleep and proper nutrition, was becoming unglued.)

But McNamara's military tactics failed big during the Cuban Missile Crisis and especially the Vietnam War, which came to be known, derisively, as "McNamara's War." Despite his autobiography, in which he acknowledged mistakes in Vietnam, and his comments in interviews and the documentary "The Fog of War," he will always be a figure of hatred to many who lived during the Vietnam era.

As time, emotions and the Vietnam generation pass, however, historians, scholars and future political and military leaders will be able to study McNamara's words about the failure in Vietnam and learn lessons from them. Also, future generations will also be able to learn from his World Bank tenure, in which he reached out to developing nations.

Robert McNamara proved the best and the brightest, as many in the Kennedy Administration were known, could blunder. But his actions and words in later life will serve as lessons to those whose job it is to keep the peace.

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