(HOST) The death of former defense secretary Robert McNamara this past week set off a cascade of memories for millions of American’s of a certain age. Commentator and veteran ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore is of that age.
(DUNSMORE) The journalist Richard Valeriani wrote in his blog for the Huffington Post this week, "McNamara was the most contemptible, despicable public figure of modern times." I use this quote, not just because Dick is a good friend of mine, but because those sentiments are shared by very many Americans who lived through the trauma of the Viet Nam War – especially the soldiers who fought it and the reporters who covered the war itself and its extraordinary impact here at home.
It is a visceral anger. It comes from what is considered McNamara’s greatest sin- namely, that early on, he concluded the war was unwinnable, yet kept sending young men to their deaths and didn’t finally publicly confess his doubts until years after the war had ended. When he finally did so in a memoir in 1995, he was greeted by a torrent of scorn. As the New York Times editorial began, "Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen."
I see McNamara in a somewhat different light. For example, when he was relieved of his Pentagon job in 1967, some 16,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam. Yet the war continued for another seven years- and another 42,000 Americans were killed in a hopeless cause. So McNamara is not alone in the responsibility for that carnage.
McNamara also deserves credit for keeping us out of World War III. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued forcefully for an invasion of Cuba. We now know from secret White House tapes that McNamara cautioned the president that this could set off a nuclear war with the Soviets. Ultimately it was McNamara’s suggestion to quietly withdraw American missiles in Turkey in return for removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba that saved us from a nuclear holocaust.
McNamara never escaped the guilt he felt as one who had been responsible for the deaths of so many. In various ways he sought to atone for this, such as baring his soul in the 2003 documentary film, "The Fog of War." I was particularly taken by his anguish over his role as an Army Air Force planner for the fire bombing of Japanese cities during World War II in which hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians died. McNamara recalled how he and General Curtis LeMay who directed the bombing raids concluded that if the U.S. had lost the war the two of them would have been tried as war criminals. "What makes it immoral if you lose, and not immoral if you win?" he asked.
But most important in that documentary is what McNamara calls the greatest lesson he learned from the Vietnam War – know your enemy. "Empathize with him," says McNamara. "We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes." Whatever you think of McNamara, if followed, that near priceless advice could save the world from most armed conflicts.