- Robert Mcnamara’s Journey to Hanoi: Reflections on a Lost War
Of all the major architects of the Vietnam War, Robert S. McNamara remains the most controversial. In the early years of the war he was eager to escalate, confident of his understanding of the conflict and of his skills as a war manager. In the spring and summer of 1965 he played a key role in the dispatch of American ground combat troops to South Vietnam, but by the end of 1965 he began to doubt that massive American intervention would lead to victory. Although in 1966 and 1967 McNamara often vacillated in his assessment of the war, in general his view of America’s prospects in South Vietnam became more and more gloomy. Within the inner circle of Lyndon B. Johnson’s advisers, McNamara expressed many of these doubts, but he maintained a public facade of confidence and optimism. After he left office in February 1968 to become president of the World Bank, McNamara retreated into silence, as if he had no responsibility to explain to the American people what had gone wrong. For twenty-seven years McNamara said little about his role in the war, until in April 1995 he published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of the Vietnam War. The publication of this memoir, and McNamara’s appearances around the country to promote it, unleashed a storm of recrimination. It was as if the book had touched a raw nerve, exposing all of the anger still felt by many members of the Vietnam generation.
During his long years of silence McNamara resisted opportunities to tell his story. In 1984 he testified reluctantly in the Westmoreland-CBS libel trial, and later gave Deborah Shapley, his most recent biographer, only limited cooperation. But McNamara is a historical figure of such importance that, despite his elusiveness, the effort to understand him has been unending. As Hendrickson writes, “He rose up out of the 1960s as one of the central characters in a story of moral importance that ended in ruin. . . . He was an extraordinarily impressive person, almost a new Adam, who abused his trust and knows he did, and has spent the rest of his life paying for it” (p. 356). [End Page 726]
Paul Hendrickson, a journalist who writes for the Washington Post, has pursued McNamara since 1984, when he wrote a series of articles on his career. In 1984 McNamara granted Hendrickson several interviews, but as time passed he pulled back, first insisting on written questions, then cutting off any further communication as unproductive. Nevertheless, Hendrickson pressed on, interviewing over five hundred people, including McNamara’s sister and son, observing McNamara’s public appearances whenever possible, and studying a variety of scholarly literature. The result is a book that does not fit neatly into any genre of historical writing. Its biographical segments convey a shrewd psychological portrait of McNamara and a scathing moral indictment of a man who, Hendrickson believes, set an example of “How Not To Live Your Life” (p. 292). But The Living and the Dead reaches beyond McNamara’s life to try to trace the connections between the decisions he made and five lives they profoundly affected.
Hendrickson’s meandering narrative shifts abruptly and repeatedly, from McNamara’s high-level perspective to the stories of an anonymous young artist, James C. Farley, Norman R. Morrison, Marlene Kramel, and Tran Van Tuyen and his family. In September 1972 the artist tried to throw McNamara off the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard; Farley, the crew chief of a Marine helicopter, was featured in a Life Magazine photo-essay in April of 1965, when his helicopter squadron carried ARVN troops into a Vietcong ambush; Morrison, a thirty-one-year-old Quaker preacher who opposed the war, put his baby daughter aside and on November 2, 1965, set himself on fire outside of the Pentagon; Kramel went to South Vietnam in 1966 as a young, patriotic army nurse; Tran...