He knew nothing about poverty or Asia or people or American politics, but he knew all there was to know about bureaucracy and production technology.
He was obsessed with numbers, calculation, and logic. Senator Barry Goldwater called him "an IBM machine with legs." Through the manipulation of statistics he sought not just a means of measuring reality but a way to conquer and subdue it. Using the same system of materialist accountancy with which he saved the Ford Motor Company, he rationalized the Pentagon bureaucracy and soon the U.S. military was producing corpses as efficiently as the auto giant turned out cars. What profit was to the bottom line, body count was to "progress" in Vietnam.
On grounds of cost-efficiency McNamara championed the electronic battlefield - "people sniffers," infrared sensors, cluster bombs, land mines packed with shrapnel, fragmentation bombs, all washed down with millions of gallons of chemical defoliants designed to peel back the protective Vietnamese jungle impeding Washington's onward march to imperial paradise. Much indebted to the liquid fire that boosted U.S. death counts, McNamara publicly applauded Dow Chemical Company's "service to the free world" in manufacturing napalm.
In 1962, with tens of thousands of Vietnamese dead due to U.S. bombing and defoliation, McNamara arrived in Vietnam impatient to discover what was holding up the victory train. Inspecting Operation Sunrise, a village repopulated after a forced relocation to an urban concentration camp, McNamara immersed himself in systems analysis and input-output ratios, pored over self-congratulatory Pentagon data, and breezily assured a prompt U.S. victory. Failing to even notice the seething villagers in his midst, he fired off a battery of technical questions to his underlings: How much of this? How much of that? Are you happy here?
With the corrupt and murderous Diem regime (South Vietnam) at the point of collapse, McNamara returned to Washington proclaiming that he had "seen nothing but progress and hopeful indications of further progress in the future."
In 1963, McNamara declared that "we have turned the corner in Vietnam," one of many assurances he gave that U.S. victory was not only meaningful, but right around the corner. And as always, there were optimistic statistics to back him up, sometimes incredibly optimistic, such as a State Department report stating that the U.S. had inflicted 30,000 casualties on 15,000 Vietnamese guerrillas in 1962.
Also in 1963 McNamara announced that Latin American recipients of U.S. military assistance were changing their mission from "hemispheric defense" to "internal security," the green light for the region's security forces to make war on their own people in the name of anti-Communism. These forces studied the techniques of repression at the U.S. School of the Americas and a parade of coups and other bloody interventions followed in countries like Brazil, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama.
In 1964, with the C.I.A. conducting regular raids on Hanoi's coastal installations, McNamara accused North Vietnamese torpedo boats of attacking what he presumed to be peaceful American destroyers, which happened to be spying in North Vietnamese territory. "While on routine patrol in international waters" the Secretary of Defense announced, "the U.S. destroyer Maddox underwent an unprovoked attack." President Johnson went on nationwide T.V. to condemn North Vietnam's "open aggression on the high seas." He called for broader authority to wage war against Vietnam while promising not to use it.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution swept through Congress, authorizing the President "to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace." In short, carte blanche to completely destroy Vietnam, which the U.S. subsequently did.
However, Washington could never achieve military victory. Unaccountably for John Kennedy's star Defense Secretary, the raggedly-dressed villagers of Vietnam refused to be reduced to statistical abstractions, confounding his prized system of "rational" predictions. McNamara was plunged into gloom and a profound sense of failure.
Years after he and the other members of John Kennedy's "Best and Brightest" administration had killed their millions in Indochina, McNamara was plagued by nightmares and found his eyes welling up with tears at the Vietnam Memorial. He unburdened his conscience in his memoirs, apologizing for having prolonged an unwinnable war.
McNamara's was a highly selective remorse. He was not sorry for napalmed babies, Agent Orange, and the countless My Lai-style massacres. He felt no guilt about two million dead civilians and soaring child cancer and birth defects in Vietnam. His only regret was that American soldiers had died with no chance of being victorious. He insisted his mistakes had been "not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities."
Chauffeured by limousine to book signings, he ignored the homeless Vietnam vets rotting on the streets of the nation they had served in battle. His book zoomed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
David Harris, Our War, (Random House, 1996)
Arthur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, (Houghton-Mifflin, 1965)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, (Harper, 1995)
Howard Zinn, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, (Beacon, 1967)
David Halberstam, The Best and The Brightest, (Penguin, 1969)
Lawrence S. Wittner, Cold War America: From Hiroshima to Watergate, (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1978)
William Blanchard, Aggression American Style, (Goodyear, 1978)
Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism,(South End, 1988)
Noam Chomsky, Chronicles of Dissent, (Common Courage, 1992)
Noam Chomsky, "Memories," Z Magazine, July/August 1995
Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions - The United States in Central America, (Norton, 1984)
Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen, Wizards of Media Oz, (Common Courage, 1997)