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Vietnam War Architect Robert McNamara Dies at 93: A Look at His Legacy with Howard Zinn, Marilyn Young & Jonathan Schell

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Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has died at the age of ninety-three. McNamara was one of the key architects of the Vietnam War, which killed at least three million Vietnamese, around one million Cambodians and Laotians, and 58,000 American soldiers. We take a look at McNamara’s legacy with two preeminent historians: Howard Zinn and Marilyn Young. We also speak with Jonathan Schell, who covered Vietnam as a reporter in 1967 and met with McNamara in a secret Pentagon meeting. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you to stay with us, as we move on to our next segment, and it does have to do with Robert Strange McNamara —


AMY GOODMAN: — one of the key architects of the Vietnam War, died at the age of ninety-three at his home on Monday morning. McNamara served as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 under President John F. Kennedy, as well as President Lyndon Johnson, and directed the early years of the US military offensive in Southeast Asia.

As early as 1964, the war in Vietnam came to be called “McNamara’s War,” an association he said at the time he was, quote, “pleased to be identified with.” Over half-a-million Americans went to war on his watch, a war that ultimately killed over 58,000 American soldiers, at least three million Vietnamese. But in 1995, twenty years after the end of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara published a mea culpa, a memoir that admitted he and his colleagues had been, quote, “wrong, terribly wrong,” in perpetuating and justifying the war as they did. It was titled In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

Less well known is McNamara’s key involvement in the firebombing of sixty-seven Japanese cities shortly before the end of World War II that destroyed 50 to 90 percent of the cities. McNamara described the bombing operations he analyzed under the command of General Curtis LeMay in the 2003 documentary by Errol Morris, Fog of War. In a single night on March 10th, 1945, he told Morris, quote, “We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women, and children.”

    ROBERT McNAMARA: I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The US-Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history. Kamikaze pilots, suicide — unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race, prior to that time, and today, has not really grappled with what are called the rules of war. Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death 100,000 civilians in a night?

    LeMay said if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral, if his side had lost. Well, what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

AMY GOODMAN: McNamara would later become a vocal critic of nuclear proliferation. But during his time at the Pentagon, he expanded the US nuclear arsenal and was a key decision maker in the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis.

A graduate of Harvard Business School, he was also centrally involved in the development of the American and global economic systems. Prior to joining the Kennedy administration, he had worked at Ford Motor Company for thirteen years and had just been named president of the company, succeeding Henry Ford II. After serving as Defense Secretary under Johnson, McNamara was appointed the president of the World Bank, a post he held from ’68 to ’81. After retiring from the bank, McNamara remained involved as an adviser, consultant or director with dozens of corporations, universities and foundations, including Royal Dutch Shell, the Washington Post, the Ford Foundation, Brookings Institution and the California Institute of Technology.

Well, for more on Robert McNamara, I’m joined by two preeminent historians. Marilyn Young, professor of history at New York University and author of The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990 and, most recently, Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History

, she joins us from Washington, DC. Howard Zinn, author of many books, including his classic A People’s History of the United States, joins us on the phone from Boston.

And Jonathan Schell remains with us. We want to find out about the secret meeting he had with Robert McNamara.

But, Howard Zinn, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with you assessing the legacy of Robert McNamara.

HOWARD ZINN: Well, assessing the legacy, it seems to me one of the things we should be thinking about is that McNamara represented all of those superficial qualities of brightness and intelligence and education, you know, that are so revered in our culture. This whole idea that you judge young kids today on the basis of what their test scores are, how smart they are, how much information they can digest, how much they can give back to you and remember, that’s what MacNamara was good at. He was — yes, he was bright, he was smart. But he had no moral intelligence.

What strikes me that we can learn from, one of the many things we can learn from this McNamara experience is we’ve got to stop revering these superficial qualities of brightness and smartness and bring up a generation which thinks in moral terms, which has moral intelligence, and which asks questions, not “Do we win, or do we lose?” but asks questions, “Is this right? Is it wrong?” And McNamara never asked that question, even when he was leaving, even when he decided, oh, he had to leave the post of Secretary of Defense, even when he left. And his leaving was not based on the fact that the war was wrong. His leaving was based on the fact, well, we weren’t going to win.

Unfortunately, the present administration is still stuck in that kind of thinking. You know, I hear them talking in the White House and around the White House, Obama and the others, about winning in Afghanistan and not asking, you know, “Is it right that we are in Afghanistan?” So, to me, that’s one of the important things to think about when we try to learn something from the life of this figure, McNamara.

Another thing I suppose I’d think about is the fact that after he decided that we should get out of Vietnam, after he decided that, he remained silent. You know, he leaves in silence. He doesn’t speak out and tell the rest of the country, “We need to get out.” He doesn’t criticize the ongoing war, whether it’s under Johnson or later under Nixon. No, he sits by silently while the war goes on. This is, you know, the kind of unpardonable thing that we should be, I think, very much concerned with.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and come back to this discussion. Howard Zinn, historian, author of A People’s History of the United States and so many other books. And we’ll also get comment from Professor Marilyn Young, as well as Jonathan Schell. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Looking at the life of Robert McNamara, during the Vietnam War years, he was best known for justifying the American offensive. He did so on a number of occasions.

    ROBERT McNAMARA: This is not primarily a military problem. It’s a battle for the hearts and the minds of the people of South Vietnam. As a prerequisite to that, we must be able to guarantee their physical security.

    The most vivid impression I’m bringing back is that we’ve stopped losing the war.

    Oh, I think, on the contrary, as General Westmoreland has pointed out in recent weeks in Saigon, the military operations, the large-unit military operations, continue to show very substantial progress.

AMY GOODMAN: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. That clip, a series of archival clips, are from Errol Morris’s remarkable film, The Fog of War.

Professor Marilyn Young, you have written a number of books — your specialty is on Vietnam, you’re a professor of history at New York University — The Vietnam Wars, as well as Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History. Talk about the legacy of Robert McNamara.

MARILYN YOUNG: Well, one of the legacies is that there is none, in a sense. The first clip that you ran was — you could have run it now, about Iraq several years ago, about Afghanistan today. And it’s as if it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s knowledge, and then it’s erased in between. McNamara is — should be a kind of morality tale.

During his tenure as Secretary of Defense, he initially — he was responsible, really, for the initial escalation. In 1964, he and Bundy gave — ’65, I’m sorry — gave Johnson what’s called the “fork in the road” memorandum, in which they said, “Now, we’ve really thought this over, and we have two choices: we could increase military pressure, or we could negotiate.” And they strongly urged the increase in military pressure, and Johnson went along with that, not that he was — you know, I think he was a little unwilling, but that’s another subject.

Gradually, by later in ’65, by ’66, and certainly by ’67, he was completely disenchanted with the war. And he said it in public at the Senate hearings on bombing targets. And he said, “This bombing is just not going to work.” The next thing he knew, he was out. And he said later that he never knew whether he had quit or Johnson had fired him. And then, as Howie said, he was absolutely silent.

You can imagine that that silence was expressed, in one sense, by his opposition to nuclear weapons, which was very sincere, and I’m sure Jonathan can talk about that. He and Bundy both focused on the dangers of nuclear war, as if that attempt to prevent a future war was going to erase the war they had both just conducted.

And then in 1995, he comes out with In Retrospect, and everybody quotes, “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” But if you read the full paragraph, what it says is, “We weren’t wrong in our values and our intentions; we were wrong about our judgments and capabilities.” And the book, as a whole, is an excuse. It’s a struggle. He almost comes to terms, and then he runs away from coming to terms. And he does the same thing, I think, in Fog of War. And he did that same thing for the whole of the rest of his life: an approach to what he had really been responsible for, and then a bouncing off it, too awful to face. And It happens over and over again.

He says — for example, he lists all the terrible mistakes that he made — that they made. He never says “I.” He says “they.” And he says, “We just didn’t understand that Vietnam was about nationalism.” He doesn’t ask why they didn’t understand that.

There were internal critics: George Ball, Paul Kattenburg. But also, he was surrounded, if you read the newspapers, by Lippmann, by Morgenthau, by I.F. Stone, who was vigorously writing about the Vietnam War, by George Kahin, a great historian of Southeast Asia. So, if he wanted to know what Vietnam was — what the upsurge, the insurgency, in South Vietnam was about, he had lots of sources. He never comes close to explaining why he didn’t pay attention to any of that. Instead, he says, “Oh, my god, we just didn’t know they were nationalists.” How come?

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Schell, let’s go from there, because you were presenting information. You were a journalist in Vietnam.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your experience with McNamara.

JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, in 1967 in the summer, I reported on what was called “I Corps,” which was the northern provinces of South Vietnam. And public attention was kind of riveted on the bombing campaigns in the North, but much more extensive and far more devastating was the so-called American air war in the South. Of course, it wasn’t a war at all, because there were no planes, you know, opposing the American Air Force.

And I, rather carefully, by being able to go up in what were called forward air control planes, little Cessnas that actually guided the bombings by radio, to see what the destruction and damage had been. And in those provinces, it was really reaching World War II proportions, 70 percent of villages destroyed with warnings in advance to villagers that their villages would be destroyed. Really, these were war crimes. I was twenty-three and never heard of a war crime, but looking back, I saw that it was that.

In this autumn of 1967, Jerome Wiesner, of MIT and a friend of McNamara and former Kennedy science adviser, arranged a meeting between me and McNamara, in which I related to him what I had seen. And, in fact, I dictated an entire short book into a Pentagon Dictaphone, which is what they had in those days, in some general’s office who was off messing up some other country somewhere in the world, and I had the use of his office. And I delivered to him what was, in effect, a short book or, as it turned out to be, a long New Yorker article about what I had seen.

Never heard from him again. I did meet him later, but we never — he didn’t remember the occasion. I asked him about it once. But I learned later that he had sent my article to Ambassador Bunker, the American ambassador to South Vietnam, who gave it to General Westmoreland, the commander of the American forces, and that they had sent out a young Foreign Service officer in my footsteps to see if what I said was correct and, I think, to try to discredit me. Well, very much to his credit, I think, and to my great relief, it turned out that he found that what I said was correct, and if that effort had been underway, it never came to any kind of fruition.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you meet him at the Pentagon?

JONATHAN SCHELL: I did meet him there, yes. And at that time, it wasn’t clear to me. He didn’t have very much to say. I remember having an impression of this sort of hyper-energetic sort of bristling character who was — wanted to pump me of facts. Fortunately, I — and he took me immediately over to a map of Vietnam that he had, and this was kind of a test for me, I think, to see whether I was just vaporing or really had facts. Well, I did have my ducks in a row, because I’d been up there in a plane, those planes, with maps in my lap and shading areas and making estimates and checking them out with the pilots, and so forth. So I was really able to describe, and with the kind of facts and figures that he liked, the extent of the pulverization of society that was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was his response?

JONATHAN SCHELL: Not much. No response, really. The only response that I learned of was that he sent that thing to the ambassador in South Vietnam and then to Westmoreland.

AMY GOODMAN: To discredit you?

JONATHAN SCHELL: I don’t know. I can’t say that that was the purpose, because they didn’t actually discredit me. And this young Foreign Service officer actually confirmed what I said.

Can I add something to what Marilyn said? I agree with everything that she had to say about the incompleteness and inadequacy of McNamara’s apology, but I do feel a need to add that if I look at the annals of history — you know, the piles of corpses of the crimes of statesmen, you know, pile up to the skies — and if I look at that record, it’s very hard to find anybody — I can’t think of even one, on the level of a McNamara, who even made a struggle. She used the word “struggle,” which I think is the right one. I think there was a sort of moral and intellectual struggle that he went through, starting — well, I don’t know when it started, but that did include this terribly wrong comment. And I think that that was a thing that was quite rare and of great value and that is deserving of some credit, if only for its rarity.

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah. Amy, if I —

AMY GOODMAN: Marilyn Young?

MARILYN YOUNG: If I could come in on that, I agree with Jonathan, and I think that’s right. It is rare. Much more common is the in-between silence for all those years that he knew and didn’t speak. And he continued that afterwards, you know. He was opposed to the bombing in Kosovo, but he wouldn’t — he said it in an interview to a Canadian journalist, but he had a great deal of difficulty saying it to an American audience. In the one time I heard him, he said, “Well, I’m not in office. I don’t have all the information the President does.” I mean, just the sort of excuses that were made at the time.

But, you know, in addition to what Jonathan — he asked for the — what’s now called the Pentagon Papers. He asked Leslie Gelb to prepare a study of what Vietnam had been about. That was also, I think, a rather unusual move to make. A little late maybe, but he did. And he asked that a full review of everything, from the American involvement with the French on up to 1967. And as he started to read it, he is said to have said, “You know, people could be prosecuted for what’s in here,” precisely the same remark that LeMay had made to him about the firebombing.

It’s not that he was a man without a conscience. Not at all. And he teared up always when he talked about Vietnam, and he was obsessed by Vietnam. That’s as far as I’m ready to go. I recognize his conscience and his moral conscience and the pain that Vietnam caused him. On the other side, it is the pain he caused.

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, would you like to weigh in here?

HOWARD ZINN: Yeah. You know, I was listening to Jonathan Schell and Marilyn Young about McNamara’s — well, his anguish and all of that, and I understand what Jonathan is saying about the fact that you can’t find anybody in the Vietnam War or in other wars, anybody at that level, you know, who is going to do anything in dissent and who’s going to speak out. And so, what does that tell us? I mean, it’s true. It’s absolutely true. But what does that tell us?

I think it tells us that once you enter the machinery of government, once you enter the — you know, the house of empire, you are lost. You are going to be silenced. You may feel anguish, and you may be torn, and you may weep, and so on, but you’re not going to speak out. And what lesson I think that is for us, well, for young people, who may be thinking, as many young people do, you know, “I think I’ll enter the government. I’ll get in there, and I’ll make a difference”? No, the people who made a difference are not the people inside the Pentagon. The people who made a difference were the people outside the Pentagon, the people who demonstrated against the Pentagon, the people in the streets, the movement. And if people are going to devote their energy to making this a better world, they better not think of getting into that machine that destroyed people like McNamara and that silenced them.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Schell?

JONATHAN SCHELL: You know, I just want to mention one person who was inside. I agree with what Howard Zinn has to say, and I think it’s broadly true. But lest we think that all options are foreclosed once one enters into that killing machine, there is one name that should be mentioned, and that’s Daniel Ellsberg, who went into full opposition at great risk to himself and persisted in a lifetime of, indeed, supporting the kind of public protest that Howard Zinn is rightly talking about as the real solution to problems like this.

HOWARD ZINN: No, that’s absolutely true. That’s definitely true about Daniel Ellsberg. And —

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah, I agree.

AMY GOODMAN: Who released the Pentagon Papers that Marilyn Young was just describing.

HOWARD ZINN: What’s that?

MARILYN YOUNG: Yes, and he worked on them, as well. He was part of the team that put them together. In 1971, Howie, Dan Ellsberg —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

MARILYN YOUNG: Oh, I’m sorry. Well, Ellsberg was part of that huge 1971 protest against the war, just to bring together Jonathan and Howard’s comments.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Jonathan Schell, Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute, has written two books on Vietnam. Marilyn Young, professor of history at New York University. And Howard Zinn, historian and author of many books, well known for A People’s History of the United States.

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