Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The death of Vietnam's war arhitect

6 July
Robert McNamara, the US secretary of defense whose broad career was overshadowed by his role as key architect of the Vietnam War, died at his home in Washington. He was 93.
From 1961 to 1968, McNamara oversaw the escalation of US combat efforts in the highly divisive Vietnam War that became known as one of the biggest military blunders in US history -- a conflict McNamara himself came to describe as "terribly wrong."
A trained economist, he also helped turn around the Ford auto company in the post-World War II era and then used his talents to improve the World Bank's image during his long tenure as president from 1968 to 1981.
An early advocate of counter-insurgency and a primary architect of Cold War nuclear policy, McNamara was called upon at 44 by president John F. Kennedy to serve as defense secretary.
But in later years, the cerebral and dominating McNamara came to regret his Vietnam role, although he remained silent until publishing his controversial 1995 memoirs "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam."
Top US officials "who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation," McNamara wrote.
"We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."
McNamara also expressed recriminations over the US firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II, during which he conducted statistical analysis for the US Army Air Forces led by General Curtis LeMay.
"LeMay said: 'If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals,'" McNamara said in "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," a 2003 Errol Morris documentary whose release coincided with the US invasion of Iraq.
"And I think he's right. He -- and I'd say I -- were behaving as war criminals."
Under McNamara's watch, the US military role in Vietnam escalated from a few hundred Americans advising South Vietnam's military to some 17,000 soldiers by 1964.
And US involvement in the war escalated even more dramatically following the Gulf of Tonkin incident that year, in which, based on suspect intelligence reports, the US alleged North Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired on two US destroyers.
President Lyndon B. Johnson -- who took over when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 -- ordered retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam, and by mid-1968, the number of US soldiers sent to fight in Vietnam had risen to 535,000.
"I don't object to its being called McNamara's war," McNamara wrote of Vietnam in 1964. "I think it is a very important war and I am pleased to be identified with it and do whatever I can to win it."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hailed Monday his predecessor as "a patriot and dedicated public servant" who was also the longest-serving Pentagon chief.
"Having also held this post in a time of war, I have special appreciation of the burdens and responsibilities he faced," Gates said.
"With his keen analytical mind, secretary McNamara never shied away from the most pressing national and international issues of his time -- above all, matters of war and peace, including his own decisive role in shaping that history."
By the time the war ended in 1975, more than 58,000 US soldiers had been killed, as well as more than three million Vietnamese from the North and South and around 1.5 million Laotians and Cambodians.
McNamara grew skeptical about winning the war and later went public over its deadly consequences, having left his Pentagon post in 1968 after years of clashes with Johnson and the top military brass while facing a growing anti-war movement at home.
"We are the strongest nation in the world today," McNamara said in "The Fog of War."
"I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning."
Robert Strange McNamara -- the middle name was his mother's maiden name -- was born June 9, 1916 in San Francisco, California, the son of a wholesale shoe firm sales manager.
He studied economics and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, then obtained a masters degree in business administration at Harvard.
McNamara entered the US Army Air Force in 1943. Poor eyesight prevented him from flying, so he worked at an office analyzing the efficiency of US bombing raids.
After the war, he was one of 10 ex-Air Force statisticians that Henry Ford II hired to turn around his automotive company. The team, dubbed the Whiz Kids, turned Ford into the second most popular US auto brand.
McNamara shot up the ranks and became company president -- the first ever outside of the Ford family -- in November 1960.
After leaving the Pentagon, McNamara went on to head the World Bank, focusing the institution on representing the needs of its developing member countries.
McNamara is survived by his wife Diana, whom he married in 2004, and a son and two daughters from a previous marriage.

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