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McNamara, Vietnam-Era Defense Secretary, Dies

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In his later years, Robert McNamara admitted, quote, "We were wrong, terribly wrong about the Vietnam War." McNamara was the secretary of Defense who directed much of the war. He died this morning at his home here in Washington D.C.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: By any standard, Robert McNamara had already enjoyed a high-flying career before he ever entered public life. At the age of 44, he'd been a Harvard professor and he'd just taken over as president of the Ford Motor Company, when he got a call to come to Washington and serve as John F. Kennedy's secretary of Defense. Ted Sorensen, a close advisor and speechwriter for Kennedy, says the future presidents saw in McNamara a man he could work with.

Mr. TED SORENSEN (Advisor, Speechwriter, President John F. Kennedy): He had a brilliant mind and McNamara was not the war hungry bellicose type, but someone who Kennedy thought could actually run the Pentagon.

KELLY: McNamara arrived at the Pentagon in 1961. He played key roles in the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it was the war in Vietnam that came to define him. In the early years, McNamara was bullish about U.S. prospects for winning, arrogant even, as Neil Sheehan remembers it. Sheehan's the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, who covered the war both inside Vietnam and later from the Pentagon. Sheehan remembers the first time he met McNamara in 1962 in Vietnam, and McNamara was confident America was winning.

Mr. NEIL SHEEHAN (Reporter, The New York Times): And I said to him, Mr. Secretary, how can you be so certain? It's so early, I mean, you've only been at it for a few months, how can you be so certain? And then he said absolutely every indicator we have shows we're winning the war and slammed the car door and off he went. It was at the end of a press conference he gave, where he was extremely optimistic.

KELLY: But as the years passed and casualties mounted, McNamara's optimism faded. In public he continued to play the loyal cabinet secretary. But White House tapes show that by 1966, he was raising doubts. And in 1967, he wrote to President Johnson recommending that he stop building up troops and halt bombing strikes. That was not what President Johnson wanted to hear. And a few months later, he announced that McNamara would be leaving the Pentagon. McNamara told friends he wasn't sure if he'd resigned or been fired. His emotions were still raw at this 1968 White House ceremony when President Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

(Soundbite of applause)

Former Secretary ROBERT MCNAMARA (Department of Defense): Mr. President, I cannot find words to express what lies in my heart today. And I think I'd better respond on another occasion.

KELLY: After that moment, chronicled in a 2003 documentary, McNamara went on to a successful tenure as head of The World Bank and eventually to write his memoirs. But many, including reporter Neil Sheehan, believed McNamara never really moved on.

Mr. SHEEHAN: McNamara became a haunted man. The war in Vietnam was a ghost that never left him.

KELLY: In a 1997 interview with NPR, McNamara said he'd been wrong to see Vietnam as a pawn of the Soviets, wrong to believe in the domino theory, that countries could fall to Communism like a row of dominos. Both sides in the war, McNamara said, had made dreadful mistakes.

Former Sec. MCNAMARA: We lost 58,000 Americans. We divided our society. We paid tremendous penalties for it. The question is, can't we learn from this?

KELLY: It was a question McNamara continued to ponder in the final years of his life.

Former Sec. MCNAMARA: What I'm doing is thinking it through with hindsight, but you don't have hindsight available at the time. I'm very proud of my accomplishments. And I'm very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things I made errors.

KELLY: Robert McNamara speaking there in Errol Morris' 2003 documentary "The Fog of War." McNamara served as Defense secretary from 1961 until 1968. He died today, age 93.

Mary Louise Kelly NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.