Remembering Robert McNamara

Many of Robert McNamara’s critics argue that, despite his belated admission that the Vietnam War was wrong, he stopped short of full understanding, that he sought to hold fast to claims of noble intentions that the record could not sustain. That is true, but how many public figures of his importance have ever expressed any regret for their mistakes and follies and crimes?

NEW YORK – I first met Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense who presided over the American buildup in Vietnam, in the summer of 1967. I had just returned from a trip to South Vietnam, where, as a reporter for The New Yorker, I witnessed the destruction, by American air power, of two provinces, Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh.

America’s policies were clear. Leaflets dropped on villages announced, “The Vietcong hide among innocent women and children in your villages….If the Vietcong in this area use you or your village for this purpose, you can expect death from the sky.”

Death from the sky came. Afterward, more leaflets were dropped, informing villagers, “Your village was bombed because you harbored Vietcong….Your village will be bombed again if you harbor the Vietcong in any way.”

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