Remembering Robert McNamara

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.”

In Quang Ngai province, some 70% of villages were destroyed. I was 23 years old at the time, and had no notion of what a war crime was; but later it became clear that that was what I was witnessing. (Five months later, in March of 1968, American troops committed the massacre at My Lai.)