Tuesday, 7 July 2009

In Retrospect . . . again

The title of yesterday’s blog was inspired by Robert S McNamara’s 1995 book in which the former American Secretary of Defense admitted, with hindsight, that he and others in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations got so many decisions “wrong, terribly wrong” in their running of the Vietnam War or, as it became known, “McNamara’s War”. It is a superb and controversial book, unsparing in its self-assessment of the author’s own failings, an apology for his role in inflicting the long nightmare of America’s involvement in South East Asia.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I got home last night and learned that McNamara had passed away that very morning. The Washington Post had immediately leapt into action and opened a discussion forum on McNamara’s life, inviting readers to post their own thoughts on his passing. Predictably, 95% of the comments were highly negative.

This is not the place, and we certainly don’t have the time, to start a discussion on American involvement in Vietnam, but I could not help thinking that, however controversial he may have been, at least McNamara had the honesty and courage to admit he was wrong, albeit thirty years later. I listened to McNamara speak at the Hay on Wye book festival many years ago and was hugely impressed by his humility and remorse. In an era of self-justificatory memoirs from politicians and those in public life, I doubt whether we will often see such courage again.

One final thought. Prior to becoming Secretary of Defense, McNamara was CEO of the Ford Motor Company and is generally credited with the introduction of the seat belt in the mid-1950s, in the process saving countless lives. Any fair assessment of his legacy will take this into account.


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