Regretfully Ours, Robert S. McNamara
The tragic and telling note McNamara wrote me when I asked him about My Lai.
News of Robert McNamara’s death this morning sparked the old hatreds and passions of the Vietnam war, just as the man himself did in life.
A comment on Ben Smith’s blog at Politico today was full of the old venom.
“I hope some of the 50,000+ young men he was partially responsible for killing are waiting to escort him to hell.”
Writing in these pages, Kevin Drum has a more sympathetic point of view, based in part on the fact that Secretary of Defense McNamara a) resigned when he realized he couldn’t convince the Johnson administration to stop the slaughter in Vietnam, b) later admitted his fundamental mistakes in prosecuting the war, and c) felt anguish for his actions.
In January 1990, before McNamara had made his mea culpas public, I was beginning research for a book about the massacre by US Army troops of approximately 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children and old men, in the village of My Lai, a horrific event that took place in 1968, but which the military covered up for a year.
It was the first shock of recognition for a generation of white, middle-class Americans that our soldiers -- our nation -- was capable of committing true evil on a massive scale.
Part of my research included sending letters to two dozen prominent Americans. Some of them had been directly involved in the Vietnam War. Others were public figures, journalists and social critics whose insights into the slaughter at My Lai would, I thought, be valuable.
I posed a simple question: “What lesson(s) should America have learned from My Lai?”
I was surprised that so many individuals responded, and their answers seem even more meaningful now, given the intervening events.
General William Westmoreland, commander of military forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, wrote that the United States needed to “continue to emphasis [stet] adherence to the letter and the spirit of the Geneva Conventions.”
Telford Taylor, who was the chief US prosecutor at the Nuremburg war-crimes trials, directed his comments to the legal response to the massacre: “The effort to punish violators of the Laws of War, when the defendants are our own soldiers, completely failed.” Taylor died in 1998, but it is easy to imagine him saying the same thing about the lack of accountability in another American war, forty years later.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Francis FitzGerald made an observation that I heard in slightly different forms, from many outside of government or the military: “I would like to remind you that My Lai was more of a symbol than anything else. Most of the civilian casualties in [Vietnam] were caused by bombing and artillery fire in populated areas. Nowadays it is generally the ‘bloodless’ techno-war that kills civilians”
Robert McNamara’s response has always been the most intriguing of the lot, for it seemed then to reveal more about his own anguish over Vietnam than he had, at that time, let on.
Hand-written in pencil in a cramped corner of my original letter were the words, "I regret I am unable to help you,” and McNamara’s signature.
Others had not answered my question, of course, but no one did it in this way. Most simply didn’t write back. Colin Powell had his secretary write that the General had forwarded my request to a military historian. Al Haig stated that he was working on a book of his own and didn’t want to scoop himself by answering the question. (His book, Inner Circles, was published in 1992 with no mention of My Lai.)
McNamara’s response was unique and significant. He could have ignored my letter, but he didn’t. He could have explained his reason for not answering the question, like Al Haig, but he didn’t go that route either.
McNamara confessed he was “unable to help,” and that his inability caused him “regret.”
Kevin Drum has it right, I think. McNamara muffled his anguish and regrets because that’s who he was. I don’t know what words they'll carve into his tombstone, but I can’t think of anything more appropriate -- or more instructive to future generations -- than the words he scribbled in the corner of that letter.
"I regret I am unable to help. Robert S. McNamara."
June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009.