Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War

By Paul Hendrickson

Knopf -- 427pp -- $27.50

For the almost three decades since Robert S. McNamara resigned as Defense Secretary during the Johnson Administration, he has been widely viewed as brilliant but emotionally tortured because of his role in leading the country into the Vietnam War. Now, in The Living and the Dead, Paul Hendrickson, a feature writer at The Washington Post, attempts to shed a little more light where so much has already been cast. It is an impressive work of reporting and research, done over a 10-year period. But, unfortunately, after the publication of another full-length biography and McNamara's own memoirs, there's not much left to say.

Hendrickson wades through the familiar stories. He tells about McNamara as outstanding student, as a statistician in the Army Air Force during World War II, and as president of Ford Motor Co. Hendrickson recalls how John F. Kennedy enticed McNamara to Washington to head the Defense Dept. and how McNamara led Lyndon B. Johnson ever deeper into Vietnam. The result is neither a flattering portrayal nor a hatchet job.

Distinguishing the book from other McNamara treatments are accounts of five other lives shaped by the war. There's the artist--whose identity Hendrickson agrees to keep confidential--who tried to throw McNamara off a Martha's Vineyard ferry in 1972, and the Quaker pacifist who burned himself alive outside McNamara's office in 1965. There's also a Catholic nurse who tended the wounded in Vietnam, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crew chief, and a South Vietnamese officer whose family was ripped apart by the war. Some of these vignettes--particularly that of pacifist Norman R. Morrison--make compelling reading. But all too often, they seem scattered and redundant amid the many details of McNamara's life.

Also bothersome is Hendrickson's habit of quoting conflicting interpretations of McNamara's life, followed by his own analysis, in which sheer speculation plays a large role. For example, there has been much conjecture about what turned McNamara into a dove while he was still Defense chief. In public testimony given in the mid-1980s, McNamara said he had decided the war could not be won militarily as early as 1965--just as he was sending tens of thousands of soldiers into combat. Hendrickson contends that it was Morrison's public immolation in November of that year that turned McNamara against the war. ``What I fervently believe, and cannot prove, is that Norman Morrison's act became the emotional catalyst for the secret turn,'' he writes. Maybe. Maybe not.

Then, there are occasionally naive statements. Johnson's guns-and-butter policies, he says, trapped the country in an ``inflationary chaos from which it has never really recovered.'' Someone needs to remind Hendrickson that the economy is strong and that inflation has been in check since the mid-'80s.

After 400-plus pages, readers are left with the impression of McNamara that they started with. The sad truth is that there would be no Vietnam Memorial in Washington if not for McNamara's early enthusiasm for the war. Whatever he does, Vietnam seems to follow him like a cruel ghost seeking vengeance.

By Paula Dwyer


Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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