Review Essay

The Stain of Vietnam: Robert McNamara, Redemption Denied

In This Review

Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara

Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara
By Deborah Shapley
Little, 1993, 734 pp. $29.95 Purchase

Can we honor and respect Robert McNamara? From the time the young California native left a teaching position at Harvard Business School to join the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, McNamara has been a tireless improver and rationalizer of military and industrial institutions, even of the world. But as Deborah Shapley makes abundantly clear in Promise and Power, her eminently readable and cleverly crafted biographical study of McNamara, what the nation needed during the Vietnam War era was not a whiz kid, not a supreme bean-counter, but a leader of vision, moral courage and scrupulous honesty. And here McNamara's flaws overwhelm a lifetime of achievements, for the portrait that emerges from Shapley's book is of a man who was the primary culprit in America's ill-fated military engagement, a historical assessment that is likely to stick no matter how many nuclear arms reduction speeches and articles he churns out. The McNamara story is one of tragedy, for a dedicated public servant and for America, fueled by our frustration that a man of such promise chose, out of a misguided sense of mission, not to tell the American people what he knew about the dim prospects for victory in the Vietnam War when it might have made a difference.


McNamara's government career began successfully; with a few notable exceptions, his record as President Kennedy's secretary of defense was exemplary. J.F.K. had campaigned on a platform charging that the Eisenhower administration's obsession with budget balancing had severely weakened America's conventional and nuclear military strength, and "flexible response" was the Kennedy administration's remedy to Republican policies. McNamara was seen by Kennedy as the ideal implementer of his program, a corporate manager with a well-established reputation for cost-cutting and efficiency to preside over the expansion of military outlays Kennedy's program called for.

McNamara's aggressive efforts to modernize the armed forces and make the Pentagon more efficient were desperately needed antidotes to eight years of laissez-faire management. Upon taking office

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