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Architect of war who was never forgiven

Despite conceding the folly of Vietnam, Robert McNamara, the former US defence secretary, continued to be vilified after leaving office.

Americans love to forgive. A public confession - preferably on prime-time television and uttered through a veil of tears - is usually sufficient to absolve the country's disgraced heroes and celebrities of even the most loathsome of sins. Such owning-up has become part of the national fabric. Robert McNamara, the former US secretary of defence who died on Monday at the age of 93, was arguably more constructive in his attempts to win back favour after a very public fall from grace.

After being sacked by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, McNamara served as president of the World Bank for 13 years and became an ardent advocate for nuclear disarmament and a critic of the uses of US power. Yet to many US citizens, nothing McNamara said or did for the rest of his life was enough to expiate his sins, the crux of which was this: as defence secretary under President John Kennedy, then Johnson, he continued to prosecute the US war in Vietnam even after he had determined privately, in late 1965, that the war was both unwinnable and morally wrong.

For nearly a quarter of a century, he refused to speak out against what became the most disastrous foreign adventure in US history, a conflict in which three million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans died. He broke his silence in 1995, acknowledging in his memoir that what became known as "McNamara's war" was "wrong, terribly wrong". Far from welcoming the fallen McNamara back to the fold, his public martyrdom only hardened feelings against him. Many excoriated him, calling his confession dishonest and self-serving.

Even The New York Times, the Establishment mouthpiece that once celebrated McNamara as an avatar, dismissed his "prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late". Rarely has the US elite so mockingly rebuked one of its own. The public flogging of the former defence secretary was rife with ironies - not least the fact that the United States cannot be understood today without understanding McNamara.

After Kennedy asked him to go to Washington in 1960, the 44-year-old McNamara became the new administration's role model. The self-made man whose parents did not finish high school, the former Harvard Business School professor who became president of Ford Motor Co, was quickly touted as "assistant president". He entered government as an exemplar of "American certitude and conviction" who could use "his rationality with facts" to drive policymaking, David Halberstam wrote in The Best and the Brightest in 1972.

To see McNamara later in life, striding down Connecticut Avenue towards his office near the Mall in Washington, was a reminder of the single-mindedness of the man. Thundering ahead with the pace of a man 50 years his junior, his eyes were glued to a spot on the sidewalk five metres ahead, deviating not an inch. It was all there: the determination, the single-mindedness, the refusal - once the course was set - to diverge from it. It was not for nothing that Johnson called him a "jackhammer".

When it came to Vietnam, the ultimate technocrat and number-cruncher extraordinaire was "a prisoner of his own background ? unable, as indeed was the country which sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities", Halberstam wrote. For instance, when Edward Lansdale, the legendary CIA agent and basis for Graham Greene's fictional The Quiet American, tried to describe to him various aspects of Vietnamese culture, the defence secretary demanded numbers.

A frustrated Lansdale left the secretary's office and returned later with a box whose contents - a pile of bloody bungee sticks - he proceeded to pour on Mr McNamara's desk. "Here are your numbers," said Lansdale, according to US government documents. In Halberstam's view, McNamara "did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool." While he continued to wield his computer-generated statistics to make a case for a war he did not believe in, the country tore itself apart, and US politics and public discourse were forever changed. The resulting cynicism became hard-wired into the American psyche.

For McNamara, the transformation from "whiz kid" to warmonger was swift. In 1965, a pacifist set himself on fire below his Pentagon office window. In 1967, anti-war activists tried to burn down his holiday home in Aspen, Colorado. Five years later, an artist tried to throw him off a ferry near Martha's Vineyard; only by grabbing the rail with one hand as he was tossed overboard did McNamara save himself.

After his retirement from the World Bank, McNamara explored the proper application of US power. His efforts at public redemption were sometimes fraught. On a flight to Havana in 1992 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis with Russian and Cuban officials, he and Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and former Kennedy aide, vowed to walk out of the meeting if then-President Fidel Castro used the crisis to mount propaganda attacks against the United States.

Nothing of the kind occurred. During the closed-door meeting, which revealed that the US and USSR had been far closer to all-out nuclear war than previously believed, he and Mr Castro argued good-naturedly about Cuban literacy rates to the tenth of a decimal point. Later at a reception at the National Palace, he and Raul Castro, then-defence minister and now president, were soon laughing, their revelry fuelled by prodigious amounts of aged Cuban rum.

Mr Castro then led his laughing Cold War rival to the palace basement, where the future Cuban president picked up the red phone to Moscow, handed it to McNamara and instructed him to say "Hello." To the bewilderment of the Russian officer at the other end of the line, the chuckling McNamara did. Such deliberations, however light-hearted sometimes, are rare today. Traditionally, US officials and diplomats have been loath, at least publicly, to discuss the mistakes of the past.

The spread of international criminal tribunals and rise in class-action lawsuits now make it more unlikely than ever that senior US policymakers will discuss how their policies went awry. George W Bush and Dick Cheney are unlikely to do it. Henry Kissinger most certainly will not. Yet in Havana and elsewhere, McNamara did until the end of his life. "What makes us omniscient?" he asked in The Fog of War, a film documentary released at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Sadly, no amount of contrition and hard-won wisdom seemed to earn McNamara the redemption he craved. cnelson@thenational.ae

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