The former Ford executive was never able to live down or shake his role in the divisive war, no matter how hard he tried, whether in his book about the lessons of Vietnam or in the self-exculpating way he represented himself in Errol Morris’ Academy Award-winning documentary film, The Fog of War.
I have not read nearly as many Vietnam books as some people, and those looking to learn more about the mindset that led to the continual escalation of such widespread destruction on both sides, I heartily recommend David Halberstam’s classic work, The Best and the Brightest.
It is to Halberstam’s credit that he wrote definitive works on just one, but a wide range of topics, and, in some ways, this may be one of his best works. He writes with unerring precision about the individuals who populated first Kennedy and then Johnson’s cabinet, the overweening confidence they shared and their unwillingness and inability to say no and change direction when the impending disaster became apparent.
McNamara was one of the foremost of the war’s designers and proponents. He kept any misgivings he had remarkably muted until far later in his life and until tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Vietnamese had been killed.
McNamara went on to run the World Bank for more than a decade and continued to produce books until well into his 80s. His divisive legacy will certainly be with us for generations to come; Halberstam’s work helps us understand why that is so.