Even before Robert S. McNamara left the Pentagon in early 1968, this man of absolute certainties about almost everything had begun to have nagging doubts about the Vietnam War, about what was widely known as "McNamara's war."
He even ordered a study--I was its director--of how the U.S. got involved in Vietnam, to try to explain what had happened. It came to be called the Pentagon Papers. And to show just how puzzling McNamara was, it's not clear that he ever read them. He lived long enough to see how terribly wrong he had been about the war and how much turmoil and tragedy it brought to Vietnam and the U.S. Now his life and his shadow torment us still, as our leaders contemplate modern versions of Vietnam in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
I suspect that any U.S. President would have done what John F. Kennedy did and plucked McNamara from Ford, where he was president, to be Secretary of Defense. In his early 40s, he was already an icon. He was the ultimate manager, a man who could use facts and numbers and analyses to solve any problem, even to wage wars in places we had never heard of.
Yet don't think for a moment that McNamara started the Vietnam War. That was mainly the result of how U.S. leaders in the aftermath of World War II perceived the communist threat and thought about foreign policy. By the time McNamara got to Washington in 1961, the Cold War was blossoming, and along with it, the domino theory. That theory, rooted in the run-up to World War II, held that it would be dangerous folly to let an aggressor snatch away little countries, be emboldened and then make world war. The aggressor had to be stopped wherever he was making the challenge. And in 1961, it seemed that place was Vietnam.
McNamara didn't know anything about Vietnam. Nor did the rest of us working with him. But Americans didn't have to know the culture and history of a place. All we needed to do was apply our military superiority and resources in the right way. We needed to collect the right data, analyze the information properly and come up with a solution on how to win the war. McNamara did just that until sometime in late 1965. Then he began to wonder, perhaps because of the bad dreams he was having as American casualties mounted, whether the war could actually be won--no matter how smart we were. Then he began to understand that as long as we were in Vietnam and willing to fight and die, we could not lose--but also that we could not win, that the war was an open-ended stalemate.
Even as he had these doubts, he had no answers for them. He was not prepared to argue that we simply withdraw. America was bleeding, its cities were burning, and it was never clear to me exactly how McNamara connected this America with that war in Vietnam. In wartime, the Pentagon is the biggest bunker of all, aware of what's going on, but remote, cut off.
It is almost superhuman to expect one responsible for waging war to rethink its value and necessity. And so doubts simply float in the air without being translated into policy. Things get lost--critically important things--even from an experience as profound as the Vietnam War, even as we go deeper into new wars like Afghanistan. And as I now contemplate the departure of a life so central to my own and that of my country as Bob McNamara's, one overriding lesson bombards my mind: nationalist wars, civil wars, tribal and religious wars--they can never be won by Americans. As long as we're there and willing to fight and die, we won't lose. But in the end, we can't win either unless we realize that it must be their war--a war for the South Vietnamese to fight for their freedom and a war for Afghans to fight for theirs. We can help, but it must be theirs.
Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations