Historians are often forced to weigh the ultimate outcome of foreign policy decisions made during the Kennedy administration that contributed to the massive losses of American life in Vietnam from the fall of Dien Bien Phu to the fall of Saigon with the successful domestic policy measures that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Kennedy's legacy is in many ways the most difficult to determine of each man having served as President of the United States. Where President Johnson's positive domestic legacy has been completely buried in the failures of his foreign policy legacy, President Kennedy's legacy is riddled with the unknown. Perhaps the greatest question surrounding the Kennedy administration is what may or may not have happened in regard to the Vietnam War. Nowhere has the difference in these administrations legacies been more apparent than in the death of their shared cabinet member, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
Since media outlets began reporting on July 6th that McNamara had died, there have been obituaries and op-eds in nearly every world news publication, articles that have critiqued what has become known as "McNamara's War." Journalists the country over have taken the opportunity of his death to opine on the catastrophe that was the Vietnam War, hardly noting that underneath the heavy legacy of being the architect of the greatest foreign policy disasters in American history, Bob McNamara was a human being, a father and a man deeply tormented by his role in the death of 58,000 American soldiers and nearly an equal number of Vietnamese.
It could not be known in 1964 when the distinguished Senator Morse (D-Oregon) called the pending war in Vietnam "McNamara's War" that the war would last as long and with such horrifying consequences as it did. In April of 1964, Senator Morse could not have known that in August then President Johnson would approach the United States Congress requesting permission to "take all necessary measures repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression" and that he, Morse, would be one of only two senators to vote against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Notably, it could not have been known in April of 1964, when McNamara said he had no qualms with being identified as the chief architect and responsible party behind the Vietnam War, that when the quagmire would finally cease the weight of all that was lost in combat would so heavily weight on his conscience and his heart.
Robert McNamara left the Pentagon and the Johnson administration in 1968, a month prior to Johnson's announcement that he would not seek re-election. Clark Clifford took over in the Department of Defense and served in that capacity until the Johnson administration would leave the White House in January of 1969, making way for another administration, Nixon's, but not the administration that would see the final days of the Vietnam War. Of the many men who served throughout the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations, McNamara took upon himself the most responsibility for the war and consequently became the most tormented by its monumental failure. Nowhere was his torment more evident than in his 1995 memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam and the eventual Errol Morris film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. None of this served to erase McNamara's guilt or personal and professional responsibility for the war, it simply served an historical purpose. Too often we refer to the notion that those who do not know their own history are doomed to repeat it without recognizing the situations, like those surrounding the Vietnam War, that we truly must better understand to avoid repeating. Where many Americans saw an old man in his final years discussing his failures as if he were attempting to explain them away, historians saw a man deeply tormented yet equally determined to tell a story that might prevent future foreign policy failures of the magnitude of the lost war in Vietnam.
It is unfortunate that in McNamara's passing, some would rather resort to dragging out the arguments that have been used against McNamara for decades than simply acknowledge that a man who holds a place in our shared history is no longer with us to share both his failures and his successes for they are, after all, also our own failures and successes. It is altogether ironic that at a time when Republicans are throwing around the word 'empathy' as if it is a scarlet letter and one that should keep the current nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Republicans and Democrats alike can't seem to muster any empathy for a man who held the weight of our collective foreign policy failures on his shoulders for decades. Some would rather keep a candidate or nominee from a decision-making position because they might show empathy toward those involved in their decisions, yet when a man in a position such as the Secretary of Defense shows a lack of empathy toward the young soldiers he sends into war he is chastised by those same individuals for the rest of his life.