Robert McNamara at the Harvard Kennedy School, 1995

by Jason Ong

In 1995, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, was one of the panel guests at a Harvard Kennedy School discussion about the Vietnam War. He had just written a book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. While he was Secretary, the United States greatly increased its involvement in the war, and McNamara was at the discussion to talk about his experience.

McNamara said that just before President Kennedy’s inauguration, he and other members of the incoming administration met with President Eisenhower about Vietnam, and even then there was some confusion about what the United States should be doing. McNamara felt that Eisenhower was relieved to be leaving that question for their administration. He described several mistakes he had made about fighting the war and warned against repeating those same mistakes in future wars.

The moderator asked the audience for questions, and all of them were directed at McNamara, and some of them were angry or injured in tone, because of how he had handled the war. There was some shouting on both sides and he was very much on the defensive, unlike during his speech, when most of the audience seemed to be supportive.

John Hurley, a Vietnam veteran (who would go on to head Vietnam Veterans for Kerry in 2004), told McNamara that his book and his presence at the panel was an obscenity. He felt that McNamara, while he was Secretary, had begun to realize the war was a mistake but allowed it to continue. And he asked McNamara why 57,000 American soldiers died as a result.

McNamara began to say that he’d have to read his book, and when Hurley interrupted that response, McNamara actually pointed to him and told him to shut up.

[caption id="attachment1239" align="alignright" width="300"]<a href=""> Robert McNamara responds to John Hurley at Harvard Kennedy School, 1995 Courtesy CCTV[/caption]

He did ask the moderator to let Hurley ask a follow-up question.So it seemed that McNamara wasn't trying to stop Hurley from speaking; he just didn’t want to be interrupted while he was answering. McNamara explained that, at the time, he honestly believed that the war was necessary, because an independent South Vietnam was needed to stop the advance of communism. Hurley responded that those geopolitical concerns weren’t justification enough for all of the deaths.

Another audience member who spoke was Maureen Dunn, widow of a pilot who was shot down in 1968 and is still listed as Missing in Action. She had obtained a transcript of a meeting in which then-Secretary McNamara vetoed a search for her missing husband, saying that he wasn’t worth it. She asked McNamara to apologize, and he did, saying that he was “horrified.” He claimed that he didn’t remember that actual meeting, but he did ask for a copy of her transcript.

I’ve written about discussions at the Harvard Kennedy School before: one event featured Mike Wallace, and another hosted a group of editorial cartoonists. But this was the first discussion I’d seen where members of the audience actively challenged one of the panel guests, because the topic of discussion, the Vietnam War, was so controversial and also personal for some. Even though McNamara admitted his mistakes, his actions were partly responsible for the deaths of John Hurley's fellow soldiers and the disappearance of Maureen Dunn's husband. Some kind of conflict was probably inevitable if he ever met these people whose lives were affected.