Mark Danner

A Berkeley Lecture on Power’s Limits, by an Expert

Author: Dean E. Murphy

BERKELEY, Calif., Feb. 5 — If the life of Robert S. McNamara is a series of unfinished circles, one of the biggest ones was closed here Wednesday night.

Mr. McNamara, the defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, fielded questions from center stage in a packed auditorium at his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, for the first time since graduating in 1937.

Under the glare of bright lights, Mr. McNamara, 87, faced an audience of graying hippies, men with Vietnam draft lottery numbers still imprinted in their minds and an assortment of 1960’s radicals who had devoted the better part of their youths opposing him.

Mr. McNamara’s son, Craig, a walnut farmer who had joined protests here against his father’s war, came to listen, as did Daniel Ellsberg, the one-time government official who in 1971 leaked a top-secret report commissioned by Mr. McNamara on American involvement in Southeast Asia.

But instead of angry exchanges, there was applause and nods of sympathy from Mr. Ellsberg and many of the others, as Mr. McNamara, his voice pitched and his ballpoint pen jabbing in the air, spoke pointedly about the lessons of war.

“We human beings killed 160 million other human beings in the 20th century,” he said. “Is that what we want in this century? I don’t think so.”

Though he appeared on stage with Errol Morris, whose Academy Award-nominated documentary film, “The Fog of War,” is based on interviews with Mr. McNamara, this was a solo act by an old man with something urgent to say.

“Ninety-five percent of the audience came in not liking him but ended up thinking he said something we should hear,” said Saul Zaentz, the film producer. “We should have heard it a long time ago.”

There was plenty of the old McNamara still there, the pontificating, lecturing and self-assured executive who refused to answer questions about the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq, even while hinting that he found them unpalatable and suggesting that news organizations had done a poor job in examining them.

Mr. McNamara, a man known to run the Vietnam War on his terms, began shuffling his papers and packing his briefcase when he decided he had had enough, even as others on the stage continued to speak.

“McNamara thinks he can remain above politics and that one vain assumption has led him to pass up genuine chances to change history,” said Jeremy Larner, a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy, the former senator and presidential candidate who ran on an antiwar platform in 1968.

Still, the evening had a palpable sense of history to it.

Since “The Fog of War” was released last year, Mr. McNamara has appeared before several audiences, including those at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and one last month in Washington. But the scene Wednesday night, in the words of Mr. Morris, “was surreal.” The man who helped make Berkeley synonymous with the anti-Vietnam War movement appeared willingly — even eagerly — before his accusers on their home turf.

“He is a different man now than the man I thought I knew in the 1960’s,” said Mr. Morris, who attended Berkeley as a graduate student.

It was the kind of evening in which Mr. Ellsberg, 72, seated in an aisle seat in the auditorium’s first tier, could go nearly unnoticed even though it was one of the few times the two men had been in the same room in more than three decades. As was demonstrated often during Mr. McNamara’s talk — with Mr. Ellsberg sometimes leading the applause — some old opponents are no longer so far apart.

“This kind of reflection was a closing of the circle, as it were,” said Robert M. Berdahl, the university’s chancellor, who had Mr. McNamara to his home prior to the presentation. “He has in a fundamental way aligned himself with those who protested his policies here at Berkeley 40 years ago.”

Craig McNamara, who brought his wife and two children from their farm near Davis, Calif., to see his father speak, said there was some worrying within the family about “how Dad would be received” at a place so viscerally associated with his opponents.

But Mr. McNamara, who cooperated in the making of “The Fog of War,” described his father as a man on a mission to confront his ghosts.

“I think he is haunted by the war,” he said.

Mark Dowie, a journalist who teaches at the university, said that members of what he called “the old guard” on campus had criticized administrators for inviting Mr. McNamara.

“A lot of them wished it hadn’t happened,” said Mr. Dowie, a convicted draft resister during the Vietnam era. “I was more than impressed. I think he’s in some ways an evangelist for peace.”

In an interview after his appearance, Mr. McNamara said he was not surprised how things turned out.

Some years ago, he had been a visiting professor at the university and found then that people — even those who cursed his name — were able to look beyond their conflicted pasts and appreciate his effort to draw constructive lessons from Vietnam. Then, as now, one of his main themes was the danger of weapons of mass destruction and how close the world had come to nuclear war.

“I think,” he said, “any human being who for any long period of time has been in leadership positions, policy-making positions, owes it to his successors and constituents an examination of what he did and what lessons, if any, can be drawn.”

Mr. McNamara got some of his biggest applause Wednesday night for comments that were stridently antiwar. He spoke against pre-emptive war and regime change as ways to deal with nuclear proliferation. He spoke of a United States divided between multilateralists and unilateralists, and a nuclear policy that had not been fully debated in public.

But Mr. McNamara would not directly criticize his counterparts now serving in the government, insisting it would be reckless for a former defense secretary to second-guess decisions when American troops are at risk overseas. “My thoughts are not targeted on Bush or the Republicans,” he said. “My thoughts are targeted on the actions.”

For many in the audience, that was a big disappointment, one that rivaled Mr. McNamara’s silence about his misgivings during and immediately after the Vietnam War.

But as with many of Mr. McNamara’s detractors Wednesday night, Mr. Ellsberg was willing to consider the good with the bad. He took issue with some of Mr. McNamara’s recollections of fact. Having spent 30 years lecturing, writing and demonstrating against war, though, Mr. Ellsberg believed that Mr. McNamara was “a dove,” someone who saw his role in the Johnson administration as a counterweight to the hawkish Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I not only credit him with total passionate sincerity in his desire to avoid nuclear war, in which I feel a strong empathy with him,” Mr. Ellsberg said, “I recognize him as someone who shares that with me as much as anyone I know in the antinuclear movement.”

For the past few decades, Mr. Ellsberg said, he has tried to talk with Mr. McNamara, but has had no success because Mr. McNamara regards him as a traitor.

But told about Mr. Ellsberg’s presence in the audience Wednesday night, Mr. McNamara indicated that even that old grudge might be fading.

“I hadn’t any idea,” he said. “If I had known, it would not have bothered me.”

Carol Pogash contributed reporting for this article.