Mark Danner

McNamara Speaks Berkeley’s Language

Author: Charles Burress


He didn’t win hearts and minds in Vietnam, but Robert McNamara won a warm if not forgiving welcome in another republic that once reviled him as a war-mongering demon — Berkeley.

The anti-war city is buzzing with talk about the 87-year-old former defense secretary’s sold-out appearance Wednesday night at Zellerbach Hall, where he railed against nuclear arms and, for the first time, admitted to fellow Americans what he has long refused to say — that he condemns the Bush policy in Iraq.

Although McNamara is a Cal grad, it was his first public appearance in Berkeley, where bitter memories remain vivid of his waging the Vietnam War in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a conflict that killed more then 2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

Among those applauding in the 2,089-seat hall was Daniel Ellsberg, the defense department defector who blew the whistle on U.S. government deception in Vietnam when he released the Pentagon Papers.

“I think I started some of the applause when he talked about nuclear weapons,” said Ellsberg, who lives in Berkeley. “He’s one of the very few establishment people who make that point.”

McNamara, who spoke in forceful, self-assured tones often punctuated by jabs with his pen in the air, urged broad public debate on nuclear weapons policy and, to hearty applause, exhorted the crowd to not lose hope on averting the horror of war: “Don’t give up! You as individuals can do something about it.”

But Ellsberg strongly objected to McNamara’s justification for not speaking out against a war in progress. Although McNamara said the Vietnam War was wrong 20 years after the fact in his 1995 book, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” he says he refused to voice his misgivings at the time for the same reason he doesn’t want to speak now about the Iraq invasion and occupation — to avoid risking American lives.

Ellsberg said McNamara’s silence, as well as his own, from 1964 through 1967 “condemned tens of thousands of American soldiers to death and more than a million Vietnamese.”

McNamara said 173 reporters have asked him to comment on Bush’s policy in Iraq, and that he told them, “I think it’s irresponsible for an ex-secretary of defense to comment … when hundreds of thousands of Americans are at risk and when he’s engaged in the most delicate negotiations with the United Nations.”

But moderator Mark Danner, a journalist who teaches at Cal, prodded McNamara on a recent interview he gave the Toronto Globe and Mail in which he said the United States is fighting a totally unnecessary war that has managed to destroy important relationships with potential allies.

“It’s morally wrong,” McNamara said of U.S. policy in the Globe and Mail, “it’s politically wrong, it’s economically wrong.”

McNamara, who has denounced unilateralism as a general policy without regard to Iraq, said he talked about Iraq to the Canadian reporter, thinking it wouldn’t be read in the United States. “What I said was true,” he said, “but I’m not sure I was right in saying it at the time.”

Many people came to hear McNamara because he is the heart of an extraordinary new documentary, “Fog of War,” by Errol Morris, who also was on stage for the unscripted discussion on Wednesday.

The film, an Academy Award nominee shown in part Wednesday night, is an engrossing interview with McNamara, who has emerged as a latter-day prophet of nuclear peril and a restless soul haunted by his moral responsibility for the slaughters of Vietnam and World War II.

A member of the Air Force team under Gen. Curtis LeMay responsible for the World War II fire-bombings of Tokyo and 66 other Japanese cities that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, McNamara says in the film that he would have been tried as a war criminal if the U.S. had lost the war.

UC Berkeley history professor David Hollinger said he wasn’t surprised by the Berkeley reception of McNamara. He called the film “a fantastically important American cultural document.”

Audience reactions were far from unanimous.

“I will say as a Vietnamese that he is still a war criminal,” said Tran Tuong Nhu of Berkeley, who opposed the war as a ’60s Cal student.

Larry Bensky, political analyst for KPFA radio in Berkeley, saw McNamara as both a “con man” who has not apologized for his deeds and as a “classic liberal” caught in a political system that “doesn’t allow good-hearted idealistic people to be good-hearted idealistic people. …When he gets into the world of real politic, he’s basically a war criminal.”

Berkeley mortgage broker David Kupler, a ’60s war protester at Cal, said his feelings changed after hearing McNamara.

“I was quite impressed with him,” Kupler said. “There was a kind of humility. Very few American political personalities admit their mistakes like this. I think the audience appreciated that.”