Full disclosure: Bob McNamara was a social acquaintance and occasional tennis opponent of mine. I don't think this disqualifies me from judging the place in history of a brilliant man who spent more than a third of his lifetime living down his stewardship of the Vietnam War.
When I asked Ivan Selin, who was one of the original Pentagon whiz kids, how he viewed McNamara in retrospect, he said "consummate public servant."
Well, that is not the way he is remembered by the generation that spoke of "McNamara's War," the war that cost 58,000 American lives. For 30 years, he wouldn't discuss it, and finally he wrote a book, called In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, and he said, "We were wrong, terribly wrong."
Whom to blame? Well, he blamed himself, in part, but mainly President Johnson.
Former Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs and part of one arm in Vietnam, said the book should have been titled Sorry about That.
One has to go back another generation to understand what possessed the best and the brightest. The Kennedy generation of officials were conditioned by memories of appeasement and by the blame that was placed on the Truman administration for losing China to the communists.
McNamara, originally a Republican, came into the Kennedy Cabinet not as an ideologue, but as a management expert. He had walked away from the presidency of the Ford Motor Co. to straighten out the Pentagon.
By 1967, as the casualties in Vietnam mounted, McNamara began to have his doubts. But he didn't resign. He didn't make those doubts public. He shared his misgivings with Robert Kennedy.
When asked why he would continue to manage a war he didn't believe in, he would shrug.
Eventually, he persuaded President Johnson to let him go become president of the World Bank. Helping underdeveloped countries was a way of working out a sense of guilt.
Maybe another generation will remember McNamara as a "consummate public servant." For the generation that demonstrated outside the Pentagon, it is still too soon.