Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara addressed a packed GW lecture hall Tuesday night, answering foreign policy questions after screening a documentary detailing his controversial involvement in the Vietnam War.
About 350 people, mostly students, went to hear McNamara speak, and spilled into the aisles and front area of an Elliott School of International Affairs building room with a seating capacity of 297. Marianne Oliva, associate director of Elliott School Public Affairs, said 60 to 70 people were turned away from the event.
McNamara, who is 88 years old and newly married, spoke eloquently during the event, applying his philosophy of “answering questions I wish I had been asked, not the questions I was actually asked.” He also introduced the “Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” an Academy Award-winning 2003 documentary that featured a self-critical McNamara questioning his role in Vietnam.
Having had to make decisions that took people’s lives as secretary of defense during the war, McNamara said he learned that a country’s primary goal should be to “reduce killing, catastrophe and mass destruction.” He stressed that America needs to do a better job securing nuclear material so terrorists will not acquire it.
“The combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons can destroy nations,” he said.
McNamara criticized President Bush for attacking Iraq, saying that U.S. relations with Europe are abysmal because the U.S. has “moved unilaterally.”
He also disapproved of the president’s opposition to U.S. membership in the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals for war crimes and genocide. Because of the lessons from the Vietnam War, he said, there should be “clear statements” for what is legal and what is illegal in war.
“The Fog of War,” directed by Errol Morris, dealt with mistakes that could have been avoided in the Vietnam War. McNamara gave a long interview for the documentary, which was combined with past footage, mainly from his term as secretary of defense during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
McNamara said he regretted the war, adding that because the U.S. is such a strong country, it should never apply its power unilaterally.
“If we can’t persuade other nations to join us, we need to examine our reasons,” he said in the movie.
The last of the “11 lessons” presented in the film is “You can’t change human nature.” McNamara explains in the closing of the documentary that while there will always be war because of human nature, leaders need to try to minimize casualties.
Students, many of whom said their political science or history professors required their entire class to come to the event, were excited to hear such a polarizing figure speak about his experiences.
“He left me with a very favorable impression, compared with Henry Kissinger, who doesn’t seem to look back on what he’s done,” sophomore Prithvi Jagannath said. “He showed a lot of energy. I was impressed by his forthrightness.”
Some were surprised that the event was not held at a bigger venue, given that many were turned away.
“I was surprised that it wasn’t held at Lisner (Auditorium),” senior Briana Clifton said. She said she got to the event a little before 5 p.m., but seats were full well before the 5:30 start time.
McNamara, who served as president of the World Bank for more than a decade after leaving the Pentagon, continues to work on problems of poverty and development. He closed his statements with a reminder of lesson number three from the movie: “There’s something beyond one’s self.”