My brush with Robert McNamara

The recent passing of Robert McNamara, who was the U.S. Defense Secretary during the Vietnam war, brought to mind a brief encounter I had with him a few years ago.

I never got close enough to talk to him, but I was within eight feet as he sat at a banquet table in the hotel where I worked. He was scheduled as the after dinner speaker that evening. As the in-house audio/visual technician on duty that night, I was in charge of the microphone.

I don't remember the purpose of the event, but it was part of a larger multi-day conference. Most of the attendees were much younger than me.

As I was setting up that afternoon one of the meeting organizers in the group told me that the guest speaker would be Robert McNamara. I recognized the name before he proceeded to tell me he was President Johnson's Secretary of Defense. He was quite excited about the prospect of hearing someone of that stature speak at his event.

The fellow was visibly disappointed that I did not share his enthusiasm. It was not the time or place to share my personal views with a client, so I simply acknowledged the information in my best professional manner. What he didn't know was that I grew up watching the grisly details of "McNamara's war" on the news every evening during dinner. Even as a kid I had a pretty good idea of how messed up the Vietnam war was, and as an adult I learned how much McNamara was responsible. Thanks to him I lost my faith in American foreign policy at a very early age.

McNamara did not mention Vietnam that night. He was on a new crusade to frighten everyone about the prospect of loose nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands. His gravelly voice punctuated every point by repeating "I'm very concerned, and you should be too!"

I don't think anyone in the room was in a position do do anything about nuclear weapons, but he sounded scared, and he sure scared everyone.


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