The juxtaposition of the recent deaths of Michael Jackson and Robert McNamara couldn’t have seemed more random, and aside from rising to fame in late twentieth-century America, the two couldn’t have lived more different lives. Yet in November 1995, in the Vietnamese (i.e., former North Vietnamese) capital of Hanoi, I witnessed a moment where the two, or at least their personae, seemed eerily conflated.
In the cavernous, largely deserted dining hall of the Metropole, the restored luxury French colonial-era hotel, McNamara and a group of historians are sitting around a table. The ex-defense secretary has just flown in to the city whose bombing he once masterminded, in the wake of the publication of his controversial memoir , to propose a project that would gather former enemies together to explore the conflict’s history and, perhaps, to fathom lessons that might help future policymakers avoid comparable disasters.
In his inimitably assertive voice, McNamara is laying out plans for a series of scheduled encounters with senior Vietnamese figures, including his old nemesis, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary communist military commander–when a young waitress hesitantly approaches.
“Excuse me, are you Robert McNamara?” she asks.
Yes I am, the American allows, politely concealing any annoyance at being interrupted.
“Mr. McNamara, I’ve heard about you in my house since I was twelve years old…,” she begins shyly.
As one of the historians present, I can’t help wonder what will come next, in perhaps the first unscripted, spontaneous encounter in Hanoi (aside from passport control and the check-in desk) between a young Vietnamese and the American who embodied the war against her country. Perhaps a story of personal tragedy (“Mr. McNamara, you killed my father”)? A defiant assertion of national pride (“Mr. McNamara, millions of Vietnamese died in your war, but in the end, we won”)? Or some other poignant personal reflection on a tortured past?
Mr. McNamara, she asks, in a soft, slightly accented voice, the staff would like to have a photograph taken with you. Is that all right?
Sure, no problem, he responds gruffly. From a corner where they had clustered, waiting and watching, a bunch of waiters and waitresses, all garbed in traditional costume, all too young to have experienced or remembered the war, walk up and gather around McNamara, who stands and beams proudly. Once the photo’s snapped, and the group disperses, he promptly sits down and picks up right where he left off in plotting strategy.
McNamara makes no mention of the incident, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. I, however, am stunned, my jaw figuratively agape. Though born in 1960, I remember enough of the tumultuous decade, the televised images of bloody carnage, the protests in the streets, the weekly body counts, to sense how utterly bizarre is the very notion of Robert Strange McNamara in Hanoi (like Richard Milhous Nixon in “Red” China in 1972).
Yet what’s just transpired seems even more surreal. Three decades after the Johnson Administration plunged into war in Southeast Asia, two decades after the last helicopter fled Saigon as the communists rushed in and a conflict that had claimed the lives of more than three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans, McNamara has become just another celebrity passing through. A fellow historian, also at the table, who had also expected the Vietnamese to twist in the knife, later tells me he had reflected in amazement: My God, they’re treating him more like Michael Jackson than Robert McNamara.
James G. Hershberg
James G. Hershberg, Associate Professor of History and International Affairs, George Washington University.
Republished with permission from The History News Network.