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World Book Day

Tomorrow is World Book Day. To mark it, here’s a story from towards the end of Argument Without End, by Robert McNamara, about his work late in life to discuss the background to the Vietnam War with Vietnamese counterparts. To set the scene, McNamara as Secretary of Defense was in charge of the US military in the 1960s under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and oversaw the American war in Vietnam, which he came to have doubts about, as aired in his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect.

In 1996, he was giving a public lecture at Brown University, Rhode Island:

“As I was leaving the lectern, a large, middle-aged man in a jacket and cap that indicated he was a Vietnam veteran came charging towards the stage. Upon reaching the stage, he attempted to climb up and grab me but was prevented from doing so by security guards. But he shouted at me, letting loose with some portion of his pent-up rage, as he recounted it, at having been sent to Vietnam, having been made to suffer through the brutal fighting in Hue during the Tet Offensive of January-February 1968, having watched his close friends die miserable deaths, and he wanted to know: ‘For what?’ It was heart-breaking. He wept. The 400 or so undergraduate students, most of whom were not yet born when the war ended in April 1975, looked on in horror and incomprehension at this out-pouring of emotion.

“I asked the security guards not to lead the man away, as they were attempting to do. I climbed down from the stage and asked him if he would like to discuss the war and what we ought to be doing about it now. He said he would. Gradually, our voices lowered and we had a serious conversation. The conversation lasted for about 20 minutes, or a little more. Finally, I said: “We both agree that the war was a tragedy. So hadn’t we better do all we can to prevent something like the Vietnam War from ever occurring again? Shouldn’t we,” I asked him, “seek to give this gift – the gift of freedom from the horror of war that you have known all too well – to our children and grandchildren?” He said he agreed with this.”

Photo by Mark Rowe; old library, Trinity College, Dublin.


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