The first time I visited Hong Kong was in 1994, as part of a two month tour of Asia as a backpacking journalist. I didn’t go to Hong Kong because I wanted to see the city that would become my home barely a year later. I went because I was heading for Vietnam and needed a visa, taking advantage of newly normalized relations between the US and Vietnam to be among the first American tourists in nearly 20 years.
Luckily, it would be my first visit Vietnam. If I’d been born a couple of years earlier there’s a good chance I would have been drafted to help fight the US war in Vietnam. Instead of wading through rice paddies wielding an M-16, I spent the early 1970s knee-deep in books as a college history major. In the wake of the helicopter taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon, I read David Halberstam’s The Best and The Brightest, a book that changed my life.
The figure in Halberstam’s book who left the most lasting impression on me was Robert McNamara, the smartest man anyone ever met, who died Monday at age 93. Only the good die young.
Despite his legendary brilliance, McNamara helped organize the extraordinarily cruel firebombing of Tokyo during World War II. Then as Secretary of Defense, he presided over the escalation of the war in Vietnam that cost tens of thousands lives while shattering America’s credibility at home and abroad.
One lesson of McNamara’s tragedy is the danger of intellectual vanity. It’s good to be smartest guy in the room, as long as you don’t believe that you are. Kennedy purposely recruited brilliant minds. His dream team handled the so-called Cuban missile crisis of 1962 adroitly but needed a big piece of luck to succeed. That win suggested that Kennedy had indeed assembled a new generation of leadership to energize the US, win the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and restore the Democratic Party’s reputation for toughness, and his team members learned that less best. They became convinced they really were the whiz kids.
McNamara was the whizziest of all. From the youngest professor at Harvard Business School to, at age 44, the first president of Ford Motor Company who wasn’t a member of the Ford family, McNamara’s extraordinary intellect and rigorous application of systems analysis cemented his reputation as a genius. His combination of conceit and cowardice enabled him to keep running the Pentagon death machine long after he concluded the Vietnam War was pointless. Being smart enough to see the truth without being brave enough to act on what he belatedly understood left McNamara a deservedly haunted and broken human being.
The irony is that it wasn’t just hubris but outright stupidity that doomed McNamara to spectacular failure. He and his cohorts were convinced they understood Asia, even though the US government had purged its experts on the region in the mid-1950s, thanks to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt for Communists after the fall of China. McNamara’s war strategy featured bombing civilian and industrial targets, tactics proven of dubious value in World War II. He saw Vietnam through the prism of the Cold War, unable to comprehend the Vietnamese perspective. In a democracy with conscription and television, he thought a war involving hundreds of thousands of Americans could be concealed from the public.
Most foolishly, McNamara couldn’t grasp what I saw clearly in 1994 within minutes of stepping off the airplane at Tan Son Nhat Airport, the former US airbase outside Saigon. As I rode into town between ramshackle huts and water buffaloes plowing fields of mud, a single question throbbed in my head: How on earth could anyone think there was anything in this country worth a single American life?
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.