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IN RETROSPECT:
THE TRAGEDY AND LESSONS OF VIETNAM

ROBERT S. MCNAMARA WITH BRIAN VANDEMARK


1. My Journey to Washington:
June 9, 1916-January 20, 1961

(selections from pp. 4-5)

Each human being looking back on his or her life--in my case, looking back on seventy-eight years--can identify defining events that influenced what they became and why they believed as they did. I want to mention three.

One was the Great Depression. I was graduated from high school in 1933. At the time, fully 25 percent of the adult males of this country were unemployed. The father of one of my classmates committed suicide because he could not feed his family. Another friend, the daughter of a wealthy family, joined the Communist Party.

Violent labor strikes were common. During the West Coast maritime strikes of 1934 and 1936, there were machine-gun emplacements on roofs along the waterfront in San Francisco to prevent fighting on the docks. Once, on Market Street I saw a long-shoreman corner a man he thought was a strikebreaker. He knocked the man down, pinned one of his knees on the curb with his ankle on the street, and stamped on the shin to shatter the bones. The violence shocked me.

I learned firsthand about the conditions that were helping to spark the violence when I went down to the union hiring hall in the summer of 1935 and applied for a job at sea to earn money for my next semester at college. I shipped out as an ordinary seaman in the freighter SS Peter Kerr. The pay was twenty dollars a month, there was no running fresh water in the crew's quarters, the bunks were so infested with bedbugs that one morning I counted nineteen bites on one leg, and the food was inedible--I was in superb physical shape but lost thirteen pounds during the voyage. The experience gave me sympathy for the plight of unorganized labor that still influences me. As an executive in the auto industry, I admired union leaders like Walter Reuther, and at the Pentagon I tried to recruit Jack Conway, a United Auto Workers official, as my assistant secretary for manpower.

The second and third events were related: my entry into the University of California at Berkeley and my meeting with Margaret. I went to Cal because it was the only first-rate university I could afford. Tuition was fifty-two dollars a year. Berkeley opened a totally new world to me--a world of history, ideas, ethical and moral values, scholarship, and intellectual ferment. Its president, Robert Gordon Sproul, and its provost, Monroe Deutsch, had achieved the impossible: although the university was wholly dependent on a conservative, rural-dominated state legislature for funding, Sproul and Deutsch managed to foster a liberal atmosphere on intellectual freedom and debate. My four years there exposed me to concepts of justice, freedom, and the balancing of rights and obligations that remain with me to this day.


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