THE LIVING AND THE DEAD by Paul Hendrickson


Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War
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 Forget Robert McNamara's much-ballyhooed but deeply disappointing pseudo mea culpa, In Retrospect. Hendrickson has produced the book about the life and times of the former secretary of defense, and provides as well a superb overview of the war in Vietnam. This gracefully written and meticulously researched book takes a penetrating look at the psyche of McNamara and at the lives of five other people who were shaped indelibly by the Vietnam war. In compulsively readable prose, Hendrickson succinctly traces how the US became involved in Vietnam under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, how the war was prosecuted, and why it turned out so badly. Hendrickson, a veteran Washington Post reporter (Seminary; Looking for the Light; both not reviewed) interviewed hundreds of people, including McNamara himself, and exhaustively researched the complex details of American policies in the 1960s. He interweaves these elements with the stories of former Marine James Farley, onetime Army nurse Marlene Vrooman Kramel, Quaker activist Norman Morrison, the expatriate Vietnamese Tran family, and a Massachutes artist who in 1972 tried to do McNamara bodily harm. Ultimately, though, this book will be remembered for its author's uncannily perceptive portrait of a man whose life he calls ``a kind of postwar technocratic hubristic fable.'' Hendrickson doesn't neglect McNamara's courage or intelligence, but he devastatingly catches his weaknesses: arrogance, his ingrained habits of lying to the public and to politicians; and obfuscating when it served his purposes. McNamara, Hendrickson says in what could pass as an epitaph, did not resign in 1965 ``when he no longer believed [the war] could be won militarily. And he didn't speak out after, not for almost 30 years, when it was too late. Those facts form the box he can't get out of . . . The lesson sits there, shining, intractable.'' Exuberant and compulsively readable, Hendrickson's work easily stands with the very best literary nonfiction on the Vietnam war. (8 photos, not seen) (First printing of 100,000; first serial to the Washington Post; author tour)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-42761-9
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1996


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