AS A RULE I believe it is never too late to say you're sorry and that people who admit error deserve forgiveness and warmth. But I'm having a hard time with that policy in the face of Robert McNamara's revelation that the Vietnam War was a mistake. The many people who know Mr. McNamara in Washington, as I do not, say that he has been tormented by the war and is making a brave attempt to deal with his legacy. Maybe so, but there is a difference between Robert McNamara and all the other people damaged by this war -- the 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese who lost their lives, the millions in America who lost loved ones, or hope, or belief in country, because of the war. Those such as Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb., who lost their legs, those such as President Clinton who, although they may not admit it, lost their self-respect by avoiding the war.
The difference between Robert McNamara and all these other Vietnam casualties is that he could have done something about it. I'm not even talking about the seven long years when, as secretary of defense, Mr. McNamara made crucial decisions and defended them with icy logic, ridiculing criticism like the ones that he now makes. I mean, instead, Mr. McNamara's unique sins of omission in the 27 years since he left the Pentagon.
By the time he left office in 1968, Mr. McNamara knew the war to be unwinnable, he says, but he did not speak up in 1969 as Richard Nixon prepared for four more years of combat, or in 1975 after America's humiliating exit from Saigon, or through the 1970s when Vietnam veterans were being reviled, or through the 1980s when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was being built and campaigns for reconciliation were under way. He remained silent in 1988 and 1992, when first Dan Quayle and then Bill Clinton were raked over for having avoided combat at a time when Mr. McNamara, in secret, believed that combat was futile.
At any of these moments Robert McNamara could have helped his country, saving lives, reducing recriminations, by saying that he had changed his famously powerful mind about Vietnam, and at every moment he failed to speak. The noblest interpretation of his silence is that Mr. McNamara's sense of loyalty would not let him criticize the colleagues with whom he had made the fateful choices. But, if that were so, he would have followed the example of Dean Rusk, secretary of state during the war, who went to his death in obscurity in Georgia without trying to explain away his past.
Mr. McNamara has tried to have it both ways, running the World Bank, remaining in the public eye, but refusing to answer any question about Vietnam until now, when, as he nears age 80, a time for reckoning has come.
In the cycles of life, a desire to square accounts is natural, but Robert McNamara has forfeited his right to do so in public. You missed your chance, Mr. Secretary. It would have been better to go out silently if you could not find the courage to speak when it would have done your country any good.
James Fallows delivered this commentary on National Public Radio.