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Architect of Vietnam War to speak about nuclear threats

McNamara was attacked onstage in previous appearance at Brown

Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, will appear on campus today as part of a Watson Institute for International Studies series on Vietnam. McNamara was one of the principal architects of the Vietnam War. He will speak with Professor of International Relations James Blight on "Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century."

The event will be held at 4 p.m. in MacMillan 117.

McNamara will discuss the effects his personal experiences have had in shaping his view of war and in particular the threat of nuclear war.

McNamara, who at 88 is essentially the last living major figure involved in the Cuban missile crisis, wants to make clear that the risk of catastrophic nuclear war may be even greater now than it was during the Cold War, Blight said.

Nuclear war "can happen and it almost did," Blight said.

McNamara is what Blight calls a "nuclear abolitionist," - he shares his experiences with potential nuclear disaster to help avoid it at all costs in the future.

Because of his central involvement in perhaps the most controversial war in U.S. history, McNamara was attacked by contemporaries for allegedly misleading and misinforming the American public. Both pro-war and anti-war groups criticized him for not doing enough to win the war and for getting the nation involved in the war in the first place.

McNamara first lectured at Brown in 1996, when an ex-marine in the audience attacked McNamara onstage, Blight said. When security guards tried to shuttle McNamara offstage after restraining the man, McNamara shrugged them off. Instead, he asked the man to talk. After 15 minutes, they shook hands, agreeing that no matter their difference of opinion, physical violence was unnecessary.

McNamara's visit is particularly noteworthy not only because he is one of the foremost political figures in recent U.S. history, but also because he is "one of the very few people we know who is willing to look critically at what he and his cohorts did," said Professor of History Abbott Gleason, who will moderate the discussion.

In recent years, McNamara has spoken and written extensively about his views on war and has publicly acknowledged mistakes he and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations made - particularly notable for a man who has been criticized for his arrogance.

He has spoken in particular about the disagreements between him and Johnson, who he said did not adhere consistently to his advice, particularly on the reduction of casualties.

McNamara, whom Blight expects to speak with his "usual passion," will also discuss his book, "Wilson's Ghost," which he co-wrote with Blight.

In the book, McNamara and Blight argue that U.S. foreign policy must be founded on a moral obligation to avoid the carnage of the last century as much as possible.

In the Academy Award-winning Errol Morris documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," excerpts of which will be shown during the discussion, McNamara outlined some principles necessary to avoid the repetition of such death tolls.

The United States can only engage in unilateral aggression out of self-defense, he said in the film. Furthermore, the United States must be able to empathize with the enemy - a crucial failing of the Vietnam War.

Blight will also discuss the research that went into the film, for which he and his wife, Adjunct Associate Professor of International Relations Janet Lang, were principal advisors.

McNamara attended the University of California, Berkeley, then went on to Harvard Business School, where he later became an assistant professor. He served in the army for three years during World War II. After the war, he began working at Ford Motor Company, where he ultimately became president - the first from outside of the Ford family. He quit after five weeks when Kennedy asked him to join his cabinet as secretary of defense.

When McNamara was leaving the administration - he has said that "to this day, I don't know whether I quit or got fired" - Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom. McNamara went on to serve as president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981.

The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of the Watson Institute's series in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the introduction of U.S. troops into Vietnam, the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to communist forces and the 10th anniversary of the normalization U.S. relations with Vietnam.


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