Excerpt from Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith

From the book:

It is impossible to know definitively whether this religious opposition to the war had an effect on policy. Perhaps it limited Johnson's options by making further escalation too controversial. But most likely it did not, at least not directly. Still, there are tantalizing hints that at least one architect of the war was troubled by the moral implications raised by religious dissenters, and that his troubles led to the most serious internal challenge to Johnson's war strategy. No Johnson official, not even Rusk, was as indelibly associated with the war as Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Known for his acute intelligence and almost blind faith in the power of numbers to solve almost any problem, McNamara's statistical methods formed the very basis of wartime strategy. Before taking over at the Pentagon in 1961, he had taught at Harvard Business School, helped invent the discipline of systems analysis in the 1940s, and led Detroit's "Whiz Kids" to the rescue of Ford Motor Company in the 1950s.

sword-shield-150.jpgTo most Americans, when it was not "Johnson's War" it was "McNamara's War," a label he initially wore with pride. But when the war stalemated and forced McNamara to make morally untenable decisions about life and death on a mass scale, he began to crack. In 1966 and 1967, he mounted a campaign against further escalation from within the Pentagon, applying his formidable number-crunching powers to proving the ineffectiveness of bombing. He became quietly infamous among Washington's power elite for bursting into tears whenever the subject of Vietnam came up, as it invariably did. He wept in his Pentagon office. "He does it all the time now," one of his secretaries told her friend. "He cries into the curtain." He even cried at an NSC meeting shortly before his departure from the Johnson administration. Morally shell-shocked, McNamara left the Pentagon at the beginning of 1968 a broken man. He became head of the World Bank, where his policies, especially the promotion of Third World development and health initiatives, were liberal to a fault. Though he would never admit it, these and other demonstrably good deeds were likely his way of doing penance for Vietnam.

Less well known are McNamara's religious and moral views. Despite his record on Vietnam, which earned him the reputation as a cold, calculating war-planner, he had a strong moralistic sense of right and wrong which, in turn, had a firm grounding in Christian ethics. The son of a Catholic father and a devout Presbyterian mother, McNamara had attended a Presbyterian Sunday school while growing up in San Francisco. Later, while living in Michigan when he was with Ford, he became a Presbyterian elder, and as secretary of defense he and his wife regularly attended Washington's New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. He also read widely--not just the usual businessman's fare, but also books on philosophy and religious ethics. McNamara was not necessarily a profoundly spiritual man. But according to his biographer, he enjoyed learning about and then discussing the philosophical and ethical dimensions of Christian moral theology, and he took their teachings seriously. He at least was aware of the implications of immoral behavior, including doing harm to others. And this moral awareness, coupled with the moral intensity of the antiwar movement, bothered him.

Nothing bothered him as much as Norman Morrison. On November 2, 1965, Morrison, a young, clean-cut Quaker pacifist, set fire to himself in protest against the Vietnam War. He did it in a Pentagon parking lot which, not coincidentally, had a clear view of McNamara's office window. His final words to his wife, who did not know his intentions that morning, were: "What can I do to make them stop the war?" From his window, McNamara saw the twelve-foot high flames engulf Morrison's body, and then the ambulances converge. It was too terrible to bear contemplating, but McNamara could not push the episode out of his mind. "Morrison's death was a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country," McNamara recalled in his memoir of the war. "It was an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth. I reacted to the horror of his action by bottling up my emotions and avoided talking about them with anyone--even my family." But those emotions would soon resurface, in the form of doubt, guilt, and ultimately his resignation. The journalist Stanley Karnow first noticed a change in McNamara, strangely subdued and lacking in his usual confidence, at a briefing in February 1966, only a few months after Morrison's suicide. By 1967, McNamara did not want the war to be his any longer. He did his best to sabotage the war from within, and then left. Soon after, reeling from McNamara's defection and the shock of the Tet Offensive, Johnson announced a halt to the bombing and an end to his political career.

Excerpted from Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.  Copyright © 2012 Andrew Preston.  Published by Knopf Canada, an imprint of the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Back to the Charles Taylor Prize 2013