Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While painting this psychological portrait, this NBA finalist shows the effects of the Vietnam policymaker's decisions on the lives of ordinary people. (Nov.)
Personalizing the ongoing trauma of the Vietnam experience for contemporary U.S. society, veteran Washington Post journalist Hendrickson here aims to understand McNamara the human being, not the public official. This work, begun in the mid-1980s as a feature profile, was given renewed impetus by McNamara's recent memoir, In Retrospect (LJ 4/15/95), and the public furor that surrounded it. Hendrickson interweaves the life of McNamara with the lives of five people greatly affected by his decisions as secretary of defense. Making an honest effort to be sympathetic, the author paints an intriguing portrait, but in the end he still holds that McNamara is responsible for the war and that, as well illustrated in In Retrospect, his arrogance keeps him from acknowledging it. This emotionally charged work is not just a historical accounting but an extended personal essay on how America still needs to address and incorporate the legacy of Vietnam. Given the widespread and heated response to In Retrospect, this work belongs in all large public libraries as part of that continuing national debate on Vietnam. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/96.]James A. Rhodes, Luther Coll., Decorah, Iowa
Hendrickson caught the scent of Robert Strange McNamara and like a good bloodhound fastened onto it, collecting every shred of evidence, until finally he could compose this disturbing and, at times, brilliant study of the man behind the Vietnam War. (The work's brilliance is tarnished in places by the writer's hyperbolic clairvoyance: "His [McNamara's] trousers will hitch higher and higher until finally what you see, should you glance under the table, are the bobbing cue-ball knees." ) It is the structure, the unusual juxtapositions of supporting details from the lives of five people inextricably bound by the war, that informs and elevates Hendrickson's analysis: the artist who, in 1972, tries to kill McNamara by throwing him off a ferry bound for Martha's Vineyard; the marine, James C. Farley, subject of the poignant 1965 "Life" photo-essay by the outstanding British combat photographer Larry Burrows; the young Quaker Norman R. Morrison, who immolated himself to protest the war in front of the Pentagon; the nurse Marlene Vrooman, who has suffered numerous ghastly illnesses since her return from Vietnam but refuses to blame the war; and the family of Tran Van Tuyen, the Vietnamese humanist once courted by the U.S., "spread to the winds" in the aftermath of McNamara's War. In this strong antidote to McNamara's "In Retrospect" (1995), Hendrickson establishes the gift that propelled McNamara into privileged situations throughout his life--the gift of the visionary accountant. The man understood better than his teachers at Harvard how numbers controlled the future, could create futures. So he took what he learned about control accounting and ran with it through the Ford Motor Company all the way to the White House, and he arrogantly proceeded to control the war in Vietnam with that knowledge. Unfortunately, as Hendrickson points out, the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh "never went to the Harvard Business School."
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.