Book: The Living and the Dead

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The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War

Author: Paul Hendrickson
Publisher: Vintage

More than the two presidents he served or the 58,000 soldiers who died for his policies, Robert McNamara was the official face of Vietnam, the technocrat with steel-rimmed glasses and an ironclad faith in numbers who kept insisting that the war was winnable long after he had ceased to believe it was. This brilliantly insightful, morally devastating book tells us why he believed, how he lost faith, and what his deceptions cost five of the war’s witnesses and McNamara himself.

In The Living and the Dead, Paul Hendrickson juxtaposes McNamara’s story with those of a wounded Marine, an Army nurse, a Vietnamese refugee, a Quaker who burned himself to death to protest the war, and an enraged artist who tried to kill the man he saw as the war’s architect. The result is a book whose exhaustive research and imaginative power turn history into an act of reckoning, damning and profoundly sympathetic, impossible to put down and impossible to forget.


Robert McNamara’s career was a straight shot to the top, starting with a brilliant academic career and a stint as a statistical control officer during World War II. His next success was realized at Ford Motors, where he rocketed to the position of president. Finally, the ideal model of the “humane technocrat” was tapped as Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. Then came the Vietnam War, for which McNamara is still remembered by many as a soulless bureaucrat who measured the war in strictly numerical terms and—even worse—pursued U.S. involvement long after he knew it was wrong. In The Living and the Dead, Washington Post writer Paul Hendrickson searches for McNamara’s soul amidst five wrenching portraits of those whose lives were destroyed by the presence of the United States in Vietnam.

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