It does not take long to discover that Paul Hendrickson does not like Robert McNamara, and that he wants to assign him special blame for involving the United States in the Vietnam conflict. In THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, however, Hendrickson tries to get beyond his visceral hatred to give readers some understanding of the perceived dual personality of his principal subject. Briefly sketching McNamara’s rise to prominence in American business, he shows how the young executive’s development of a cost-accountant’s philosophy affected his management style and led him to discount the human factors which influenced a far-away war over which he presided as President John F. Kennedy’s and then President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense. Beneath a surface demeanor which seldom showed any emotion, Hendrickson finds a man constantly trying to live up to the impossibly high expectations of his mother; a man genuinely dedicated to a loving wife and children whose lives were forever scarred by their father’s involvement in an unpopular war; but also a man given to prevarication and outright obfuscation to continue prosecuting a war that, by his own admission, he knew could not be won.
To highlight McNamara’s lasting damage to the American public, Hendrickson traces the impact of the war on five ordinary Americans: a Marine whose photograph on the cover of LIFE magazine turned America’s attention to the horrors of the war in 1965; an idealistic nurse whose service in Vietnam left her physically and psychically wounded; a devout Quaker whose ideals led him to commit self-immolation beneath McNamara’s office window at the Pentagon; a Vietnamese emigre to the United States whose family supported the United States but was abandoned when Saigon fell; and an artist whose rage against the war led him to attempt to kill McNamara years after the secretary had left government service. These stories have a poignancy which comes from the deep sympathy Hendrickson feels for the victims of Vietnam. The details included in the accounts of their personal tragedies help drive home Hendrickson’s principal point, that McNamara cannot be excused for his insistence on escalating the conflict in the face of evidence that the United States would never succeed in imposing its will on the Vietnamese people.