Robert Strange McNamara: 1916-2009

He was without doubt the most powerful and controversial American secretary of defense in the twentieth century — and the most scorned. He served as defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1968 and his name soon became irretrievably linked to the long and tragic years of the Viet Nam War. His many and often fierce critics called the bloody conflict in Southeast Asia McNamara’s War. That name and that public blame would stick with him until death.

Robert S. McNamara died this past Monday at age ninety-three at his home in the nation’s capital. He was until the end a towering and divisive figure in his own country and in nations around the world. But there was another dimension to the life of Bob McNamara, one that is seldom written about because it seems so unimportant when placed in historical context with his role in the Viet Nam War, his commitment as president of the World Bank to alleviate poverty in the world, his efforts to bring about nuclear arms reduction during the Cold War and finally his critical influence in President Kennedy’s decision to avoid nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis.

That other dimension in Mr. McNamara’s life involved the quiet of his private world, a place for the late defense secretary and his family away from the blare of public headlines, the television lights and far from center stage where public condemnation for the Viet Nam War was ever present. Martha’s Vineyard was very much a part, indeed a treasured part, of Mr. McNamara’s private world. He was a seasonal citizen of the Island and his love affair with the Vineyard lasted nearly a half century. He came in the summers and occasionally in the off-season. He lived in the Oyster Watcha Midlands area along the South Shore off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.

Before his move to the South Shore, he and his beloved first wife, Margaret, lived in a seasonal home on the bluffs overlooking Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark. Mr. McNamara loved and protected his time on the Vineyard but the days were not always tranquil. There was a moment in 1972 when a fellow traveler on a Steamship Authority ferry attempted to throw Mr. McNamara off the vessel and into Vineyard Sound. Mr. McNamara and his wife were driven away from the Vineyard and their Chilmark home in the late seventies by trespassers parading across their property, sometimes hounding them with anti-Viet Nam War chants. But a few years later, in the early eighties, he returned to build a new home on the South Shore. President Clinton used that McNamara home as the summer White House on his first official visit to the Island.

He spent his quiet time here with close friends, often in animated conversations at private gatherings and dinners. One of those friends and frequent dinner partners was his nearby neighbor Cyrus R. Vance, the late secretary of state under President Carter. Mr. Vance served under Mr. McNamara as deputy secretary of defense during the early years of the Viet Nam War.

But if Mr. McNamara was always a much condemned figure on the world stage, his life on the Vineyard was precisely the opposite. He was a good citizen of the Island. He cared about the community and the Vineyard citizenry. He spent a great deal of time while here talking not about the affairs of the world but about the state of the Vineyard, about the quality of life on the Island and how to make it better for those who live and visit this land in the sea. Mr. McNamara backed Island conservation initiatives, supported Vineyard charities, worried about the future of our hospital, joined serious citizen conversations about creating and funding a legal defense fund to fight mindless development.

Perhaps most important, Robert McNamara was more than a seasonal visitor to the Vineyard. It was clear always in conversations with him that he considered himself a genuine citizen of the Island and a person who wished to give something back to a community that had given so much to the richness of his life. He came to the Vineyard — even if as a wounded celebrity — because one of the community’s great qualities is that we leave our visitors alone, the famous and the ordinary alike. We treat the Island not as a Hollywood stage but as sanctuary for those who come to enjoy the Vineyard’s treasures. The Island respects everyone’s right to privacy and that is as it should be.

And we would all do well to remember this principle when President Obama and his family reopen the summer White House on the Island next month.