Open Letter to the Children of Robert McNamara

Dear McNamara Children,

This is a belated apology.  I have been meaning to set things straight, but the right moment never materialized, and now it has been over 50 years.  However, my guilt came flooding back as I watched the recent Ken Burn documentary on the Vietnam War.  Night after night I saw your father, with his slicked back hair, ramrod straight part and rimless glasses.  He was an intimidating figure as Secretary of Defense, standing in front of a map of Vietnam with the menacing China and Russia seeping down from above.

You must understand that I was watching him at the same time our neighbors were building a bomb shelter in their basement and we were having bomb drills at school.  At the sound of the alarm we all rushed to crouch beneath our desks with our hands on top of our heads.  But even at age 12, I knew this was a useless exercise.  That flimsy desk could never protect me from an atom bomb.  I counted on your father to save me.

And then I saw him in the flesh.  Perhaps you remember a family spring break ski vacation in Utah in 1964.  My family was there too.  Your father brought an air of celebrity to the entire resort and everyone treated your family with the utmost deference.  My ski school instructor scuttled us to the side of the slope as your father passed.  I have a distinct memory of his smiling face as he whizzed by in baggy ski pants, his greased down hair totally unperturbed by the blowing wind.  I looked at him and thought, “How can this man be taking a vacation.  How could he be smiling?  Isn’t the Communist threat a serious business?  Who’s manning his post back in Washington?

One day I arrived at the lift line at the same time as your father.  Then he did the unthinkable.  He cut in line.  In my suburban grade school,  my only exposure to social justice was simple:  No cuts.  It was inviolate.  Line cutters were bullies, the worst sort of kids, deserving universal scorn.  I didn’t care whether your father was the only thing between and me and the Commie horde, your father cut in line.  It was unforgiveable.

I fumed.  At lunch I saw my opportunity for retribution.  I couldn’t get back at the mighty McNamara, but you kids were in my ski school and emerged as surrogate targets.  I looked at the youngest and blurted out the meanest thing I could think of.  “You know, there is no such thing as Santa Claus.  I mean it.  He isn’t real. Your parents are lying to you.”  I remember mouths hanging open, and a little drop of milk hanging from one of your lips as you sat in stunned silence.

Yes, it was me.  I was the one who punctured the greatest hoax of childhood, drained the magic out of Christmas.

I immediately felt remorse.  I had turned into a vindictive bully, worse than a line-cutter.  Any regrets quickly turned to abject fear.  What would your father do to me if you told him about my indiscretion?  Robert McNamara, the man who held the fate of nations, who sent young men off to remote rice paddies, there was probably nothing he couldn’t do to me.  Apologizing and admitting my guilt would only exacerbate the situation.  I wanted to slink away and hide forever.

Now I want to make amends.  So here it is.

I am very sorry for my unwarranted cruelty.  I am ashamed that I turned into the person I did not want to be. 

Wait a minute, now I am rethinking this.  Maybe I did you a favor.  My Santa Claus reveal was perhaps your introduction to the fine art of the dissembling and deception of adults.  Maybe it prompted a critical and questioning mind that has served you well over the years. And perhaps you began to understand the tyranny of the lie, that once established it is so difficult undo.  Armed with this knowledge, perhaps you were better able to understand the agony of your father as he absorbed the guilt of Vietnam.

Okay, who am I kidding here? Forget it, I’m overstepping.  Just please accept my apology.

Sincerely,

Liza Blue

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