updated 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DESPITE THE THIN AIR ATOP WASHINGTON State's Mount Rainier, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara could breathe more easily at 14,410 feet in August 1966 than he could back in Washington. Briefly escaping the tensions of the Vietnam War—McNamara's War, as it was sometimes known—the mountain-climbing enthusiast took his family on an expedition to Rainier's snowcapped summit. But no sooner had they descended than Vietnam surged back into their lives. As they waited in the Seattle airport for the flight home, a stranger spotted McNamara, cried out, "Murderer!" and spat on him.

Recalls McNamara, 78: "You can't imagine how horrifying it was, in front of my wife and the children, to have people scream 'Murderer' and 'Baby burner.' It happened several times." Adding to his torment was his knowledge that his wife and three children opposed the war too. And, as he admits for the first time in his new memoir, In Retrospect (Times Books), he was beginning to harbor doubts himself. As early as 1967, he writes, he concluded that the war was unwinnable and that the policies he had helped design to prosecute it were "wrong, terribly wrong."

Twenty years after the end of the conflict that claimed 58,000 American lives and 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, McNamara is hearing the bitter denunciations again. "All Mr. McNamara has done is increase the pain of all those who served," says Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war. In an unforgiving editorial, The New York Times observed, "His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around Mr. McNamara."

Though his eyes occasionally brim with tears when he discusses the past, McNamara still turns glacial when parrying criticism. "There are some who say it's much too late to be recognizing failure," he concedes, sitting in his Pennsylvania Avenue office near the White House. "It should have been recognized then, and that would have prevented the costs our nation has suffered." McNamara insists that he privately expressed his doubts about the war within the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and that it would have given "aid and comfort to the enemy" to speak out after leaving the Pentagon in 1968 to head the World Bank, where he remained until 1981.

David Halberstam, whose 1969 bestseller The Best and the Brightest pilloried the leaders whose decision mired the U.S. in Vietnam, is infuriated by McNamara's belated mea culpa. "The real crime is the crime of silence," he says. Halberstam derides McNamara's stated reason for writing the book—"We owe it to future generations" to explain why the war failed. "He's trying to come to terms with his conscience," Halberstam says. "It would take a team of psychiatrists to understand Robert McNamara. He's the most divided man in public life I've ever seen."

Washington insider Joan Braden, McNamara's frequent companion since the 1981 death of his wife, Marg, bristles at suggestions he is begging forgiveness. "People act as if some dark thing were hanging over him and now he's decided to come clean," she says. "It's unfair that he was blamed for it all. He did what he thought was best, tough as it was."

McNamara had groomed himself to make tough decisions. The son of a San Francisco shoe salesman, he majored in economics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he met his future wife, Margaret Craig. They married in 1940, after McNamara graduated from Harvard Business School. During World War II he served in the Army Air Force as an operations expert. Then, in 1946, he joined the Ford Motor Company, where in 1960 he became the first nonfamily member to be named company president. Seven weeks later, at 44, he gave up his six-figure salary to join John F. Kennedy's cabinet. After Kennedy's assassination, McNamara stayed on, becoming one of President Lyndon Johnson's most trusted advisers.

When the nation began to sour on Vietnam after Johnson started sending large numbers of U.S. troops there in the mid-'60s, McNamara could see the pain growing in his own family. Son Craig, now 45, a farmer in Winters, Calif., hung an American flag upside down—a common symbol of Vietnam protest—in his bedroom at the family's Georgetown home. Stress-induced ulcers caused him to be classified 4-E ("It's terribly hard sometimes to be his son," Craig admitted in 1984. "There is the deepest river of love between us, and it goes dry over Vietnam.") Daughter Kathleen, now 50 and a forester in the capital, joined antiwar marches. (Daughter Margy, 53, who lives in Atlanta, was a civil rights activist.) McNamara has blamed his wife's death at 65 from cancer in part on the strain of the war. "She was very sensitive," he has said of Margaret, who also suffered from ulcers. "She felt the trauma our nation was in. And she was with me when people said I had blood on my hands."

Not every attack came from a stranger. Visiting old friend Jacqueline Kennedy at her Manhattan apartment in the mid-'60s, McNamara was stunned when she "suddenly exploded" and beat her fists against his chest, demanding, "Do something to stop the slaughter!"

Even though McNamara's Pentagon secretary once confided that he wept after hearing devastating war briefings, he did not share his deep concerns at home. "We didn't fight," he says. "What was worse, I turned inward and did not communicate adequately with my family. That's a very serious failing."

One of the few people who know a more open, introspective side of McNamara is his longtime friend and climbing partner Dr. Ben Eiseman. "He and I have talked about these things for many, many years, from 20,000 feet down to sea level," says the Denver surgeon. "This book really is the outpouring of his soul that he's shown at 18,000 feet, with the wind blowing and the snow falling." But as McNamara has seen, an even colder, less forgiving wind sometimes prevails below.

SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington

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