Remembering Robert McNamara

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 8, 2009

robert-mcnamara

I suppose that I am somewhat late to the story of Robert McNamara’s passing, but I didn’t want to comment until I had a chance to see The Fog of War, which has been on my list of movies I wanted to see, and which so many had raved about. So I downloaded it from iTunes and watched it last night.

It is easy to see why so many viewed McNamara as a brilliant intellect. At age 85–the age he was when Errol Morris interviewed him for the documentary–McNamara was sharp as a tack, possessed of an excellent memory, a powerful ability to tell stories, clearly reflective and contemplative, and demonstrated an admirable intellectual curiosity as he considered his life, his experiences, and the rules that he derived from his life and work background. Would that all of us are able to be as mentally potent when we reach advanced ages.

Counterbalancing McNamara’s admirable display of intellectual firepower, however, were the recordings of conversations between McNamara and President Johnson, conversations that revealed that despite McNamara’s outward confidence that the war in Vietnam was going well, and that America was winning it, both he and Johnson harbored severe and grave doubts concerning the prosecution of the war, and whether America should have even been involved in the first place. The recordings are fascinating, if appalling–causing one to wonder how a man as smart as McNamara could have gone so wrong, how he could have tolerated so dramatic a difference between his public statements on Vietnam and his private views. The divergence between McNamara’s public and private comments are so significant, that one wonders why it was that he did not express his doubts earlier. We learn that McNamara’s concerns grew pronounced enough that he began making policy recommendations to Johnson that Johnson could not countenance. When the policy differences became serious enough, Johnson announced that McNamara would leave the Defense Department and head up the World Bank, where he stayed until 1981.

Why didn’t McNamara talk earlier? He doesn’t really say, but it appears that his public show of support was out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to President Johnson. I say “misplaced,” because while a Secretary of Defense is supposed to be loyal to the President, that loyalty is supposed to come to an end when there emerges the kind of serious policy differences that caused McNamara to speak out against the war in private, and finally caused him to leave the Johnson Administration. At that point, a public servant’s loyalty is only to his or her conscience, and policy concerns and objections ought to be given a voice and spoken to directly in public. It is, after all, the only way that the demands of conscience will or can be met.

But even if we accept that McNamara remained silent out of loyalty to Johnson, we are at a loss when we ask why McNamara shut down the conversation over Vietnam near the end of the movie, stating simply that the war was too complicated to comment on, and that if McNamara tried to offer commentary, he would simply get into trouble. His reasoning was silly. Johnson was long dead, there had been a great deal of commentary concerning Vietnam, and while the subject matter certainly was complicated, it was not as if McNamara could not offer some insightful nuggets of historical analysis. It seemed as if McNamara was caught between wanting to examine his role in crafting and implementing Vietnam policy, and wanting to move on. The end result was a halting, somewhat pitiful display on his part.

But at the end, I was fascinated by the man’s discussion of his life, his experiences, and the lessons he derived. Incomplete as it was, his discussion of Vietnam was gripping. And at the end, I felt sorry for him. Robert McNamara was clearly a good person who was caught in events the likes of which he could never have possibly contemplated he would have had to contend with. He was a very smart man who was conditioned to trust in his intellect, and clearly spent the rest of his life trying to figure out how that intellect failed him, and failed the nation. After leaving the Defense Department, he spent his days haunted and melancholy. Short of actually dying in office, he paid the ultimate price for trying to serve his country.

There are, of course, people who believe that he did not pay enough. I am not one of them, and if there were any possibility that I would be one of them, that possibility dissipated into thin air when I watched this brilliant, hyper-competitive, prideful, egotistical, arrogant, profound, reflective, stubborn, and inquisitive man searching–even flailing–to try to understand his place in history, and to atone for the wrongs he believed he was responsible for.

RIP.

Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

  • swj719

    Please. That man did almost as much to kill US Soldiers in Vietnam than the VC did. His bean-counting approach to weapons procurement led to an M16 that was beyond trash, and ammunition that was sub-standard leading to misfires and fouled chambers and barrels. His micro-management of the war itself boarded on the incompetent.

    McNamara shut down the conversation over Vietnam because he sensed the interviewer might dare interject actual facts, as opposed to the revisionist history he penned for his book.

    Robert McNamara certainly did NOT pay enough for his sins – sins he refused to acknowledge later in life.

    Don't ever feel sorry for the man. He was a classic bean-counter. He knew the cost of everything, but the value of nothing. His self-serving book is a compilation of fairy-tales that nearly any veteran of Vietnam could refute.

    My father is such a verteran. He was proud to serve, and to this day insists that going to Vietnam was the right thing for the US to do. For Robert McNamara, however, he had never a kind word to say about the man.

    After an objective study of how he helped conduct the DoD and US Military during Vietnam, I can't say that I blame the man.

  • simone111

    Vietnam was not a mistake that McNamara made. Vietnam was a war waged by ideas that McNamara believed. His ideas, the same ones he used to justify decision making during WWII, are what haunted him later in life. He reduced war to a set of numbers, thus robbing it from human judgment.

    McNamara was no genius, just a man willing to reduce the human condition to a set of numbers to be managed. During WWII he begun his obsession in just the numbers. It was accepted by the majority and thus McNamara had a clear conscious (for the time).

    His tenure at Ford was marked the beginning of it decent. Finance rose as the arbitrator of truth. Judgments that could not be substantiated with numbers were dismissed. His legacy at Ford can be simply stated as the “price of everything but the value of nothing.”

    His efforts as Secretary of defense were also marked by same reasoning. Procurement disasters and the Vietnam War body count logic were just further examples where the price of everything, but the value of nothing was exercised.

    McNamara then went to the World Bank were his by the numbers reasoning produced horrific results to those he sought to help.

    Net McNamara was a monster who was willing to forsake his humanity for simplistic notions of efficiency.

  • simone111

    Vietnam was not a mistake that McNamara made. Vietnam was a war waged by ideas that McNamara believed. His ideas, the same ones he used to justify decision making during WWII, are what haunted him later in life. He reduced war to a set of numbers, thus robbing it from human judgment.

    McNamara was no genius, just a man willing to reduce the human condition to a set of numbers to be managed. During WWII he begun his obsession in just the numbers. It was accepted by the majority and thus McNamara had a clear conscious (for the time).

    His tenure at Ford was marked the beginning of it decent. Finance rose as the arbitrator of truth. Judgments that could not be substantiated with numbers were dismissed. His legacy at Ford can be simply stated as the “price of everything but the value of nothing.”

    His efforts as Secretary of defense were also marked by same reasoning. Procurement disasters and the Vietnam War body count logic were just further examples where the price of everything, but the value of nothing was exercised.

    McNamara then went to the World Bank were his by the numbers reasoning produced horrific results to those he sought to help.

    Net McNamara was a monster who was willing to forsake his humanity for simplistic notions of efficiency.

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