Monday, July 06, 2009

Robert McNamara, R.I.P.

When I was a high school student in Iowa City in the 1960s, I attended a number of antiwar rallies on the University of Iowa campus. In the spring of 1967, one of the songs we sang was "McNamara's War," an attack on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sung to the tune of "Macnamara's Band." It began, "My name is McNamara, I'm the leader of the war." That's all I can remember of it. But I do remember that there were people within the antiwar movement who criticized the song for declaring the Vietnam War to be McNamara's.

Robert Strange McNamara died peacefully July 6 at the age of 93. His death has prompted numerous retrospectives of the man who was one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War but who later came to question that war. But while he will best be remembered as the Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the chief architect of Vietnam War strategy, he was also a military planner during the Second World War, a successful Ford executive, and longtime president of the World Bank. Like so many Americans of the late twentieth century, he had an almost religious faith in the power of technology. Unlike many other technocrats, he possessed a conscience. Sadly for the nation, his conscience came into play decades after the war he managed was over.

As an assistant to General Curtis LeMay during the Second World War, he was involved in planning the firebombing of Tokyo, in which 100,000 Japanese lost their lives. He later said that had the Allies lost the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal. Perhaps that horrendous act did shorten the war. But McNamara clearly had more than a few qualms about it. LeMay's belief in the efficacy of heavy bombing may very well have influenced McNamara in Vietnam, where massive bombing never stopped the shipment of arms down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

After World War II, McNamara turned down a job offer from railroader Robert R. Young (I really wish he had taken it), to work for Ford. There he turned the company around by reorganizing its financial system and imposing a new management structure. He opposed the Edsel division and introduced the economical Ford Falcon. He probably saved the Lincoln brand by introducing the Lincoln Continental. He was named president of Ford in early 1960, but left it to become Kennedy's Secretary of Defense.

McNamara reorganized the Defense Department much as he had done with Ford, emphasizing efficiency and technological innovation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis he was a moderating voice, supporting the naval quarantine option, which Kennedy implemented, over air strikes or a military invasion.

Had it not been for Vietnam, McNamara might have been considered a great man, perhaps even a possible presidential candidate. But McNamara, like most of his colleagues in the Kennedy and Johnson Administration, believed in the domino theory--that if South Vietnam goes Communist, then Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, eventually all of Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes to Communism.

And he was a true believer in the lessons of Munich. On September 29, 1938, British prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler signed a pact ceding the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia, to Germany. Chamberlain famously said the agreement would bring "peace for our time." Instead, by allowing Hitler to occupy the well-defended and militarily important Sudetenland (which included the Skoda auto works), his conquest of Europe was made far easier. The appeasement of Hitler had been a grave mistake.

But did the lessons of Munich apply to South Vietnam, which had been created by the 1954 Geneva Conference, and was supposed to be a temporary state prior to nationwide elections? The Eisenhower Administration scuttled the elections in 1956, as it was clear the Communists would win. For the Vietnamese, America had replaced the French as a colonial power.

But to McNamara and others, such as National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, South Vietnam was the Sudetenland, and to give it up was to appease the Communists. As McNamara later admitted, he saw a civil war as a key part of a global conflict.

In addition to McNamara's misunderstanding of the conflict, his very American faith in technology made the Vietnam war so much more devastating. His reliance on heavy bombing and the latest military theories, such as the Strategic Hamlet Program (which involved the forced relocation of villagers), turned friends into enemies. the struggle for "hearts and minds" failed in large part because of American reliance on the latest technology and military theory.
Still, McNamara had qualms about this war. His son was participating in antiwar demonstrations, as was his daughter's boyfriend. On February 29, 1968 McNamara either resigned or was fired from his Cabinet post. (McNamara himself was never sure.) Shortly thereafter, he became president of the World Bank.

In 1995 McNamara's book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, was published. Nearly thirty years after he left the Cabinet, he tried to deal his own part in that war. (Admission: I've only "read" the abridged audio version.) And while he claimed the book was not an apology, it seemed to me that it was something of one. Here was a man with a conscience, struggling to explain the unconscionable.

In the documentary, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," directed by Errol Morris (which I haven't seen), McNamara lists eleven lessons he's learned. Courtesy of Wikipedia, they are:

1. Empathize with your enemy
2. Rationality will not save us
3. There's something beyond one's self
4. Maximize efficiency
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
6. Get the data
7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
10 Never say never
11. You can't change human nature

For me, the list is both wise and frightening. Most are surely wise. The fourth forgets that a totalitarian government can be extremely efficient, while the democratic republic is rarely efficient. Yet that very inefficiency gives it the ability to look at all sides of a question. No. 9 sounds like Dick Cheney.

But unlike Cheney, McNamara has agonized over the morality of his actions. For this we can thank him, and wish him peace.


Charles Gramlich said...

I didn't know most of this stuff. I guess I hardly ever think of public figures as having lives outside the public.

Anonymous said...

Robert McNamara, A.M.F.

This guy was really brave speaking up decades after it would have done any good. Just another damn right-wing vampire.

The Viet Nam war was the second stupidest thing the US Government has ever done (topped only by the current war (yes, singular) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The best and the brightest" indeed.

Anonymous said...

Lessee, what exactly was the good accomplished by the evil of murdering hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people?

This guy would have done well in the Third Reich.

gerry rosser said...

I can't help myself.

Exactly what was the "intended," the "conceptual" good to be accomplished by our commission of near-genocide in Viet Nam? (Setting aside my prior rhetorical question about any actual good accomplished).

I'd like to hear some real examples of good being accomplished by the commission of evil. Truth is, this idea was just self-forgiveness by this evil cretin McNamara.

steve on the slow train said...

Sorry for the late replies--adjusting to a new schedule and actually doing some writing on my novel.

Charles--I learned some of this after Reading "The Best and the Brightest some years ago.

Gerry--I really don't understand why McNamara waited 30 years to explain himself. Another reader who commented on Facebook said he initially didn't want to jeopardize his job with the World Bank. And his explanation at the beginning of his book doesn't make sense.

As far as stupid wars, I'd put the so-called Philippine Insurrection above Vietnam in terms of stupidity--McKinley essentially said he had a message from God to make the Filipinos Christian, despite the fact that most were Christian. The war in Afghanistan was in direct response to the 9/11 attacks, as al Quaeda had its base there. Iraq was an elective war based on false premises, and certainly counts among our dumbest wars, perhaps even ahead of the Philippine war. With John Kerry, I agree that GWB "took his eye off the ball" and went into Iraq while letting the Taliban regroup.

I'll respond to your next comments shortly.

steve on the slow train said...

Gerry, I disagree with with McNamara's Rule No. 9, as I though I made clear. McNamara's experience in World War II surely inspired this maxim. He did, after all, help plan the firebombing of Tokyo. From a utilitarin point of view, and McNamara was clearly a utilitarian, it was an act of evil (LeMay and McNamara knew that thousands of civilians would die horrible deaths) that would bring about an earlier end to the war and thereby save more lives than were lost in the raid. I'm not certain they were correct--it seems now that the most important reason for the Japanese surrender was the fear of the Red Army.

Unlike LeMay, who didn't seem to have a lot of qualms about massive bombing, McNamara had a conscience. He honestly believed in the domino theory, in monolithic communism, and in the necessity of containing communism. He believed that abandoning South Vietnam to the Communists was like letting Hitler have the Sudetenland. He was wrong.

That he failed to speak out against the war when he knew it was wrong, instead of going off to the World Bank, was inexcusable.

But unlike Gen. Westmoreland, Dean Rusk,Henry Kissinger, Melvin Laird, Richard Nixon, or LBJ himself, McNamara finally did try to clear his conscience. He was thirty years too late, but I have to give him some credit for that.

Anonymous said...

I don't give McNamara credit for anything, but a palm leaf for shitty people who die is kind of a tradition, I suppose.

Ah, yes, a lot of politicians/militarists sadly bought into the mythology of the "Cold War." I never believed in the "Cold War," don't think it ever existed except as something to hoodwink the populations of several nations, resulting, in our country at least, in a military budget bloated beyond all reason (note that the military budget didn't really go down after we "won" the "Cold War").

Anonymous said...

I re-read your post and the comments, and the phrase "the banality of evil" popped into my head.