Robert McNamara Dies | We Make War in His Image

Vietnam War architect now at rest

Robert McNamara, once president of Ford Motors and World Bank and Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, has died in his sleep. He was 93 years old.

He did not describe himself as being rich, but McNamara did say that he “didn’t have to do things” he didn’t want to do. Thus, it seems unlikely that he didn’t utilize unsecured loans and pay day loans to aid his personal budget. However, he was once the president of Ford. For most of us, $100 to $1,500 in a pinch can go a long way.

In his obituary, the Washington Post calls upon the harsh analysis of David Halberstam from his book “The Best and the Brightest”:

A prisoner of his own background… unable, as indeed was the country which sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities. Since any real indices and truly factual estimates of the war would immediately have shown its bankruptcy, the McNamara trips became part of a vast unwitting and elaborate charade, the institutionalizing and legitimizing of a hopeless lie…

(McNamara) did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.

The smartest fool in the room

Thomas Lippman writes for the Post that McNamara was a “brilliant student, compulsive worker and skillful planner and organizer.” Despite his business success, concern for the financial well-being of developing nations and stance against nuclear proliferation, McNamara will always be remembered for “McNamara’s War,” complete with the deaths of over 58,000 American lives. The country has still not fully healed from those wounds, and we may just be repeating the same tragedy for future generations. McNamara’s legacy has been carried on in the work of former Sec. Donald Rumsfeld. The mistakes are too large to ignore.

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McNamara was a key figure in such major American crises as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. During the Cold War, he advised the development of the multiple-warhead missile. This helped drive a firm wedge through foreign relations between the United States and Communist nations and created the arms race… and yet McNamara himself said that it was “a gross oversimplification to regard Communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped word… The United States has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so.”

Not even in Vietnam?

Many Americans held McNamara responsible for the military quagmire in Vietnam. Despite revealing in his reports – backed up by meticulous charts and graphs – that “every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war,” there was a disconnect between numbers and reality. In a sick form of denial, participants in Washington briefings at the time refused to grasp what was happening in the jungles and rice paddies. Once news of the 1968 Tet Offensive hit America’s airwaves, people began to see that what the government was trying to feed them was a lie.  McNamara was no longer in office, but it didn’t matter to the angry masses.

“I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory
And awake in the dawn’s early light
But much to my surprise
When I opened my eyes
I was a victim of the great compromise.”

– From “The Great Compromise” by John Prine

It was not until his 1996 Vietnam memoir “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” that McNamara admitted it was “wrong, terribly wrong” to conduct the war as they did. In particular, the fact that the war went on long after McNamara realized it was futile because he couldn’t change President Johnson’s mind weights heavily in America’s assessment of McNamara.

Advancements in military bureaucracy

Once President Kennedy named then Ford Motors President Robert McNamara the Secretary of Defense, McNamara immediately set to work. According to a Washington Post account in 1961,

He shook all five floors of the Pentagon in his search for the tools he needed to get a firm grip on the biggest military establishment in the world… McNamara brought in computers to help with the spade work, hired systems analysts to comb through the technical points and then list the pros and cons for the generalists, reassessed the war plans, regrouped weapons into programs.

What he did was no doubt revolutionary, and it changed the way the Pentagon operates. But again, what good he did tends to be forgotten. Unfortunately, there’s good reason for that.

See “The Fog of War”

Robert McNamara is survived by his second wife Diana and three children: Craig and Kathleen McNamara and Margaret Pastor. For more information on Robert McNamara and his involvement in the Vietnam War, check out the brilliant film documentary by director Errol Morris entitled “The Fog of War.” It’s not hard to find and isn’t so expensive that unsecured loans or pay day loans are necessary. If you want to understand the politics of American war, it’s a must-see.

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