Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Robert McNamara Remembered -
lessons from a liberal technocrat

"I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.

So let it be with Caesar."

- William Shakespeare (Marc Antony's eulogy)
Marc Antony's intent was masked by his words, and the words that Shakespeare put in his mouth are the opposite of what Shakespeare knew to be true. As a rule - it is the good that men do that live after them. We are reluctant to speak ill of the dead. We prefer to celebrate the song and dance man, but forget the child molester and drug abuser. So let it be with Michael. But what of Robert? Almost lost among the Michael Jackson Memorial media circus last week was the notable death of Robert McNamara. Perhaps he is an exception to the rule of remembering only the good men do.

Robert McNamara died in his bed on Monday July 6th. Words like those of Shakespeare's Antony, words crafted to deceive, words considered only as a means to a political end, are words that seem particularly apropos when remembering Robert McNamara.

McNamara has been a frequent topic on this blog. The recurring theme and the unanswered question: What did he know to be true about the Vietnam War, when did he know it, what actions did he take and fail to take as a consequence, and why did he chose not to tell the American people what he knew? It seemed an important lesson for today. From a September, 2006 post:
In 1995, Robert McNamara (widely referred to as "the architect of the Vietnam War") writing in his memoir "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam", revealed that as early as 1967 (with 25,000 American dead) he no longer believed that America could win the war in Vietnam, and as a direct consequence of expressing that view, resigned (or was fired) from the LBJ administration. This McNamara quote is excerpted from Harold P. Ford's analysis "Thoughts Engendered by Robert McNamara's In Retrospect":
"We were wrong, terribly wrong... Enemy morale has not broken . . . . It appears that [the enemy] can more than replace his losses by infiltration from North Vietnam and recruitment in South Vietnam. . . . Pacification has if anything gone backward. As compared with two, or four, years ago, enemy full-time regional forces and part-time guerrilla forces are larger; attacks, terrorism and sabotage have increased in scope and intensity. . . . In essence, we find ourselves--from the point of view of the important war (for the [hearts and minds] of the people)--no better, and if anything worse off. This important war must be fought and won by the Vietnamese themselves. We have known this from the beginning . . ." Robert McNamara -"In Retrospect" (pp. 262-263).
Neither McNamara nor LBJ chose to share that insight with the American public. Ultimately it took 50,000 American lives for a majority of Americans to learn that their government could not be trusted on the reasons for, nor the "light at the end of the tunnel" progress in, Vietnam. It is reasonable to posit, that if McNamara had recognized in 1968 that his loyalty was owed first to the American people, and second to the LBJ administration, had communicated what he knew then to the American people, we might have seen a better end, a quicker end, and fewer deaths and casualties in Vietnam.
McNamara had a bit more nuanced view of his own actions. While he acknowledged his analysis and the consequent administration decisions on Vietnam were dead wrong, while he regretted his support of that war, he remained unapologetic about putting loyalty to his president ahead of his obligations to the American people. He had no problem rationalizing his decision to keep the American people ignorant of what he knew to be true about that war.

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was one of the few broadcast news outlets not distracted by the Michael Jackson death-a-palooza, and explored this very question on the night of his death. An excerpt:

The full segment includes interviews with documentarian Earl Morris and biographer Deborah Shapley. Also interesting, the complete 1995 interview between Macneil and McNamara, as well as a spirited round table discussion between a young Senator John McCain, George McGovern, McGeorge Bundy and Robert Scheer, also available on the PBS site:

Recommended viewing.

The picture of Robert McNamara that emerges from the interviews, the book and the documentary differs from contemporaneous reporting when his memoir was published. There is no contrition on display. No quest for redemption is in evidence as some suggested at the time. This is the technocrat, the policy wonk, the engineer poring over the wreckage of an airplane he designed and offering observations on why it crashed and burned. His hope for his memoir:
"I hope what it will do is cause us to examine what happened then and try to prevent it in the future."
Examining the McNamara lessons can drive a blogger to drink. So let us start at our favorite watering hole, The Repeating History Bar. Here we find another senior administration official choosing personal loyalty to a president over their duty to the American people. Many have compared McNamara to Rumsfeld. I have done so myself. But in the context of the lessons learned from McNamara and Vietnam, the more apt comparison is Colin Powell. From a more recent post:
Colin Powell enabled the GWB administration to garner the support needed to put us on this course [in Iraq]. I suspect that Colin Powell, out of misplaced loyalty, like McNamara on Vietnam, failed to be forthright and honest with the American people about Iraq. Should Colin Powell, in future memoirs, like McNamara, proclaim that he knew that the Iraq occupation was a wrong policy, he will, like McNamara, have blood on his hands for every day that passes between the time that he recognized the mistake, and the day he finally comes clean with the American people. It took McNamara 27 years. How long will it take Powell?"Make no mistake. It was a critical decision point, a nexus in history, when in 2002 Colin Powell walked into the Oval office to advise the President. As he related to Tim Russert:
"when I took it to the president and said, “This is a war we ought to see if we can avoid,” I also said and made it clear to him, 'If, at the end of the day, it is a war that we cannot avoid, I’ll be with you all the way.' That’s part of being part of a team."
Powell understood that this was the wrong path. Powell understood that the rationale for action in Iraq did not pass muster on the lessons he extracted from Vietnam, the Powell Doctrine. Powell could have told Bush that he did not support the policy and resigned. Instead Colin Powell enabled George W Bush to make the decision to prosecute the occupation, much like McNamara enabled LBJ to expand our footprint in Vietnam. Colin Powell sold the war to the American people. After Cheney and Bush, Powell is the man most responsible for the war decision.
That lesson went unheeded. How about another lesson? A cautionary tale about the hubris of having the "best and the brightest" liberal ideologues run the country:

ROBERT MACNEIL: You say you were prompted to write this book because you were heartsick at the cynicism, even the contempt with which people view their political institutions today. How did you think this book might dispel that cynicism?

ROBERT MCNAMARA: I hope it will explore why the leaders did what they did. My associates were properly described by that pejorative term, "the best and the brightest." They were young, intelligent, well-educated, hardworking, dedicated servants, they're people in their government, and they were wrong.

Now, I think, if our people understand that, then we can talk about, why were they wrong? How can we avoid similar errors in the future?

ROBERT MACNEIL: But as you document, if the best and the brightest that Kennedy and Johnson could muster year after year made the mistakes you admit and they refused to listen to their critics, to use your phrase, "were blind prisoners of their assumptions," and in the process sent nearly 60,000 Americans to their deaths, would that not confirm or deepen people's cynicism about government today?

ROBERT MCNAMARA: Well, no, I think -- I hope what it will do is cause us to examine what happened then and try to prevent it in the future.

The last administration did not learn from the lessons of McNamara. One wonders - Could our brand spanking new administration comprised of today's "best and the brightest" liberal ideologues learn anything from Robert? Perhaps they need no lessons, after all they are so supremely confident in their intellect and ability that they:
Nothing to worry about there.

Rest in Peace Robert McNamara.

Your political and intellectual heirs are in charge.

UPDATE: McNamara's favorite poem

A punctuation mark for the man and the post...

The Palace - Rudyard Kipling

"WHEN I was a King and a Mason - a Master proven and skilled
I cleared me ground for a Palace such as a King should build.
I decreed and dug down to my levels. Presently under the silt
I came on the wreck of a Palace such as a King had built."

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

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