The Fog of Hubris

The life and afterlife of Robert McNamara


Robert Strange McNamara—secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the Ford Motor Company and the World Bank, co-architect of the Vietnam War—died Monday at age 93. Two days later, The New York Times published a column by the filmmaker Errol Morris, who once directed a documentary about McNamara. Morris noted, with more sympathy than I could ever muster, that McNamara did take some blame for the disaster that the Vietnam War turned out to be. "He said, 'We were wrong,'" wrote Morris. "He was reluctant to use the first person. It was always 'we,' not 'I.'"

By losing himself in the plural form, McNamara may have been evading responsibility for his personal role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. But he was imparting an important truth as well. Vietnam was collective endeavor, and one way men like McNamara made it happen was by refusing to rock the boat even after they started to have their doubts about the project. McNamara was an Organization Man.

Indeed, he encapsulated the entire Organization Man era. After his work as an analyst for Gen. Curtis LeMay during World War II—"If we'd lost the war," he later quoted LeMay as saying, "we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals"—he came to Ford, where he was one of a group of number-crunching ex-military men who applied the management control systems they'd developed at the Pentagon to the business of creating cars. If the individualists of mid-century America often found big business as alienating as big government, that surely had something to do with the culture at corporations like Ford, which drew on the same pool of technocrats who were running Washington. McNamara eventually became president of the company, and from there he slid back into the public sector, becoming Kennedy's secretary of defense in 1961.

At the Pentagon, McNamara oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War as though the conflict were an industrial assembly line; he sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers into combat, and he killed countless civilians by bombing Vietnamese villages. In 1968, with growing doubts about the efficacy of those approaches, he jumped to the World Bank. He brought the same technocratic mentality to his duties there, with similarly destructive results: He sponsored vast white-elephant "development projects" whose most notable effect was to evict peasants from their land, and he doled out dollars to dictators from the right-wing regime in Argentina to the Stalinist state in Romania.

By this time you might expect McNamara to have been exiled from polite society. Instead, the worst sanction he suffered came one summer in the '60s when antiwar vacationers on Martha's Vinyard refused to play tennis with him, leaving his household with no partners but McGeorge Bundy's family. With time those old animosities faded, and through it all McNamara stayed atop the World Bank, a job he didn't leave until 1981. It's easy to fall out of favor in the circles of American power, much harder to be expelled from the establishment entirely.

McNamara even reearned the respect of some figures on the left, criticizing the arms race in the '80s and finally confessing in the '90s that "we" had been wrong in Vietnam. After Errol Morris' movie The Fog of War appeared at the end of 2003, McNamara had a brief impact on the public debate over the occupation of Iraq. Morris is a great filmmaker, but The Fog of War is an uneven, poorly organized picture. It attempts to draw 11 vague "lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara" (among them: "There's something beyond one's self" and "Get the data") but it's often impossible to connect the material we're shown with the platitude the sequence is supposed to illustrate. Nonetheless, the film won high praise and an Oscar, in part because it was politically useful—and obviously accurate—to draw parallels between the hubris of McNamara's generation and the hubris of the Iraq hawks.

Since then, the wing of the establishment that invaded Iraq has been eclipsed by the wing of the establishment that invaded theaters to see The Fog of War. But if you think that means the old McNamara mentality has died, think again. Obama's best and brightest seem intent on retracing the dead man's footsteps, sending one passel of planners to run the auto industry and another to escalate a war in southern Asia. The Organization Man may belong to an earlier era, but hubris is alive and well.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.

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  1. I guess I liked Fog of War better than you did; I will be an apologist for it by noting that a biography can be a little messy since people – especially a man like McNamara – are messy themselves.

    It would be nice if ALL administrations (and the people that work in them) took his life as a cautionary tale, that education and good intentions do not always bring about the desired, or even a desirable, result.

  2. making a big deal about him using “we” versus “I” seems pretty nitpicky to me.

  3. Eh: The article doesn’t make a big deal about the we/I thing. Pretty much everything I have to say about it is reproduced here in the blog teaser. The argument that McNamara was an Organization Man rests on his career, not his pronoun preferences.

    NeonCat: Morris usually excels at capturing the messiness of his subjects’ lives. In this case, he got tripped up by the messiness of the framework he tried to attach to the life. Or so it seems to me, anyway; I realize I’m in the minority on this one.

  4. “We” is first person, in the plural form. “I” is first person in the singular form.

  5. “We” are first person, in the plural form. “I” am first person in the singular form.

  6. So JFK wasn’t really The Greatest President and Skirt-Chaser Ever?? That Vietnam thing tarnishes him somewhat? Hundreds of thousands died, but Jack fucked Marilyn Monroe! That’s all that counts. McNamara? Just a bit player in the Kennedy tragedy.

  7. In The Fog of War McNamara shows up as a much more sympathetic character than he deserves. He apparently was aware of the futility of the VN conflict before JFK was dead and buried.

    The fact that he didn’t resign within a year of the dawn of the LBJ regime, recognizing as he did the bankruptcy of that old psychopath’s policies is a serious negative with me.

    I mean really, what the fuck was his excuse?

  8. Not to draw too many parallels, but I’ve noticed that during the last few Presidential campaigns rank-and-file Democrats have tended to place enormous value on their candidates’ education and “intelligence.” There also seems to be a strong feeling that less-educated people aren’t even qualified to vote. I’m wondering if they learned anything from McNamara and the other “best and brightest” of the Vietnam era. Both parties’ constituencies have their blind spots, but my impression is that the Dems have a weakness for straight-A students.

  9. McNamara was the ultimate example of failure falling up.

    He was involved with Ford Motor Company in the time frame of the Edsel and the zenith of GM’s dominance in the American car biz.

    When he ran DoD, – in addition to ‘Nam – he inflicted some of the worst procurement disasters in DoD history. The FX fighter program was an expensive boondoggle. The C5 Galaxy program was scandalously administered.

  10. the Dems have a weakness for straight-A students.

    Only if their ideology is right.

  11. I mean really, what the fuck was his excuse?

    So what, you think he’s going to quit his job and go work at McDonalds?

    Real people are driven by their egos, not some semblance of consciously chosen principles.

  12. education and good intentions do not always bring about the desired, or even a desirable, result.

    For over a century now, the vast majority of “smart” people around the world have been socialists of some flavor.

    Some may debate their intentions, but around here we’d largely agree that socialists are idiots.

    This leads to the conclusion that smart people are idiots.

    But most people will never arrive at that conclusion because their head would explode. And that’s why this

    It would be nice if ALL administrations (and the people that work in them) took his life as a cautionary tale

    is never going to happen.

  13. For over a century now, the vast majority of “smart” people around the world have been socialists of some flavor.

    Some may debate their intentions, but around here we’d largely agree that socialists are idiots.

    This leads to the conclusion that smart people are idiots.

    But most people will never arrive at that conclusion because their head would explode.

    Elegantly stated, Ebeneezer Scrooge.

    Anyone care to explain this logical contradiction in relation to the empirical evidence? You say “For over a century now,” but has it ever been thus? Ancient superstitions have been explained by the technical limits of scientific method, eg arteries were presumed to conduct air because cadavers’ arteries were empty; but political theory would seem to depend more on direct insight into human nature.

    Socialist ideas are more than one century old; if the head-exploding disjunction to which you point has operating since the Enlightenment, which gave us many good things, why?

  14. I’d be happy enough to start, if I understood why the majority of educated people seem to turn into socialists.

    Yes our school systems are slanted that way, but alone doesn’t seem to explain it.

    Why does socialism have the appeal that it does, while classical liberal ideals seem to remain on the fringe?

  15. Women’s suffrage?

  16. To add to TheZeitgeist, it was McNamara and The Whiz Kids who got more than a few Marines and soldiers killed by procuring M-16’s without the chrome lining in the chambers in an effort to save money. The result was that fired cases got stuck in the chambers as the weapons heated up – something the inventor, Eugene Stoner knew about and added the chrome lining specifically to prevent. Of course, The Whiz Kids knew better…

  17. I’ll make the same comment here I’ve made elsewhere: burn in hell, Bobby.

  18. I’d be happy enough to start, if I understood why the majority of educated people seem to turn into socialists.

    First, you have to cast your net fairly narrowly, I believe, to say a majority of educated people turn into socialists. This may be true in Western Europe and the US, but I wonder about the rest of the world.

    Even in Western Europe and the US, the vast majority of university-educated types go into business, not government/academia/the arts, the known hot-beds of socialism. These are high-visibility areas, but I suspect that means we undercount the number of non-socialists with degrees.

  19. Liberal/Socialist assholes get A’s because their professors are liberal/socialist assholes, NOT because they are smart. Let them try that crap in a science curriculum.

  20. @ Jesse

    I see what you are saying and I think I agree to a degree. I would suspect that usually Morris’s work is more solo and with Fog it was more collaborative – McNamara had points to make and Morris worked with and around that. So you could say that, once again, McNamara screwed something up by his involvement.

  21. I agree to a degree

  22. There’s a difference between intelligence and wisdom, anarch. And not just in D&D.

  23. RC,

    You may be right, and maybe my perception is just from my own limited experience.

    But I’m surprised how many liberal Democrats I find out in industry, taking their pay checks from capitalist pigs. And I know you don’t find very many libertarian types in government and academia.

    Maybe the problem with the rest of the world is the fact that Western Europe and the US are where those who can, go for their educations.

    All I know for sure is that I run into lots of Democrats and liberal Democrats in the big cities, and among the ranks of the college educated, including a fair bunch of them in industry.

    OTOH, I did my master’s degree in Tennessee, and it was the people at large in places like that, where I found a natural, inborn distrust in socialist solutions. I know the same sentiments exist among the rednecks I grew up with in upstate NY.

    I spent a month in Vietnam a couple of years ago. The few college educated I met were clearly in favor of socialist ideals (maybe because you just can’t get a job there otherwise?). But the bulk of the common people were vocally, adamantly not.

    It’s enough to make you love the uneducated masses…..

  24. LeMay’s comment about being prosecuted as a war criminal was a comment on the vindictiveness of the Axis. He was not saying that there was a sound case that he’d actually committed war crimes. Collateral damage has never been against the laws of war, so long as it is proportional to the military value of the target.

    The Vietnam War was only futile the way McNamara fought it – allow a coup and murder of the only effective leader South Vietnam ever had, then never take the fight to the real enemy – Hanoi. By 1973, the South Vietnamese, with US air and logistical support, had destroyed the guerillas within South Vietnam, repelled Hanoi’s conventional invasion attempt, and bombed Hanoi into making concessions at the peace table. Then the antiwarriors took over Congress and cut off US funding for the war, leading to Hanoi’s successful 1975 invasion, after which far more Indochinese civilians were mass-murdered by the Commies than had ever been killed as collateral damage by the US.

    McNamara was just another Demoncrat turncoat, anti-Communist before commie-stooges assassinated JFK and RFK, pro-Communist afterwards.

  25. to sophin d’ou sophia/cleverness is not wisdom ~ Bacchae, l. 395

    So what other notorious fallacies attend intelligence?

  26. sophin s/b sophon

  27. Tim Starr, your ideas intrigue me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter, which I assume is titled Dolchstoss.

  28. Why does socialism have appeal to the left and to the “educated”? It really doesn’t. I think what appeals is the “mixed system”, government that is combined or “optimised” with socialist and capitalist ideas. There are almost no pure socialists in the world.

    One has to admit there are shortcomings to a purely capitalistic economy, as there are shortcomings to a purely socialistic economy. What is the most desirable mix is subject to debate.

    Eg: Europe is NOT purely socialistic. It’s fallacious to claim they are just socialists, they obviously have many capitalistic elements in their gov’ts

    In fact, every single developed country is a mix between capitalism and socialism. The mix works, and I’m glad that we can fight over the proper mixture.

    I agree that pure socialism is unworkable right now, just like pure libertarianism (anarchy) probably works like shit too.

  29. mmmm, yes and no.

    Rough paraphrase from Aristotle’s _The Politics_:

    “Now, the people of The State may share everything in common, or they may share nothing in common……but clearly they cannot share nothing in common, for being a State, they must at least share the name….”

    I have thought right along the same lines you’re suggesting here, about where the balance point should be.

    The Balance Point is a moving target. I’d hazard the opinion that Confucianism was a brilliant system in the days of Han China. But it was way beyond shelf life by 1900.

    No, Europe is not completely socialist, I’m clear on that. But I argue that it’s way too socialist for its own good. Economic growth rate and social mobility are stagnant relative to what the US has had. And Western Europe can’t afford to pay for its own military defense.

    [just wait until the US really does go broke, then they’re going to find out what that means]

    I agree that anarchism is just as bad as pure and strict and pure socialism. The end points of the spectrum are not realistic options.

    But I still contend that here in the West, within the ranks of our educated intelligentsia, people lean more toward socialism and centrally planned government control, aka Europe’s “middle way”, than towards what the US has been (more capitalistic).

    It’s been this way for a long time now……

    My question: how come?

    Current best guess: the “we’re going to help the common people” argument somehow gets lots of traction, though it is clearly incorrect. The best way to help the common people in the big picture, is to push up the economic growth rate. Yet I don’t see this ideal getting any real traction.

    The idea that “we’re going to plan things, rather than live with chaos” also seems to get a lot of traction with educated people. And socialism is all about central planning.

    The idea that civilizations do best with just the right amount of chaos mixed in, is not an idea you’ll find written in very many books. But I believe that’s what the problem of finding The Balance Point is all about.

  30. May his soul rest in hell–59,000 U.S. servicemembers died in Vietnam!

  31. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

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