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.