Monday, July 6, 2009

Robert McNamara: 1916-2009

Robert McNamara has died at the age of 93. He was one of the central figures of a particularly momentous period in American and world history, and leaves behind a legacy much as complicated as the nation he served. He was a brilliant man whose talents took him from academic excellence to the highest levels of global manufacturing, international politics, and world finance.

McNamara's life was uncannily woven into the fabric of his times. While still in college he took part as a fairly high level functionary in the logistical revolution in warfare that was to change the face of human existence as much as any of the political outcomes of the second world war. As the first president of Ford who was not genetically a Ford, McNamara was one of the first true celebrity CEOs, those captains of globalization that now tower over our society, and with him the transition of the image of the ideal American businessman from hard nosed capitalist to sleek macro-economic technocrat was complete.

But it was as the best and the brightest of The Best and the Brightest (a la Halberstam) that McNamara was to become one of the most controversial figures of his times. Kennedy's decision to look beyond what had been traditional candidates for his cabinet found its most striking and high-profile expression in the person and personal sacrifice of his secretary of defence, who surrendered vast sums of money, many fortunes worth, to enter federal government at the highest level. Had McNamara's only challenges been administrative ones, he would be regarded as an ocassionally abrasive organizational genius. But he lived in more interesting times, and the extent to which the far-right hawks within the military itself continued to direct America's posture towards Soviet Russia and Mao's China is unclear.

McNamara was secretary of defense at the very height of the cold war. It is easy to forget that the west's struggle against communism predated its near-death experience with Fascism, and it is equally easy to forget that before the Soviets became our allies Stalin had signed a friendly non-agression pact with Hitler's Germany and that they had divided Poland between them as if sharing a cookie. After the second world war the armies of NATO were largely demobilized, while the Soviet Union maintained massive and threatening military presences in Central and Eastern Europe whose numbers would always dwarf those they faced, while vast areas of Asia, including China and North Korea fell to radical Communist regimes which terrorized their own populations and cut off contact with the outside world so completely that their internal affairs were matters of conjecture. This state of affairs appeared to deteriorate as North Korea invaded the South, Communist Rebels drove Colonial powers out of South East Asia and Central Africa, and of course, Cuba's revolution similarly brought revolutionary Marxism to the Americas. It is in this context that McNamara's actions must be read.

Even as our understanding of The Cuban Missile Crisis undergoes revision, it nonetheless remains clear that the globe was indeed perilously close to a third world war, in all likelihood a nuclear one. It is difficult to overstate the enormity of the consequences of this encounter. Before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the back and forth of geopolitical gamesmanship, while played for higher stakes, operated under much the same assumptions as they had since the advent of gunpowder. But the decision to bomb Cuba in preparation for an invasion itself would have triggered a nuclear exchange, with missiles from Cuba hitting American cities and NATO missiles in Turkey striking Russian ones within hours. Once again, McNamara was at the center of a pivotal event, which convinced decision makers on both sides that direct confrontation was no longer a option.

With the already heightened atmosphere thus further charged, it appeared that South Vietnam was also ready to fall to Communism, and all of South East Asia with it. In the context of the Korean war, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops poured across the Manchurian border and precipitated the longest retreat in American military history, and Soviet-made aircraft contested with our own for control of the skies, the fall of South Vietnam to Communism could only appear to be a nightmarish de ja vu, with little doubt that Russian and Chinese intentions were being served. In hindsight, it seems difficult to imagine that the U.S. would not have tried to oppose this. If Johnson is saddled with the ultimate responsibility for the war, it was Robert McNamara who became most closely identified with the actual policies and their prosecution.

In retrospect, it is clear a vast array of mistakes were made by the United States in Vietnam, not least the decision to fight a war there in the first place. But McNamara, who has since gone public with his judgment that the whole endeavor was an error, is blamed for all of them. McNamara's main goal in his Vietnam directives seems to have been first and foremost to avoid a widening of the war into open conflict with China, which could easily have segued into world war. Consequently, the conflict took on an almost absurd character, in which the vast industrial might of the forces at his disposal were of little or no use. Hated by both the right for not being agressive enough, and by the left for being agressive at all, he came to personify the impersonal murderousness of Modern Western Capitalist Imperialism: the slick-haired suit who smiled and joshed while babies died and villages burnt, seemingly oblivious to the madness, or worse, to almost enjoy it. This caricature bore no resemblance to the rigorous thinker who struggled with his duties and agonized over his decisions, but that didn't matter. In the end, with social upheaval flashing across America and Europe, McNamara resigned under a dark and stormy cloud.

In an uncanny twist of his fortunes, rather than disappear in disgrace, he was virtually born again as President of the World Bank, a position he used to once again find the pulse of the future as he pressed for monetary aid to developing nations. In many ways McNamara foresaw the possibility of enlightened globalization. If we have yet to achieve it, it is not his fault.

In a number of remarkably well written books, notably War Without End, McNamara struggled to lay an intellectual foundation for international cooperation on matters of security and stability, arms control, and non-proliferation. He was forthcoming and candid in his self-critical assessments of U.S. foreign policy under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, including radical revisionism on subjects ranging from the Bay of Pigs Invasion (which he called "dumb") to the arms race. He stopped short of the beard-tearing self abasement many on the left felt he should perform, though it remains unclear what, if any apology could have appeased his detractors.

Errol Morris's documentary "The Fog of War" returned McNamara to public view just as the War in Iraq entered its most difficult phase. I believe it is a stirring presentation of the world according to McNamara, and a kinder portrait of the man than Morris himself seems to think. Watch it again. His reasoned and impassioned plea for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament is more timely than ever.