Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Remembering Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, Kennedy Administration, 1961.
July 7, 2009. Robert McNamara died yesterday at his home in Washington at 93. Unknown today, Mr. McNamara was a very powerful and ultimately much maligned member of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations because of the Viet Nam War.

John F. Kennedy appointed him Secretary of Defense at the beginning of his Administration. The incoming Kennedy Administration was very glamorous – there is no other word for it. Mr. Kennedy chose to surround himself with men who were his contemporaries and who had reputations for being very smart and often very successful. They became publicly admired figures overnight. The younger generation wanted to emulate them, hence the Harvard Business and MBA and law degrees that dazzled the Boomers to action.

The poster boy for the ideal American male: smart, stable, sharp and serious.
Mr. McNamara had only recently been made head of Ford Motor Company when he joined the new Administration. Very serious countenance with the odd part in his full head of neatly trimmed hair, way off to the side but not quite in the middle. He looked like what many of the JFK braintrust were regarded as: an egghead. A smarty.

Ordinary people thought of him as one who could spout numbers like a calculator (computers were new then and so huge they filled entire rooms – there were no PCs or Macs and few even foresaw them). Robert McNamara was the poster boy for the ideal American male: smart, stable, sharp and serious. And financially successful.

Then Kennedy was shot, Lyndon came to the Oval Office and the War in Viet Nam was escalated. Armed Forces went from being “advisers” to “combatants.” Thereafter it was always debated whether or not JFK would have ended the war in Viet Nam. Highly debatable. And impossible to know. Mr. Kennedy had a singular advantage with his public: he had the ability to appear to laugh at himself, to admit error with a laugh. It was a very great talent, and charm, and there has never been another to match it.

The Red Chinese were going to invade Viet Nam once the Viet Cong won, and take over all of Southeast Asia and then they would move on to Hawaii and take over Wakiki and then of course on to San Francisco (“open your Golden Gate”) or maybe LA where they could canoodle with the movie stars and put the rest of us in prison. All of what I have just written sounds absurd but much of it was official and not-so-official thinking in America in those years. That’s what you would read in the New York Times editorials and the editorials of most other newspapers – then instruments of public opinion.

President John F. Kennedy with his newly appointed Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara.
Then came the anti-War movement (following the Civil Rights movement and about the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Gay Lib and many other matters of import. The very serious Secretary McNamara began to look like a very serious anti-humanitarian, a monster maybe, declaring war on peoples who were no threat to us and who couldn’t really defend themselves against the greatest war machine in the history of the world.

By the end of the Johnson Administration in 1968, the War – which had seven more years to run – was in full throttle. The public sentiment had largely (although, as Nixon’s election proved, not entirely) turned against the President as well as many members of his Administration including Mr. McNamara whose intellectual strengths seemed to have been reduced to menace.

He looked like such a square, even a goody-goody, such a straight shooter, spanking clean, the perfect corporate titan (1960s style) that it must have been a terrible come-uppance for him. The anti-War sentiment was so strong, so almost violent, that there was no time, no air, no willingness for understanding the head of a man like Robert McNamara.

Several years ago he published a memoir, a screed of sorts, declaring in his fashion, his remorse about the War, admitting that as early as 1965 he was expressing his very serious doubts about the legitimacy of the American involvement. The man fell on his sword. This was never revealed publicly until the book was published, and it came as a surprise to those who even remembered. It was, howbeit, forty years later, amidst the greatest financial boom in American history. Irrational exuberance had long before eradicated memory of any mass conflict before the conflict between Hermes and LVMH. At the time of Secretary McNamara’s tenure, Viet Nam had become everything in the nation’s psyched and it was often referred to in the press as “McNamara’s War.”
With President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in 1968.
The world, as Americans knew it, changed during those years when Mr. McNamara was serving his President and his Country. It was a time of upheaval of turmoil, of protests and the murder of three great public figures – John, Martin and Robert. It was also a deeply romantic time when ordinary men were attracted to great thoughts, whether or not they could even comprehend them. A little cannabis moved things along. It seemed at the time to many of us that the world was indeed changing. It was also assumed by many of us that it was changing into something “better,” something more sensible, something stable, fairer, more intelligent, more accepting, more tolerant, a world possibly free of armed conflict. People actually thought of all that as possible. Maybe it was the cannabis.

Then of course came the re-emergence of the greater fool theory. The lesson of Robert McNamara, thanks to Robert McNamara and his willingness to share his thoughts -- both sides -- with history, is that the honor with which we seemed imbued in those times of war and plunder, the rightness of that honor despite its claims, are scant justification for deceit, public or private. Mr. McNamara recognized this and at the end of his life made an attempt to convey and comprehend his acts of war on his fellow man. An important achievement even if futile during his lifetime.

He was a rare one. Johnson, for example, went back to his ranch and languished in his thwarted glory and shortly thereafter died. Forty years on Robert McNamara wouldn’t leave it. He took a good long look and left his fellow citizens a lesson or two.

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