Apparently to McNamara’s mortification, Errol Morris, whose film The Fog of War I discussed in my last column here, passes over his subject’s thirteen-year stint running the World Bank, whither he was dispatched by LBJ, Medal of Freedom in hand. McNamara brandishes his bank years as his moral redemption, and all too often his claim is accepted by those who have no knowledge of the actual, ghastly record.
No worthwhile portrayal of McNamara could possibly avoid his performance at the World Bank, because there, within the overall constraints of the capitalist system he served, he was his own man. There was no LeMay, no LBJ issuing orders. And as his own man, McNamara amplified the blunders, corruptions and lethal cruelties of American power as inflicted upon Vietnam to a planetary scale. The best terse account of the McNamara years is in Bruce Rich’s excellent history of the bank, Mortgaging the Earth, published in 1994.
When McNamara took over the bank, “development” loans (which were already outstripped by repayments) stood at $953 million and when he left, at $12.4 billion, which, discounting inflation, amounted to slightly more than a sixfold increase. Just as he multiplied the troops in Vietnam, he ballooned the bank’s staff from 1,574 to 5,201. The institution’s shadow lengthened steadily over the Third World.
From Vietnam to the planet: The language of American idealism was just the same. McNamara blared his mission of high purpose in 1973 in Nairobi, initiating the World Bank’s crusade on poverty. “The rich and the powerful have a moral obligation to assist the poor and the weak.” The result was disaster, draped, as in Vietnam, with obsessive secrecy, empty claims of success and mostly successful efforts to extinguish internal dissent.
At McNamara’s direction the bank would prepare five-year “master country lending plans,” set forth in “country programming papers.” In some cases, Rich writes, “even ministers of a nation’s cabinet could not obtain access to these documents, which in smaller, poorer countries were viewed as international decrees on their economic fate.”
Corruption seethed. Most aid vanished into the hands of local elites, who very often used the money to steal the resources–pasture, forest, water–of the very poor whom the bank was professedly seeking to help.
In Vietnam, Agent Orange and napalm. Across the Third World, the bank underwrote “Green Revolution” technologies that the poorest peasants couldn’t afford and that drenched land in pesticides and fertilizer. Vast infrastructural projects such as dams and kindred irrigation projects drove the poor from their lands, from Brazil to India.
It was the malign parable of “modernization” written across the face of the Third World, with one catastrophe after another prompted by the destruction of traditional rural subsistence economies. The “appropriation of smaller farms and common areas,” Rich aptly comments, “resembled in some respects the enclosure of open lands in Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution–only this time on a global scale, intensified by…Green Revolution agricultural technology.” As an agent of methodical destruction, McNamara should be ranked among the top tier earth-wreckers of all time.
Back in 1994 (you can find the remarks on page 409 of my The Golden Age Is in Us) I had a conversation with Noam Chomsky, in which McNamara’s name cropped up. “If you look at the modern intelligentsia over the past century or so,” Chomsky said, “they’re pretty much a managerial class, a secular priesthood. They’ve gone in basically two directions. One is essentially Leninist. Leninism is the ideology of a radical intelligentsia that says, we have the right to rule. Alternatively, they have joined the decision-making sector of state capitalist society, as managers in the political, economic and ideological institutions. The ideologies are very similar. I’ve sometimes compared Robert McNamara to Lenin, and you only have to change a few words for them to say virtually the same thing.” True enough. “Management,” McNamara declared in 1967, “is the gate through which social and economic and political change, indeed change in every direction, is diffused throughout society.” Substitute “party organization” for “management” and you have Lenin.
From “democratic centralism” to bureaucratic centralism. The managerial ideal for McNamara was military dictatorship. McNamara threw money at Pinochet’s Chile after Allende’s overthrow and at the military dictators of Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines and Indonesia. The darker the dictatorship, the more lavishly McNamara rewarded it. He showered money on Romania’s Ceausescu–$2.36 billion between 1974 and 1982. As McNamara crowed delightedly about his “faith in the financial morality of socialist countries,” Ceausescu razed whole villages, turned hundreds of square miles of prime farmland into open-pit mines, polluted the air with coal and lignite, and turned Romania into one vast prison, applauded by the bank in a 1979 economic study as being a fine advertisement for the “Importance of Centralized Economic Control.” This same report hailed as “an essential feature of the overall manpower policy” Ceausescu’s stimulus of “an increase in birth rates.” The reality? Ceausescu forbade abortions and cut off distribution of contraceptives. Result: tens of thousands of abandoned children dumped in orphanages.
In the weeks after Errol Morris’s film was launched, McNamara scurried to Washington to participate in forums on the menace of nuclear destruction with the same self-assurance with which he’d gone to Vietnam and Cuba to review the record. In my local paper I read that he and Morris are partaking in a dog-and-pony show at the Zellerbach auditorium at the University of California, Berkeley. “Condemned out of his own mouth” indeed! If Morris had done a decent job, McNamara would not dare to appear in any public place. It’s as though Eichmann had started lecture-circuit pillow fights with a complaisant biographer.