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.