Robert McNamara’s actions during the Vietnam War were wrong, terribly wrong.
Such was the assessment of a knowledgable critic: McNamara himself.
The Secretary of Defense during the administrations of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who has died at age 93, was in his day portrayed as the most brilliant technocrat in an era when brilliant technocrats were worshipped by the media and political elites. Unfortunately, his own tragic trajectory confirmed that the best and the brightest were fallible — in the extreme.
A Ford Motors “whiz kid” who brought his management skills to Kennedy’s Camelot and stayed around long enough to watch the dream crumble under Johnson. When he arrived at the Department of Defense, McNamara admitted that his knowledge of military matters was scant. But he was confident enough — arguably “arrogant enough” — to believe he could master the Pentagon with a mumbo-jumbo of management platitudes — announcing his intention to apply an “active role” management philosophy that involved “providing aggressive leadership questioning, suggesting alternatives, proposing objectives and stimulating progress.”
In other words, McNamara winged it.
McNamara peddled the fantasy that something happened in the Gulf of Tonkin that justified giving him a blank check for a massive war in southeast Asia. And McNamara cashed the check, flooding Vietnam with U.S. troops — 535,000 by 1968 — and bringing tens of thousands of those young soldiers home dead or horribly wounded. The Secretary of Defense had tried to fight a war with statistical theories and anti-communist, Domino-theory fantasies. And the project failed.
McNamara recognized this by late 1967 and made some effort to alter U.S. strategies. But it was too late, for him and for Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, which crashed and burned in the Mekong Delta.
Johnson sent McNamara off to run the World Bank — where the master manager did considerable harm as a pioneering proponent of neo-colonial development schemes that the managerial class continues to inflict upon the poorest people on the planet — and that was that.
Except for one thing.
McNamara felt guilty about his management of the Vietnam imbroglio.
His best-selling 1995 reflection on the personal and global nightmare that the war in southeast Asia became, In Retrospect was read by many Americans as an apology. While it may have fallen short of what was required, McNamara did admit that he and is compatriots fouled up — horribly.