How To Think About McNamara

My colleauge, Marc Ambinder, has a smart take on Robert McNamara here. It's a safe bet that Robert McNamara's death won't get the coverage afforded Farrah Fawcett or even Ed McMahon. The former Defense Secretary and Vietnam War architect led a life as big as the 20th century, from whiz kid at the Ford Motor Company through Vietnam and then on to the World Bank. His regrets and agony over Vietnam became legend in his later years and his work for liberal causes like the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s made him an ally of those who used to protest outside his office at the Pentagon. Mickey Kaus asked in the New Republic more than 20 years ago whether any single American had done more damage than McNamara. 

At McNamara's footsteps, Kaus laid blame for the collapse of the American auto industry and the dysfunctional policies of the West towards the Third World as well as Vietnam. That seems too harsh. His tenure at Ford wasn't long enough--he'd only been president 10 weeks when Kennedy tapped him to be Defense chief--to assign him blame for the industry's later demise. And the World Bank years, while expansive, merely continued a direction set by others. 

McNamara should be judged harshly for the Vietnam years but his contrition shouldn't be dismissed lightly. Henry Kissinger has never shown anything like it in the years since even though Vietnam was more of a lost cause by the time Richard Nixon took office in 1969. Kissinger's other brilliant decisions, such as making the Shah of Iran our gendarme in the Middle East, also seemed at least as brilliant as McNamara's. And this is leaving aside Pinochet, enabling Nixon at his maddest, and so on.

If McNamara spent the last decades of his life apologizing, shouldn't Henry the K.? 

Presented by

Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.

Video

Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.

Video

How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

Just In