Robert McNamara and the Dreams of Reason

The turmoil over the Vietnam War didn't involve only Ivy Leaguers like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow. It was also a civil war among Berkeleyans. As McNamara told a campus interviewer:

Neither my mother nor father had ever graduated from college. My father hadn't gone beyond the 8th grade, and they were determined that I would go to college. I took the entrance exams for Stanford; at that time (this was 1932 and 1933), very few first-class universities required entrance exams. Stanford did; I passed. But it didn't take me long to figure out that, even working part-time and receiving scholarships, I couldn't possibly pay the board, room, and tuition at Stanford, so I came to Cal. That's the only reason I was here. It was the only first-class university in the country that I could afford to go to. What did I pay? Well I lived at home. I paid $52 tuition per year. And for that I am eternally grateful.

And he continued:

I hope I am an enlightened rationalist, and to the degree that I am, it came from this university. Surely I went to Harvard, and I've in a sense been educated in all the years after I graduated from formal education, but my basic philosophy, my basic moral standards, my basic ethical values came out of this university. . . .

In the demonstrations of the Vietnam Berkeley was divided between liberal and radical factions that turned these values against themselves, bringing their mutual foe, Governor Ronald Reagan, to the fore in national politics. Reading between the lines in the interview, I can sense that McNamara regretted not only the outcome of the war but its effect on his alma mater.  

Conservatives and liberals alike are, for different reasons, disavowing the McNamara legacy. Some defenders of the viability of an expanded war, like Seth Lipsky writing in the Wall Street Journal, despise him. Bret Stephens writes, also in the Journal of both the Defense Department and the World Bank years:

Giant troves of quantitative data were collected, analyzed, disaggregated and reassembled. Plans -- typically on a five-year timetable -- were conceived and then, presumably, executed. He once called the Bank "an innovative, problem-solving mechanism . . . to help fashion a better life for mankind." Nobel Prizes in economics would later be awarded for disproving this mechanistic notion of institutions. But no Nobel was required to understand that rationalism isn't a synonym for reason, much less common sense, or that a planned solution was a workable or desirable solution, or that war or poverty were "problems" in the same sense as, say, a deficit.

While Stephens cites McNamara as a cautionary tale for the Obama administration, the risks of unchecked rationality have been all too evident in the last ten years in industries like energy trading, insurance, and banking, staffed by people from places like Berkeley as well as Harvard. Calm deliberation can mask doubtful assumptions. As G.K. Chesterton put it,  the madman is not the one who has lost his reason, but he who has lost everything but his reason.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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