Robert McNamara and the hubris of technology

The architect of 'McNamara's War' is dead, his reputation only partly redeemed by his later years at the World Bank and his recanting of the way the Vietnam War was fought.
Crosscut archive image.

McNamara with JFK at Vandenberg Air Force Base, March 1962

The architect of 'McNamara's War' is dead, his reputation only partly redeemed by his later years at the World Bank and his recanting of the way the Vietnam War was fought.

Robert McNamara is dead at 93. He was preceded in death by 58,000 Americans, by more than 1 million Vietnamese who died in the Vietnam War, and by hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who died in World War II firebombings of cities planned by McNamara and his then-boss, Gen. Curtis LeMay. He is survived by the thousands of Americans and others who have outlived him, though maimed, in veterans hospitals.

Balanced obituaries, leaning toward favorable, no doubt will appear all this week in mainstream media. Tributes will be offered by those who served with him at one point or another in his career. The most recent balanced treatment of McNamara's career was in Errol Morris' brilliant film, "The Fog of War," in 2004. McNamara appeared in the film at length to make observations about events in his career. One of them, accompanied by his laughter, was that he and LeMay "would have been hanged as war criminals" had the United States not been the winner in World War II.

Bent on driving both Germany and Japan to unconditional surrender, the United States and its partner in Europe, Great Britain, undertook firebombings of German civilian targets as a terror tactic. In the Pacific, LeMay and his aide, McNamara, depended on McNamara's statistical analysis showing that more casualities per bomb tonnage could be created by blasting Japanese cities than by focusing on traditional military targets. Firebombings of Tokyo and other population centers created more actual casualties than their later nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

McNamara's career in many ways reflected operative values of the time, especially those which leaned toward the technocratic.

McNamara had briefly been president of Ford Motor Co. when President-elect John F. Kennedy tapped him as Defense Secretary in his incoming 1961 administration. McNamara had been known at Ford for pursuing efficiencies based on statistical analysis and a "systems approach." His principal new-car launch at Ford had been the Edsel, a disastrous non-seller. Someone in the auto industry calculated at the time that Ford would have lost less money if, rather than launching the Edsel, it had simply given away to consumers several hundred thousand new Mercury sedans.

I observed McNamara from a distance as a young intelligence analyst at the Pentagon during the 1961 Berlin Crisis, after the Berlin Wall had been erected and nuclear war was threatened. One of McNamara's aides appeared regularly at our USSR Branch office attempting to quantify data which was not quantifiable. Then, serving in the Johnson White House, I observed McNamara's continuing attempts toward quantification of Vietnam War data which did not lend itself to such analysis — such as the interactions among ethnic and religious groups or the actual political situation on the ground.

McNamara, in White House meetings, consistently argued for military escalations in Vietnam and dispatch of additional U.S. troops. At local dinner parties, however, he painted himself as a dove attempting to restrain LBJ. Johnson thought McNamara was just plain losing it and, in late 1967, fired him as Defense Secretary while informing him that he had been nominated as president of the World Bank, whose principal mission was Third World development.

McNamara made much of his new devotion to the Third World. Bank staff, however, held him in general disrespect. His closest assistant there (not an American) told me at one point that "Robert McNamara is the cruelest, most obtuse, and most self-obsessed person for whom I have worked."

In later life, McNamara had his say, and not only in the "Fog of War" film. He led a mission to Hanoi, wrote about it, and stated that U.S. policy toward Vietnam might have been entirely different "had we known then what we know now" about actual events there during the war period. (There were, of course, many Americans inside and outside government who knew at the time what McNamara claimed to have learned 20 years later.)

In later years I encountered McNamara periodically in study groups and task forces. He was uniformly sure of himself and certain that his analyses and proposals were the correct ones.

I always thought there had to be something in McNamara beyond his external record. Some of his former Defense Department colleagues, including several I respected highly, were quite loyal to him. He clearly was not the one-dimensional character that he often appeared — the smarter-than-you guy "with slickum on his hair," as LBJ once described him. He worked long, hard hours and no doubt sincerely believed in the policies he put forward.

Yet, in the end, he is fated to be associated with the Vietnam War — "McNamara's War" not just to peace protesters but to many who served in civilian government and the military at the time. Robert McNamara was a highly intelligent, complex, and energetic man whose legacy will be his association with policies that were tragically wrong-headed and disastrous.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of