July 10, 2009
Robert McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense under two presidents (1961-1968), and later as president of the World Bank (1968-1981), has passed away at the age of 93. As one of the Kennedy administration's "best and brightest" (in the words of David Halberstam), it was McNamara's cruel fate to be remembered for plunging this country into one of the worst and darkest periods in its history. What did he do that was so wrong? His main "sin," if you can call it that, was applying contemporary, "state of the art" technocratic managerial techniques such as "systems analysis" to a field (military strategy) in which such an approach was not appropriate at all. In the Vietnam War, the obsession with quantifying results led to a misguided focus on "body counts," which severely distorted operational decisions and ultimately corrupted the chain of command. Mid-level commanders learned they had to lie or shade the truth in order to get promotions. It took years for the U.S. Army to recover its reputation and restore troop morale. (Personal note: This sorry state of affairs was one of the main factors that discouraged [me] from staying in the ROTC program.)
Many people think that McNamara redeemed himself when he took the lead in the World Bank, helping to end world poverty, but it was on his watch that the conditions that led to Third World debt crisis (1982) were allowed to fester. The crisis per se was not his fault, certainly, but the same blindness to underlying qualitative conditions which he exhibited in Vietnam set the stage for economic catastrophe around the world. In his memoirs, McNamara admitted that Vietnam was a terrible mistake, to his credit. In the Washington Post, Thomas Lippman had an extensive analysis of McNamara's career, reminding us of McNamara's early successes at the Ford Motor Company. Indeed, McNamara was not at all a bad person, in contrast to some of the others in Washington in those years. Perhaps if he had stayed in the private business sector, Detroit would have revamped its product line in a more timely fashion, avoiding the gas-guzzling disaster of the 1970s. Tragically, however, McNamara's talents were misplaced, and for years to come, his name will be associated with the "quantitative fallacy."
What is most ironic of all about the death of McNamara is that the Obama administration is boldly following the same high-handed approach as the Kennedy administration, in substance as well as style. The new president is confidently relying on experts who are virtual carbon copies of McNamara to tackle the most daunting of global challenges, while micromanaging the myriad details of Americans' daily lives. It's called hubris. Woe is us.