Arnold Kling  

Robert McNamara

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Today's Washington Post has six op-ed pieces. Three are on Sarah Palin, who resigned as governor of Alaska the other day. The other three are on Robert McNamara, who died yesterday.

Palin is known for hunting moose. McNamara is known as the architect of the Vietnam War. The op-ed writers generally take a more respectful tone toward McNamara.

Palin represents small-town America. McNamara was comfortable among business and academic elites. It is easier for me to relate to McNamara than to Palin.

I often say that an important step in my journey away from the left was reading David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and seeing how someone as intelligent and well-intentioned as McNamara could have blind spots. One could argue that McNamara is exhibit A in my case against what Thomas Sowell would call the unconstrained vision, which holds that certain people have so much knowledge and moral strength that they should be given great power over the rest.

David Ignatius writes,


perhaps the memory of this brilliant and tragic man will keep us from being too certain of our own judgment--and encourage us to consider, even when we feel most confident, the possibility that we could be wrong.

Not bloody likely. I worry that today's equivalent of Robert McNamara is Peter Orszag, who I fear is poised to do for our health care system what McNamara did for Vietnam.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (10 to date)
RL writes:

"Palin is known for hunting moose. McNamara is known as the architect of the Vietnam War. The op-ed writers generally take a more respectful tone toward McNamara."

To rephrase: Palin is known for killing moose. McNamara is known for arranging the mass killing of people. The op-ed writers generally take a more respectful tone toward McNamara...

David R. Henderson writes:

Arnold,
Call me one of the great unwashed, but I can more easily relate to Palin than to McNamara. Maybe you think it's strange but, like RL above, while I'm not gung-ho about killing moose, I don't think it's clearly evil, as McNamara was in killing hundreds of thousands of innocent humans.
I think you're right that one of McNamara's counterparts today is Orszag. Another was Bush's "Defense" secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. And Bush himself. And Obama.
Best,
David

Les writes:

McNamara was part of the JFK/LBJ administration, which received favorable media coverage.

It seems to me that Palin was smeared by Democrats because (despite a few flaws) she posed a potent threat as someone:

(a) not a Washington insider, nor of elite status,
(b) able to communicate with the average Joe and Jane,
(c) of greater demonstrated achievement as a governor, than Senate bloviators Obama or Biden.

But Palin was defeated and discouraged by the poor treatment she received from her own Republican party. The Republican failure to defend her contrasts with the Democrat halo that protected McNamara.

El Presidente writes:

Les,

I hate to burst your bubble, but she was also shot down because she was next in line to an old man with health problems and she didn't know much of anything about foreign or domestic policy, except for her ideological preferences. She really wasn't even capable of matching them to policies in the abstract. Ignorance is not an attractive quality in a candidate no matter the job. Much less so when the job is Vice President. I'm not saying she's stupid, but she was clearly unprepared. In spite of what civil service rules would suggest, experience does not equal aptitude or wisdom. Experience equals only experience, and her experience as a governor does not speak well of her qualification to be Vice President. What tremendous accomplishments does she have to her credit that would outweigh her apparent ignorance?

McNamara is a wholly different creature. He was the antithesis of formal ignorance. I disagree that he is the essential unconstrained visionary. His most glaring fault was his ability and willingness to objectify humans; to treat them strictly as numbers and thereby to make them equal with all of his other numbers (i.e. bombs, dollars). It is not the fact that he pursued policy with rigor and diligence that made him creepy. It is the fact that, for him, the end justified the means. The end was survival. The end was above reproach and all subsequent actions were akin to self defense. This is a problem we see with the schizophrenic. They see offense where nobody else would and where none is intended or realistically possible. They respond in self defense and thereby provoke and escalate conflict where there wasn't need or cause for any to begin with. McNamara was not ignorant of the facts or of policy. He seems to have been ignorant of his own tendency toward fear and the chain of reactions that follow that emotion. His assignment of value was questionable to many, and at times even to himself.

Drtaxsacto writes:

First, your post is spot on. I am not sure where El Presidente derives his thoughts but they certainly do not come close to mine. Palin is not my favorite politician. But I believe she was grabbed by the media because they don't understand her. Indeed, she could have been better schooled. Indeed, it might have been useful to know where South Twerp is. But look at the alternative. McNamara could do a count on almost anything. His plan in Vietnam was not survival unless you count political survival. He was convinced of the overwhelming power of his intellect. But as Hayek pointed out in the Counter Revolution of Science - counting things does not make them real. "He seems to have been ignorant of his own tendency toward fear and the chain of reactions that follow that emotion." - That is always true when you begin with an assumption in intellectual superiority based on a set of techniques.

Floccina writes:

"Best and the Brightest and seeing how someone as intelligent and well-intentioned as McNamara "

I have often wonder how intelligent well intentioned people can at times support strange policies. I wonder if it is because of their separation from the poor and average for most of their lives. Do they become out of touch with how people will react to policy. For example the brilliant linguist Noam Chomsky sometimes comes up with some strange ideas.

Zinzindor writes:


With regards to addressing the health care system, perhaps the more apt comparison to Orszag is Curtis LeMay.

El Presidente writes:

Drtaxsacto,

But look at the alternative.

I'm convinced that's precisely what people did.

His plan in Vietnam was not survival unless you count political survival.

He did. Not in terms of his own or of an administration's, but rather survival of a particular political system. He engages it in his book In Retrospect, and it is illuminated in the biographical film The Fog of War. He speaks about their belief that the spread of Communism would threaten Capitalism and Democracy. He was persuaded that he was fighting for the cause of the righteous in a war that was unavoidable. He rethought these things later in life and admits in the film that he afterward saw little distinction between himself and those he was fighting against in multiple conflicts. He remarked that if we had lost any of several conflicts Americans would have been tried and probably convicted as war criminals because of the things we did, some at his direction and under his advisement. This reflects the sense he had that winning was necesary no matter what it took and that his methods of devising the lowest cost of killing were key to extending the limits of threatened destruction as a means of breaking an enemy. Expediency and overwhelming violence was presumed to limit the duration of conflict no matter the reason for or nature of the conflict itself.

That is always true when you begin with an assumption in intellectual superiority based on a set of techniques.

I fail to see how an arrogant pacifist would have contributed to the killing of millions. McNamara's conceit was not, in itself, fatal. His willingness to enlist violence in what he believed to be a righteous cause is more responsible, in my opinion.

Dr. T writes:

What I greatly disliked about McNamara was his egotism-fueled belief that a good corporate executive could run any company (or any section of government). This fallacy was widely believed for more than a generation. In 1961 McNamara went from Ford Motor Co. to Secretary of Defense, where he performed horribly. Three decades later, John Sculley went from VP of Sales at PepsiCola to CEO of Apple Computer, where he nearly destroyed the company.

I hope current business admin classes discuss McNamara's fallacy and give examples of the big failures that happened because the fallacy was believed.

Another pet peeve I have on this topic is the error of educational signaling. A Harvard degree correlates best with privilege and influence, and not with IQ. Yet, many people think that one must be a genius to get a BA from Harvard. Harvard would lose badly in an IQ comparison with a school just a short distance away: MIT. Similar signaling errors occur with other well-known schools, and the reverse errors occur when those who went to good but lesser-known schools are overlooked or treated badly.

Walt French writes:

Gosh, jumped right over Wolfowitz & Cheney without a nod to their certainty that the US would have a waltz thru Hussein's WMD's.

Seems to me -- and as a Conscientious Objector whose views were formed during Vietnam, I'm hardly a gung-ho mass killer -- that McNamara's biggest fault was trying to pull back from the war after he realized the mess we'd gotten into, but not going public against LBJ, the elected official for whom he worked. Yeah, "just doing his job," but the buck really should stop elsewhere, perhaps with the majority of the population who continues to back our wars against phantom enemies. I'll guess that a fair number of today's complainers were of age during the era and were in favor of the war, so complaints might be a tidge less than sincere.

E.g., the offensive WSJ obit/op-ed piece claimed that he allowed himself to admit having made a mistake, and because subsequent politicians properly failed to emulate him, the WSJ, Official Arbiter of Such Things, consigns him to the dustbin of history. Nice co-option of Trotsky.

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