The Book of the Week is “Promise and Power, The Life and Times of Robert McNamara” by Deborah Shapley, published in 1993.
NOTE: The author (a journalist, not a historian) rambled on for pages and pages on certain events (perhaps those were from sources to which she had easy access), and omitted or provided scant coverage on others that were equally important. [Case-in-point: She completely neglected to mention that the Washington Post initially published an excerpt from the Pentagon Papers, and the New York Times printed additional excerpts. It is unclear whether the omission was intentional.] Even so, on another point– it is difficult for anyone to extract truth from accounts of any CIA- related activities unless they come verbatim from declassified documents, not the minds of media members or historians playing “telephone.” History during McNamara’s career was crowded with CIA incidents. The whole premise of spying-agencies is based on using dishonesty to gather information!
Born in 1916 in San Francisco, California, McNamara spent most of his childhood in Oakland. His parents doted on him. He attended high school in a good school district, and made additional contacts while attending University of California at Berkeley. He became active in campus social life, cozying up to the college president and provost. McNamara and a friend got their graduate-business degrees at Harvard, where they were already displaying the kind of arrogance that gets politicians in trouble.
SIDENOTE: Both politicians and voters can learn from previous, recent presidents’ mistakes of arrogance (but it seems they never do!):
- Ronald Reagan’s secret, international military adventures;
- George H.W. Bush’s ill-advised optics and messaging;
- Bill Clinton’s poor impulse control in the face of the age of zero privacy for public figures;
- George W. Bush’s history of failing upwards thanks to inheritance, that allowed him to ultimately gain maximum power that led to profiteering and good-enough optics and messaging to get him reelected, but that ultimately ruined his reputation– but he was too sociopathic to care about a legacy;
- Barack Obama’s optics and messaging that caused most conservative Republicans to claim: he made the U.S. appear weak in the eyes of the world, and led America’s healthcare industry in the wrong direction; plus, the facts that health-plan applicants could not necessarily “keep their doctor” and initially, they had excessive trouble signing up; notwithstanding, most liberal Democrats would agree he did the best he could under the circumstances (which he inherited), and he will be remembered for continuing the national healthcare debate because he helped pass historic legislation on it;
- Donald Trump’s —– [redacted, censored, protected by non-disclosure agreements or executive privilege].
Anyway, at the start of WWII, McNamara and his friend settled for being posted overseas so as not to begin on the lowest rung of the military ladder. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t play well with others. McNamara’s lifelong philosophy was always action-oriented– take risks, do something, even if it was the wrong thing. Unfortunately, the truth didn’t change just because he didn’t want to see it, hear it, or speak it. And it didn’t get any less complicated just because he oversimplified it.
By the end of the 1940’s, McNamara was helping turn around Ford Motor Company, where he and his leadership team created and implemented the cost-accounting system (a trendy new method for numerical tracking and analysis) he had learned in business school. The executives were credit-grabbers and tooted their own horns. In the Postwar Era, they and their families needed to keep up with the Joneses.
But, when asked by JFK what he could do for his country, McNamara made a snap decision to become defense secretary in December 1960. His sole goal was clearly only amassing power, because he had just been promoted to president at Ford– so he was relinquishing outsized compensation by becoming a public servant– and unlike in recent times, actually (ethically) put his assets in a blind trust.
Cold-War hysteria was rampant, fueled by propaganda put out by the Kennedy administration. The public-relations lies McNamara told about the missile gap with the Soviets were comparable to those told by George W. Bush on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq after 9/11. Ordinary Americans were building fallout shelters, convinced that the Soviets could unexpectedly launch a nuclear attack against the U.S. at any time.
McNamara then whipped up anger against himself when he aggravated inter-service rivalry between the Air Force and Navy, on project-contracts. The American intelligence services failed to anticipate that the Soviets would build a Wall in Berlin in August 1961. America’s leaders changed their tune about using nuclear weapons if provoked– but only as a last resort. Twenty years later, McNamara flip-flopped like Jeanne Kirkpatrick on many political issues, including nukes.
In the early 1960’s, however, he whipped up anger against himself again (from England and France) when he spoke for his country’s government, saying the United States needed to centrally control nuclear weapons because the Soviets wouldn’t be deterred from committing aggression if inventories in other nuclear nations of NATO were fragmented and complex. McNamara also needed to explain to Soviet leader Khrushchev that the United States had a plan to avoid vaporizing the entire world ten times over by (graciously) avoiding attacking major Soviet cities and using conventional weapons instead.
By early 1963, McNamara had amassed a bloated staff of bureaucratic, numerical-data-oriented paper-pushers, who had no clue what was really going on in Vietnam. The Americans were supplying weaponry and military consulting, but South-Vietnam-leader Ngo Dinh Diem’s soldiers took care of their own, in only pretending to fight. Newsflash– “Using napalm and herbicides didn’t win the hearts and minds of the peasants, who disdained Diem.”
American journalists physically present at the conflict-site, such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan truthfully described what they saw. McNamara didn’t want to believe them, but for his own purposes, chose to believe reports (that said America was making great progress) from consultants he controlled. Nevertheless, in spring 1968, McNamara became head of the World Bank, apparently to salve his conscience through saving the world (by eliminating hunger) for getting his own country into a quagmire.
Over the course of more than a dozen years, he radically changed the organization– for the good in some ways, and bad in others.
After about a decade, however, the negative aspects of his leadership style proved detrimental more often than not, to the Bank. McNamara was shown to be a hypocrite, like so many other alpha males whose hubris syndrome leads them to believe they are allowed to preach, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
In 1972, McNamara claimed the Bank’s projects would be environmentally friendly. But in 1981, he approved road-building in the Amazon region in Brazil that destroyed the rain forest and the way of life of the native tribes there. He left at the end of that year because his wife was ill, so conveniently, he wasn’t there to answer questions about the Bank’s serious problems when it hit the fan.
Incidentally, three other American contemporary figures come to mind on the environmental front, who were like McNamara: Al Gore, John Kerry and Michael Bloomberg– telling ordinary Americans to save energy while their ginormous carbon-footprints grow every day, traveling around to their various mansions through the use of exclusive flights and gas-guzzling vehicles. Note to current president: Arrogant hypocrisy makes American voters mad.
Read the book to learn of additional ways McNamara’s head eventually got too big for the team everywhere he went, prompting him and his colleagues to engage in disastrous military action in Vietnam, causing needless deaths and ruined lives; and the major historical events in which he had a role, that ruined his own and others’ reputations.