July 06, 2009
Robert Strange McNamara
It was Henry Ford II who reportedly said of Robert McNamara: "In our business, we are lucky if we make the right decision 51% of the time. What I have noticed about Bob McNamara is that he makes an awful lot of right decisions." And yet, of course, he also made some profoundly wrong ones too, most notably, with the gross misadventure of Vietnam. The below video captures some of the spirit of the man, both the good and the bad, if still a stubborn doggedness and recalcitrance, also greater appreciation of historical nuance and moral ambiguity, certainly at least in his older, more reflective years.
Regardless of history's verdict of him, which doubtless will be almost wholly about Vietnam, and thus mostly negative, this was nonethless a sharply penetrating, urbane man, and importantly one who could admit a mistake, unlike say, the unreflective (and far less elegant) Donald Rumsfeld, the two having not infrequently been compared to each other.
We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.”
This last is probably what haunted him the most to his dying day.
NB: McNamara actually misquotes T.S. Eliot at the end of the excerpted YouTube. The relevant portion is from Little Gidding (No. 4 of 'Four Quartets'), namely:
We shall not cease from exploration
McNamara mixes the placement of "exploration" and "exploring" (and has the second line erroneously as "and at the end of our exploration"), while also substituting "we will return to" for the original "will be to arrive". The meaning is essentially the same, if McNamara's erroneously tweaked third line impacts the emphasis some, as "we will return to" evokes a sense of volitional action (a tad too certain, even cocksure?), while "will be to arrive" speaks more to preordained fate exerting its will (more deferential?). Arguably too, there is a slightly more pessimistic bent to 'returning' to the same place, rather than a sense of 'arriving' anew. Given the arc of his life, perhaps neither variation is surprising, albeit somewhat incongruous, if nonetheless helpfully evocative of the man's contradictions.
Posted by Gregory at July 6, 2009 11:01 PM
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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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