Robert McNamara, who died yesterday, July 6, served as Kennedy’s , then as Johnson’s defense secretary. He contributed more than most to the slaughter of 3.4 million Vietnamese (his own estimate). He went on to run the World Bank, where he presided over the impoverishment, eviction from their lands and death of many millions more round the world.
Just as George Kennan, one of the architects of the Cold War, helped bolt together the ramshackle scaffolding of bogus claims that provided the rationalization for Harry Truman’s great “arms scare” in 1948, launching the postwar arms race, McNamara tugged his forelock and said “Aye, aye, Sir” when Kennedy, campaigning against Nxon in the late 1950s attacked the Eisenhower/Nixon administration for having allowed a “missile gap” to develop that had now delivered America naked and helpless into the grip of the Soviet Union.
This was the biggest lie in the history of threat inflation and remains so to this day. At the moment when Kennedy, McNamara at his elbow, was flaying the Eisenhower administration for the infamous “gap”, the U.S. government from its spy planes that the Soviet Union had precisely one missile silo with an untested missile in it. The Russians knew that the US knew this, because they were fully primed about about the U-2 spy-plane overflights, most dramatically when U-2 pilot Gary Powers crashed near Sverdlovsk and told all to his captors
So when President Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, took power in 1961, became privy to all intelligence from the spy flights, and announced that the U.S. was going to build 1000 ICBMs the Russians concluded that the US planned to wipe out the Soviet Union and immediately began a missile-building program of their own. So McNamara played a crucial, enabling role in the arms race in nuclear missiles. Before the “missile gap” it has been a “bomber race”.
It was entirely appropriate and logical that he began his services to the military working in Japan as a civilian analyst for Curt LeMay, the psychopathic Air Force general who ordered the raid that produced the Tokyo firestorm and who went on to become head of the Strategic Air Command and who boasted to Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis that his missiles and B-52s were ready, willing and able to reduce the Soviet Union to a “smoldering, irradiated ruin in three hours”, a deed he was eager to accomplish.
LeMay was expert in guiding bright young systems analysts like McNamara into giving him the ex post facto intellectual rationales for enterprises on which he had long since set his mind. McNamara was an early member of the “defense intellectuals”, including Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn, who developed the whole argot of “controlled escalation”, “nuclear exchanges” and “mutual assured destruction” that kept the nuclear weapons plants, aerospace factories and nuclear labs at Los Alamos and Livermore and Oak Ridge humming along, decade after decade. McNamara liked to claim later, as he did to Errol Morris, that it was he who advised LeMay to send in his planes at lower altitude, the better to incinerate Japanese cities, but the historical record does not give him this dignity. He was a small player in LeMay’s murderous game.
He faded comfortably away. The last time we saw him vividly was in 2004 as the star of Morris’s wildly over-praised, documentary The Fog of War, talking comfortably about the millions of people he’s helped to kill.
Time and again, McNamara got away with it in that film, cowering in the shadow of baroque monsters like LeMay or LBJ, choking up about his choice of Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington, sniffling at the memory of Johnson giving him the Medal of Freedom, spouting nonsense about how Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam, muffling himself in the ever- useful camouflage of the “fog of war.”
Now, the “fog of war” is a tag usually attributed to von Clausewitz, though the great German philosopher and theorist of war never actually used the phrase. Eugenia Kiesling argued a couple of years ago in Military Review that the idea of fog–unreliable information–wasn’t a central preoccupation of Clausewitz. “Eliminating fog”, Kiesling wrote, “gives us a clearer and more useful understanding of Clausewitz’s friction. It restores uncertainty and the intangible stresses of military command to their rightful centrality in ‘On War’. It allows us to replace the simplistic message that war intelligence is important with the reminder that Clausewitz constantly emphasizes moral forces in war.”
As presented by McNamara, through Morris, “the fog of war” usefully deflects attention from clear and unpleasant facts entirely unobscured by fog. Roberta Wohlstetter was a pioneer in this fogging technique back in the 1950s with her heavily subsidized Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, which deployed the idea of distracting “noise” as the phenomenon that prevented US commanders, ultimately Roosevelt, from comprehending the information that the Japanese were about to launch a surprise attack. Wohlstetterian “noise” thus obscured the fact that FDR wanted a Japanese provocation, knew the attack was coming, though not probably not its scale and destructiveness.
When McNamara looked back down memory lane there were no real shadows, just the sunlight of moral self-satisfaction: “I don’t fault Truman for dropping the bomb”; “I never saw Kennedy more shocked” (after the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem); “never would I have authorized an illegal action” (after the Tonkin Gulf fakery); “I’m very proud of my accomplishments and I’m very sorry I made errors” (his life). Slabs of instructive history, like “the missile gap”, were entirely missing from Morris’s film. In his later years he offered homilies about the menace of nuclear Armageddon, just like Kennan. It was cost-free for both men to say to say such things, grazing peacefully on the tranquil mountain pastures of their senior years. Why did they not encourage weapons designers in Los Alamos to mutiny, to resign? Or say that the atom spies in Los Alamos in the 1940s were right to try to level nuclear terror to some sort of balance? Why did they not extol the Berrigans and their comrades who served or are serving decades in prison for physically attacking nuclear missiles, beating the decks of the Sea Wolf nuclear submarine with their hammers.
It’s true that when he was head of the Ford Division of the Ford Motor Company in the mid- 1950s, McNamara did push for safety options–seat belts and padded instrument panels. Ford dealer brochures for the ’56 models featured photos of how Ford and GM models fared in actual crashes, to GM’s disadvantage. But as Ralph Nader describes it, in December, 1955, a top GM executive called Ford’s vice president for sales and said Ford’s safety campaign had to stop. These Ford executives, many of them formerly from GM, had a saying, Chevy could drop its price $25 to bankrupt Chrysler, $50 to bankrupt Ford. Ford ran up the white flag. The safety sales campaign stopped. McNamara took a long vacation in Florida, his career in Detroit in the balance, and came back a team player. Safety went through the windscreen and lay in a coma for years.
McNamara had very dirty hands, however hard he and admirers like Morris scrubbed them. Why did Defense Secretary McNamara overrule all expert review and procurement recommendations and insist that General Dynamics rather than Boeing make the disastrous F-111, at that time one of the largest procurement contracts in the Pentagon’s history? Could it be that Henry Crown of Chicago was calling in some chits for his role in fixing the 1960 JFK vote in Cook County, Illinois? Crown, of Chicago Sand and Gravel, had $300 million of the mob’s money in GD debentures, and after the disaster of the Convair, GD needed the F-111 to avoid going belly- up, taking the mob’s $300 million with it. McNamara misled Congressional investigators about this for years afterward.
To interviewers McNamara paid great stress on JFK’s “shock”, just a few weeks before he himself was killed, at the assassination of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother. He also promoted the view that Kennedy was planning to withdraw from Vietnam. He oversaw the fakery of the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” that prompted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, whereby Congress gave LBJ legal authority to prosecute and escalate the war in Vietnam. He was a career “front man” for the Kennedys, called even to Chappaquiddick to help Ted Kennedy figure out what to say about it.
The Six Day War? Just before this ’67 war the Israelis were ready to attack and knew they were going to win but couldn’t get a clear go- ahead from the Johnson Administration. As the BBC documentary The 50 Years War narrates, Meir Amit, head of Israel’s Mossad, flew to Washington. The crucial OK came from McNamara, thus launching Israel’s long-planned, aggressive war on Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which led to present disasters. It was McNamara, after Israel’s deliberate attack on the US ship Liberty during that war (with thirty-four US sailors dead and 174 wounded), who supervised the cover- up.
McNamara had a 13-year stint running the World Bank, whither he was dispatched by LBJ, Medal of Freedom in hand. McNamara liked to brandish his Bank years as his moral redemption and all too often his claim is accepted by those who have no knowledge of the actual, ghastly record. In fact the McNamara of the World Bank evolved naturally, organically, from the McNamara of Vietnam. The one was prolegomenon to the other, the McNamara-sponsored horrors in Vietnam perhaps on a narrower and more vivid scale, but ultimately lesser in dimension and consequence. No worthwhile portrayal of McNamara could possibly avoid McNamara’s performance at the World Bank because there, within the overall constraints of the capitalist system he served, he was his own man. There was no LeMay, no LBJ issuing orders. And as his own man, McNamara amplified the ghastly blunders, corruptions and lethal cruelties of American power as inflicted upon Vietnam to a planetary scale. The best terse account of the McNamara years is in Bruce Rich’s excellent history of the Bank, Mortgaging the Earth, published in 1994.
When McNamara took over the Bank, “development” loans (which were already outstripped by repayments) stood at $953 million and when he left, at $12.4 billion, which, discounting inflation, amounted to slightly more than a 6- fold increase. Just as he multiplied the troops in Vietnam, he ballooned the Bank’s staff from 1,574 to 5,201. The Bank’s shadow lengthened steadily over the Third World. Forests, in the Amazon, in Cameroon, in Malaysia, in Thailand, fell under the axe of “modernization”. Peasants were forced from their lands. Dictators like Pinochet and Ceausescu were nourished with loans.
From Vietnam to the planet: The language of American idealism and high purpose was just the same. McNamara blared his mission of high purpose in 1973 in Nairobi, initiating the World Bank’s crusade on poverty. “The powerful have a moral obligation to assist the poor and the weak.” The result was disaster, draped, as in Vietnam with obsessive secrecy, empty claims of success and mostly successful efforts to extinguish internal dissent. And as with Vietnam, McNamara’s obsession with statistics, produced a situation, (according to S. Shaheed Husain, then the Bank’s vice president in charge of Operations) where, “without knowing it, McNamara manufactured data. If there was a gap in the numbers, he would ask staff to fill it, and others made it up for him.”
At McNamara’s direction the Bank would prepare five year “master country lending plans”, set forth in “country programming papers. “In some cases, Rich writes, “even ministers of a nation’s cabinet could not obtain access to these documents, which in smaller, poor countries, were viewed as international decrees on their economic fate.”
These same “decrees” were drawn up by technocrats (in Vietnam they were the “advisers”) often on the basis of a few short weeks in the target country. Corruption seethed. Most aid vanished into the hands of local elites who very often used the money to steal the resources–pasture, forest, water, of the very poor whom the Bank was professedly seeking to help. In Vietnam, Agent Orange and napalm.
Across the third world, the Bank underwrote “Green Revolution” technologies that the poorest peasants couldn’t afford and that drenched land in pesticides and fertilizer. Vast infrastructural projects such as dams and kindred irrigation projects once again drove the poor from their lands, from in Brazil to India. It was the malign parable of “modernization” written across the face of the third world, with one catatrophe after another catastrophes prompted by the destruction of traditional subsistence rural economies.
The appropriation of smaller farms and common areas, Rich aptly comments, “resembled in some respects the enclosure of open lands in Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution–only this time on a global scale, intensified by Green Revolution agricultural technology.” As an agent of methodical planetary destruction, McNamara should be ranked in the top tier of earth-wreckers of all time.
“Management”, McNamara declared in 1967 “is the gate through which social and economic and political change, indeed change in every direction, is diffused through society.” The managerial ideal for McNamara was managerial dictatorship. World Bank loans surged to Pinochet’s Chile after Allende’s overthrow, to Uruguay, to Argentina, to Brazil after the military coup, to the Philippines, to Suharto after the ’65 coup in Indonesia.
And to the Romania of Ceausescu. McNamara poured money–$2.36 billion between 1974 and 1982–into the tyrant’s hands. In 1980 Romania was the Bank’s eighth biggest borrower. As McNamara crowed delightedly about his “faith in the financial morality of socialist countries” Ceausescu razed whole villages, turned hundreds of square miles of prime farm land into open- pit mines, polluted the air with coal and lignite, turned Rumania into one vast prison, applauded by the Bank in an amazing 1979 economic study as being a fine advertisement for the “Importance of Centralized Economic Control”. Another section of that same 1979 report, titled “Development of Human Resources”, featured these chilling words: “To improve the standards of living of the population as a beneficiary of the development process, the government has pursued policies to make better use of the population as a factor of production… An essential feature of the overall manpower policy has been … to stimulate an increase in birth rates.” Ceausescu forbade abortions, and cut off disrtribution of contraceptives. Result: ten of thousand of abandoned children, dumped in orphanages, another sacrificial hecatomb in McNamara’s lethal hubris.
In his later years, McNamara never offered any reflection on the social system that produced and promoted him, a perfectly nice, well- spoken war criminal. As his inflation of his role in the foe- bombing of Japan showed, he could go so far as to falsely though complacently indict himself, while still shirking bigger, more terrifying and certainly more useful reflections on the system that blessed him and mercilessly killed millions upon millions under FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon.
Like Speer, he got away with it, never having to hang his head or drop through a trap door with a rope around his neck, as he richly deserved.