Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara
by Deborah Shapley
(Little, Brown, 734 pp., $29.95)
On February 28, 1968, the Pentagon elevator carrying Robert McNamara to the farewell ceremony marking the end of his tenure as the nation's eighth secretary of defense lurched upward and then stopped midway between the third and fourth floors. Thirteen people, including Lyndon Johnson, were trapped in the elevator. While Master Sergeant Clifford Potter struggled with the elevator controls, McNamara fumed and Johnson remained composed. On the lawn outside the Pentagon, Marine, Air Force and Army guards and several thousand Defense Department employees wondered at the delay of a ceremony that was supposed to run like clockwork. Once the elevator doors were finally pried open, McNamara raced down two flights of escalators and through the columns of the Grecian portico to the reviewing stand, only to discover that the driving wind and rain had forced the Air Force to scratch the scheduled fly-by of F-111s. The disruptions of the ceremony seemed uncannily to mirror the sudden breakdown of the man whom Barry Goldwater hailed in 1961 as "one of the best secretaries ever, an IBM machine with legs."
Earlier in the day, Johnson had bestowed the Medal of Freedom on McNamara. McNamara moved his lips at the White House ceremony honoring him, but no sounds emerged. After he finally choked out that "I think that I had better comment on another occasion," Johnson put his arm around McNamara and gently guided him out of the room. Clark Clifford, McNamara's successor at Defense, later recalled in his memoirs that "for me, it was an eerie echo of what Jim Forrestal had gone through nineteen years earlier."
Before easing McNamara out of the Pentagon, Johnson confided to an aide, "You know, we just can't afford another Forrestal." McNamara has often been likened to his predecessor James Forrestal, the nation's troubled secretary of defense who took his life in 1949. And though McNamara was not suicidal, the parallels abound: the icy exterior, the managerial skills, the attractiveness to women, the battles with the rebellious chieftains of the military services, the crying spells (in McNamara's case, during the Vietnam War). McNamara's life is rich in Forrestalian ambiguities and psychological tensions, and they present no small challenge to the biographer.
Deborah Shapley is well qualified to pick up the gauntlet. An experienced Washington journalist, she has done the archival spadework and conducted many interviews with McNamara's friends and associates, as well as a number with McNamara himself (who reserved the right to review his own quotations). Her account offers the first critical and full-scale portrait of McNamara's turbulent life. By contrast, William Kaufmann, the influential strategist who was McNamara's assistant in the Pentagon, approached his boss on bended knee in The McNamara Strategy (1964), and Henry Trewitt was no more detached in McNamara (1971). A reliable account of McNamara's life has been overdue.
Finally, however, Shapley's book is not it. There are biographers who guide their readers unobtrusively through the stations of their subject's life. Shapley is not one of them. She assigns herself a starring role in the narrative. We see her forcing McNamara to confront his past. We see her pushing McNamara to tears. And we see her probing for a confession. Of course McNamara never obliges. The most that Shapley can wring out of him is the revelation that "our greatest failure of all was in Vietnam." The interviews have the whiff of therapy sessions, and they reveal more about Shapley's view of the war than McNamara's.
Shapley has assembled the evidence for a judgment on McNamara's career, and she can write with great penetration; but because of her failure to elicit any startling revelations from McNamara during their tussles, she abandons the chase and concludes that McNamara is ... an enigma. The best that she can manage is the portrait of a tortured figure in whom conscience battled with ambition. She sees profundity where there is none. In depicting her subject as a man brought down by his lust for power, she makes the facile assumption that her story is about the tragic fall of a great and brilliant man.
Her own materials betray her. They suggest, instead, that McNamara was a mediocre thinker who bungled most of his tasks. McNamara's true importance lay not in his own acuity, but in his skill at convincing his superiors that he had it. That ability was captured by Alexander Haig in his memoirs: "Men who had been listening to testimony all their lives listened to McNamara's briefings with the rapt faces of religious converts. Standing behind McNamara as I placed the charts on the easel, I saw that Lyndon Johnson was one of them."
Worse, McNamara's purported promise gives Shapley a brief with which to lash out at American power in general. By exaggerating his stature, she uses McNamara as a club with which to beat America for failing to fulfill its own ideals. McNamara's failure is supposed to stand for America's failure: he and his country dared too much. Not that she disapproves of all his views or actions; her crude dichotomy between promise and power is a convenient device that permits Shapley to praise McNamara for the actions that comport with her own liberal views and condemn him for the ones that do not. The result is rather cartoonish: the good McNamara supported arms control, the bad McNamara prosecuted the Vietnam War, and so on.
In truth, McNamara is of a piece. He has never been either a liberal or a conservative. The psychic agony that he endured as secretary of defense cannot be separated from his puritanical streak. He is an odd and volatile mixture of manager and moralist, a hollow crusader, the simplicity of whose ideas is matched by the intensity of his commitment to them. Throughout his career, this man approached each new assignment--from resurrecting Ford to prosecuting the Vietnam War to running the World Bank--with the conviction, paradoxical given his own rigidity, that human beings and human institutions are infinitely malleable.
McNamara's peculiar blend of moral purpose and sheer ambition had its origins in his childhood in Oakland, California, where he was born in 1916 into a lower-middle-class family. A Scottish Protestant, McNamara's mother resented the fact that she had lost her social status in marrying an Irish Catholic shoe salesman, who had immigrated to the New World from County Cork during the Great Famine. She groomed her son for respectability and emphasized power as a means of doing good. An attentive student, the young McNamara earned top marks in high school and landed a scholarship to Berkeley, where he imbibed Taylorite principles of rational management, which included also the management--no, the construction--of a new self. According to Shapley, he started to "talk and think in numbers; it was a consciously adopted style." Cutting a wide swath on campus, he scored high grades and was elected warden of an eleemosynary organization called the Golden Bears. He used the position to curry favor with the trustees and the president of the university.
But his new connections did not always suffice. Dumbfounded when he failed to win a Rhodes scholarship--ever after he would pride himself on hiring Rhodes scholars--McNamara had to reconcile himself to a place at Harvard Business School. There he steeped himself in Alfred Sloan's statistical principles of corporate management, and his stellar performance as a student won him a post as a junior professor. He acted on, but did not openly espouse, his political convictions; in 1940 he concealed from his reactionary colleagues his vote in a straw poll for fdr. In the classroom, he worked at creating a public personality; one colleague recounts that he saw a chart with two axes on McNamara's desk labeled "joke" and "students' response."
In 1942 McNamara was called up. His statistical skills landed him a position as an instructor in Miami, where he met and worked for assistant secretary of war Robert Lovett and his flamboyant aide Charles "Tex" Thornton. Both men were to have a decisive effect on McNamara's career. Under Thornton's tutelage, McNamara raced around with his Harvard colleagues establishing a system of statistical control that tracked aircraft and inventory as well as deaths and casualties--a precursor of the body counts in Vietnam. His industry prompted his superiors to post him to England, and later to Asia, as a statistical control officer. Relishing his inquisitorial role, he became something of a bully. But his methods worked. His statistical wizardry transformed the air war against Japan by devising a system for the B-29s of the Fourteenth Air Force to transport supplies safely and efficiently. Joseph Alsop, who served in the air force, later wrote that McNamara "was uniquely responsible for making the self-supply system a working reality." McNamara's experience here would show in the statistical character of his air war against North Vietnam.
Back in civilian life, McNamara was tapped by Thornton to join a team of stat control men who would transfer their skills from the military to the business sphere. Henry Ford II hired Thornton and his associates, who were dubbed the "whiz kids," to revive his ailing company. It was the Army all over again. Ford employees literally trembled when McNamara and his colleagues peppered them with questions. The whiz kids soon discovered that Ford was woefully mismanaged; Henry Ford had millions of dollars hoarded in non-interest bearing accounts, and bookkeepers estimated accounts payable by piling up bills and measuring them with a yardstick.
Exhilarated by the awesome task of reviving Ford, McNamara fashioned another version of himself, this time emulating a senior executive named Lewis Crusoe. He became Crusoe's factotum and stalked behind his new boss as he strode through the Rouge plant. Like Crusoe, he began to part his hair severely to the side, clench his jaw, wear wire-rim glasses and carry account books, which, Shapley notes, were "symbols of the fierce rationalism of the new order." But though he wore Crusoe's livery, McNamara was not slow to maneuver on his own behalf. Once Crusoe became chief of a new Ford division, McNamara succeeded him as company controller and shifted his loyalties to Crusoe's enemy, executive vice president Ernest R. Breech. Breech envisioned McNamara as his successor, but Crusoe's new protege, Jack Reith, posed a formidable impediment. McNamara was aided by the failure of the Edsel: contrary to popular belief, it was Crusoe and Reith, not McNamara, who championed the dud. McNamara vigorously opposed the Edsel and used the debacle to destroy Reith's career. And having disposed of Reith, he began to undermine Breech. McNamara would meet and plot secretly with Ford, who enjoyed showing him off; Ford was the first of the bosses who would be impressed at his knack for delivering rapid-fire answers.
1960 McNamara had edged out Breech and was appointed president of Ford. His rise might seem typical of the era of the man in the gray flannel suit, but Shapley points to his various heresies as evidence of his conflicted nature. He pushed for seat belts and small cars, voted the Democratic ticket, and lived in Ann Arbor rather than in the company town in Bloomfield Hills. These attitudes, so at variance with most corporate executives, prompt Shapley to argue that a kinder, gentler side was struggling to emerge in McNamara.
Yet there is reason to assume that McNamara was impelled as much by self-righteousness as by liberalism. Shapley shrewdly surmises that he wished to fashion small cars like the Falcon in his own austere image. He certainly wanted American consumers to purchase the cars that he himself favored, and so he aspired to control rather than respond to market forces. His emphasis on top-down management makes him a prime suspect in the collapse of the American auto industry soon afterward. McNamara had no feel for the product he was producing: asked by designer George Walker which of the display models he favored, he loftily responded, "That one, but it doesn't move me like the stained-glass windows at Notre Dame." But his subordinates were too terrified to point out obvious flaws in his plans.
In 1960 McNamara's reputation as a skillful, hard-nosed businessman prompted Lovett to propose him for a second job. This time it was to head the Department of Defense. Kennedy was determined to include Republicans in his Cabinet, and Lovett had turned down the Pentagon. McNamara seemed ideal. Here was a nominal Republican from the ranks of industry who voted Democratic. Kennedy was instantly and favorably impressed by McNamara's apparent toughness; on meeting the president-elect, McNamara played hard to get and handed him a letter listing his demands for independent control at Defense. Kennedy assented. And consistent with his ability to reinvent himself, McNamara immediately severed all ties with Ann Arbor and Ford: "I never went back to Ann Arbor, except to get some shirts."
Small wonder. After a decade spent in the world of automotive panjandrums, the enchantments of Camelot were irresistible. Curiously, Shapley portrays McNamara as a naive bumpkin out of place at the glamorous Kennedy court. Nothing could be further from the truth. He astutely recognized that intimate relations with the orgulous Kennedys could only heighten his influence. Indeed, apart from Robert Kennedy and Douglas Dillon, McNamara was the only member of Kennedy's Cabinet to enter the president's social life. For her part, Jacqueline Kennedy observed about this straight arrow that "men can't understand his sex appeal"; and Robert Kennedy wondered, "Why is it they all call him `the computer' and yet he's the one all my sisters want to sit next to at dinner?" McNamara's flinty resolve could ignite at least one kind of spark.
He had his admirers at the Pentagon, too. He recruited his own whiz kids from Harvard, MIT and the Rand corporation. (Some of them, such as Morton Halperin at the Pentagon, are back in government now, and the current secretary of defense is himself an MIT defense intellectual who got his start in McNamara's Pentagon.) For, like his acolytes, McNamara was a product of the social sciences, which had flourished frantically in the years after the war. Indeed, he was probably the first American official to bring the assumptions and the methods of social science, its notions of rationality and its techniques of quantification, to power. The McNamara Pentagon was characterized, for that reason, by extraordinary intellectual confidence. It introduced a fundamental revision (more than one, actually) in American nuclear doctrine, and its whiz kids were delighted by the challenge that reorganizing the Pentagon and curbing interservice rivalries posed. Not that McNamara represented any sort of Weberian Wertfreiheit. He was attracted, above all, to Kennedy's militancy about doing good. He had a knack for mimicking his superior, and so he fit right in with Kennedy and his crusading spirit, and brought along his bag of new tools.
No man did more to create the military juggernaut demanded by Kennedy than McNamara. From 1961 to 1964 he carried out the biggest peacetime military buildup in the history of the United States. His aim was to create an army capable of simultaneously fighting two-and-a-half wars. (Even Kennedy's admirers must have wondered what half a war was supposed to look like. Vietnam soon supplied the answer.) McNamara's program included adding ten Polaris submarines to the original number planned by the Eisenhower administration, strengthening air defenses against bomber attacks, producing the Skybolt missile and doubling the production capacity for the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. In short, $1.5 billion was added to the defense budget for fiscal year 1962. The crash buildup anticipated the wasteful Reagan program. It was ill-conceived and ill-executed; budget decisions were arbitrarily and hastily reached. The man who prided himself on his rationality had as his credo the extraordinary statement: "I would rather have a wrong decision made than no decision at all." He lived by his words.
McNamara's confidence in received nuclear doctrine was first shaken by his exposure to the Strategic Air Command's Single Integrated Operating Plan, the once infamous siop. The plan, known in Omaha as the "Sunday Punch," called for firing as many as four missiles at each Soviet target. General Thomas Powers attempted to amuse McNamara by telling him that the air command had targeted a Soviet air defense radar in Albania and adding, "Well, Mr. Secretary, I hope you don't have any friends or relations in Albania because we're just going to have to wipe it out." McNamara was aghast.
These Dr. Strangelove types--Stanley Kubrick's film was not simply the product of a fertile imagination--led McNamara to question the notion of nuclear superiority. McNamara was ripe for William Kaufmann's notion of a limited nuclear war that, in contrast to the John Foster Dulles school of massive retaliation, offered "warfighting" choices to the president. Kaufmann proposed a strategy for keeping a nuclear war limited by sparing cities and attacking military targets. Kaufmann was not advocating that a limited nuclear war should be waged; he was arguing only that, in the event of a Soviet strike against the United States, the United States should restrict its retaliation to military targets, and hold populations hostage for a peace. By means of "bargaining pauses" an accommodation might be reached and a full-scale nuclear war averted. In February 1962 McNamara stated, "We may seek to terminate a war on favorable terms by using our forces as a bargaining weapon--by threatening further attack." In a famous June 1962 speech in, of all places, Ann Arbor, McNamara announced the new strategic doctrine of "no-cities counterforce."
The Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, in which Kennedy and Khrushchev traded notes and bargained over nuclear forces, vindicated for McNamara the wisdom of a theory of nuclear war grounded in the precepts of the carefully calibrated escalation that lay at the heart of the doctrine of limited war. Yet the fact that Kennedy did threaten a first strike during the crisis prompted McNamara to seek more secure measures. The notion that a gradual escalation took place in October was (and remains) a misreading of the crisis. We now know that the crisis was largely the product of Kennedy's obsession with Castro, coupled with his penchant for covert action, which convinced Khrushchev that the United States was on the verge of launching a second Bay of Pigs.
Khrushchev's apprehensions may not have been implausible. Where Dulles spoke of rollback, Kennedy tried to practice it. The portrait of a cool and collected president during the crisis drawn by Kennedy hagiographers can no longer be reconciled with the historical record. Nor can Kaufmann's portrayal of the outcome of the crisis as a victory for the "controlled and deliberate application of force." On the contrary, Michael Beschloss has convincingly shown in The Crisis Years the fecklessness of Kennedy during the episode; and it now seems clear that it was Khrushchev's fear of American nuclear superiority that ultimately prompted the Soviets to back down and avoid a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
Of course, Khrushchev precipitated the crisis with his irrational belief that the United States would countenance the emplacement of tactical and ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. But McNamara was unwilling to concede that the Soviet Union might act irrationally, or even in ways that might strike him as irrational. In 1964 McNamara somersaulted from graduated escalation to mutually assured destruction (MAD), from targeting military installations to cities. Certainly his rejection of gradual escalation was sensible; the idea that it could be really controlled was a dangerous conceit. But his conception of MAD was flawed; it relied almost entirely on arms control and Soviet self-restraint to maintain the delicate balance of terror.
MAD amounted to a revolution in nuclear strategy. McNamara, who had extravagantly beefed up and refined American defenses, as the doctrine of counterforce demanded, now began extravagantly to reduce American defenses, as arms control required. Had McNamara comprehended the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union, he might have pursued arms control more cautiously and realized that the Soviet Union drew the opposite lesson from the missile crisis, namely, that it had to launch its own crash nuclear buildup. But his faith in "rationality" was too far-flung: the Soviet Union set priorities that were not necessarily rational. McNamara remained oblivious to the character, culture and history of the Soviet Union (as well as Vietnam). He would have done well to ponder Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Kuznetsov's famous warning in December 1962 that the Kremlin "will honor" the Cuban agreement, "but I want to tell you something. The Soviet Union is not going to find itself in a position like this ever again."
This time McNamara brooked no doubts about the efficacy of arms control. As his speechwriter Jack Maddux put it, "Scratch McNamara and you have a teacher, a missionary." He naively believed that MAD could be brought into existence by establishing a "cooperative" regime with the Kremlin on nuclear matters. In April 1965 he contended that the Soviets had "decided" that they had "lost the quantitative race and they are not seeking to engage in that contest." By September 1967 he claimed that "what is essential to understand here is that the Soviet Union and the United States mutually influence one another's plans.... It is precisely this action-reaction phenomenon that fuels an arms race."
McNamara thereby in-vented some of the misapprehensions that informed the arms control movement and crippled the Democratic Party on foreign policy issues throughout the 1970s and 1980s. (In 1986, in Blundering into Disaster, McNamara proclaimed that "we must rid ourselves of the idea that the Soviet economy may `collapse' and of the equally farfetched notion that the West has either the power or the duty to contribute in a significant way to the collapse or the reform of that enormous machine.") McNamara's scheme depended on leaders capable of comprehending the subtleties of the balance of terror; but the evidence emerging from the Russian archives only confirms the primitive nature of the Soviet leadership. Leaders who had distinguished themselves by rising in the Darwinian environment of the Soviet nomenklatura were not likely to recoil from raw power politics at the international level, or to behave like the rational utilitarians of the game theory on which many of McNamara's strategists had broken their teeth. While Washington curbed its expenditures on nuclear forces, first Khrushchev and then Brezhnev poured vast sums into what Moscow called its "strategic rocket forces" in pursuit of an illusory (but not to them) nuclear superiority. Coupled with Third World adventurism, the two men's armament program successfully transformed the Soviet Union from a European regional power into a global superpower. McNamara and the arms control community remained oblivious to the fact that the arms race was the product, and not the source, of superpower tensions--and that the source of those tensions was the Kremlin's imperial ambition.
McNamara's prosecution of the Vietnam War had even more lasting consequences. Shapley extols his role as one of the founding fathers of the arms control movement and excoriates him for his conduct of the Vietnam War. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that McNamara's approach to the war and to arms control were exactly the same. Once again the notion of graduated escalation, of "bargaining pauses," of a rational enemy who would respond predictably and sensibly determined McNamara's actions. These were the models with which he rewrote nuclear doctrine, and they had far more disastrous consequences when applied in the jungles of Vietnam.
Indeed, Kennedy's and McNamara's fascination with covert action can be seen both as a source and a consequence of their enthusiasm for graduated escalation and flexible response, as a splendid illustration of what Hans Morgenthau devastatingly called "the conventional fallacy," that is, the misplaced analogy of nuclear war with conventional war. (Morgenthau worried that conventional strategy would influence nuclear strategy, but the influence also ran, no less balefully, the other way.) Covert activity as a means of carrying out flexible response had its doctrinal origins in George Kennan's call in 1947 for the creation of a "guerrilla warfare corps" that would fight behind the Iron Curtain and his warning in the final days of the Truman administration that Moscow could not be contained solely by military alliances. The Eisenhower policy of massive retaliation left little room for the Army to confront Moscow in local "wars of liberation." For different reasons, prominent Democrats and Generals Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor picked up on Kennan's theme. By 1958 Senator Kennedy declared that the true threats to American security were "limited brushfire wars, indirect non-overt aggression, intimidation and subversion, internal revolution." As president, Kennedy was mesmerized by the prospect of American soldiers stealthily battling Communists in Asian jungles. And so McNamara proposed an increase of 13,000 men for the three services, with 3,000 earmarked for the special services.
The proclivity for covert action was the perfect expression of a moralistic self-confidence; it also had its sources in the Kennedy administration's insistence on appearing tough and decisive. Kennedy saw Laos as a proving ground for the Green Berets. So did McNamara. As Shapley perceptively observes, "By his high profile, his statistics, flying trips, press conferences and optimism, he identified himself with the war. McNamara gave John Kennedy's limited partnership in this remote part of the world its aura of invincible, thoroughly American success."
Certainly McNamara's public enthusiasm for the war knew no bounds. At congressional hearings in 1963 he shilled for Diem, who had moved "that country out of near feudalism into the modern age" in a manner that amounted to a "near miracle." And with Kennedy's assassination and Johnson's assumption of the presidency, McNamara's views only hardened. From his defense secretary Johnson didn't "want loyalty. I want loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy's window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket." He found what he wanted in McNamara. In one of her most insightful passages, Shapley comments that McNamara "choreographed his own public transfer of loyalty to Lyndon Johnson" on national television. On the evening of the assassination, he elbowed his way through the throng awaiting Johnson's return to Washington aboard Air Force One and seized his hand, conveying the image of the dutiful and custodial servant.
Under Johnson, McNamara moved ahead with covert operations against North Vietnam by using something called Operation Plan 34A. By early 1964 he was convinced that he was single-handedly stopping communism in Asia and saving the developed world. Responding to Senator Wayne Morse's charge that Vietnam was "McNamara's war," he stated, "I don't mind it's being called McNamara's war. In fact I'm proud to be associated with it." He was so proud to be associated with it that he almost certainly misled Congress during the hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin and again in investigative hearings conducted several years later by Senator William Fulbright. McNamara was ready to deceive on behalf of the president, and he could not bear to admit that he had been wrong.
Nor could he face up to his inner doubts that the war was not only a crime, but also a blunder. When McNamara met with Johnson and his advisers in January 1965 and expanded the American commitment to South Vietnam, he squelched George Ball's dissenting paper urging an American withdrawal. Instead he urged calibrated air strikes that would prop up the tottering Saigon regime. "Rolling Thunder" was the air campaign that was designed to wring concessions from the North. The plan resembled McNamara's strategy for fighting a nuclear war in that it mentioned "sustained reprisal" and banked on an enemy who would react rationally to limited sorties and to the threat of greater attacks. Which is to say, it assumed that the enemy would take the kind of action that one wished the enemy to take.
At the same time, McNamara endorsed General William Westmoreland's request to send American troops into combat and, as was his habit, silenced any dissent, even the timorous objections to the "Americanization" of the war voiced by Maxwell Taylor, who was by then the ambassador in Saigon. For all his show of confidence, McNamara found the slightest objections intolerable. To counter Ball's continued dissents, McNamara offered at a crucial meeting on July 22 what Clark Clifford, who functioned as an informal adviser to Johnson, adjudged "the most extreme version of the domino theory I had ever heard." McNamara thundered that
Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma surely affect Malaysia. In two to three years Communist domination would stop there, but ripple effects would be great--Japan, India. We would have to give up some bases. Ayub [Khan, the leader of Pakistan] would move closer to China. Greece, Turkey would move to neutralist position. Communist agitation would increase in Africa.
December 1965 McNamara realized that he had miscalculated back in July when he promised Johnson a limited war. Whatever his qualms, however, he continued to champion the war publicly. He persisted in his belief that Hanoi would respond predictably to shifts in the pain from bombing attacks. He also promoted a project run by something called the Jason Division of the Institute for Defense Analyses that would create a technological barrier following the 37th Parallel that would sense the approach of the enemy--soon to be ridiculed as the McNamara Line.
McNamara's impulse to reshape the war by means of technology did not exhaust his passion for crusading on the home front. Ironically, he was careful to depreciate the importance of technology. In Montreal he announced in 1966 that he was not a "tool" or an "IBM card." In a thinly veiled autobiographical passage, he lauded man's "halting but persistent effort to raise his reason above his animality. He draws blueprints for Utopia. But never quite gets it built.... He plugs away obstinately with the only building material really ever at hand: his own part-comic, part-tragic, part-cussed but part-glorious nature." To his delight, and to Johnson's fury, the press showered McNamara with encomiums. Mary McGrory gushed that "the real Robert McNamara" had "stood up" at Montreal; James Reston that "McNamara is reaching beyond the draft.... He is searching for a unifying principle."
There is no reason to impugn McNamara's sincerity. As his address to the hostile Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 1966 demonstrated, he was determined to uplift the "subterranean poor" by inducting 100,000 men into the military who would normally be summarily rejected. Called Project 100,000, McNamara's experiment in social engineering had the most awful results: the bulk of the mainly black recruits were assigned to combat duty in the Army, where they were ridiculed by training camp commanders as "McNamara's morons" and ended up serving as cannon fodder in Vietnam. Shapley reports that Herb de Bose, a former Army lieutenant, lamented that these soldiers had "no skills before, no skills after.... I think McNamara should be shot."
Martin Luther King Jr. denounced McNamara for luring poor blacks into the service with the promise of better jobs, and the project added fuel to protests against the war. Unable to reconcile the public perception of himself with his own dreams of remaking the world, McNamara began to crack. In public, his voice would break and his face contort in pain. At Harvard, when 800 demonstrators surrounded him as he entered a campus police car, McNamara clambered to the top of the car and shook his fist at the protesters. "Listen! I spent four of the happiest years of my life on the Berkeley campus, doing some of the things you're doing here," he shouted. "But there was an important difference. I was tougher and more courteous. I was tougher than you and I am tougher today!"
For all his celebrated sobriety and cool rationality, he was proving as brittle as the military juggernaut he had fashioned. Back at the Pentagon, he would pace back and forth in his office, stare at the portrait of Forrestal hanging behind his nine-foot-long Pershing desk and shudder violently. His bouts of weeping did not go unnoticed: "He does it all the time now. He cries into the curtain," said his secretary. It was time for him to go. He broke with Johnson over the continued prosecution of the war (though he still championed it publicly). But he was paralyzed, like Forrestal, by indecision and could not bear the thought of parting with command. An exasperated Johnson had to kick McNamara upstairs to the World Bank by announcing the appointment without McNamara's prior agreement, and replacing him at Defense with his old crony Clifford.
In Shapley's view, McNamara "was upholding, in effect, the promise of the American century" in his conduct of the war, and "the needs [sic] to have power and display the promise of a better dawn had become a deep schism." This notion, that McNamara personified that sloppy and hackneyed thing known as "the American century," transforms him into a titan, an American Atlas shouldering a national dream. The truth is much harsher. McNamara was neither one of the best nor one of the brightest. If there was a schism, it was between his perception of himself as a bold and rational manager and his willingness to adopt irrational and delusive tactics to reach his goals. Fighting the war or dabbling in social engineering, McNamara was forever mistaking ambitions for causes, and confounding managerialism with idealism.
These traits manifested themselves once more during McNamara's tenure as president of the World Bank. Again, he attempted to operate on a grand scale before defining his purposes. He launched his own private war on poverty, using the "nation-building" and "modernization" theories he applied in Vietnam, only on a greater scale. This should put to rest the sentimental view that McNamara was performing an act of expiation. Quite the contrary. His failure to reconsider the flawed ideas and methods that led to disaster in Vietnam bespeaks a hollowness so great that it casts doubt on his capacity for a real reckoning.
He claimed that the West had the obligation to make unconditional transfers of wealth to the developing countries. He disdained the cautious approach that the bank had hitherto adopted toward loans to the Third World and insisted that the bank offer loans to each developing country. Not coincidentally, the more the bank lent funds, the faster McNamara accumulated power. Third World debts quickly mounted, but McNamara was unrelenting. By 1978, one year before McNamara stepped down, the bank, which had doubled its lending, was handing out enormous subventions to kleptocracies of the worst stripe. His toleration of the misuse of bank funds helped perpetuate regimes such as Bokassa's Central African Empire, and in Brazil he even ended up subsidizing the destruction of the rain forest. With his old missionary fervor, he claimed that a 5 percent growth rate could be achieved within a decade. His mania for quantification remained; one wag at the bank commented that "we did a lot of body counting in those days."
At the bank itself, McNamara continued to operate by means of fear, and to hold himself aloof from his employees. As he had at the Pentagon, he spurned the advice of regional experts and relied on a coterie of hand-picked advisers. For all his vaunted skills with numbers, he insisted that his associates provide him with a range of figures, even if firm statistics were unavailable, and arbitrarily select one as a basis for policy. So obsessed was he with numbers that at a lunch with his old colleague Timothy Stanley, he first scribbled some numbers about population growth on a yellow pad and then, needing more writing room, stood up and continued to rattle on, while wildly filling the pink tablecloth with figures.
The most that Shapley will venture after 606 pages of mistakes and blunders and miscalculations in high places is the verdict that "purely negative judgments are too easy.... He is a pivotal figure in the weakening and decline of America, despite the many virtues of the American century he embodies." This is equivocation. McNamara's failure was not a Sisyphean attempt to redeem America. It was a purely personal failure. The confidence that institutions and men were as tractable as himself proved his undoing. This man who believed that management is "the most creative of all the arts, for its medium is human talent itself" viewed himself as an engineer of human souls, but his most flawed creation was his own soul, himself.
Jacob Heilbrunn is University Fellow at the Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University.
By Jacob Heilbrunn