The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

RIP: Robert McNamara

July 6, 2009

Robert McNamara was arguably one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. I summarized the highlights from his CV on my blog a few years ago:

He was a Harvard professor, an executive at Ford Motor Company (the first leader not from the Ford family), Secretary of Defense from 1961-1967, and then President of the World Bank until 1981.

This sentence omits the role McNamara played in World War II, which involved his assignment to the Office of Statistical Control for the Army Air Force. He evaluated the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. B-29 bombers, which ultimately firebombed 67 Japanese cities under the command of General Curtis LeMay. In the Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War,” McNamara states simply

LeMay said that “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” “And I think he’s right,” says McNamara. “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.” . . . “LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side has lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

McNamara considered himself a war criminal even without taking the Vietnam war into account.

In the early part of this decade, I had dinner with McNamara and some local colleagues after the former Defense Secretary spoke on the Louisville campus. I told him that I was working on the “Bush Doctrine” and he scoffed about America’s priorities. It was far too long ago to quote him, but I recall his noting that the U.S. was hypocritically developing burrowing nuclear weapons to be able to strike underground “WMD” (even chemical and biological weapons) facilities with nuclear weapons.

Also, he pointed out that he had recently traveled to Russia and personally observed WMD facilities guarded by a single man with a sidearm and a rather ordinary looking padlock.

McNamara spent more than a quarter century trying to redeem his past. I’m not sure that he succeeded, but he certainly attempted to do some good in the last 25 years. For example, McNamara was a prominent member of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Perhaps the public service of other talented people will be inspired by the post-government efforts of this man.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.