Robert Mcnamara: brilliant fool

There’s an end of an era feel to the news of the death at 93 of Robert Mcnamara US Defense Secretary for most the Kennedy –Johnson presidential terms and the architect of the Vietnam War. He’s an example of how very clever people can be very stupid and not only in hindsight. Mcnamara tried to atone but never quite admitted he was wrong about Vietnam from the start. Still, on the execution of the war, the absorbing documentary movie The Fog of War comes close and is a rare mea culpa from a major political figure.

In Huffpo, two contrasting verdicts, first this amazing story I’d not heard before in McClatchy The artist was outraged to see McNamara, whom he viewed as a war criminal, so enjoying himself.He immediately opened the door and told McNamara there was a radiophone call for him on the bridge. McNamara set down his drink and stepped outside. The artist immediately grabbed him, wrestled him to the railing and pushed him over the side. McNamara managed to get his fingers through the holes in the metal plate that ran from the top of the railing to the scuppers.

A contrasting verdict from political scientist Joseph Nye.

I came to know Bob in 1987 when we spent some time together on an oral history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and saw him on various occasions after that. I realized that he cared deeply about moral issues.Now I assign the Errol Morris film The Fog of War to my students in a course about leadership and ethics in foreign policy.

The verdict on Mcnamara will probably stay with the school of David Halberstam in the Best and the Brightest and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. It was Halberstam who demolished the technocratic bean counter school of policy making Mcnamara epitomised. And yet in spite of a vast literature on the Vietnam nightmare, a similar blind projection of American power with little regard to its local applications came to plague us all over again over Iraq, this time with the UK in tow. Parallels between Mcnamara and the still unrepentant Rumsfeld are irresistible. For Rumsfeld, the lessons of Vietnam were mainly technocratic, and produced a disastrous strategy of Vietnam-lite.. But veteran commentator Jim Hoagland argues that lessons were learned in Iraq with the change of strategy there. Over Iraq and now Afghanistan Hoagland claims, Washington is now ” a far more open place”. Maybe. The final stories are a long time off writing.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    An interesting man and one who in later years demonstrated a certain amount of contrition and reflection I thought.

    I would strongly recommend the ‘Fog Of War’ to anyone I have watched it myself several times (Joe Nye is not the only professor to put it on his class list!) and it is a very interesting and nicely filmed documentary.

  • Harry Flashman

    There was nothing inherently “wrong” about the US defending South Vietnam from Northern Communist aggression.

    The main thing that was wrong about it was that after the defeat of the Communists in Indonesia in 1965 there was really no need to bother. The most important “domino” wasn’t going to fall so it would have made no strategic difference to let Indo-China go Communist, as it did anyway with no discernible problems for the rest of the region (well except for the millions of people murdered, exiled, imprisoned and tortured by the Communists when they eventually seized power).

  • Different Drummer

    Yes Harry

    American Imperialism always looks soft from here…. after didn’t ‘we’ beat Gerry and the peace makers?

  • Different Drummer

    es Harry

    American Imperialism always looks soft from here…. after all didn’t ‘we’ beat Gerry and the peace makers?

  • Greenflag

    ‘first this amazing story I’d not heard before’

    Never heard it either .Was the artist charged with attempted murder or did McNamara choose not to press charges ? Had McNamara died as a result of this ‘incident ‘ presumably it would have been a verdict of suicide ?

    McNamara was a man of his times . I had the pleasure a number of years back of speaking to an individual who was present in an official capacity at the Oval Office meetings in which General Curtis Le May of the US Airforce could hardly be restrained from a pre emptive first strike on the Soviet Union . The world was extremely lucky to have both Kennedy and Kruschev in power at that time . At one point iirc there was 45 seconds between receiving a critical communication or the point of no return being reached i.e a nuclear exchange which would have killed over 120 million Americans and a slightly smaller number of Russians . Such an exchange would also have wiped out Germany (West & East ) , the UK and France as well as most of eastern europe . In the language of Curtis Le May the USA would have won . Not too different from General Haig’s ‘strategy’ in WW1 apart of curse from the scale of civilian deaths 🙁

    Happily President Obama and his Russian counterpart have now signed a new treaty which will reduce each nuclear power’s capacity to wipe out each other only 60 times as compared to a previous 120 times . One would think once would be enough ? Obviously the military industrial nuclear complex thinks not 🙁

  • Greenflag

    harry flash,

    ‘except for the millions of people murdered, exiled, imprisoned and tortured by the Communists when they eventually seized power)’

    So have you any actual numbers re your allegaion above .

    Most American sources state that 58,000 Americans were killed during the Vietnam War along with an estimated 2 million Vietnamese and that was before the communist takeover .

  • Jo

    I am pleased that serial troll vance doesnt seize on this opportunity to spread his voice on Slug. I wonder what COULD have deterred him from defending one of his heroes? lol 😉

  • Harry Flashman

    Let’s see I think the final death toll in Pol Pot’s Cambodia was between 1.5 and 1.75 million, beside those murdered of course millions more were enslaved and tortured. The Vietnamese Communists arbitrarily imprisoned a million people in re-education camps, as many as another million Vietnamese fled either across the border or as boat people. Off the top of my head the number of Vietnamese and Cambodians killed by the Communists before they seized power must be in the million or so mark, we’ve no idea how many people have been murdered or imprisoned in Laos but I dare say it’s in the hundreds of thousands.

    How we doing so far GF? Are my “millions” of victims of SE Asian Communism adding up for you?

  • Different Drummer

    Flashing over South East Asia

    What a joker you are Flash!!

    Yes folks for your delectation and education Flash lets us know that Pol Pot and his band were murderous pheasants.


    Why then did the best study of the reasons for their rise coming to power conclude that their fratricidal fundamentalist insanity was produced by the American bombing of their county.

    Reply Back Flash if you can

  • Harry Flashman

    So you’re saying that the Communists won in Cambodia because the Americans failed to defeat them so therefore the Americans are responsible for the Communists winning.

    I see, so the British and French were unable to prevent the Nazis taking over Poland so the Nazi terror in Poland was the fault of the British and French.


    Logic, Different Drummer, Different Drummer this is logic, I don’t think either of you have met before.

  • Different Drummer

    Err Pay attention My Flashing Man

    The thesis I refer to: that the American bombing produced the insanity of the Kamer Rouge – is not my thesis or the thesis of radicals like John Pilger who has written and broadcast extensively about the horror of Pol Pot and the Kamer regime – It is the well documented thesis of William Shawcross, Kissinger Nixion and the Destruction of Cambodia

    – I’m sure you’ve heard of Mr Shawcross he is well known right wing ideologue (or he was up on till last year…)

    Would you like his details to tell him how wrong he is?

    BTW unlike Mr Shawcross it is rhetoric that we are all dealing with here not logic hence your use of the word ‘so’ instead of using a more reliable methodology that can approach logic but can never *be logical*. Beacuse there can never be any agreement as to what is or is logical in morality or politics.

    Example: I would say that the British appeasement of Hitler helped him reach poland via Czechoslovakia.

    But I would say that wouldn’t I

    Reply Back if you can

  • Harry Flashman

    Help me out here, the people who tried to defeat the Communists in Cambodia are to blame for the Communists winning in Cambodia?

    So you think it would have been better not to fight the Communists and just allowed them take over Cambodia because fighting them allowed the Communists to win and take over Cambodia?


    You on the booze or something?

  • RepublicanStones

    Im no expert but ole Noam sums it up pretty nicely….

    “Genocide”: The United States and Pol Pot

    Pol Pot was obviously a major mass murderer, but it’s not clear that Pol Pot killed very many more people — or even more people — than the United States killed in Cambodia in the first half of the 1970s. We only talk about “genocide” when other people do the killing. [The U.S. bombed and invaded Cambodia beginning in 1969, and supported anti-Parliamentary right-wing forces in a civil war there which lasted until 1975; Pol Pot ruled the country between 1975 and ’78.]

    So there’s a lot of uncertainty about just what the scale was of the Pol Pot massacre, but the best scholarly work in existence today estimates the deaths in Cambodia from all causes during the Pol Pot period in the hundreds of thousands, maybe as much as a million. Well, just take a look at the killing in Cambodia that happened in the first half of the decade from 1970 to 1975 — which is the period that we’re responsible for: it was also in the hundreds of thousands.

    Furthermore, if you really want to be serious about it — let’s say a million people died in the Pol Pot years, let’s take a higher number — it’s worth bearing in mind that when the United States stopped its attacks on inner Cambodia in 1975, American and other Western officials predicted that in the aftermath, about a million more Cambodians would die just from the effects of the American war. At the time that the United States withdrew from Cambodia, people were dying from starvation in the city of Phnom Penh alone — forget the rest of the country — at the rate of 100,000 a year. The last U.S. A.I.D. [Agency for International Development] mission in Cambodia predicted that there would have to be two years of slave labor and starvation before the country could even begin to get moving again. So while the number of deaths you should attribute to the United States during the Pol Pot period isn’t a simple calculation to make, obviously it’s a lot — when you wipe out a country’s agricultural system and drive a million people out of their homes and into a city as refugees, yeah, a lot of people are going to die. And the responsibility for their deaths is not with the regime that took over afterwards, it’s with the people who made it that way.

    And in fact, there’s an even more subtle point to be made — but not an insignificant one. That is: why did Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge carry out their massacre in the first place? Well, there’s pretty good evidence that the Khmer Rouge forces took power primarily because they were the only ones who were tough enough bastards to survive the U.S. attacks. And given the destructive psychological effects of the American bombings on the peasant population there, some sort of violent outpouring was fairly predictable — and there was a big element of just plain peasant revenge in what happened. So the U.S. bombings hit a real peak of ferocity in around 1973, and that’s the same period in which the Pol Pot group started gaining power. The American bombardment was certainly a significant factor, possibly the critical factor, in building up peasant support for the Khmer Rouge in the first place; before that, they had been a pretty marginal element. Okay, if we were honest about the term “genocide,” we would divide up the deaths in the Pol Pot period into a major part which is our responsibility, which is the responsibility of the United States.”

    (Chomsky – Understanding Power p92-93)

  • Robert Mcnamara was a despicable leader who, like so many terrible ones, lived long enough for the public pretty much to forget about what he had done, especially when political thinkers like Joseph Nye – the guy who dreamed up the non-nuclear conclusion to the Cold War, what the Palme assassination was intended to trigger, and Navy Secretary Lehman’s Task Force Eagle and NATO’s Anchor Express Exercise were intended to complete – offer all kinds of apologies for the bastard.

    I wish I had run into him during my marches on the Pentagon. I would have tried to bust his sorry head open with a club.

    When was there ever an American or British leader who did terrible things, like Mcnamara, ever called to account, much less punished for what he did.

    Why I cannot stand either country.

  • Greenflag

    harry flash,

    ‘How we doing so far GF? ‘

    We are doing fine .As for yourself not too good by the looks of it . Republican stones is wiping you flat with facts and figures . Different Drummer ditto . And Trowbridge Ford has now lined up to finsh you off 😉

    I would’nt mess with Noam Chomsky’s analysis either . Even the most rabid neo con idiots don’t mess with Chomsky .

    Remember old Chinese saying

    ‘O eggs do not fight with stones ‘

    There’s hardly any need for me to join in the flogging of a dead horse flash harry .

    Anyway numerical ‘comparative ‘ genocide is not a topic that should be bandied about lightly .

    And maybe the USA and the UK should stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries and wasting their taxpayers money on imposing neo con ideology on a world which does’nt want it and has seen the social and economic havoc which it has unleashed over the past 20 years !!.

  • Different Drummer

    Still Not Pay Attention are You Flash

    I said the thesis was NOT my thesis it was William Shawcross’s – I tend to agree with Pilger
    both the Americans and Pol pot were worse bad but NOT the same as one another.

    Similarly the Viet Cong and the kamer rouge were not the same it was the defeat one that produced the other – that is not in dispute – It is what is moral and what is not moral is driving your ill thought out response.

    As I said I agree with Pilger – both were illmoral – but I don’t that morality is the issue.

    Anyway reply back if you can

  • Different Drummer

    Sorry – morality not the issue.

  • This thread is supposed to be about Robert Mcnamara – not what he may have caused others to do this way or that.

    Manamara was a mad producer and accountant whether he was fire-bombing Tokyo, cranking out cars at Ford, checking what the Soviets were sneaking into Cuba during the Missile Crisis, checking on torpedoes during the Tonkin Gulf incident, reporting body-counts of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, handing out grants at the World Bank, etc., ad nauseam.

    The guy was a mindless cypher who did whatever his employers expected without any qualms until the vast negative feedback hit him.

    May he rot in Hell forever!

  • This thread is supposed to be about Robert Mcnamara – not what he may have caused others to do this way or that.

    Manamara was a mad producer and accountant whether he was fire-bombing Tokyo, cranking out cars at Ford, checking what the Soviets were sneaking into Cuba during the Missile Crisis, checking on torpedoes during the Tonkin Gulf incident, reporting body-counts of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, handing out grants at the World Bank, etc., ad nauseam.

    The guy was a mindless cypher who did whatever his employers expected without any qualms until the vast negative feedback hit him.

    May he rot in Hell forever!

  • Different Drummer

    Yes Trowbridge you are of course right – what was I thinking?

    The man himself owns up to being all that you say in Fog of War.
    People have mentioned Chomsky but not his most relevant work on the period of McNamara’s Pentagon – America Power and The New Mandarins. Or the birth of paralysis by analysis.

  • Harry Flashman

    Er, no, GF, I have answered your question succinctly, you were under the mistaken apprehension that there were not millions of victims of Communism in SE Asia and I demolished your silly delusion by pointing out there were in fact millions of such victims.

    Then other posters came in with the absurd belief that while they accepted that certainly millions of people were victimised by Communists that was somehow the fault of well, hang on, the Americans?

    Let me make this nice and simple. The US in SE Asia was fighting against Communism because they believed that when Communists take power in a country they rapidly establish genocidal tyrannies, and given that the evidence of history proves that to be the case they were right to believe so (whether they were right to try and prevent it is another issue entirely).

    Now, the Americans fought against Communism in Indo-China and lost, fair enough, but having failed to prevent the coming to power of genocidal Communist tyrannies it is simply absurd in the extreme to blame the Americans for the creation of those self same genocidal Communist tyrannies which they had so actively fought to prevent coming to power.

    As for Chomsky I have always found it to be a sure sign of an intellectually lightweight undergraduate mentality when one treats the prognostications of that pretentious blowhard with anything other than the derision they deserve.

  • Harry, you just come up as an intellectual lightweight by refusing to talk about what Robert Mcnamara really did in the whole process, preferring to allow him to hide as some good and trusty agent during the giant paranoia which plagued the world then – what you continually profess when it comes to changes in the world that he was confronted by.

    Just read the tapes that May and Zelikow prepared on the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, where the seemingly most solicitious Secretary of Defense to the President slowly puts the case of putting the screws to the communists, ultimately the Cubans, hoping that it will lead to an American invasion – where Mcnarama is finally heard shouting over mixed voices, “Exactly. Exactly.” (p. 382), only for a much more sober JFK explaining:

    “Yeah, well, I think that may be, but we don’t want to decide that. But it is a fact that if they put the screws on Berlin in the way that we considered they were going to, then we are bound to invade Cuba.” (ibid.)

    Fortunately, the President prevailed over this mouthpiece for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an invasion was avoided – what could well have resulted in a nuclear war.

    Too bad we lost such a sober President at Dallas -what Chomsky continually considers no loss at all – rather than the bullish Mcnamara who went on to put the screws to the Vietnamese.

    JFK’s screwing seems much more preferable to me. Mcnamara just acts as if he were just assembling something inanimate, like an automobile.

  • Harry Flashman

    I am not discussing McNamara Trow, I am simply pointing out that the resistance to Communist aggression in SE Asia was not, in and of itself, “wrong”.

    I am further pointing out for people of a certain generation whose minds have been thoroughly brainwashed by an educational system and media agenda which has done a magnificent job in blaming the US for all the problems of the world over the past half century that the Communists in SE Asia were, like all Communists in Asia and indeed around the world, murdering, brutal, genocidal thugs.

    This simple elemental fact seems to be left out of all discussions about the Cold War and often comes as a complete surprise to younger, more naive people (qv Greenflag), who appear to believe that Communists were fluffy bunny, peace loving hippies who just wanted to get along with everybody.

    It is surprising just how ignorant and uneducated about history so many of our young people are today. I happen to take a special pleasure in educating the silly fools about basic facts.

  • Well, at least you are confessing that you highjacked the thread from the outset.


    Mcnamara certainly did much more all over the place than simply defend places like South Vietnam from communist aggression from the North. He took the fight to them, thanks particularly to the input provided by Pentagon hawks, especially manipulator Al ‘Deep Throat’ Haig.

    Why cannot we have a informative discussion of this rather than something else which gets up your nose – the younger generation, its schooling, and its alleged outcome?

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘As for Chomsky I have always found it to be a sure sign of an intellectually lightweight undergraduate mentality when one treats the prognostications of that pretentious blowhard with anything other than the derision they deserve.’

    Funny that, but in my experience when someones argument has been completely shredded by the old M.I.T ‘fuddy-duddy’ they resort to playing the man and not attempting to unpick the knots which Chomsky has just tied their ‘thesis’ into. And Flashman has just resorted to type right here…..nice one Harry 😉

  • CW

    The neo-cons have learned nothing since Vietnam about the futility of interventionist policy in foreign parts. However, at least the Vietnam war had some shred of an altruistic motive, unlike Iraq which was purely about control of resources and petro-dollars and gaining a strategic advantage in the Middle East. McNamara may be dead and gone, but his legacy lives on in the likes of Dick Cheney and George W and their cabal of neo-con hawks. No doubt when these people are dead, a similar debate will ensue.

    As Harry F, is like the Americans in North Vietnam fighting a losing battle he resorts to blatant man-playing in a desperate attempt to give credibilty to his flawed argument.

  • Oh dear…..Harry
  • Harry Flashman

    Lordy lordy, they never change, they still cling to the adolescent belief that it was all America’s fault.

    No matter how many millions died or were exiled or imprisoned or enslaved or tortured by Communists, it’s still always America’s fault.

    Heaven help us, will they never grow up?

  • RepublicanStones

    Harry…lets pretend that this is a tennis match. That sources, facts, figures etc are the balls. Whilst others keep scoring aces aginst you, you stand on the other side of the net like McEnroe screaming “You cannot be serious !”

  • Different Drummer

    Flashing at The Pentagon

    I see you are bit like McNamara as I appear to have become one of your generic ‘they’ not unlike the ‘they’ that the Vietnamese became under the French. And also a bit like someone who wore glasses under Pol Pot.

  • CW

    “they still cling to the adolescent belief that it was all America’s fault.”

    You’ve obviosuly been out of Derry for too long, Harry.

  • Harry Flashman

    On the contrary RS I am the only one who has provided facts to prove a claim which was contradicted by another poster (Greenflag), that millions of people in SE Asia were victims of Communist tyranny.

    All that the rest of the posters have produced are the same tired old, endlessly regurgitated, Pilgerish whingeing or Chomskyite windbaggery.

    Let me assure you that stuff was old and tired when I first encountered it a quarter of a century ago at Uni and hasn’t gained any great meaningfulness since today’s generation of student’s started “discovering” them on the web.

    So just for the sake of clarity let me cut to the main issue; SE Asian Communists murdered and enslaved millions of Asians following their victory in Indo-China 1975. Not the Americans, the Americans tried and failed to prevent that Communist victory, ergo the villains are the Communists, not the Americans.

    Shouldn’t be too difficult to work out the logic of that even for today’s generation of barely literate student activists.

  • But you still fail to admit, Harry Flashman, that American Secretary of Defense Robert Mcnamara was highly complicit and responsible for the outcome by his putting the screws to all kinds of confrontations, especially in Vietnam – what is the topic of this thread.

    Are you simply incapable of registering what is presented to you for discussion?

    Just read what George C. Herring wrote about him in LBJ and Vietnam:

    “His revolution at the Pentagon was a managerial revolution that in no way challenged prevailing military doctrine, and he was out of his element when compelled to go beyond the managerial aspects of military policy. Conceding his ignorance, he refused to direct the formulation of strategy.” (p. 38)

    In short, he was just there to make the screwing of the Vietnamese more effective and lethal – what left out any moral and irrational considerations. He was a one-dimensional organizer of the killing.

    Or look at how Mcnamara threatened to walk out of the Havana Conference in January 1992 unless the Cubans stopped their ‘trial’ like atmosphere in it, and Castro explained his conduct in making a revolution – what resulted in Washington establishing all kinds of measures, especially Operation Mongoose, in response.

    A most irate Mcnarmara threw down the gauntlet
    thus: “Why did a group of intelligent, responsible leaders engage in it? We haven’t had one word on that subject. I urge we do so before we break. Thank you.” (Cuba on the Brink, p. 185.

    Castro more than met the challenge, as even the American delegation admitted, showing that the former SOD was completely out of his depth when it came to development, and foreign policy. (p. 171ff.)

  • Different Drummer

    Flasher’s Official Vietnam History

    “The Americans tried and failed to prevent that Communist victory, ergo the villains are the Communists, not the Americans.”

    OK Here’s a counter statement

    Had the American *government* not helped the French – more people -French and Vietnamese would be alive and Vietnam would be closer diplomatically not further from the US.

  • Greenflag

    harry flash in te pan,

    ‘GF, I have answered your question succinctly’

    What question was that ? I pointed out the numbers of Americans and Vietnamese killed before the Americans withdrew from Vietnam . Just as today one could number the Americans who have died in Iraq /Afghanistan 4,000 plus , as well as the 500,000 estimated Iraqis plus Afghans and that too is before the Americans withdraw from that country .

    ‘you were under the mistaken apprehension that there were not millions of victims of Communism in SE Asia ‘

    I was ? I’m aware that their have been millions of victims of communism throughout the world as well as victims of nazism , fascism , imperialism and wars of religion and those of aristocratic succession . Jared Diamond has a ‘league ‘ table which details the locations of all genocides 1900 to 1950 in his book ‘The Third Chimpanzee ‘

    Go have a read of Diamond if you find Chomsky a little too hard going for your neo con brain cell;)

  • Different Drummer

    Now GF don’t mock the afflicted things are taxing enough for him as it is…

  • Virtual Flasher

    Yes I did redirect the thread to something like the truth about Vietnam and I dare say I offered more insight than the others here.

  • Different Drummer

    You mean like the how the Viethmin under Ho beat the Japanese and Vichy in 1945 and established their own independence and how the Americans helped reestablish Vichy in the South and then helped them re-invade the North?