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.

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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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London