The Best And Brightest No More


Robert McNamara has died. What will Liza Minnelli and Usher say about this?

Rachel Slajda in TPM has a round-up of obits.

Marc Ambinder:

For people in Washington, McNamara’s folly was an institutional folly: the belief that one smart person with a vision can see what thousands of others with experience cannot.  The fog of war, the irrationality of human nature, the limits of formal chains of command, the limits of reason itself, and a fundamental conflation of decision-making and administration. John Ralston Saul, in Volatire’s Bastards, makes McNamara a central character in his tale of Western governments came to rely on a cult of credentialed, jargon-y experts to make decisions that were better left to politicians. This is not a conservative critique of the elite, per se: it’s merely a meditation on the limits of what humans can do, and know, and why it is dangerous to leave major decisions in the hands of people who think they can know.  We’ve see a version of this fallacy play out among the central actors in our economic crisis: CEOs and experts, quants and traders, who created an orderly world from something fundamentally, almost irreducibly complex.

Joshua Keating in Foreign Policy:

Because of his role in the Vietnam war, Mcnamara will likely be remembered as an archetypal cold warrior. In his retirement however, McNamara became an outspoken advocate of nuclear disarmament. His cover story from the May/June 2005 issue of Foreign Policy remains a must-read on the topic, particularly given today’s talks in Moscow

Matthew Vadum in American Spectator:

He was brilliant, the quintessential liberal do-gooder who sincerely believed he was doing the right thing but whose efforts almost invariably led to disaster.

His horrendous “Project 100,000” program was aimed at getting more black Americans serving in the military but was savaged as an attempt to use minorities as cannon fodder. Much like another liberal idealist a decade later, Jimmy Carter, the harder McNamara worked, the more he seemed to fail.

McNamara was a very interesting, tragic historical figure who in later life came to recognize the error of his ways.

We can learn from his mistakes.


McNamara thought he could modulate the warfare and thereby achieve an eventual peace agreement. By doing so he lost the impact of giving the communist a “hard knock” that many in the military thought was necessary. His modulation of the war made it longer and bloodier.

I don’t think he ever understood that. Instead he evolved into a position the anti war critics had embraced, that the war was never winnable. In fact it was winnable, but he just did not want to follow a strategy that would win.


Jesus, anybody else feel like dying in the next week or two?

Here’s The Fog Of War:

UPDATE: James Joyner

Rod Dreher

UPDATE: #2: Dday

Jonathan Tobin in Commentary:

It can certainly be argued that America’s decision to militarily intervene in Vietnam was a mistake because that country’s strategic importance did not merit the commitment of such massive forces. But the notion that the U.S. effort to defeat the Communist attempt to subvert and then conquer South Vietnam was immoral ignores not only the context of the conflict but the consequences of the eventual American defeat that was set up by McNamara’s squandering of years of public support on ill-considered tactics. It was once thing to denounce the war in 1968, quite another after the exodus of the boat people and decades of bloody Stalinist repression there after the North’s military conquest of the South once America had abandoned the country to its sorry fate.

It would have been far better for McNamara to spend more time apologizing for his inept micromanaging of the war effort that squandered American and Vietnamese lives on a massive scale. It was ironic that in his later years he curried favor among the liberal intellectuals by calling Curtis LeMay a “war criminal” for the massive bombing of Japanese cities in 1945. While in control of the effort in Vietnam, he attempted the opposite strategy, employing American air power in minute pinprick attacks on selected targets in North Vietnam rather than using an overwhelming conventional attack. His tactic of gradual escalation only convinced the North Vietnamese that the Americans were not serious about winning the war and inflicted no serious damage. The lives lost in this campaign were simply thrown away. The North was not brought to the negotiating table until McNamara’s flawed ideas were discarded. A more comprehensive air assault on the North at the end of 1972 brought our prisoners home and forced the North to accept an independent South Vietnam although they threw out that agreement as soon as they thought the time was right.

On the McNamara/Rumsfeld connection:

Doug J.

Spencer Ackerman

Kevin Drum

Lots of people a little older than me won’t agree with this, but I’ve always felt sorry for him.  I think part of the reason is that his personality is a lot like mine — it’s mine squared or cubed or to the tenth power or something, but still recognizably mine.  And so it’s easy for me to believe that if I had been in his situation I might have ended up doing many of the same things he did: overanalyzing the details, burying myself in work, staying too loyal to a cause for too long, avoiding the moral consequences of what I was doing, and then ending up haunted by it for the rest of my life.

Spencer Ackerman on Drum’s post:

Jesus, Kevin, whatever happened over the last 24 hours, it’s going to be OK. You’re a lot better than Robert McNamara. Your empathy is as admirable as it is wholly misplaced. You’re not a Robert McNamara That Could Have Been.

TNR has a round up, including an old Mickey Kaus piece.

Matt Y on the Mickey Kaus piece.

UPDATE #3: Fred Kaplan in Slate

James Fallows in the Atlantic

Peter Scoblic in TNR

UPDATE #4: Impossible to get all the McNamara commentary. Some MSM stuff:

George Will in WaPo

Matt Welch in Reason on Will’s piece

Jonathan Tobin in Commentary on Will’s piece

David Brooks and Gail Collins in NYT


1 Comment

Filed under History, Movies, Political Figures

One response to “The Best And Brightest No More

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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