U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Robert Strange McNamara: RIP

[Updated: 1 pm, 7/8/09]

I just learned that the former U.S. Secretary of Defense and past president of the Ford Motor Company, Robert McNamara, died this morning. May he rest in peace—though I may be one of only a few, historians or otherwise, who wills his soul any good fortune.

I gained some acquaintance with McNamara’s biography and place in history not through the press or any personal memories of Vietnam, but through the tough documentary Fog of War. The film’s subtitle—“Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”—goes some way toward explaining my less-than-disgusted view of McNamara’s place in U.S. history.

I began to abstractly understand Baby Boomer animus toward McNamara through the film. That generation faulted McNamara as the common link between the failed Vietnam policies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Errol Morris knew this, of course, and did not shy away from related probing questions. But I gained a concrete understanding, however, of that animosity when I defended Fog of War (extreme bottom of link) from a critical review in the Journal of American History (Vol. 92, no. 3, Dec. 2005). [Warning: You must be a History Cooperative/JAH subscriber to view these links in full.]

One of the problems with the review, in my opinion, was its criticism of Morris for supposedly glossing over McNamara’s faults. The reviewer’s intense response to my criticism of the review can be seen at the bottom of the link with my work. Despite the “dialogue,” I contend still that the review forwarded a decidedly wrong interpretation of the film in relation both McNamara’s actions and his person.

But I recall this not to relive old scholarly arguments. I bring my reflections to USIH because I see Fog of War as a first draft, visual biography of McNamara’s intellectual development. Morris’ work is an intellectual biography masquerading as film.

How? Any film that uses history and biography to put forth lessons covering empathy, ethics, rationality, metaphysical questions, perception versus reality, self-criticism, and human nature surely falls within the realm of intellectual history. In a classroom setting these lessons provide the history instructor with the opportunity to raise a number of philosophical questions in the context of a concrete chronological period in U.S. history (i.e. the Cold War). The possibilities for student engagement are extraordinary. Indeed, were I some kind of dictator of history teaching, or a czar of U.S. history instruction, I would require Fog of War for every post-Civil War U.S. survey course offered in higher education.

While these lessons provided a vehicle for intellectualizing McNamara, Vietnam, World War II, and the Cold War, Morris also does a fantastic job of humanizing McNamara. The documentary reveals a McNamara in tears, choked up with regret over losses and his failings. Those regrets cover his personal life, political dealings, and missed opportunities in a life that included participation, remote and direct, in the fog of various wars.

I think the reason for the historical dissonance on McNamara has to do with the young and old versions of the man. As a younger and middle-aged man, McNamara was prideful, overly confident, and intellectually capable. As an old man he began to turn his critical faculty on himself. Morris’ film conveys both halves of McNamara’s life, and the older man elicits your sympathy.

Some parts of the NYT obituary convey this tension. Here are two brief excerpts from that extraordinarily long and thorough retrospective:

– In 1995, [McNamara] took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir [In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam] that it was “wrong, terribly wrong.” In return, he faced a firestorm of scorn. …
– By then he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.

“Haunted.” This is an apt descriptor in relation to McNamara. I certainly found the Morris documentary haunting. It is my hope that McNamara’s legacy as a civil servant haunts us as a nation. Perhaps his lessons will find the ears of those decision-makers who matter. A look at his biography should, I hope, instill caution. And insofar as caution is part and parcel with conservatism, then I hope all political leaders obtain to some of old man McNamara’s conservatism and hard-earned humility. – TL

Additional links with annotations:

1. Here is Errol Morris confirming my observations above. John Prados and David Ignatius confirm Morris’ assessment.
2. But Morris’ account of McNamara’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis might be defective. In an extended HNN piece, Sheldon M. Stern blasts McNamara’s remembrance of his role as hawkish adviser to JFK during the events of 1963.