Robert McNamara and the Hard Lessons of “The Best and the Brightest”

Robert McNamara’s death beings back memories of the era when the elitist know-it-alls could do no wrong, then turned around and seriously misjudged the situation in Vietnam:

McNamara was secretary of defense during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. In that capacity he directed a U.S. military buildup in Southeast Asia during the critical early years of a Vietnamese conflict that escalated into one of the most divisive and bitter wars in U.S. history. When the war was over, 58,000 Americans were dead and the national social fabric had been torn asunder.

Before taking office as secretary of defense in 1961, McNamara was president of Ford Motor Co. For 13 years after he left the Pentagon in 1968, he was president of the World Bank. He was a brilliant student, a compulsive worker and a skillful planner and organizer, whose manifest talents carried him from modest circumstances in California to the highest levels of the Washington power structure. He was said to have built a record of achievement and dedication in business, government and public service that few of his generation could match…

The harshest critic of all, David Halberstam, describing McNamara’s trips to Saigon, wrote in “The Best and the Brightest” that McNamara, the ultimate technocrat, was “a prisoner of his own background . . . unable, as indeed was the country which sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities. Since any real indices and truly factual estimates of the war would immediately have shown its bankruptcy, the McNamara trips became part of a vast unwitting and elaborate charade, the institutionalizing and legitimizing of a hopeless lie.”

In Halberstam’s judgment, McNamara “did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.”

But we’ve learned nothing from this.

Now we have a true elitist snob at the top, with colleagues who believe that they and only they have the proper education and credentials to run our country.  And they don’t have anywhere near the civic sense of duty that people of McNamara’s and Jack Kennedy’s generation had.  They come instead of a purely “what’s in it for me” mentality.

And it looks like the fall this time will be harder than the last.

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