Robert McNamara: The brilliant, abrasive statesman remains an enigma

February 07, 1993|By Henry Trewhitt




Deborah Shapley.

Little, Brown.

` 734 pages. $29.95.

Even today, at 76, Robert Strange McNamara darts among us, eyes fixed on the goal of the moment with a combination of candor, ambiguity and, his enemies claim, deceit. For that matter, his friends, acknowledging the record, say the same things.

But the duplicity of RSM -- those famous initials -- is more complex than that. Today's goal, whatever it is, may repudiate a position he argued with passion 30 years ago or 10 years ago. Anyone, you say, may change positions honorably as time reveals truth.

Mr. McNamara refuses that graceful exit. Often he declares that he recognized truth in the old days but refused, for the greater good, to represent it.

Example: He always knew, he says, that the Vietnam War was militarily unwinnable, while as secretary of defense he implied that victory awaited. Example: He understood, he says, the limited utility of nuclear weapons even as he refined and expanded them. He was determined never to use nuclear weapons first, he declares, though Western Alliance strategy dictated their use if necessary to save Europe. Out of political necessity, he says, his public conduct violated his beliefs. This .. may be true of most public figures; few belabor it.

It is part of the McNamara tragedy that writing about him requires picking at the smarmy side of a remarkable man. Yet Mr. McNamara invites such attention, implying that evasions, double meaning or vagueness in 25-year-old actions establish his innocence of lying and deception.

Judgments about him become more complex with understanding that his objective in public life was always the public good. In seven tormented years as John Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's secretary of defense, and almost 15 years as president of the World Bank, there was never a hint of personal gain. Carefully tracing the record, Deborah Shapley in this book enables Mr. McNamara in the twilight of his life to hold a mirror up to all of us and invite judgment.

At least one early reviewer grumbled that Ms. Shapley failed to capture her subject. But it's doubtful that anyone will ever come closer. It is fine reporting and writing. And here I must acknowledge my personal interest.

Twenty-two years ago, I wrote of Mr. McNamara's life through his tumultuous years in the Pentagon ("McNamara: His Ordeal in the Pentagon"). Armed with a vastly expanded record, Ms. Shapley elaborates on those years and takes Mr. McNamara through his World Bank period and his recent decade as peacenik gadfly. She frequently cites my book, and I am of course pleased that her more elaborate study confirmed my findings.

Neither she nor I was able to serve Mr. McNamara up simply, as those who detest him would like. He is an enormously complex man. It is possible, however, to identify the god that drove him in the early years and still may: It is the belief that most problems can be solved by rational analysis, usually statistical analysis. Thus dedicated, Mr. McNamara went from Ford Motor Co. -- where he was president for only a few weeks -- to impose his system on the Pentagon and, with time, on the war in Vietnam.

There never was a real honeymoon, although his admirers spoke wistfully of a run to follow Kennedy in the White House. A great part of the Washington establishment concluded that Bob McNamara was the smartest man in town.

But there was always a crisis -- the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, soon Vietnam, and constant turmoil over military hardware for the future. Mr. McNamara, the manager, imposed ruthless control over the military, with predictable effect on regard for him by the military and its congressional friends. When the statistical god failed him, the enemies took their revenge.

Vietnam tortured him above all else. As Americans died and statistics lied, and nothing worked, Mr. McNamara's pace increased. He threw his wiry body from point to point, every slicked-down hair in place, seeking unattainable solutions. In the late stages, before he left for the World Bank in 1968, he sometimes burst into tears at odd moments, and friends speculated about suicide. Such talk outrages him today.

At the bank, he was only slightly less contentious. He set the institution on its ear with crash programs to expand lending for poor nations. He aimed to increase productivity and, most important, relieve poverty. Bureaucrats accustomed to leisurely days and a gracious social schedule found themselves working 12-hour days. Over time, he achieved many short-term objectives.

But the outsider even now finds it hard to get an objective appraisal. Mr. McNamara aroused such passions that many bank employees can say little good about manifestly successful programs. One area of clear success was a range of management reforms that endures today.

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