Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Robert S. Mcnamara: 9 June 1916 * 6 July 2009

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Robert S. Mcnamara: 9 June 1916 * 6 July 2009

Article excerpt


McNamara in Winter: The Quixotic Quest of an Unquiet American

He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.

-Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

Sanity may be madness, but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.

-Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de La Mancha

Errol Morris: This is a movie ["The Fog of War"] with one interview, but sometimes I think there are two characters: the 85-yearold McNamara speaking to the 45-year-old McNamara.

Terry Gross: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I mean, as a viewer, this was my impression too, yeah.

-National Public Radio interview on "Fresh Air," 5 January 2004

An American Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Following Robert S. McNamara's death on 6 July 2009, at age 93, dozens of obituaries appeared, most of them telling the same basic story. McNamara was portrayed as an American variant of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a bright and successful man but also a bad and destructive man whose pursuit of power and colossal arrogance led America and the world into the quagmire of the Vietnam War.

First, Dr. Jekyll. A quick perusal of McNamara's life seems initially to prove that the so-called "Horatio Alger Myth" is sometimes reality: rags to riches, obscurity to fame, blue collar to the corridors of power. The grandson of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine, and son of a San Francisco shoe salesman whose education ended after the eighth grade, McNamara rose to positions of power and wealth while still a young man. After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, He became one of the 10 famous "whiz kids" hired by the Ford Motor Company (as a group) in 1946. He rose to be the first Ford president chosen from outside the Ford family. His ascension to president of Ford was interrupted almost immediately when President-elect John F. Kennedy named McNamara his secretary of defense. McNamara took the oath of office at age 44, a year older than JFK, and served both Kennedy and then President Lyndon Johnson until 1 March 1968. On 1 April 1968, he became president of the World Bank, where he served until he retired in June 1981 at age 65.

Next, Mr. Hyde. To many commentators, McNamara seemed to be the embodiment of Lord Acton's assertion that, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." As defense secretary, McNamara commanded the most devastating military machine in history. He sent an army of more than half a million to South Vietnam, and he launched what would become the most intense bombing campaign in history against North Vietnam- all to no avail. Within and between the lines of his obituaries were variants of the question posed most directly by Mickey Kaus of The New Republic: "Has any single American of this [20th] century done more harm than Robert McNamara?" Many answered "no," because in their view, without McNamara's ferocious pursuit of the Vietnam War and his frequent deceptions as to who was winning and who was losing, the war would never have taken place, or at least would not have escalated to the colossal disaster it became.

A few commentaries on McNamara mentioned his activities after retiring from the World Bank (1981-2009), during which he wrote and spoke on behalf of various causes, especially issues of war and peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons. A few obits mentioned that late in life, he participated in a number of discussions with former adversaries from Russia, Cuba, and Vietnam.

A Profile in Courage: 1985-2009

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Robert S. McNamara was a central player in two epochal and controversial episodes in the history of U.S. foreign policy. First, during the Kennedy administration, the world was brought to the brink of nuclear catastrophe in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Second, during the Johnson administration, McNamara was the principal architect of the U. …

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