The McNamara Mentality

By Will, George F | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

The McNamara Mentality


Will, George F, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


WASHINGTON

The death of Robert McNamara at 93 was less a faint reverberation of a receding era than a reminder that mentalities are the defining attributes of eras, and certain American mentalities recur with, it sometimes seems, metronomic regularity.

McNamara came to Washington from Detroit -- he headed Ford when America's swaggering automobile manufacturers enjoyed 90 percent market share -- to be President John Kennedy's secretary of defense. Seemingly confident that managing the competition of nations could be as orderly as managing competition among the three participants in Detroit's oligopoly, McNamara entered government seven months before the birth of the current president, who is the owner and, he is serenely sure, fixer of General Motors.

Today, something unsettlingly similar to McNamara's eerie assuredness pervades Washington. The spirit is: Have confidence, everybody, because we have, or soon will have, everything under control.

The apogee of McNamara's professional life, in the first half of the 1960s, coincided with the apogee of the belief that behavioralism had finally made possible a science of politics. Behavioralism held that the social and natural sciences are not so different, both being devoted to the discovery of law-like regularities that govern the behavior of atoms, hamsters, humans, whatever.

Two of behavioralism's reinforcing assumptions were: Things that can be quantified can be controlled. And everything can be quantified. So, pick a problem. Military insurgency in Indochina? The answer is counterinsurgency. What can be quantified? Body counts. Bingo: a metric of success.

Not exactly. The behavior of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did not respond as expected to America's finely calibrated stimuli, such as bombing this but not that, and bombing pauses. Behavioralists were disappointed, but not discouraged.

It was in reaction to the mentality that McNamara represented that The Public Interest quarterly was born. …

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