Robert McNamara: A Legacy Defined By Vietnam
The legacy of Robert McNamara can’t be deduced at this early stage, and if anyone were to do it, a layman such as myself certainly wouldn’t be fit for the task. McNamara was at the levers of power during a time when the United States was embroiled in one of the most doomed enterprises of its history - the Vietnam war. In the documentary film The Fog of War, McNamara appears to lay alot of the blame at then President Lyndon Johnson’s feet, while other analysis lays the blame at the feet of technocrats like McNamara:
John Ralston Saul, in Volatire’s Bastards, makes McNamara a central character in his tale of how Western governments came to rely on a cult of credentialed, jargon-y experts to make decisions that were better left to politicians.
Like the anti-poverty policies laid out by Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam was an utter failure. It may not have been such an explosive phenomenon, leading to deaths on college campuses, Woodstock and future presidential candidate John Kerry throwing his purple hearts in public anger, if Johnson had understood what his successor Richard Nixon understood: that those kids out there protesting weren’t protesting American policy in Indochina, but were really just protesting their enlistment to fight on behalf of that policy. If a draft had been a factor during the Bush years, the bitter words hurled at Bush’s policies would have likely turned into bitter action.
McNamara became all too aware that his legacy would be stained by his involvement in Vietnam, and he spent a lifetime trying to make up for that. The Fog of War is a testament to that, and I’m sure that those who lived through the 1960s and watched that film must have found it strange to watch the former Secretary of Defense speak about how the Vietnamese resistance viewed the Americans as continuing French colonialism.
If Robert McNamara’s personal story were to illustrate anything, in my personal analysis, it would be that those who have storied credentials from the top universities don’t necessarily know how things work in the real world. McNamara was a business executive, not a five-star general, and yet he was the one given the task of waging a war. He and Johnson failed to analyze the point of view of the Vietnamese and why it was that the population of a small underdeveloped country was so fearlessly willing to fight a superpower. McNamara didn’t take their point of view into account until four decades later, when his actions were regulated to history books and Vietnamese children being born deformed by the effects of Agent Orange. The fallacy of smart, educated men like McNamara should be remembered when economists and business analysts, who failed to see the 2008 crash coming, give their predictions of our economic future.