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Fog of War and the Spirit of a Republic

Why McNamara should have stayed at Ford.

by James Leroy Wilson
March 4, 2004

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Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning documentary Fog of War gave us “Eleven lessons from the life of Robert McNamara.” McNamara, now about 85 years old, was one of the “best and brightest” of his generation. Famously known as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he is the man most blamed, after Johnson himself, for the Vietnam war debacle.

But there’s more to his story. A very intelligent man with dreams of a Harvard professorship, McNamara was recruited to analyze the efficiency of the Army Air Corps in World War II. Ultimately, his analysis led to General Curtis LeMay’s decision to fire-bomb Tokyo and most Japanese metropolitan centers. McNamara confesses in Fog of War that had the USA had lost the war, he probably would have been indicted as a war criminal.

The film also discusses - actually begins with - the Cuban missile crisis, which McNamara now concludes did not end in catastrophe only out of sheer luck. And of course, McNamara talks about Vietnam, and the stuck-inside-the-box Cold War thinking behind it.

But what is most intriguing is the intervening years between McNamara’s stints as War Criminal. And that is his career at Ford Motor Company in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. It is there that his intellect and management skills shone brightest. He was demanding studies and then asking questions. Why are well-paid professionals driving inexpensive Volkswagens? Why are there so many fatal car accidents? This is where is talents flourished, and the seat-belt is one of his legacies.

Yet, just five weeks after being promoted to President of the Ford Motor Company - the first not from the Ford family - he resigned to take a massive pay cut and become newly-elected President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense.

Was it a lust for power that motivated him? No. Was it hoping to get rich off of bribes in the new military-industrial complex? How could that be - he was already one of the highest-paid men in the world. Why did he do it? The answer isn’t stated - just assumed:

Because his country called.

President Kennedy swayed McNamara, and he was allowed to appoint his own people. Thus, a talented and innovative man of industry would become part of the government, and there he served for seven years, in which he served as a lightning rod for a war he didn’t start, in which he dutifully carried out his President’s orders despite his own advice.

Why did he do it for so long? The film doesn’t get him to adequately answer, but I get the same feeling about why Colin Powell continues as Secretary of State: if it was someone else instead of me in this position, things would be even worse than they are now. So McNamara learned to spin like the best politician, to put the best face on the Vietnam War.

I do think there’s more to it. McNamara does come across as arrogant, proud of his own intelligence. Perhaps, when choosing between Ford and Defense, he chose Defense because in government he could gain everlasting fame, whereas at Ford he’d just be a capitalist. But I think Fog of War is a useful historical document. McNamara talks like a man who knows he’s damned by history, and seeks not to excuse himself, but to just explain himself.

I’m glad he did. For he was, indeed, the best and the brightest of his age. And such a mind is not best used for “diplomacy” which is in essence a con game to prevent national “humiliation” - (which itself is only the embarrassment of a few politicians). Nor is it best used for war, for destroying other peoples lives and property. Such minds and talents are best used productively - in creativity, invention, and innovation - like McNamara’s was at Ford.

And this should serve as a caution to those who venerate “public service” as McNamara and his generation did.. It is the diseased spirit of republics. The Roman Republic, and the Greek Republics, were perpetually focused on foreign wars and the “public good” instead of private endeavors. A Republic seems to be the morally superior form of government because no one is legally entitled to be in charge. On the other hand, a Republic gives way to ambition, in which many people who would have used their talents productively, instead seek political power to impose their vision of the Great Society on everyone else. A handsome man of average ability, who could have become a decent soap opera star, now goes to law school and charms his way onto the ballot. While that’s pathetic, it’s not tragic. Robert McNamara’s career is tragic. For he was a talented man who could have done a lot of good for America and the world. But he lived in a culture in which he believed that doing the greatest good was through government.

McNamara’s experiences as revealed in Fog of War teaches one lesson above all: that intelligent, talented people should stay away from politics. Government causes only harm no matter who’s in power, and the best and the brightest will advance society if they put their energies to productive, not destructive, uses.

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