With the recent passing of former Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara, pundits and journalists provided a surprisingly monotonous elegy. The commentary gave a brief synopsis of McNamara’s private sector roots and post-SecDef career at the World Bank, but focused heavily on his role in the Vietnam War.
Remarkably absent from the media dia…er…monologue…was any mention of the intellectual and moral hubris that guided individuals like McNamara and administrations like President Johnson’s. The same arrogant mentality that brought us the Vietnam debacle also brought us a “not-so Great Society.” Many elements of the “government can and should accomplish everything” mindset have re-emerged through various aspects of the Obama administration.
With most 60s-era hippies entering the stale retirement lives they vigorously opposed decades ago, McNamara’s death presented the media one last hurrah to denounce the foreign policy blunder dubbed “McNamara’s War” by dovish critics. Much of the animosity – then and now – evoked by the war was directed at McNamara as well as Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon (though curiously little blame is affixed to President Kennedy, despite the growing declassification of government documents showing the late president’s primary role).
McNamara came to Washington from Detroit, where he had built an impressive resume. He ascended to become the first non-Ford family member to serve as the company’s president. The technocratic planning and reorganization practices that had been so successful for McNamara at Ford would soon be brought to the Pentagon.
As one of Kennedy’s “New Frontiersmen,” (the young, intellectually-acclaimed cabinet members) McNamara came to the Department of Defense insisting on bringing his own whiz kids with him to occupy all the appointed positions within the Pentagon. McNamara then dogmatically relied on numbers, computers, and data to formulate his bureaucratically top-heavy war. Bombing targets were determined by top political brass rather than the military establishment.
The war mentality meticulously calculated and carefully avoided risk. Ironically, assuming our adversaries would logically respond precisely as our data models predicted was itself a monumental gamble (and ultimately a failed one). The political assumption was that the American public would tolerate a war where the scorecard was a winning death count (minimal losses on our side versus overwhelming casualties for our enemies). In another paradox, the body count barometer utilized by the Johnson-McNamara Pentagon became the tool universally employed by the media to turn public opinion against the war. The human element – of our North Vietnamese/Viet Cong opposition and the American people – was grossly misconstrued by brilliant public servants who haughtily assumed those elements were controllable with the right statistical models.
This disastrous overconfidence would repeat itself later in the Johnson administration with the advent of the Great Society. This revolutionary undertaking sought to alleviate social ills with government programs. Yet – save a few ardent partisans – historians, social scientists, and public officials concur on the failings of the Great Society (Johnson’s “other” war, poverty, rages on). The costs continue to accrue, even as results have not been delivered. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of few sensible geniuses, acknowledged that flawed thinking when he laid out a realistic purpose of social science: tell us what does not work (as opposed to assuming it can omnipotently devise universal remedies.
The failures of the Vietnam War and Great Society can be attributed to the same intellectually-superior but practically-flawed hubris. The war and Great Society, by ignoring human factors such as enemy resolve or behavioral incentives, respectively, offer a contemporary lesson in restraint.
We are told our nation is under the vigilant guidance of masterminds such as Obama, Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner. Yet these modern whiz kids made generous underlying assumptions regarding government’s role and aptitude. Bailouts and takeovers of Wall Street and Detroit ignored sensible realities questioning government’s ability or right to manage business. Health care reform will categorically replace private insurance plans with government-run programs. The infamous energy-climate bill even assumes the U.S. government can control global warming by taxing Americans for energy use.
Neither this article nor its author in any way contests the need to gather the most enlightened individuals to steer the country. We need McNamaras and Geithners at the highest levels. What our nation does not need, however, is an intellectual class crafting programs and policies that are inherently naïve and overreaching. The current administration must cease the same condescending intellectualism, top-heavy power consolidation, and lofty expectations of government that brought us Vietnam and the Great Society.
StairwaytoKevin can be found tripping in his room, staring at a tie-dye mushroom poster. All comments are welcome, except those that would harsh his mellow, man.