A ”mathematical genius”, statistics wonk, the man behind the escalation of the Vietnam War, the longest-serving US defense secretary, controversial World Bank president and nuclear disarmament advocate: Robert S. McNamara left big footprints in post-World War II international politics – for better and for worse. He died yesterday at the age of 93 at his Washington home.
His contemporaries probably know him best as the number-crunching brain behind LBJ’s infamous escalation of the Vietnam War. Most of them were not impressed by his retrospective mea culpa, delivered in his 1995 autobiography In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he famously concluded that escalating the Vietnam War was ”wrong, terribly wrong.” The confession did not earn him a lot of sympathies. If he had harbored his doubts about the feasibility of the bombing campaigns, why didn’t he speak up earlier? Why on earth didn’t he resign?
His 13-year stint as president of the World Bank may have been as well-meaning as his service to the nation but in many ways similarly disastrous. Determined to eradicate the scourge of extreme poverty, McNamara increased the World Bank’s yearly lending volume to developing countries from 1 to 12 billion dollars during his tenure. Some people insist that McNamara contributed a lot to alleviating global poverty. But ecological disasters, money wasted by corrupt governments, hopelessly indebted developing countries and an estimated increase of the world’s poor from 200 to 800 million were also part of McNamara’s World Bank legacy.
However, as a woman who came of political age in the 1990s, I got to know another side of Robert McNamara. Certainly, history books taught me about the stubborn number-cruncher who often seemed disconnected from reality and the real-world consequences of his statistical calculations. But I also got to know him as a passionate advocate for nuclear disarmament. In December 2004, I had the opportunity to see him speak at a symposium on nuclear security in Washington, DC. His passion for nuclear disarmament, and the mental alertness and sparkling intelligence of the then 88-year old were truly inspiring.
McNamara passionately made his case the following year in a long article for Foreign Policy Magazine entitled “Apocalypse Now“. McNamara, who was of course present at the White House deliberations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, concluded that human propensity to make mistakes and the existence of highly destructive nuclear weapons constituted an unacceptable combination. Therefore, McNamara argued, de-nuclearization was the only acceptable path: ”There is no way to reduce the risk to acceptable levels, other than to first eliminate the hair-trigger alert policy and later to eliminate or nearly eliminate nuclear weapons.” That is the powerful message of a former US secretary of defense who clearly knew what he was talking about.
Throughout his illustrious career, he helped create many disasters, but he also campaigned hard to prevent the ”mother of all disasters”: a nuclear holocaust. For all that McNamara got wrong, he certainly got that one right.
Future leaders should learn more from McNamara than just from his mistakes.