Robert McNamara, the upside



Today, just a few nice words about Robert McNamara.

The standard way to mark McNamara's Tuesday passing is to note his disastrous stint as a prime architect of the Vietnam war during the Lyndon Johnson era, and to lament the fact that he failed to cop to his mistakes until around 1995, long after 58,000 Americans had paid for his mistakes with their lives. It's also worth noting, of course, that copping to such mistakes long after the fact is essentially a worthless exercise anyway, because people will inevitably wonder why the person didn't speak up when he was still on the job and had the chance, at least in theory, to correct the policy errors. Contemporary case in point: Colin Powell.

I'll stipulate to McNamara's tragic elegy, which is best captured in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, particularly when the former whiz-kid Defense secretary admits, "We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War, not what they saw it as: a civil war. We were wrong." And yet, if only to provide a counterintuitive view, I'll argue that McNamara also deserves a bit of praise for the time of crisis when he was right.

That would be the Cuban missile crisis.

In October 1962, McNamara played a pivotal role in steering the world away from nuclear war. In newly declassified materials and in White House recordings - as amply documented by Michael Dobbs in his groundbreaking 2008 book One Minute To Midnight - it is clear that McNamara repeatedly thwarted the military hawks who were thirsting to bomb the Soviet missile sites in Cuba, follow up with a ground invasion, and risk a nuclear exchange that they were convinced America would "win."

When the hawks, led by Air Force chief of staff Curtis LeMay, first argued for a swift military response to the Soviets, the Kennedy administration had nothing to counter that option. It was McNamara who came up with the idea of initiating a naval blockade of Cuba (they decided to call it a "quarantine," which didn't sound as militant), at the very least to slow the crisis, provide JFK with some breathing space, and offer the Soviets a chance to halt their missile-laden ships and send them back home.

Then, when the blockade went into effect, McNamara sought to ensure that any standoff on the high seas would not result in the sinking of a Soviet ship - in itself, the kind of incident that could have triggered a chain reaction and led to a nuclear exchange, given the extreme tensions of the moment. His argument was that the blockade should be viewed as a political chess move, an invitation for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to back off. When George Anderson, the U.S. chief of naval operations told McNamara that the American ships would probably "fire into the rudder" of any unresponsive Soviet ship, McNamara shot back, "You're not going to fire a single shot at anything without my express permission, is that clear?"

McNamara's moves seriously ticked off the military generals, who already felt that he harbored "pacifist views." LeMay would wonder, to his colleagues, whether America would be any worse off "if Khrushchev were secretary of Defense." LeMay - who later served as a model for George C. Scott's General Buck Turgidson in the film Dr. Strangelove - was particularly peeved by McNamara's refusal to accept the benefits of a nuclear exchange with the Soviets.

As recounted in Dobbs' book, McNamara challenged LeMay by asking, "Who will win such a war?" And LeMay replied, "We will, of course. The country that ends up with the greatest nuclear weapons wins."

To which McNamara, serving as LeMay's civilian overseer, replied: "But if we lose ten million people, what's the point of winning?"

Vietnam aside, let's thank him for that.