Belmont Club

Robert Strange McNamara, dead at 93

Fox reports that he “died at home in his sleep Monday morning, his wife Diana … said he had been in failing health for some time. Known as a policymaker with a fixation for statistical analysis, McNamara was president of the Ford Motor Co. when President John F. Kennedy asked him to head the Pentagon in 1961.” McNamara’s name will forever be associated with the charge that he replaced the idea of victory with “cost effectiveness” in Vietnam; that he spent lives in the pursuit of some elusive metric. But the blame for that has to go back much further, to Korea when Douglas MacArthur discovered that Washington at least, believed there was indeed a substitute for victory.

The idea that a certain amount of blood had to be used to grease the wheels of peace may have been a rational calculation under the shadow of the bomb. The ultimate proof of the efficacy of containment is that you are reading these words. The counterfactual argument is uncertain and speculative at best. But it was a profoundly corrosive and cynical idea whose moral ends could not be made to meet until Ronald Reagan found a way to win the Cold War in non-nuclear fashion. In a world which declares itself unwilling to even use the words “terrorism” any longer it is sometimes easy to forget for how long civilization was preserved by holding hundreds of millions on each side of the Iron Curtain hostage to destruction. The price of deterrence, for the sensitive at least, was a kind of moral damnation. Who knows to what extent McNamara’s subsequent career in the World Bank was driven by the need to shrive himself, yet of what sin that others were not guilty of, who can say, but himself?

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns :
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land ;
I have strange power of speech ;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me :
To him my tale I teach. …

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small ;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all….

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone : and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn :
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

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