McNamara and the Militarists

The Essence of Security

by Robert S. McNamara
Harper & Row, 168 pp., $4.95

The catchword most often associated with Robert S. McNamara’s seven years as Secretary of Defense was “systems analysis.” Yet the greatest deficiency in the book which brings together his most important public papers during those years is his incapacity for analyzing systems, though of another order. No one would guess from these antiseptic pages that there are such things as militarism, or a military-industrial complex, or just plain politics, and that they represent systems, i.e., inescapable relationships which affected the problems McNamara faced in the Pentagon and the decisions he made.

McNamara voices all the stereotypes of liberal humanitarianism, but he keeps them free from the grime of reality. He argues for wider public knowledge and participation in defense problems, and says we must not be frightened away by their complexity. But the only complexity with which he deals is the minor one of weaponry. He omits the other and greater social complexities in which decisions of weaponry are enmeshed. He reminds one of a mid-Victorian novelist writing without mention of sweat or sex.

Let me cite two simple but fateful decisions—one at the very threshold, the other at the end—of his stewardship. Both sharply raised the tempo of the arms race, and involved—as he himself admits—billions of wasted dollars without in any way adding to national safety; indeed, they magnified the dimensions of peril. One was his surrender to Kennedy on the missile gap, the other was his surrender to Johnson on the anti-ballistic missile. Both represented the victory of politics over reason, and of military-industrial interests over real considerations of security. An informed public would have been a powerful ally against both decisions; and McNamara tried in some degree to marshal it. But how can an effective opinion be created if men as able as McNamara are squeamish about telling the full truth?

There is a striking difference between this farewell message by the ablest civilian manager our military establishment ever had and those of our two greatest soldier presidents. That difference in the end may prove a disservice, outweighing all the managerial and budgetary reforms with which McNamara is credited. Washington in his Farewell Address warned against the danger to liberty in “an overgrown military establishment” and Eisenhower provided a graphic new term for an old problem when he warned against the “military-industrial complex.” These two warnings provide fundamental insights into basic institutional dangers, and the warnings were given weight because they came from such honored military men.

But McNamara after seven years of wrestling with the military bureaucracy nowhere even uses the term or touches on the meaning of militarism as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, he is so blind to the intrinsic nature of military establishments and the mentality they develop that he advocates new social missions for the Pentagon, particularly in education! He seems unaware of the social consequences when he proposes to apply on a larger scale at home those “civic action” military programs we have …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.