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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 helped to launch in Latin America. “Quite apart from the projects themselves,” he says of this Latin experience, “the program powerfully alters the negative image of the military man as the oppressive preserver of the status quo.” This is public relations, not social engineering. It may change the image in glossy North American publications, but not the reality in Latin America.

McNamara seems unaware that the fruit of all this civic action our Marines began to launch a half century ago has been a succession of Neros like Somoza, Batista, and Trujillo. The same tough-guy types and the same authoritarian temperaments are bred by our own—and every—military establishment. It does not speak well for McNamara that after so many turbulent years of close association with these men McNamara seems to have missed the point. This master of quantification seems poorly equipped for factors which escape measurement—like the quality of men and institutions. His proposal that the Pentagon move into social problems has now been taken up by his successor, Clark Clifford, a better political operator but without McNamara’s enormous energy and grasp of detail. In a speech September 26 Clifford said he had asked his aides to draw up for the new administration plans under which the military services could help “in alleviating some of our most pressing domestic problems.” This is the road to Argentina and Peru.

The most striking example of McNamara’s shortsightedness in this area lies in his attitude toward the concept of the military-industrial complex. A certain complacency, perhaps conceit, leads McNamara to gloss it over. Several years before Eisenhower launched the famous phrase, Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin, after his retirement in 1958 as Chief of Research and Development in the Pentagon, touched on the fierce pressures the arms manufacturers, with their allies in Congress and the military, are able to exert. In his book War and Peace in the Space Age, he said it took “the judgment of Solomon and no little political fortitude” to resist them. McNamara seems so confident that he possessed both that, in a farewell newspaper interview he gave the Associated Press (Washington Star, Feb. 4, 1968), he dismissed the dangers against which Gavin warned. His interviewer, Saul Pett, asked McNamara whether he shared Eisenhower’s concern about the military-industrial complex. “I don’t,” McNamara replied, “as long as the Secretary of Defense operates as he should, examining all the factors of a problem and making decisions on his own analysis, regardless of the pressures applied to him.”1 The reply is not really responsive. It does not touch on the problem—the pressures which prevent the Secretary from operating “as he should.”

THE military-industrial complex has been a reality ever since war, in the latter part of the last century, became big business. It made its debut in the naval rivalry which enriched steel and shipbuilding companies in England and Germany and helped to bring on World War I. The power of the military-industrial alliance has grown with the cost of armaments and the magnitude of military spending since World War II. It is embodied in a network of trade associations that link the defense industries to the Pentagon. Like many of the corporations themselves, these organizations are staffed by a multitude of retired generals and admirals. Their pressures distort military decision and national policy. No doubt McNamara overcame these pressures in many intra-mural controversies, as in the shelving of the nuclear powered airplane, the Skybolt missile, the RS-70 supersonic bomber, and the Dynasoar program. But from an overall point of view, the military-industrial complex never had it so good as in the McNamara years. Eisenhower’s last military budget was $44 billion; McNamara’s last was almost twice that amount. The monster fattened even as McNamara strove mightily to keep its nose clean in public. It might even be said that he saved it from its own excesses. He was more its nursemaid than its master.

If the President backs the Secretary of Defense, McNamara asked his AP interviewer in what was intended to be a clincher, “how can the military-industrial complex get to him?” He said he was backed by both Kennedy and Johnson, as no doubt on many occasions he was. But he did not mention their failure to back him in two of his most momentous decisions. It was the political power of the military-industrial complex operating through the Presidency which forced McNamara against his better knowledge and judgment to acquiesce, when he took office, in the costly fraud of the “missile gap”; and which also forced him, as he left office, to participate in the nonsense about building a “thin” anti-missile defense against China. Yet nowhere in the index nor in the chaste pages of his book, The Essence of Security, is there any reference to the military-industrial complex. The nearest that McNamara comes to this indelicate fact of life in the Pentagon is when he writes, “Every hour of every day the Secretary is confronted by a conflict between the national interest and the parochial interests of particular industries, individual services, or local areas.” This is flutteringly vague. No one would guess from that pallid little sentence, or anything else in the book, what enormous pressures the arms lobby can generate or the major occasions on which they overwhelmed McNamara himself. Yet to repeat the phrase McNamara chose as title of his book, “the essence of security” lies not so much in any external enemy as in controlling these interests and the momentum of the arms race from which they profit. This is what we most need defense against.

It may be urged on McNamara’s behalf that these are official speeches in which he could not afford to be wholly candid. But so were Washington’s and Eisenhower’s. In any case the excuse implies that the Secretary was unable, as a prisoner of forces stronger than himself, to tell the whole truth. But this excuse attests to the power of the institutional forces whose potency he disparages. Now that he is out of the Pentagon, he could have touched upon them in a preface, but perhaps the admission would have been too much for his pride. McNamara is at bottom a bright schoolboy who hates to have anything less than A-plus on his report card; his idealized image is the No. 1 Whiz Kid. To admit the realities would be to admit that he was not wholly capable of mastering them.

THE fact is that McNamara arrived in Washington an innocent country lad from the bucolic simplicities of the automobile business. He seemed never to have heard that dirty eight-letter word politics. He discovered on reading the secret reports when he took office that there was no missile gap, and proceeded in all fresh innocence and enthusiasm to tell this to the press as if it were glad tidings, as indeed it was or should have been. Had he done a little systems analysis, of the kind which comes easily to politicians who never heard of computers, he would have realized that he was stepping into a complicated situation in which the facts and the truth were minor considerations. He was giving aid and comfort to the enemy, i.e., the Republican Party. McNamara’s press conference put Kennedy’s new Secretary of Defense squarely behind Eisenhower who had declared only three weeks earlier in his last State of the Union message, “The ‘bomber gap’ of several years ago was always a fiction, and the ‘missile gap’ shows every sign of being the same.” It also undercut one of Kennedy’s principal campaign themes, and, as any sophisticated observer would surmise, threatened to upset a network of understandings between the Democratic Party and the aviation lobby, “contracts”—as the politicians say—whence many campaign contributions had flowed.

The roof fell in on McNamara. Next day Pierre Salinger told the press that he was speaking with Kennedy’s approval in terming McNamara’s finding “absolutely wrong.” It is a pity there is no record of what went on between Kennedy and McNamara. The latter must have been startled to discover that in Washington facts counted for so little; his discovery, after all, was far from sensational. Even my little Weekly, in an issue which went to press a week before the McNamara backgrounder (which was restricted to a select few) had called attention to evidence that there was no missile gap, including a report by Britain’s Institute of Strategic Studies. This credited Russia with only 35 ICBM’s as against the 400 to 500 figure given in the exuberant leaks to the press from Air Force Intelligence and the aviation lobby. Perhaps the facts marshalled by McNamara in a White House showdown explain why Kennedy himself, the day after Salinger’s “absolutely wrong,” scaled down his own rebuke to “premature.” But six weeks later in his first budget message to Congress, Kennedy unabashedly declared, “It has been publicly acknowledged for several years that this nation has not led the world in missile strength,” and launched a huge missile buildup, though authoritative figures from the outgoing Republicans showed we were not only ahead in long-range missiles but had ten times as many vehicles (missiles and bombers) capable of reaching Russia with nuclear weapons as Russia had capable of reaching the US. Now in his new book McNamara lifts the curtain just a little on that farce and ever so gingerly calls it a mistake. This is in the chapter based on his San Francisco speech of September, 1967, which was supposed to be sensationally candid. McNamara said of that 1961 decision:

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    McNamara’s successor has taken a step further in the process of dulling public awareness. “I am convinced today, after six months in this office,” Secretary of Defense Clifford said complacently on September 26, “that the dangers General Eisenhower warned against were real dangers. But I am also convinced that they have been avoided through the checks and balances of our governmental system.” This soothing bit of banality came in an address to the National Security Industrial Association, perhaps the most powerful single component of the armament lobby, and in the midst of many signs that the military-industrial complex was riding higher than ever, including Clifford’s own abandonment on Meet the Press, September 29, of McNamara’s long effort to make the country understand that the concept of nuclear superiority was meaningless. One would be tempted to say that the sky’s the limit now on the arms race, if the skies of space were not the very scene of its coming intensification.

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