From the fog of war come three hard truths

It was a glittering time. They literally swept into office, ready, moving, generating their style, their confidence — they were going to get America moving again. There was a sense that these were brilliant men, men of force, not cruel, not harsh, but men who acted rather than waited” In his stunning book The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam captures the glamour, the drive, the élan of the men who came to Washington to help John F. Kennedy to usher in a new era. And of these men none was brighter or better than Robert S. McNamara.

When you see those playful photos of JFK in Camelot with his little children, there are always determined men there, too, with their short hair, and white shirts with thin ties and their jackets discarded. McNamara, Kennedy’s man at the Pentagon, was their emblem.

When Bob McNamara was in first grade, his teacher set a monthly test and the class was seated so as to reflect the result. McNamara rarely lost his grip on the front left seat. And even the Kennedy men, dazzled as they were by their own brilliance, were ready to acknowledge that McNamara had something special. While they were slowly adjusting to their new power, the new Secretary of Defence was ready on day one, full of plans, ideas and top people he had already found and hired.

On Monday Robert McNamara died. He was 93, but he was still a recognisable modern archetype. He was the first person outside the Ford family to rise to become president of the Ford Motor Company and the ideal everyone is still mooning after: the business genius, independent- minded man, with an impressive career in proper enterprise, actually making things. The expert brought in to carry out executive functions, replacing political fixers with cool-headed management science, zeroing out incompetence with a stroke of his propelling pencil, conquering party prejudice with an overhead projector.

So what happened to brilliant, bright Robert McNamara teaches a lesson to all those who talk of governments of all the talents. In fact, he teaches more than one lesson to Gordon Brown and David Cameron, who are both keen on bringing business talent into politics.

McNamara wasn’t a failure. It is more complicated than that. In many ways his management of the Pentagon was everything you might hope for from a company president. The instincts he used to save Ford — with his championing of the cheap, functional, stripped down and wonderfully lucrative Ford Falcon — he brought to the Defence Department. He streamlined its management, asserted civilian control, reformed procurement practice and reshaped nuclear doctrine. He was able in later years to show off the calendar that JFK gave to his close advisers. The President had the crucial days of the Cuban Missile Crisis picked out in silver as a thanks for McNamara’s cool advice.

It would all be remembered as a great success, were it not for one thing. The Vietnam War.

There was a time when the Vietnam War had another name. It was called McNamara’s War. Indeed, there was a time when this self-confident man embraced the label. “I must say,” he proclaimed, “I don’t object at all to its being called McNamara’s War.” The Defence Secretary didn’t start the conflict but he prosecuted it with — enthusiasm isn’t quite the right word — vigour. He pressed for escalation. He ordered up tables to calculate the most efficient way to pulverise the enemy.

But that time passed. McNamara began to have doubts. And although he kept his counsel for more than two decades, he finally admitted his doubts in public. He wrote a book on the Vietnam error, broke down as he talked of the mistakes and starred in a documentary — The Fog of War — in which he outlined the lessons he had learnt.

Yet there were three lessons he did not include, for even at the end, even as he blinked into the camera for that documentary, McNamara was not a man given to self-examination.

The first lesson is this: that men of action want to act. They are paid to act, they are brought into government to act. From his very first visit to Vietnam, McNamara could have learnt — if he wanted to — how difficult things were. But he was an executive type and he wasn’t about to tell the boss that he couldn’t get the job done. So doubt was excluded. The facts were altered to suit the theory.

The second lesson is that men brought into government because of their independence don’t stay like that. They form allegiances, they join gangs, they have political love affairs. McNamara certainly did.

Lyndon Johnson fell head over heels for his Defence Secretary and his feelings were reciprocated. LBJ saw McNamara as his. The Camelot man who had taken up with the Texan. And McNamara’s prosecution of LBJ’s Vietnam policy was a symbol of his loyalty. But heartbreak awaited. For McNamara was still a friend of Bobby Kennedy. He gave Kennedy secret documents about the war, and the two men fed each others’ doubts. The tug of love nearly ended in nervous breakdown for the rational Ford man.

Jeff Shesol’s book Mutual Contempt — a history of the hatred between LBJ and Robert Kennedy — records Kennedy’s attempts to get McNamara to speak out against the war and Johnson. He sat with him for hours. But he failed. McNamara could not, never did, resolve the conflict of loyalties. He stayed silent on the war until almost everyone else in both gangs was dead. And even then he exonerated LBJ.

The final lesson is that men don’t just become prisoners of their allies. They also become prisoners of their errors. Halberstam’s book presents Vietnam as a tragedy for the best and the brightest. They never declared war at all, just followed one act with another as logic took over from common sense. Send advisers, protect the advisers, attack is the best form of defence, use bombs to attack, have a ground war to support the air war. Deeper and deeper they sank.

And however independent they may have started off, soon these men became owners of an error they couldn’t admit to. It is actually quite impressive that McNamara ever did, even years later, even in a fairly limited way. But although late is better than never, earlier is better than late.

Enhancing political decisions with independent executive judgment is a worthy aim. The life of Robert McNamara suggests that it is easier wished for than achieved.

Daniel Filkenstein