Robert McNamara

McNamara's Tell

Sen. Barry Goldwater used to claim that whenever Ronald Reagan's CIA director, Bill Casey, lied while testifying before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, his deputy, Bobby Inman, would lean forward and pull up his socks to signal to the interrogators that Casey was not telling the truth. Apparently Robert McNamara, defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, used the same method on himself.

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Peace Out

On a blustery evening last autumn, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh visited Capitol Hill to deliver a lecture. Latecomers filed into the dim Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, looking harried.

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I'm in Spain and my copy of the Daniel Ellsberg edition of the Pentagon Papers is in Cambridge. So I do not have access to what I recall as the five volume edition he gave us. He had inscribed in the first volume his "personal thanks for your help in ending the Vietnam War." Unlike Ellsberg, I never was for the Vietnam war. I was against it from the beginning...and worked (not so modestly) to end it. Still, I recognize the importance of Ellsberg's turning. After all, he had been in the small Washington entourage of Robert McNamara and later in the Vietnam circle of Edwin Landsdale.

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The nuclear order seems to be falling apart. Gone is the uneasy balance between the cold war superpowers. We now face a slew of new nuclear actors. North Korea has reprocessed enough plutonium for perhaps ten bombs, in addition to the two it has already tested. Iran’s centrifuge program seems poised to produce weapons-grade uranium. And Syria was apparently constructing a clandestine nuclear facility, before it was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in 2007. It’s not just enemies that pose a problem.

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One afternoon in October, a blue and white jumbo jet flew high above the Pacific Ocean, approaching the international dateline. On board was the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, who was on an around-the-world trip that would end with a summit of NATO defense ministers, where the topic of the day would be Afghanistan. Gates was flying on what is often called “the Doomsday Plane,” a specially outfitted 747 that looks like a bulkier Air Force One and was built to wage retaliatory nuclear war from the skies.

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Call of the Wolf

Long before Martin Wolf became the chief economics columnist for the Financial Times, he wrote the newspaper letters--lots and lots of letters. It was the early 1980s, the height of the Thatcher era, and Wolf was running research at a think tank in London that was sympathetic to the government's pro-trade agenda.

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Washington in the early days of a new administration is a didactic, lesson-drawing place, but even so, it has been striking to see how quickly the commentary on the death of Robert McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and architect of the Vietnam war, has turned to abstraction--as if it was not one exceptionally smart man being buried, but a certain kind of smarts itself. "What happened ... to Robert McNamara teaches a lesson to all those who talk of governments of all the talents," editorialized The Times of London.

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Benjamin Wallace-Wells's newest TNR piece revisits David Halberstam's treatment of Robert McNamara in The Best and the Brightest and argues that, far from criticizing McNamara for his expertise, Halberstam indicts him for being a "brilliant generalist" who knew little about any particular subject. Be they "brilliant generalists" or experts in their fields, the executive branch has not lacked for academics, quantitative jocks, and other quintessential "nerds" throughout the years. Click through to learn more about past geeks in government. Photo courtesy of Getty Images --Dylan Matthews

Washington in the early days of a new administration is a didactic, lesson-drawing place, but even so, it has been striking to see how quickly the commentary on the death of Robert McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and architect of the Vietnam war, has turned to abstraction--as if it was not one exceptionally smart man being buried, but a certain kind of smarts itself. "What happened ... to Robert McNamara teaches a lesson to all those who talk of governments of all the talents," editorialized The Times of London.

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There was a time during the presidential primaries that I thought Mitt Romney might make a good foreign-policy president. Where John McCain was impulsive and pugilistic--willing to make grave decisions about the fate of the country with little reflection, or for purely tactical reasons--Romney seemed more moderate, less reactive. I hoped that Romney's penchant for strategic analysis, and the problem-solving skills he picked up as a management consultant at Bain & Company, would make him a more thoughtful commander-in-chief.

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