May he rest in darkness

by Alexander Cockburn

May he rest in darkness

Robert McNamara, who died July 6, served as Kennedy’s, then as Johnson’s, defense secretary. He contributed more than most to the slaughter of 3.4 million Vietnamese (his own estimate). He went on to run the World Bank, where he presided over the impoverishment, eviction from their lands and death of many millions more around the world. McNamara tugged his forelock and said, “Aye, aye, sir,” when Kennedy, campaigning against Nixon in the late 1950s, attacked the Eisenhower/Nixon administration for having allowed a “missile gap” to develop that had now delivered America naked and helpless into the grip of the Soviet Union. This was the biggest lie in the history of threat inflation and remains so to this day. At the moment when Kennedy, McNamara at his elbow, was flaying the Eisenhower administration for the infamous “gap,” the US government from its spy planes saw that the

Soviet Union had precisely one missile silo with an untested missile in it. The Russians knew that the US knew this because they were fully primed about the U-2 spy-plane overflights. When President Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara took power in 1961, became privy to all intelligence from the spy flights, and announced that the US was going to build 1,000 ICBMs, the Russians concluded that the US planned to wipe out the Soviet Union and immediately began a missilebuilding program of their own. So McNamara played a crucial, enabling role in the arms race in nuclear missiles. Before the “missile gap” it has been a “bomber race.” It was entirely appropriate and logical that he began his services to the military working in Japan as a civilian analyst for Curt LeMay, the psychopathic Air Force general who ordered the raid that produced the Tokyo firestorm and who went on to become head of the Strategic Air Command.

LeMay was expert in guiding bright young systems analysts like McNamara into giving him the ex post facto intellectual rationales for enterprises on which he had long since set his mind. McNamara was an early member of the “defense intellectuals,” including Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn, who developed the whole argot of “controlled escalation,” “nuclear exchanges” and “mutual assured destruction” that kept the nuclear weapons plants, aerospace factories and nuclear labs at Los Alamos and Livermore and Oak Ridge humming along, decade after decade. He faded comfortably away. The last time we saw him vividly was in 2004 as the star of Morris’ wildly over-praised documentary The Fog of War, talking comfortably about the millions of people he’s helped to kill.  Time and again, McNamara got away with it in that film, cowering in the shadow of baroque monsters like LeMay or LBJ, choking up about his choice of Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington, sniffling at the memory of Johnson giving him the Medal of Freedom, spouting nonsense about how Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam, muffling himself in the ever-useful camouflage of the “fog of war.” When McNamara looked back down memory lane, there were no real shadows, just the sunlight of moral selfsatisfaction: “I don’t fault Truman for dropping the bomb”; “I never saw Kennedy more shocked” (after the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem); “never would I have authorized an illegal action” (after the Tonkin Gulf fakery); “I’m very proud of my accomplishments and I’m very sorry I made errors” (his life). McNamara oversaw the fakery of the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” that prompted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, whereby Congress gave LBJ legal authority to prosecute and escalate the war in Vietnam. The Six-Day War? Just before this ’67 war the Israelis were ready to attack and knew they were going to win but couldn’t get a clear go-ahead from the Johnson administration. The crucial okay came from McNamara, thus launching Israel’s long-planned and aggressive war on Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which led to present disasters. It was McNamara, after Israel’s deliberate attack on the US ship Liberty during that war (with 34 US sailors dead and 174 wounded), who supervised the coverup. McNamara had a 13-year stint running the World Bank, whither he was dispatched by LBJ, Medal of Freedom in hand. He liked to brandish his Bank years as his moral redemption and all too often his claim is accepted by those who have no knowledge of the actual ghastly record. In fact, the McNamara of the World Bank evolved naturally, organically, from the McNamara of Vietnam. Just as he multiplied the troops in Vietnam, he ballooned the Bank’s staff from 1,574 to 5,201. The Bank’s shadow lengthened steadily over the Third World. Forests, in the Amazon, in Cameroon, in Malaysia, in Thailand, fell under the ax of “modernization.” Peasants were forced from their lands. Dictators like Pinochet and Ceausescu were nourished with loans. From Vietnam to the planet: The language of American idealism and high purpose was just the same. McNamara blared his mission of high purpose in 1973 in Nairobi, initiating the World Bank’s crusade on poverty. “The powerful have a moral obligation to assist the poor and the weak.” The result was disaster, draped, as in Vietnam, with obsessive secrecy, empty claims of success and mostly successful efforts to extinguish internal dissent. In his later years, McNamara never offered any reflection on the social system that produced and promoted him, a perfectly nice, well-spoken war criminal. Like Speer, he got away with it, never having to hang his head or drop through a trap door with a rope around his neck, a fate he richly deserved. Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, available through