Robert McNamara: The high cost of cold-blooded analysis

Early Monday morning, Robert Strange McNamara, one of the most divisive figures in American political history, died at his home in Washington. He was 93.

As millions note (if not mourn) the death of the Ford executive, Secretary of Defense and World Bank president, it is easy, and perhaps cheap, to transform the Vietnam War into the sum total of his contribution to history. However, long before the war hijacked American political discourse, McNamara was working toward a revolution in the way that policymakers viewed inputs, outcomes, and the economics of governance.

A graduate of Berkeley and the Harvard Business School, McNamara was teaching at Harvard when the US Army Air Corps hired him for its emerging statistical control program. For the course of World War II, he applied accounting procedures to measure the cost-effectiveness of America's bombing campaign; in the process, he massively increased the efficiency and effectiveness of US air power.
After the war, McNamara and several of his statistical control cohorts presented themselves as a package deal and were hired by the Ford Motor Company, where he took his ideas to a completely different level. Implementing advanced planning and organizational systems, he and his fellow "Whiz Kids" revolutionized the company. Under his administration, Ford developed an organizational chart, with clear-cut divisions, a coordinated production schedule, and understandable job descriptions. By 1960, he was literally running the automaker, having been tapped for the presidency of Ford.

Much of Ford's postwar success can be attributed to McNamara and his fellow "bean counters." For example, McNamara's influence led to massive improvements in safety, marketing, and automobile efficiency. As Lee Iacocca would later reminisce, McNamara "wanted pollution controls. I didn't know what he meant when he talked about emissions in the 1950's. He said we had to start worrying about pollutants. People didn't know what the hell the ecology was."

On the other hand, the problems that would later plague McNamara in the Department of Defense also came to the fore. The flip side of his incessantly mathematic vision was that McNamara was seemingly incapable of relating to metrics that could not be easily measured, and often browbeat or was dismissive of employees who didn't agree with him. A particularly famous example was his suggestion that the company build its cars in two pieces and weld them together after painting. When a manufacturing executive told him, "The problem with you is that you don't know a goddamn thing about how our cars are actually made," McNamara banned him from meetings.

While McNamara's influence may well have saved Ford, he also repeatedly ran into conflicts with the "hot dogs" -- enthusiasts who responded to the emotional draw of the company's cars. In the case of the Thunderbird, for example, he changed the car from a two-seater to a four-seater, apparently unable to understand why enthusiasts might prefer the smaller, racier model. When he reviewed the V-8-powered car, his entire analysis was that it got terrible mileage.

This inability to understand the emotional side of any equation was to prove problematic throughout McNamara's career, particularly during his seven-year stint as Secretary of Defense. While he was easily able to analyze and plot the economic and material costs of the war, he could account for neither the resilience of the Vietnamese nor the determination of America's homegrown antiwar effort. By his own later admission, McNamara and his fellow advisers were caught up in the domino theory of Communist takeover and failed to recognize Vietnam for the colonial war cum civil war that it actually was. That failure of vision -- and his unwillingness to question his basic assumptions -- led to a divisive, seemingly-eternal conflict that sapped America's treasury and political will, even as it ultimately cost the country $168,000 to kill each Vietnamese soldier.

If the war in Iraq stands as a testament to the dangers of blind devotion to political ideals, Robert McNamara's prosecution of the Vietnam war clearly illustrates the opposite lesson. Unaware -- or unwilling to be aware -- of the power of nationalism and ideology, McNamara reduced Vietnam to a series of equations. "X" amount of bombing, combined with "Y "amount of troops, should equal victory. The trouble, as GM's cars and Iraq's militias could attest, is that "Z" emotional attachment can sometimes trump all. For McNamara's successors -- both automotive and governmental -- this could be the ultimate lesson of his long and divisive life.
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