Lord John Acton (1834-1902), a minor British noble, is perhaps best known by the following observation: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Acton came to mind while I was digesting the news that Robert McNamara died today, at the ripe old age of 93. McNamara lived to be 93-years-old. There are families throughout America who wish that the sons they sent off to the Vietnam grinder might have had the chance to live anywhere near as many years. I knew too many young men—we were all young—whom I personally believe to have been more deserving than McNamara of such a lengthy life. But he made it; they didn’t. And his fingerprints are all over their graves.
Of course McNamara was corrupt. No, he didn’t take any bribes that we know of, but he was corrupt in the sense that he placed himself and the political system over his country and his fellow man. His betrayal of all that is, or should be decent in us as humans is corrupt in the truest sense.
Tim Weiner has a good piece about McNamara in the NY Times today. By Spring of 1967—when I was in Vietnam—McNamara had decided that the war could not be won; he advised Lyndon Johnson to negotiate with the North Vietnamese. Instead of heeding this very good advice, Johnson fired McNamara. So did McNamara then go public with his reservations? Nah, he kept his mouth shut out of some misbegotten loyalty to the president, a deeply flawed individual whom McNamara apparently conflated with the nation. As an aside, there is too much of that going around. Somehow or other, we’ve allowed our president to be elevated to such a lofty level that none dare observe that the emperor has no clothes.
Weiner makes a good catch in his article when he cites this, written when McNamara wrote his mea culpa in 1995: “Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen,” The New York Times said in a widely discussed editorial, written by the page’s editor at the time, Howell Raines. “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”
What’s truly unforgivable about McNamara’s silence about his misgivings is that only (only!) 16 thousand Americans had died in Vietnam at the time he left the government. The final tally is more than 58 thousand. One can only wonder what might have happened had McNamara possessed the moral fortitude to tell the truth to the American people. One can only wonder how many American military personnel and Vietnamese, north and south, died as a result of his silence. His silence enabled the evil Nixon and Kissinger to continue the butchery for many years thereafter. McNamara was also a truly evil man.
Another Acton quote fits McNamara: “The man who prefers his country before any other duty shows the same spirit as the man who surrenders every right to the state. They both deny that right is superior to authority.” The older I get the more I understand the wisdom in these words. McNamara, and countless others, chose country or party over the right. But now that I am older—about as old as McNamara was in those tumultuous times—the more I understand that one’s country can indeed be seriously wrong, and that one betrays one’s humanity by refusing to do the right thing and by continuing to support the wrong. That McNamara waited until 1995 before he told the truth tells us that he was a lesser man, a man not fit to hold a position of trust with our our nation or deserving of respect.
As an aside, when I think of McNamara, I think of another man, a man too many still admire, a man who is still making money by speaking at various events attended by the rich and famous. This would be one Colin Powell, a man for whom I have boundless contempt, just as I do with McNamara. Imagine if you will the cowardly Powell resigning as secretary of state in early Summer of 2004. Imagine the cowardly Powell ever telling the truth about Iraq, rather than hiding behind surrogates. Imagine a President Kerry now in his second term, and imagine what might have happened with our misbegotten military adventures and with our economy. Imagine how our nation and the world would be if McNamara and Powell hadn’t been cowards.
Howell Raines was an interesting guy. If memory serves, he was a native Alabaman, but he was in now way a stereotypical Southern conservative. Raines, a truly enlightened man, also noted this about McNamara: “By then he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.”
From this, one infers that McNamara suffered for his silence. I hope so. I hope he suffered every day for the rest of his undeserved very long life. And I also think of another observation from Lord Acton: “To be able to look back upon one's past life with satisfaction is to live twice.” It's not much, but maybe we can take some solace from thinking that McNamara just perhaps had the remnants of a conscience and may have been haunted by his past. Maybe Powell has the same problem. We know many others don't.
So here’s my eulogy for you, Robert Strange McNamara. May you burn in hell. You certainly have my moral contemnation.
BTW, just to let everyone know just what a smart fellow Lord Acton was, here's another quote: "The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks." We still haven't fought that one. We're being prevented from doing so by the moneyed and comfortable class, and yes, that includes you and your retainers, Mr. Barack Obama. We have a long way to go before we can say that we are afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. McNamara was merely one of many who aspire to positions of leadership, but who then betray those whom they purport to lead.