Robert McNamara and the Fog

July 7, 2009 at 9:12 am Leave a comment

robert-mcnamaraFormer defense secretary Robert McNamara has died at 93. Pentagon chief under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he directed American policy in the Vietnam War. His would be the first major conflict waged in Marshall McLuhan’s global village, a media-connected world a generation beyond the Fireside Chat, weekly newsreels and Ernie Pyle’s dispatches from the front. The technological and societal changes of the 1960s permanently melded leadership and communications. In this era, McNamara rose and fell.

Kennedy recruited McNamara from the presidency of The Ford Motor Company (car buffs still rue the advent of the Edsel and the bloating of the Thunderbird on his watch). Obituaries cite his proficiency with statistics and his cadres of “whiz kid” analysts; he was a numerologist reflective of another cultural/technological shift: the age of the computer. His command of the hard facts and ability to glean outcomes and trends made him the man to tame what the departing Eisenhower had darkly called the military-industrial complex.

Mirroring McNamara’s style, Vietnam became a war of numbers and analysis–the steady escalation of American personnel, the calculated fall of surrounding countries should the South go communist, the body counts. As a young boy in the late 1960s, I watched Walter Cronkite announce the weekly death tolls for American troops, South Vietnamese troops, and North Vietnamese troops. The figures for the enemy were described as estimates and they always seemed vastly greater than the casualties for our side. But numbers didn’t lie, as we were taught.

Libraries are filled with histories, exposés and critiques of America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. From a communications perspective, “unidirectional” and “opaque” are some of the gentler adjectives attributable to McNamara and the Johnson administration. Real-time images (by late 1960s standards) of the Tet Offensive and stateside protests outstripped their ability to engage key audiences. This clumsiness and surliness crossed party lines, infusing the succeeding Nixon administration’s handling of Vietnam as well as Watergate, the ultimate lesson in transparency and accountability.

McNamara went into the dignified exile of leading the World Bank after his tenure as defense secretary. He largely remained out of sight until his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, which admits errors in promoting the Domino Theory and assessing Ho Chi Minh’s popular support–grudgingly and belatedly per many critics. McNamara tried one more time to repair his legacy by appearing in Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary, “The Fog of War.” As the Los Angeles Times reports, some were satisfied with his filmed admission of mistakes; others were further enraged.

It has been over 40 years since McNamara’s textbook example of communications failure. What have we learned? In the first decade of the 21st century, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted on running two wars “his way” in the face of mounting criticism and contradicting reports from the field. A cult of statistics overran Wall Street and the financial industry, preaching the infallibility of easy mortgages and the financial instruments built upon them. Fortunately, America has not cornered the market on communications and leadership ignorance. The unanticipated consequences of Twitter and cell phones (and spilled blood) are eroding the election farce in Iran.

Robert McNamara will remain an image of leadership certitude with all of its dangers and disconnection. Along with his colleagues and the U.S. presidents of his day, he abandoned the communication imperative: speak honestly, listen intently, act accordingly.

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Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership, Public Relations. Tags: , , , , , , .

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