Errol Morris’ discussion of Robert McNamara’s legacy nails why McNamara was such a compelling figure.
His refusal to come out against the Vietnam War, particularly as it continued after he left the Defense Department, has angered many. There’s ample evidence that he felt the war was wrong. Why did he remain silent until the 1990s, when “In Retrospect” was published? That is something that people will probably never forgive him for. But he had an implacable sense of rectitude about what was permissible and what was not. In his mind, he probably remained secretary of defense until the day he died.
One angry person once said to me: “Loyalty to the president? What about his loyalty to the American people?” Fair enough. But our government isn’t set up that way. He was not an elected official, he said repeatedly. He served at the pleasure of the president.
Tyler Cowen also has a short appreciation of McNamara’s efforts with the World Bank.
McNamara also had a huge influence on the economics profession, most of all through his 13-year presidency at the World Bank. He focused the Bank on poverty reduction, he brought Communist China into the Bank, he introduced the practice of five-year lending plans, he significantly increased the Bank’s budget, he grew staff from 1600 to 5700, he favored sector-specific research, he raised money from OPEC, he strongly encouraged “scientific project evaluation,” and he started a largely successful program to combat “river blindness”; the latter may have been his life’s achievement.