May 24, 2016

1966. Defense Secretary McNamara on the War on Poverty

McNamara's Project 100,000
"Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara at a news conference at the Pentagon in 1965" (source)

August 23, 1966

Secretary of Defense McNamara today made the second of what might be called his "philosophical lectures on the sad—but not hopeless—state of struggling mankind."

In the first such lecture, made in Montreal this spring, Mr. McNamara warned Americans that true national security lies above and beyond the tremendous military power in US armament and our nuclear arsenals.

In his speech today, the Secretary expanded on this idea—equating the dangers that the poverty-stricken nations pose to world peace, with the cancer of poverty concealed in the midst of America's apparent plenty.

Essentially, he declared, international poverty and domestic poverty—plus all the evils of ignorance, exploitation, hopelessness, and brutality that goes with them—are the same thing.

McNamara tried to emphasize that he was addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in New York—not as a political spokesman for the Johnson administration, which he was—but as the Secretary of Defense, the man responsible for the military protection of the nation.

So, if the New York speech fails to make the impact of the earlier "McNamara lecture," it will be because that all things domestic, no matter how military, are also political in this election year. And President Johnson's controversial "War on Poverty" is a major campaign issue now and will continue to be through 1968.

Nevertheless, Secretary McNamara's basic point—that the very existence of the pockets of poverty which scar the nation makes the United States less secure—this is a valid thesis. One only has to read the headlines about violence in the streets in every major American city for confirmation.

Thirty-two million Americans are now trapped in a substandard way of life, McNamara pointed out, in this richest country in the world. The fact that, since World War II, the governors of our states had to call out combat-equipped National Guard troops no less than fifty-nine times to put down civil disorders, he said, might alter the general conception that ours is a "stable, well-ordered society, dedicated to the rule of law."

So what's to be done about it? Mr. McNamara did not claim to have all the answers, but what he did propose will have a major impact on the American society.

In brief, the Secretary announced that the military services will take in hundreds of thousands of young men who fail to meet the mental and physical fitness standards of the Army, Navy, or Air Force—and, where possible, provide educational and medical rehabilitation for what he called "productive military careers and later for productive roles in society."

The Defense Department's humanitarian enlistee salvage program—or whatever it's called—will start with 40,000 during the next ten months, and be expanded to include 100,000 next year. McNamara said that the training and rehabilitation program can be financed under the present military budget and carried on by the Pentagon's educational facilities which he called "the largest single educational complex that the world has ever possessed."

When news of McNamara's new program reached Capitol Hill today, a lot of Congressional eyebrows popped to new altitude records. But for once, very few of the professional politicians popped off at the mouth. However, Mr. McNamara had better prepare his defense, for just about anything that comes out of the Pentagon seems to fire opposition in this Congress.

Last year, I think it was, McNamara included in the defense budget an educational pilot project called STEP, or Special Training and Enlistment Program. STEP would have taken only 15,000 volunteers and enlistees who failed to pass mental and physical qualifications and put them in a special training camp to see what would be needed to rehabilitate these young men for military service. Congress blue-penciled the project, arguing that the Pentagon had no place in the education business.

Secretary McNamara today pointed out that the US Armed Services have been in the educational business for decades, a Congressional oversight which will not further enhance affections on Capitol Hill.

There are valid questions to be answered about McNamara's executive action projecting the Defense Department into a new field of selective education, no matter how much it may be needed. One of them is: what safeguards will there be that Defense education cannot be turned into political indoctrination?

And there will be plenty of political and military Colonel Blimps who will protest that "all the good fighting man needs only to know is which way the enemy lies. All further education is superfluous and a waste of time and money."

Secretary McNamara has an answer for that one too, but it's unprintable.

This is Bill Downs substituting for Edward P. Morgan saying good night from Washington.