June 8, 2016

1968. The Perils of the New Isolationism

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's Farewell Warning
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (center) sitting with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson at the White House on March 16, 1961 (AP Photo/Henry Burroughs; source)
Bill Downs Perspective

ABC Washington

February 4, 1968

It's ironic at this time of confusion and flap here in Washington—flapping over the devaluation of the British pound; over economic, sociological, and political campaign issues; flapping over the capture of the USS Pueblo and the surprising guerilla offensive in South Vietnam—it's both ironic and somewhat sad that the Johnson administration is losing its most unflappable cabinet official.

As you know, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is winding up an unprecedented seven years of duty in the Pentagon. The Senate this week approved President Johnson's nomination of Washington lawyer Clark Clifford to take over the Defense Department on March 1. So between now and that date, Mr. McNamara will, in a sense, be cleaning out his desk at the Pentagon; tidying up things before he moves across the Potomac to take up his new job as President of the World Bank.

A most remarkable man, McNamara was the first of the new breed of professional administrators really to take over and reorganize a major federal executive department—and the most monstrous one at that. As the advertising slogan goes: "They said it couldn't be done," but McNamara did it. He introduced rational planning and cost effectiveness and computerized management practices into the Pentagon. He unified and collated the military services and their missions, and most of all, he established once and for all the Constitutional fiat—the civilian control of the nation's armed services.

The former "boy-President" of Ford Motor Company before President Kennedy drew him into government, McNamara made more enemies than any of his predecessors in Defense. But on his leave-taking seven years later, even his most caustic critics are bidding him farewell with praise for his energy and achievements in a most impossible job. As a kind of super-bureaucrat in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he was a most worthy opponent to the wiliest of the politicians on Capitol Hill.

One of the innovations which McNamara introduced to government was the document which, every year, manages to make headlines no matter what else is happening in the world. It's called the "Military Posture Report." And this year the "sanitized," or public version, is more than two hundred pages long. The Secretary presents the "un-sanitized," or secret version of the report, to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees—a document which runs about 250 pages long because it contains all the secret and classified data. The purpose of the Posture Report is to explain in detail why the Defense Department is asking for $79.6 billion of the taxpayers' money to assure the military security of the United States.

As we pointed out, McNamara invented this document, and this was the seventh and final such report he has made to Congress. So, in a sense, it was a kind of hail and farewell when he presented it to the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday.

It would appear that that the job of the Secretary of Defense, like the presidency, tends to make a philosopher out of the man to take on the office. The responsibilities of national security in the nuclear and space age test a man's sanity and moral fiber—for, in a single day, he may be asked to consider weapons capable of reducing Russia to a cinder, and an hour later be confronted with an unprincipled military supplier profiteering on a twenty-dollar bracket for a nuclear bomber.

At one point in his government career, McNamara told a Congressional committee that it was impossible for any one man to run the Defense Department—the biggest business in the world—because no one could possibly keep track of the four million items—from buttons to hydrogen bombs—which make up the Pentagon's inventory. And one Defense official pointed out that if the department operated with 99 percent efficiency (which is impossible), that the Pentagon would still make some 150,000 errors a year.

And if that wouldn't make a philosopher out of any federal cabinet officer, nothing will.

For those reasons, I'd like to quote to you from the new Posture Report presented behind closed doors to the Senate committee last week. It might be called "McNamara's Farewell Address," and his words are both eloquent and important because they deal with the future security of us all.

In his "assessment of the international situation as it bears on military policies and programs," the Secretary had this summation:

"Fundamentally, what is at issue today—as it was a decade ago and as it will be a decade from now—is the kind of world in which we and others wish to live. When this nation made the decision at the end of World War II to base its own security on the principle of collective defense, it was the hope that there could be created, under the UN charter, a world in which even the smallest state could look forward to an independent existence; free to develop in its own way, unmolested by its neighbors, and free of fear of armed attack or political domination by the more powerful nations..."

McNamara goes on to point out that to achieve this goal, the United States aligned herself with other like-minded nations in a series of mutual defense treaties to defend her collective freedom and prevent the further extension of communism. Looking back over the past twenty years, he added: "Although the record is less than perfect, the outward thrust of Soviet and Red Chinese aggression has been generally contained."

But as the outgoing Defense Secretary proceeds with his arguments in support of collective security for the free world, it becomes clear that McNamara has become concerned that the United States might be reverting to a new kind of Space Age isolationism. As he pointed out: "Collective security has paid its price...military alliances are costly to maintain. There also was the cost in blood and lives in the Korean War...and now, additional levies and casualties being paid in the defense of freedom for South Vietnam.

"But," says McNamara, "the American people have a right to ask: were these achievements worth their cost?"

And he answers: "I believe they were. We do know that the policies of unarmed isolationism and attempted neutrality which we followed before World War II, were in the end far more costly in lives and property.

"However, it must be clearly recognized that, while it is conceivable that we could return to a policy of isolationism...today this could no longer be the unarmed isolationism of the 1930s. In an age of nuclear weapons...such an option is denied us...

"Nevertheless, one could argue that we could still renounce all our mutual defense treaties, pull back our military forces to our own soil...and build a 'Fortress America' so powerful as to deter virtually any enemy or combination of enemies from deliberately attacking our territory..."

But there would be a dreadful cost for such a Fortress, says the Secretary. "We could deal with the rest of the world on a strictly arms-length basis. But that would be an entirely different world than the one we now live in...and an entirely different United States as well.

"Without dependable friends or allies, we would surely have to maintain a larger military establishment than at present. We would also have to reorient our industry and commerce to achieve a maximum degree of economic self-sufficiency with a lower standard of living for our people...and considerably less economic freedom for all...a far more uncertain and dangerous world, and one in which our influence over the course of events would be greatly diminished..."

In other words, says McNamara, "Isolationism is clearly an undesirable alternative to our continued involvement in the responsibilities of world affairs and collective defense..."

It may seem strange to find a responsible government official in 1968 arguing for the national imperatives debated by President Woodrow Wilson some fifty years ago.

But Secretary McNamara is concerned about the so-called "liberal isolationists" who have joined the conservatives in slashing attacks on the administration's military and economic aid programs. And he recognizes that the American people have become somewhat disillusioned and weary with the problems of the rest of the world.

But McNamara argues: "We must never forget that, of all nations, we have the most at stake. And the existence of an open, outward-looking, humane society in the United States depends upon the vitality of similar societies elsewhere..."

As the poet John Donne said, "No man is an island." In his farewell report to the Congress, Robert McNamara said that this same principle also applies to nations—those nations who would enjoy freedom with other peoples of the world.

This is Bill Downs in Washington.