Robert S. McNamara, who died today at 93, was the exemplar of American know-how gone awry in a world too complicated for the practical mindset that built the most powerful nation on earth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
As one of JFK's "whiz kids" who went on to become LBJ's architect of the disastrous war in Vietnam, McNamara exemplified the limits of intellectual brilliance in a subtle and savage world.
"What went wrong was a basic misunderstanding or misevaluation of the threat to our security represented by the North Vietnamese,” he said, looking back in an oral history. “It led President Eisenhower in 1954 to say that if Vietnam were lost, or if Laos and Vietnam were lost, the dominoes would fall...
"I am certain we exaggerated the threat. Had we never intervened, I now doubt that the dominoes would have fallen; I doubt that all of Asia would have fallen under communist control...
“We didn’t know our opposition. We didn’t understand the Chinese, we didn’t understand the Vietnamese, particularly the North Vietnamese. So the first lesson is know your opponents.”
A Harvard professor who left to become president of Ford after the financial devastation of his wife's illness, McNamara successfully brought his systems-analysis approach to running the Pentagon but became the main figure described in David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest," Kennedy's crew of academic and industry brainiacs who pushed "brilliant policies that defied common sense" in Vietnam.
In later years, McNamara rued his role. "External military force cannot reconstruct a failed state, and Vietnam, during much of that period, was a failed state politically," he told CNN in a 1996 interview. "We didn't recognize it as such."
The lessons of his life are a critical reminder for the Obama Administration of the hubris that can blindside brilliance without accompanying insight into the realities of human behavior. Robert S. McNamara learned them too late, but they can help guide American policy today.